Aparna, you have a Charles Darwin quote on on your LinkedIn profile. “It’s not the strongest of this species that survive nor the most intelligent, but the ones that are most responsive to change.” Sounds like a theme that you identify with.
As a startup founder you can’t just be stuck in your one idea and expect that idea to be the the billion dollar idea. You have to adapt, you have to change.
Originally you were like an Uber for dog owners with Great Danes or whatever.
That was my original concept. At that time I had two dogs. One was a 80 pound chocolate lab Raja, and then Krishna, who’s still around, he’s 16 now, and he’s about 50 pounds. He’s a Chow Pei. And I couldn’t get anywhere with them unless I was driving myself. There was no Uber, no Lyft. They travel with me every holiday season. The most stressful part of our entire trip was getting to and from the airport. If I had my dogs with me, no chance, they won’t take you. So I just started either begging my friends or paying my car service a ridiculous amount of money to go five miles to the airport. That’s when the little gears working in my head, I’m like, there’s gotta be another way. And that’s where I came up with with SpotOn.
In 2019 we were piloting pet-only rides to vet offices. By the end of that pilot, we’re like, okay, I think we have something. We fell into such a great space with these pet-only rides because all the vet offices were still open because they were considered essential businesses. Plus, hey, at the end of the day, your pet has to be seen by a vet. Even though there’s telemedicine and all that. You have to physically go and get shots. So we found that the pet-only rides really filled a void that was missing. In New York city, we really filled that void. We were helping vet offices to remain open. We were helping the pet parents to get their pets safely to the vet at a time when there was so much uncertainty.
That kept us afloat and has actually propelled our business. We actually closed 2021 with over five million dollars in ride sales. This is probably about 103% jump from our 2020 numbers. In 2020, we were just about 2.4 million in sales and 2021 through the pandemic, we’ve been able to do a little over five million in ride sales.
So many people bought dogs during the pandemic to keep them company. Did you notice that swelling your business?
We partner with a lot of rescue organizations within New York city. We noticed a definite jump in our white glove service. We pick up the pet from the foster and take it to its forever home.
Which cities are you servicing besides New York?
Currently we are servicing the five boroughs of New York City and the surrounding areas with our full line of products, which is our people and pet rides, as well as our pet-only rides. Outside of the five boroughs – New Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut – we do our pet only service. The goal is to expand out into other areas of the United States and then globally we feel that Tokyo is probably gonna be one of the hottest overseas markets, along with Milan and Paris.
You’re a serial entrepreneur. This is not your first rodeo. You started your first business in college, were founding executive director of a non-profit and also a co-founder of the Fourth Floor, a network for founders, board candidates and investors. Tell us how that happened.
I was speaking at an event just when we started SpotOn. Breen Sullivan (Founder of the Fourth Floor) brought up the point of representation in the boardroom and how women are underrepresented. We gravitated towards each other. We just started talking and then she hit me up and she’s like are you free for coffee? Well, that coffee turned into four hours of talking about her idea, what she wanted to do, what she wanted to accomplish, how we could get there. Literally the next day – she’s an attorney – she already has all the paperwork done to form this organization. Breen’s on Forbes next thousand list. Incredible. What she has done in such a short period of time is insane.
It was important for me to be part of it because as a founder, I want to make sure that when you’re ready, you have a board of directors.
It was through the Fourth Floor that you got your first major partnership.
Right, Breen was asked to be asked to interview for a legal publication and she was talking about the Fourth Floor. The Chief Legal Officer of Petco read that article, which I was mentioned in, reached out to me on LinkedIn. Fast forward, we have a partnership with Petco. With that one article, I was connected to a C level at a major pet brand that put us really on the map. Because I had a champion to say, hey, these guys are legit. And we have a great partnership with Petco. It went really well. It got sidelined because of the pandemic, we’ll revitalize it as soon as they’re ready and go forward.
It’s a great example of the power of the network. Tell me about where the funding from SpotOn came from.
So the funny story is also connected to someone who connected us. Maggie (Chan Jones) was my first investor outside of the friends and family. Honestly, if it wasn’t for that first check, I don’t think we’d be here. You just need that one person to believe in you.
All your self doubt was eliminated.
Currently we’ve only had one round of funding and it’s all been private angel investors, except for four VC funds. We just opened a new round of funding late last year and we’re already well on closing the round. And we’re actually probably looking at oversubscribing because there’s a lot of interest.
But I’ll be honest with you, any stage that you fundraise at is difficult. You have to knock on a million doors to get the one yes. It can get lonely, it can get tiring. But if you truly believe in what you’re doing, then you’ll come through the other side and there is someone out there that’ll believe in you. And once you get one person, everybody else falls in line.
And even in the second round that we’ve raised, our valuation went up four times. We were at three million dollars, now we’re at 12 million valuation. I really do think that first check in is the hardest check after that everybody really just follows.
In terms of balancing quality versus the growth of the company, what would you never sacrifice?
For the type of business that I envision us to be and are, it’s all about quality. It’s all about the user experience both for the driver as well as the passenger or the pet owner. Because without that, we don’t have a service.
We just got recognized by the New York City Taxi Cab and Limousine Commission for being the safest base. It’s actually unheard of to get this recognition so early in our existence. And it’s not me, it’s my SpotOn drivers. If they’re enjoying what they’re doing, then the pet is gonna be more comfortable in that situation.
It’s not just me saying this. It’s honestly the feedback that we’ve gotten from our customers. I love it when I get those emails saying, okay, look, I wanna apologize ahead of time. I’m taking your service. We’ll tip the driver really well but my dog is probably gonna pee in your car. And then it ends up that they have such a relaxing time that it doesn’t happen. That’s because of how we vet our drivers because what we’re asking drivers is a lot. There’s dog hair. There’s the smell. There’s the paw prints. So give them enough of financial reason to do so. But it’s gone beyond that. A lot of our drivers don’t do it because we pay more than Uber. They do it because they enjoy being around pets.
This is a good time to explain your business model with the drivers.
Our model is very similar to your Uber and Lyft where the drivers have their own cars. They maintain their own cars. Basically, we’ve taken that model and said, let’s outfit it for people with pets.
Being a serial entrepreneur yourself, what, what would be some of the advice you’d want to share with someone who’s thinking about starting their own business?
Don’t think, just do.
Just take the leap and jump.
If it doesn’t work out big deal, you can try something else or go back to what you were doing before.
This is not a nine to five job. This is not something where you can clock in and clock out.
When you’re a startup founder, it is a 24 hour job.
You should only do it if you’re truly passionate about it. Because if you’re not gonna live, eat, sleep, and breathe this.
You wanna have to change something in the world. And my world is the pet space. So I do want to change something in the pet space. Hopefully we’re getting there.
Talk to me about some of the executives or public leaders or world figures that you admire. Who do you look up to?
There are three that come out in my head right now, but before I tell you who they are, I have to say any, any woman executive that has tried to climb the corporate ladder, anyone who has started their own business from scratch – those are the people that I look up to.
Ursula von der Leyen, the current EU President, it’s amazing what she’s done.
Suzanne Scott, CEO Fox News. She started her career as an executive assistant at CNBC. Now she’s the first female CEO of Fox news.
Dong MingZhu, the Chairman of GREE Electric, a Chinese company. She started off as their sales representative and now is their chairman and president of the company.
One last question. What’s next for you?
There’s no, what I’m doing next right now? It’s Spot-On.