In episode 4, I interviewed Roy Stein, co-founder of BabelBark—an american startup that connects dog trainers, walkers, groomers, shelters and veterinaries directly with pet parents via a mobile enabled platform. Roy brings into the conversions very insightful elements as: the idea generation, solving the chicken-egg dilemma, prototype development, beta testers communities and the platform monetization strategy. Today, the BabelBark has more than 500 businesses and over 150,000 pets connected. Last month, it has raised US$ 4.5 million in a Series A Funding.
Start by telling us who you are and what kind of business BabelBark is on, today…
I’m a serial entrepreneur. My business partner Bill and myself have been together for 15 years and this is our fourth startup, together. We started BabelBark, basically for our own need and for our own use because we saw a need, with the dogs and then we did it. We started it in November of 2014, when the idea kind of came up.
Basically, the idea was to create a platform that connected the whole ecosystem around pets—dogs and cats—in one place. It was to enable everybody who needs to deal with dog and cat. To coordinate the vet—with all the needs the vet has: medical records, medicine reminders, activity monitoring, tele-health, compliance monitoring and so forth—with the shelter, the groomer, the walker, the trainer, the nutritionist and, obviously the pet parent, so that everybody would connect together and work in one ecosystem, one-stop shop for everything.
STRUCTURED IDEA GENERATION
How did you and Bill create the idea for this app?
Bill and I have a slightly different approach to startup ideas than many other entrepreneurs that we were in contact with. Usually, the majority of people that we know—I’m not saying across the world, I’m just saying people that we know—have an idea, fall in love with that idea, start developing the idea and then start to build a business case around that idea.
Bill and I have a very different approach. We try to analyse a market that interests us, and then we try to see what’s missing in that market, what’s needed in that market, what people may be willing to pay for in that market. Then, we try to develop a software solution based on that analysis.
It’s a different kind of approach than many people have because usually, we don’t have an idea that we start off with, we have a market analysis that we do and, after we figured out what’s available and what’s missing, then we try to build an idea that would fill the gap. […] when you build a product targeted at a specific need for a market that is growing and needs it, your chances of success grow immensely, versus building an idea and then figuring out if people will be willing to pay for it and why is it needed and why anybody would even want it.
[…] we have a market analysis that we do and, after we figured out what’s available and what’s missing, then we try to build an idea that would fill the gap.
DEVELOPING THE PROTOTYPE
How difficult it was to develop the prototype? Did you have the skills for building it?
No, we didn’t have the skills internally. Today, there are so many software developers all over the world that you can hire on a contract basis and for, relatively, not a lot of money. The biggest challenge we had with the prototype was figuring out what that prototype needed to be, how it needed to look, what kind of functionality did we need to put into the prototype in order to get investors interested, in order to allow us to build version one.
Once we figured out the specs of what we needed that prototype to look like and act, then we hired the developers on a short contract, just to build the prototype and with a few tens of thousands of dollars—like 20, 30, 40 thousand dollars—you can build a very, very simple prototype that is functional and is good enough to get you in front of seed investors, in order to pitch your startup.
Have you afforded that amount with your own savings?
Yes. Unfortunately—I know I might anger many VCs out there, but I’ve been doing this for 20 years—I can tell you that, in this day and age, any entrepreneur that cannot put together at least 100-150 thousand dollars in order to get some kind of traction, has no chance. […] We reached out into our own network of people that we know—friends, family, and so forth—and we put together a very initial convertible note against the seed round.
So, we raised like 200,000 dollars initially, that we used to build the prototype and to get a little bit of traction. Then, that traction allowed us to raise the seed round where that convertible note converted into shares—obviously, with more benefits to the people who gave us money in the convertible note. We call it “crawl, walk, run”—you get a little bit of money, you do the next stage, you prove capability, you get to a little bit more money, you go to the next stage and so forth.
REACHING THE BETA TESTERS
After having this prototype on your hands, you had to get some early adopters that actually tested your prototype and gave you feedback. How did you reach these people? What kind of feedback did they give to you?
Friends and Family
We reached out into our own network yet again, and this was relatively easy because there are over 65-70% of families in the United States that have pets. There were more than enough people in our own network, who had dogs and cats. People who were working as groomers, walkers or volunteering in a shelter, people that we knew who are veterinarians. So, we went out to a few of those, we let them test the prototype, we sat down with them and we listened to what they said and how they played with it. Based on that kind of feedback, then we went forward and we created a kind of a very, very basic version one […]
Beta Testers Communities
[…] there are companies out there that run betas for you, and they have a community of thousands—if not tens of thousands—of potential testers. The way it works is you hire them for a period of time to beta or alpha test your program and you give some kind of benefit to those testers and over a period of time they run this beta test for you and you get a lot of feedback. Now, that’s very, very valuable. And it’s not expensive, it’s relatively cheap. It’s very valuable because it’s not people like you know. It’s not friends or family that might feel uncomfortable telling you if your product doesn’t work well, or has no potential. It’s people you don’t know […] And it’s very honest remarks and very honest feedback and it was extremely helpful.
SOLVING THE CHICKEN-EGG DILEMMA
How did you convince pet parents to enter the platform? What did you say first when you had no business on it at all?
Follow the Pain Point
There’s the classic term: “follow the money”. I would change that and say: “follow the pain point”. The best way to get people on the platform is to understand who has the biggest pain point in your potential market—that you are solving their problems, solving their pain point. If we look at our market, we’re looking at veterinarians—which are already working and making money and they have a lot of platforms. We have the pet businesses—groomers, walkers, trainers who potentially have very few platforms—if any, at all—and are working still with excels or index cards and stuff like that. And we have the pet parents—who are overwhelmed with apps. […] So, we figured out that the groomers, the walkers and the trainers have the biggest pain point.
Because they have a growing business—more and more people are coming to them—but they don’t really have any good cloud-based or other based platforms which are inside a certain price range that they can afford and allows them to grow into the 21st century with their clientele. Point number two, they were facing very stiff competition for the institutional kind of groups like PetSmart, and so forth—where the pet parent can walk into a PetSmart and he has a groomer, he has a vet, and he has a lot of products all in one place.
There’s the classic term: “follow the money”. I would change that and say: “follow the pain point”.
So, we went to the groomers, we went to the trainers and we went to the shows. We spent money on advertising in their magazines and stuff like that, newsletters; and we got our first 40, 50, 80, 100, 150 groomers and trainers to start using the platform. We gave it away for free in the beginning, and we said “Mr. groomer: use the platform, move all of your clientele from excels and index cards into a cloud-based platform. You can now connect over technology with an app with a pet parent, you can do online scheduling or cloud-based client management, all the benefits of the platform. In exchange, you need to get your clients to download the free app in order for you to be able to interconnect.”
[…] And inside very few months, we had already dozens of groomers and thousands—going to tens of thousands—pet parents because every groomer or every trainer brought all their hundreds of clients onto the platform.
[…] So, what we did: we took a B to B to C approach. We were like business marketing to a business, and that business was marketing to the consumer. Our whole marketing effort for the first two years of the company was based on a B to B to C kind of approach and that proved itself. Only now—after we already have over 500 businesses and over 150,000 pets connected on the platform—have we started to do direct B to C marketing.
FREEMIUM FOR EVERYONE
How do you monetize the platform?
We’re monetizing all three segments, meaning the vets, the pet parents and the businesses. And because we’re monetizing all three, we can be extremely cheaper than anybody else out there who’s only monetizing one. […]
We have a free basic platform for everyone. The pet parents can download the free app in Google Play Store, in the Apple App Store. Pet businesses can log in, create an account and they use the free BizBark pet service and portal. Vets can log in and create an account and use the basic free BabelVet portal. But then, all there have a premium level subscription basis and that’s where we make our money.
If the vets, for example, want the platform to integrate with their practice management system and want to be able to have tele-health capabilities and want to be able to have remote monitoring over their clients, then they need to pay the subscription.
If the pet businesses, above and beyond having online scheduling and client management, want to be able to have online promotions, marketing and all kinds of stuff like that to their clients, then they need to upgrade to the paid subscription level.
And the pet parents, if they just like the basic free app, that’s great. But if they want to have a 24/7 vet hotline, a 24/7 pet person hotline, a lost and found registration kind of system, a free gift box on the birthday of their dog and all kinds of perks and bonuses like that, then they need to buy the premium level subscription, which is a paid subscription.
Again, all of these are relatively very, very cheap, but the combination of them is what makes a lot of sense.
ADVICE FOR EARLY-STAGE ENTREPRENEURS
What piece of advice would you give wanna be entrepreneurs or early-stage founders that want to generate traction for their businesses?
I would say: don’t fall in love with the product. Allow yourself to zoom out to the 60,000-foot level and really analyse the pain point in the market and who you’re going after. We know companies, great companies with fantastic products that try to go, for example, directly from B to C or and it failed because it’s very expensive and it’s very hard to get any kind of meaningful traction. Even though if you want to build a platform which is perfect for a certain segment, figure out what is the real pain point that you can solve or use as a leverage to get to the market that you want to get to.
Don’t fall in love with the product
Exactly like the example I gave, with giving the services a free platform and they, in turn, marketed it to their pet parents. That’s probably one of the biggest advice points I can give to new entrepreneurs. Don’t just charge forward with the product you love. Figure out, with a really cold—kind of calculated—way, what is the best way and how is the best pain point solving way to get you quickest into the market.
FROM IDEA TO TRACTION…
- TIME: 4 months (prototype), 1 year (version 1);
- Number of PIVOTS: None.
- Initial team background/composition: 1 co-founder (product development, marketing strategy), 1 co-founder (business management).
- Team composition when found traction: 2 co-founders, Chief Vet, account manager, CTO and senior developer.
- METHODOLOGIES/FRAMEWORKS used: Exponential organization methodology across all segments of the company, and agile with the developers.
- Relevant SERVICES/TOOLS used: AWS, Jira, Mailchimp, Insightly.
- Relevant PRACTICES: Very focused strategic goals with tactical steps defined to reach the strategic goal. Weekly meetings to go over progress in detail and daily calls to align on issues.
- Relevant BOOKS/RESOURCES: Book: “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” – by Ben Horowitz.
- FUNDING to Traction: The founders self funded in the beginning, then did a seed round with Angels. Series A was done with high net worth individuals and family office – all people that understood the long term vision, the potential and the unique direction the founders were taking to get there. No VC or institutional funding to date.
MORE ABOUT THE FOUNDERS
Roy Stein (LinkedIn) has grown several companies and ventures in the technology sector. With over 20 years experience leading, building, and operating business units and companies, Roy understands the nuances of technology integration, product development and generating widespread adoption in the marketplace. Prior to BabelBark, Roy founded & managed EnergyPoints. Prior to EnergyPoints, Roy held executive leadership roles and led business units in GridPoint Inc. (Smartgrid & Energy management systems), Comverse Technologies Inc. (Telecom) and Comverse Billing Systems Ltd. (formally Kenan Billing).
Bill Rebozo (LinkedIn) held key roles in launching enterprise software, military grade VoIP, smart grid solutions, worldwide search/content platforms, direct marketing systems and software development frameworks. With a technical know-how and business acumen developed in companies as large as Microsoft as well as small startups, Bill is known for driving revenue growth through strategic planning, product development, business development and execution.
MORE ABOUT BABELBARK
BabelBark (Website; Facebook; Twitter; LinkedIn) is the only horizontal pet platform that connects everything and everyone in one place. It connects the dog trainer, walker, groomer, shelter and the veterinary practice directly with pet parents via a mobile enabled platform. This allows the horizontal flow of information from the different providers back and forth placing the pet parent at the center of the conversation. The software Pet Suite platform of products including the BabelBark app for pet owners, BizBark software for businesses + shelters and BabelVet software for veterinary hospitals + clinics—working together & creating the connection between pets and everyone who cares for them—all in one place, on one platform.