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How DogVacay Literally Saved My Thanksgiving

A story about the collaborative economy that is helping families across the world.
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Without DogVacay my Thanksgiving would have been ruined. That’s a fact. And I’m not an investor. I just had to tell this story. It’s a great one about entrepreneurship, friendship and the collaborative economy that is helping families in need across the world.

The Background

Every year my family meets in San Diego for Thanksgiving. My three siblings and I make the trek to spend four to five days with the nine grandchildren, my mom, my cousin and few other very close family members. It’s the one time per year that my entire family decompresses and spends high-quality time together. We rent a house through HomeAway and all stay under one big roof.

This year the night before the journey my brother got a call from the person who had committed to watch his dogs that she wasn’t able to watch them after all. Panic ensued as we couldn’t bring the dogs to San Diego, and my brother’s three kids look forward to this great trip all year. They called the local dog kennels with trepidation. Nobody wants to leave their loved ones in a cold, impersonal dog kennel not to mention the costs of doing so.

“Oh shit.” The local kennels were full as many people had pre-booked for vacations. What to do?

I had known about DogVacay since its inception. As I mention I’m not an investor, just a fan. I have a close family member who lost her job and was in need of a bit of extra cash while she looked for work. She started watching dogs in her spare time through DogVacay and was able make ends meet during a tough period.

DogVacay is part of a new global movement some people are calling “Collaborative Consumption.” I've written about this movement and also published this widely read presentation on the topic.

Companies like DogVacay solve a real need in the market. People who want to travel but don’t want to burden neighbors or friends or don’t want to leave their dogs in a big, impersonal, industrialized dog kennel now have a real choice to leave their dogs in a family home run by somebody with whom DogVacay has fully vetted and ensured of insurance, etc. They can read reviews, see pictures and even talk to the family before confirming.

On the other side, animal loves in need of extra money or stay-at-home parents, the elderly, whoever - can make extra money while just carrying out their normal life routines.

Win-Win.

My Experience

When I realized six members of our vacation crew might be SOL and my own kids devastated that they wouldn’t see their cousins this year, I sprang into action. I don’t own dogs so I wasn’t already a user.

I registered. Easy. I typed in my brother's zip code and ton of houses popped up in his area and I was able to search out on a map view. I then clicked on reviews, looked at pictures and read the owner's descriptions of what they were looking for.

I had to get basic information about my brother’s dogs (size, willingness to be with other dogs, special needs, were they spayed, had shots, etc.) and upload that.

And boom. That easy.

Except … there was a waiting period to have the owner decide if they wanted you. That could take a few hours and believe it or not I didn’t have a few hours. I called 1-855-DOG-VACAY and spoke with Killina Benson from their concierge team and explained my circumstances. She sprung into action and called the house I wanted to book directly (they obviously don’t provide phone numbers for you to call directly although a Twilio integration couldn’t hurt!).

To be totally honest I also called the CEO of DogVacay whom I consider a dear friend and told him about my plight. He was relaxed and told me, “Don’t worry, Mark. Killina will take care of you. That’s what she’s there for - we love situations like this. And there are a ton of dog sitters in Sacramento so I’m sure we’ll be able to help.”

Booked it.

Then my I had to explain to my sister-in-law that she was going to be leaving her dogs at somebody’s house whom she didn’t know. I told her the story of Aaron, the company, the reviews, etc. I could tell she wasn’t totally convinced but was willing to give it a go.

She dropped off the dogs and gave me the biggest thank-you text you could imagine. She told me:

“Mark. I couldn’t believe it. Our host was so comforting. He told me I could stay as long as I wanted to make the dogs feel comfortable. They seemed so experienced and reassuring. Thank you. I feel much better about leaving our dogs here than with a kennel.”

She arrived late that night in San Diego. We already had received photos from the dog watcher reassuring us that the dogs were safe and sound. We proceeded to get one photo every day and it helped calm all nerves.

My History with DogVacay

It’s true that I’m not an investor in DogVacay but I am a huge fan of the CEO, Aaron Hirshhorn and of the company and concept. We met six years ago. He had been working as a strategy consultant post B-school at Monitor and worked closely with a good family friend of mine who recommended I meet him.

We had a shared history. Not only two Jewish boys from Philly, but Aaron was born on the exact same day as me (April 30th) in the same town (Philly) exactly 10 years to the day after my birth. I’ll leave the year out. 

We got along and shared stories about the startup market. He wanted to work in venture capital and I was new to the industry and in no position to hire anybody. But we continued to meet over the years and swap experiences. Monitor had a little internal VC group so he got some experience there.

A few years later I was in the position to hire, but Aaron was way more senior than our entry-level positions. So I asked him if he’d consider coming in an an intern of sorts. More like a temporary VC just to get some experience and of course we’d pay him. I saw it as win-win. We got a bit of extra help on company analyses and he got to see a VC from the inside.

We worked together just shy of a year and during that period of constantly seeing startups Aaron made the decision that he actually wanted to be an entrepreneur more than a VC. He and his wife hatched the idea for DogVacay and decided to go for it.

I absolutely loved the idea from day one and told Aaron so. I said, “This category is going to be huge. I’m sure of the value. Like most markets online it will likely be a ‘winner take most’ category so if you’re going to go for it … you better be prepared to win.”

He didn’t have a product or a tech team at the time so it wasn’t really at a stage where I could fund it. He turned to Mike Jones at Science who was newly set up as an accelerator of sorts or a venture studio. Their business model was to help young companies accelerate their launch by helping assemble a team, do initial marketing, provide seed capital and help them raise financing.

Science played that role well and after Aaron hired the key team members and got the product out the door, the business model nailed down and initial users / sitters signed-up, Aaron partnered with the uber-connected Peter Pham of Science who helped him with the VC ropes raising seed capital from First Round Capital and many local LA seed investors and then an A-round from Bill Gurley at Benchmark.

They have raised now a total of $22 million.

I watched all of this from the sidelines with pride. I turned down free “advisory stock” in the early days and told Aaron that I’d much rather just be his independent friend and mentor for anything he needed and that I really just wanted to see him build a successful business for himself and for LA. And I have no regrets - watching a friend succeed is the best form of payment.

And by helping save my Thanksgiving this year. He has paid me in spades. Congratulations, Aaron. And thank you.

This article was originally published on Mark Suster's blog, Both Sides of the Table.

Last updated: Dec 6, 2013

MARK SUSTER | Columnist

Mark Suster is a two-time entrepreneur who has gone to "the dark side" of venture capital. He joined GRP Partners in 2007 as a general partner after selling his company to Salesforce.com. He focuses on early-stage technology companies. You can find him on Twitter @msuster.




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