By Mary Daily
Published Jan 1, 2013 8:00 AM
"Why should humans have all the fun? Dogs need vacations, too," says Aaron Hirschhorn M.B.A. '05. That's why he and his wife started DogVacay ( dogvacay.com), a national network of dog sitters, last March.
"We're solving a real problem," says Hirschhorn. "Before, dog owners had two choices when they went away. They could put their dogs in kennels, where they'd be caged for 23 hours a day and exposed to ailments like kennel cough—all for about $60 a day in Los Angeles. Or they could rely on friends or relatives." Neither option is ideal.
First, the Hirschhorns did some dog-sitting themselves—keeping more than 100 dogs in eight months. They noticed how much the pooches liked being in a dog-loving environment. What if dogs all across the country had access to that kind of vacation? Think how much peace of mind their families would enjoy.
So the couple teamed up with former MySpace CEO Mike Jones to create an online community and raised $1 million in venture capital. The network grew quickly through social media and word of mouth. Other venture capitalists and angel investors in Silicon Valley and Southern California liked the idea enough to buy into it—including $6 million from Benchmark Capital in November.
Today, there are thousands of registered sitters, called hosts, in all 50 states plus Canada. About a fourth are professional petcare providers and the rest, casual dog lovers. Most have their own dogs. Some report that socializing with the visiting dogs actually improves the well-being of their own animals.
It works like this: Dog owners browse the listings of local pre-screened hosts—responsible dog lovers who offer access to their homes, 24-hour care, exercise and a regular routine. Before making a commitment, the dogs and their owners can meet the sitters.
Hosts set their own rates; the average cost is $25 a day. DogVacay takes credit cards for payment when reservations are made and keeps 15 percent; the rest goes to the hosts. Owners who aren't completely happy with their pet's vacation experience can get their money back, but Hirschhorn reports that no one has ever asked for a refund.
All hosts will e-mail, text or telephone owners every day with updates on their dogs, and owners can rent GPS-enabled dog collars if they want to track their pets 24/7. DogVacay provides insurance of up to $25,000 per animal, as well as veterinary care during the stay, if needed. The company has a partnership with VCA Animal Hospitals.
"People are more and more comfortable finding services like this online," Hirschhorn says. "The keys to success are execution and trust."