Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello, my name is Roy Stein and together with my good friend Bill Rebozo we founded BabelBark 4 years ago.
BabelBark is a very unique software platform that connects the whole ecosystem around pets, both dogs and cats, in one place - on one app and platform. We connect the pet parent with the vet, groomer, walker, trainer, shelter - and anyone else in their community of care givers, enabling the sharing of data, remote connectivity, remote monitoring - and basically caring for the fur baby in an easy and modern way.
We started the company based on an idea we had when we were planning to go on vacation and were worried about who will take care of our pets. The vets and caregivers have a portal where they can do cloud based client management, online scheduling and all the remote monitoring, while the pet parents have an app that not only enables them to connect to all the care providers, but also receive newsletters and articles that are specific to them and their specific pet. We rolled out the products last year and have seen amazing growth that we never expected… we already have over 200,000 pets on the platform and 2019 is really “exploding” for us with over 800% growth over the same period in 2018. For example, in July 2019 alone we had over 7,800 new downloads, and August is on track to be 60% higher than July…..
The growth and success are because we are the only platform that really connects everyone and everything in your pets life in one place.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Bill and I have been working together for over 10 years, building 3 start ups (2 of which sold and 1 crashed).
Back in 2015, we were drinking a beer and thinking of what to do next, maybe taking some time off and going on vacation and the discussion turned to who will take care of the dogs when we’re gone? Yeah, we have kids (teenagers at the time), but how will we know they are taken care of well while we are away?
So the answer for us was to build a simple script, put it in the cloud and have the kids login and update in real time what they are doing with the dogs, we could then keep track of what’s happening and stay in the loop. Seemed logical to us….. While we were working on this and joking about it with friends, family and people in the dog park, in 3 weeks we had 147 people say they want to use it as well - and that's where the idea for BabelBark came from.
Bill is a product genius with background from Microsoft (he’ll kill me if I told you how many years ago that was….) and my background is operations and management from Comverse Technologies (the company that built voicemail and many other cutting edge products in the telecom world), so we set out to learn about the pet space as much as we can.
We started out by designing something for our own use as pet owners, but quickly understood that what people really want is not another app, but a platform to manage all aspects and all apps in their pets life. Much like all the other platforms in the world today that enable people to manage everything they need in a specific topic, in one place - think Expedia for example.
The response we received from early focus groups was so ecstatic that we understood we are on to something - and we launched BabelBark.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Once we understood that what we want to build is a platform that will connect the whole ecosystem around pets, we set out to understand what the full ecosystem really is, how its segmented, how it operated and what it really needed.
Don’t raise money too fast. If you really believe in your product and you really think its a winner, raise only enough to take you to the next step / round.
We spent months understanding in detail the world of the veterinarians, the pet services (groomers, walkers, trainers, etc) shelters, and of course the pet parents themselves. We learned what systems were available, what the costs were, who could afford them, what benefits they provided - we tried to cover every base and learn every aspect of it. We then spent a lot of time reading reports on the industry and learning the direction, past performance, trends and comparisons to other industries.
The result of all this work was a very clear understanding of what's available in the market “today”, where the market is heading and what will be needed in the future - and that crystalized for us the business plan and what we are going to build and do.
We entered one of the largest pet expo’s in the US and set up a booth - where all we had was basically just an idea with a very first Alpha type prototype that we self funded - to test out the concept with pet services and pet parents that came to this expo.
We were very excited when by the end of the 3 day expo we had over 54 pet services sign up for the future beta product and state they would be excited to use this.
One of the most important lessons we learned at this stage, was that we have to approach each of the 3 segments in the pet world differently - veterinarians have their own set of needs and uses, the pet services have a different set, and the pet parents have a third. So we understood we will need to build 3 UI’s with different use cases, even though it's really one platform.
Our next step was to put together a Beta level version of the platform and start testing it with both consumer beta testers and pet services beta testers. The success of the beta led us to raise our first Seed funding, which allowed us to hire developers and build the V1 version of the platform.
Describe the process of launching the business.
When we finally had the business plan and whole concept mapped out, we set out to launch the company. We built our first website by ourselves using one of the companies that allows you to easily design your own website. It was fine for that stage and time…. We hired an external team of developers to help with the initial V1 build, ans since we were self funding the company - we took no salaries and spent only on what was absolutely needed.
This is a screenshot of that first website….
The first two years were pretty much like that - we went through design and development iterations, mostly working with contractors so the cost & speed was very manageable while we self funded. Towards the end of 2016 we got to the stage where we had a good enough product to really start testing the market, and were at the stage where we needed to hire a couple of people and start spending on marketing, so we launched our seed round by reaching out to friends and people in our network, In this way we managed to raise the initial seed amount that allowed us to hire the people we needed and start marketing.
By January 2018 we had over 100,000 pets on the platform and a couple hundred businesses and the pull from the market was “there”, so we launched our series A to enable a real growth plan. We targeted family offices and high net worth individuals and we managed to raise more than we originally targeted, which enabled us to hire 10 employees across all parts of the company, and really start driving the products into the market.
And this is how our current website looks - much more professional and high end:
By the beginning of 2019 we are growing at a very fast pace, with hundreds of thousands of pets on the platform growing by several hundred per day, so we launched our Series B for a significant raise target, we started discussions with institutional investors and are planning to significantly grow the team and marketing efforts.
BabelBark is our 4th start up working together, and based on the experience from the former ones, we tried to build this one differently. What that means is, that we didn't raise money from the classic VC and institutions until the series B, as we wanted to be able to build a company based on our long term vision, without pressure from institutions that might have a different idea of how & when to launch certain products or strategic directions.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Prior to launch, we had tried all kinds of ideas on how best to get the platform “out there” and attract users.
We went from the classic marketing to booths at expos and all the typical marketing ideas. But then it hit us (well - it hit Bill, the real brains in the company), that since we are a digital platform and our core customers will be the digital age groups - then we need to market in a digital way. So we built a couple of digital ads and experimented with Google ads and Facebook - and wow, we had hundreds of thousands of views within just a few weeks.
That led to us working with a branding agency to build a whole set of ads and videos that we launched. We had pretty good results - but somehow we felt that we were not really hitting it in the right way. So we decided to bring in the pro’s, and we hired a professional digital marketing agency.
They pretty much scrapped everything we did before (but were nice enough not to laugh at us….) and built whole new campaigns with over a dozen different ads and messages. We launched those across the digital world - all types of social media, play store, Instagram influencers, etc - and we literally hit a hockey stick of growth, going from 2-3 dozen new users per day to hundreds per day in less than a month.
Lesson learned here my friends - don't half ass it, if you need to do it, do it right with the professionals. Leave the marketing to the marketing specialists, and leave the technology to the technologists.
On the pet businesses and veterinarian side, we spent a lot of time and money building BD relationships and closed partnership agreements with the major players in every sector - from the veterinarian world through the services to the shelters. This allowed us to be the technology partner for these major players in the specific spaces, we don't compete with them but enhance their offerings while they promote the use of the platform.
As a freemium model we don’t use financials to track the progress but usage. We have seen a steady growth from low 5 figure number of calls into the platform daily to more than double that in less than 4 weeks, and now skirting the 6 figure numbers.
The use per registered user has also skyrocketed and we are seeing a growth from an average of one call into the platform per month / per user, to 4-5 calls per month per user.
This can be directly tied back to two main factors - digital marketing and blog posts. As users get more and more familiar with the app and platform, either by their own use or via being exposed to blog posts, they learn how to use it more - and that leads to higher usage. Its exactly how other platform like LinkedIn and others did it - by showing the value to the user and growing via that.
Here are some examples of our social media ads:
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Our conversion rate is in the high hundreds per day, with user percentage dropping off slightly in actual active profiles. We have still not rolled out the full set of subscription based premium levels of the platform, as we are still focused on getting the technology and adoption of the full ecosystem across the pet world.
We have seen good progress in cost of conversion, where at the beginning of the year we were seeing $7-8 per conversion and currently we are at just above $2, and going down steadily.
We are focusing all our marketing budget and efforts on digital marketing and see that the vast majority of our users come via these campaigns - mostly Google ads, Facebook and Instagram. The pet businesses are split much more between traditional marketing activities like expo’s, key opinion leaders and also the business specific digital campaigns.
From the very outset we have followed the exponential organization idea, and as such have built the full platform with a relatively low budget and spend. This allowed us to really drive forward the business with new features and capabilities for a low cost while getting fast time to market. One of the outcomes of this is also that our operations are very streamlined and lean - we basically have 1 operations person that manages several outsource and contracting companies, thus enabling full stack of operations with minimal cost and spend.
This year, in 2019, we are still focused on the US and Canada only, as between them there are well over 100 Million pets, but we have plans to expand the services to APAC and Europe over the next 2 years.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
BabelBark is Bill’s and my fourth start up working together, so we put into action a lot of what we learned in the past, I would summarise them in these points:
Don’t be too “in love” with your idea and not evaluate the market constantly.
Of course all founders love their ides, that's why they’re founders, but the issue here is that as much as we love our ideas and the products we build, we need to be always very aware of the market. Is it ready for this idea? Will people use it and pay for it? Is it practical and easy to use for everyone? If you miss out on this constant analysis you will miss out on the market opportunity. I have seen too many great start-ups fail because the founders were so in love with the idea itself, that they failed to adapt to the market need - and lost out.
One of the most common mistakes startup founders do, is that they are so in love with their idea and product that they lose sight of reality and fail to change & adapt the idea, product, concept to meet the market need and pull.
Don’t raise money too fast.
Yes, I know the vast majority of people here won’t agree with me, but the truth of the matter is that early money is the most expensive money due to low valuations and control percentages.
So, if you really believe in your product and you really think its a winner, raise only enough to take you to the next step / round. Done fall into the pit of raising too much too early, giving up too much for it and then waking up to find that you cant control where the company is going or how, since you lost control of it.
For me, this was always stressful as I always was “on the brink” with funds and always in some form of capital raise, but, it proved itself as we were able to 100% control where the company was going based on our dream & vision, and were able to retain that control for years as the valuation rose.
Be prepared to nickel and dime for a few years.
Every nickel counts, don't spend a penny on anything that is not absolutely necessary - not offices, not hardware, not number of employees. Work from home is fine in this day and age for the first year or years, and it saves a ton of money.
Founder salaries should be just to keep the lights on, not to have savings…. Yes, I know its harsh, but the more spend you save, especially on yourself) the more you will have to spend on employees, contractors, outsourced. Bill and I worked with no realistic salary for 3 years but that saving allowed us to hire and bring the product to a point where is can be marketed - so in the long run it was very beneficial as we were able to retain much larger percentage of the company once we got to the series A & B stages, as we were quite advanced in both product and traction.
Be very open to partnerships.
There is nothing better than to have a partnership with a larger firm that can now take you to the next step in marketing and placing you with customers. It does cost in margins and revenue share - but every dollar spent will be worth several dollars gained in market recognition, placement, clients and traction. We made several partnerships early on and they proved to be golden for us.
All the way back to the good old .com days in the 90’s, the #1 external factor that determined if a company would be successful or not was timing. Unfortunately this is out of our control, but what is controllable is product and people fit for market. In our case, we saw where the market was going and the rate that it looked to be going at, so we decided that in order to have a viable product, at the right time, ready for the right market - we had to expedite some things. So that's what we did. You can't control the timing of the market, but you can control your speed and TTM to hit the market at the right time.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
At BabelBark we follow the exponential organization in a very strict way. If you’ve never read the book by Salim Ismail or follow the process - then you should.
This is the number 1 “tool” that will guide you in building the company - it did for us. BabelBark is Bill’s & my fourth startup but it's the first where we have applied the exponential organization, and let me tell you - it's a huge difference maker. The ability to get very fast traction with relatively low cost compared to building a big & expensive internal team - it's a game changer. I cannot recommend this enough for every company founder.
We also use a host of external tools - from Jira to manage tasks, through Slack to communicate, WooCommerce to manage our online sales and store, Quickbooks to manage bookkeeping, ADP to run not only salaries but also the majority of HR tasks, salesforce for external & sales CRM etc.
In today’s world so many of the classic “things” that used to be done internally with high cost can now be done with outsource tools and “as a service”, that the cost of running a company has dropped drastically with faster results.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The two most important books, in my view, that a founder and CEO needs to read are The Exponential Organizations by Salim Ismail that i mentioned above, and the other is The Hard Thing About Things by Ben Horowitz.
The reason I'm saying this is that every CEO of every startup needs to i) know how to build an efficient company with the best ability for fast TTM at the lowest potential cost (the first book), and, ii) realize what it means to manage a company and how hard it is to make team changes when things change and companies grow (second book).
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I think there are 3 main things that I would like to provide as learnings over more than a decade of doing startups…
Love your idea, don't be in love with your idea.
Love the idea and how it can change the world and become a great business, but don't be in love with it to the point where all you see is the sun shining and roses. One of the most common mistakes startup founders do, is that they are so in love with their idea and product that they lose sight of reality and fail to change & adapt the idea, product, concept to meet the market need and pull. They want to force the market to love their product instead of understanding they need to adapt their product to the market.
Be very aware of the original team’s capabilities and limitations.
Many times the people that are great at inventing and building a new idea & product, working in a small 2-20 person company are not the same people whom are good at growing a company from concept to profitability and expanded growth with many employees. So be aware of this and do what's right for the company and business, in many cases that changing or moving people in order to have the right person in the right position - and not the original team member.
Be flexible and realistic in your thinking - adapt quickly based on what the market is telling you and the analysis is showing. If you “stick to your guns” too much and for too long, you might end up making a big mistake in losing the market.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
As with all successful and fast growing startups, we are always in a hiring mode…. So we always have positions available for sales, account management, development and support.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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