As told to Patrick J. Sauer
It started with Dog.com. Soon Alexander Tabibi and his brother Carlo added Horse.com and Fish.com and Ferret.com--in all, a dozen websites with easy-to-find names. The Tabibis, founders of Pets United, got into e-commerce in 2002 after buying out the inventory of a wholesaler to the dog-grooming market. Last year, revenue at the Hazleton, Pennsylvania, company was $62.4 million. This year, Pets United's sites will offer a combined total of 50,000 products. Alexander Tabibi says that building online spaces for enthusiasts is a lot less emotionally draining than his previous career--as a cancer doctor.
Yes, I left a fellowship in oncology, in part because I suffered a major depression at 30. Being in oncology is very hard. I was a physician and I love medicine, but I wanted to build something and I knew it wasn't the right career for me. If you're a go-go dancer who wants to be an astronaut, you'd better stop dancing and start pilot training. Coincidentally, Carlo was in law school and dropped out after two years. He's a better quitter than I am.
Carlo and I started an investment firm, ZCapital, in 1999 with family money and some real estate holdings. It's small and we've put money into about 15 companies, mostly technology-based. One was a canine catalog company, Dog Outfitters. It had gone under, so we bought it out of foreclosure in 2002 for $1.2 million and changed the focus to online sales.
We bought Dog.com for $500,000 in 2004. It had been a forum for dog lovers; we integrated our products into it and kept the community aspect. We doubled in traffic that year. It gave us the gut feeling that we could build the company's valuation through brands even when we didn't have the ROI to support it. If we wanted to be profitable today, we could, but our focus is on aggressive growth.
We are adding another 10 to 15 sites in the next two years. We want all our sites to have the simplest name possible, like Farm.com and Garden.com. It draws a lot of consumer traffic. We've had to pay between $500,000 and $1 million for a few of them.
I have no overarching fear because of our diversity. If we were, say, only in "bird," then something like the avian flu could have hurt the business. Even as a doctor, I chose oncology because it wasn't specific to one organ like the heart.
We have a personal interest in everything we enter into. I have a cocker spaniel named J.P., so that was part of why we went after Dog.com. We are starting Garden.com because my mom is an active gardener, and we will be adding Wind.com and Solar.com as a source for alternative energy products because we are environmentalists.
Carlo and I are partners in everything, but as personalities, we are as opposite as can be. He has better street smarts and is more concrete than I am. I tend to be more emotional, but we very seldom have a major argument. By the same token, when we agree on something then it usually means it is a good idea.
It isn't always easy to buy domain names because people have a great affinity for their URLs. Sometimes we have to let the owners know that we won't be using it for something nefarious. Sometimes the price is too high and the market doesn't justify the purchase or start-up price. We passed on Hamster.com.