Are you a full-time employee – out all day with no time to take Scruffy out for a walk? Apparently, you’re not alone. Swifto (formerly known as Todayjob), the trendy urban startup of 25 year old Israeli entrepreneur, Penina First, announced this weekend the landing of their first funding round by Benchmark Capital for a cool $2.5M.
The funds will be used to provide across the board services for everything realated to Dog Walking, which according to First, has an annual rolling market value of $60B. The investment was made by Benchmark Israel’s, Michael Eisenberg, who will be joining Swifto’s Board of Directors.
Wanted: Dog Walkers
The story begins three and a half years ago (somewhere in September 2009) when First lived up to here namesake, taking 1st place in the Exit 09 competition for the idea of building a matchmaking site, pairing temporary workers with employers in real time.
“When I started the TodayJob, I was a bit pretentious” First told Newsgeek in a recent interview. “I thought at the time that I could solve all the problems in the world, and do it all in one place. But that first manifestation was the precursor to Swifto, which is essentially a platform to connect people with service providers in real time.
“At some point along the way – about a year ago – we began to understand that the users really wanted something beyond an initial connection. So we decided to try and develop a full, end-to-end, user solution. We quickly realized though, a comprehensive solution for every case specific need, just wasn’t going to happen. We needed to focus our services on a niche within our market, but which one, we had no idea. So we decide to redeploy with a test based approach, changing the focus of the service on a weekly basis. One week it was Dog Walking, the next, waiters, then cleaners, etc. The idea being; when we find something that works, we’ll stick with it.”
First’s strategy is something familiar to all startups. It’s called Pivoting, or directional change. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. In First’s case, it took them somewhere they never expected to go, but at the moment, their direction’s looking mighty promising.
“After a week of focusing on Dog Walking, we realized that there’s this whole world of dog care that we never even knew existed. This niche was much larger than we initially thought and we felt we should look into it a little more seriously. We decided to keep the focus on Dog Walking for a month, and then three months after that, and before we knew what happened, it was catching on like wildfire, so we thought, ‘We found our niche’, and we stuck with it.”
Real time walking tracker
Swifto now employs nine people in Tel Aviv and New Jersey, providing pet owners with a one-stop-shop for everything related to their Dog Walking needs. First explained that:
“For a $20 Dog Walk, you’ll be sure your dog is getting the best care imaginable. The system we built allows for registering pet owners to enter all the information about their dogs into the site, including small-but-important stuff, like being sensitive to particular temperatures or having a tendency to be startled by certain noises. After users are registered within the system, they’re prompted to build a schedule indicating exactly when they’ll be needing our services, and we match them to one of our ‘Walkers’. Our Walkers are given a short interview by the client, and if the client’s happy, we close the deal. With the deal is sealed, the Walker takes the dog out for walks based on the preset schedule entered in by the owner.
“One of the issues raised by Swifto users was; how could they tell that the Walker was actually taking the instructed route, or walking the dog at all, for that matter? To solve this issue, Swifto developed a dedicated application that kicks in as soon as the dog starts its walk, updating the owner automatically.
At the end of the trip, the app updates the owner again with total walk time and actual route taken. For really concerned (or paranoid) owners, there’s the option of tracking your dog via GPS, every step of the way, simply by keeping the app opened throughout the course of the walk.
“Most businesses in this field employ an average of two to three Walkers, severely limiting their ability to cover the market. There are a lot of details and logistical issues to work out in this job, which makes enterprising growth very challenging. We’re unique in the sense that we use technology to bridge the gap whenever and wherever possible, but in some places we still insist on human involvement, and that makes all the difference.
“Eventually, this market will present quite a few hurdles that small businesses will not be able to deal with, for example; all the insurance issues. We carry full insurance for pretty much anything you could think of, including hypothetical cases where we lose the key to a customer’s apartment, or if a dog bites someone or another dog, God forbid, or if something happens to the dog or Walker, etc. Everything’s covered and we have the capacity to handle any event in real time. ”
Dog Walker: BA required?
The quality of Swifto’s Walkers is also no less important to them than the hi-tech features of their site. If users are going to be leaving their dog (and the key to their house) with somebody, it better be somebody they trust.
First explained that the process of screening and hiring Dog Walkers for Swifto is no simple task:
“The hiring process to become a Swifto Dog Walker includes a comprehensive background check. We also require all of our Dog Walkers to have at least a bachelor’s degree, as well as previous experience in Dog Walking or of handling other pets. Additionally, we require our Walkers to have a comprehensive knowledge of Dogs and their treatment, along with a genuine passion for life.
“After we verify that an applicant meets all of our standards, they undergo a series of, no less than, three interviews, as well as a series of scored examinations – and that’s all before the personal interview with each prospective client.”
Manhattan’s marked territory. San Francisco’s next
With $2.5M in the bank, First says the company is already steady on its feet:
“37.5% of American households have dogs. The average customer pays us $5K a year, and if you think that only the upper class can afford it – you’re mistaken. It’s true that our customer base is not exactly starving, but we have quite a few clients who just work full time and can’t take care of their dogs. We have customers using our services three times a day, and there are even some who use us upwards of 5 to 7 times a day, especially those with puppies.”
So what now? Although their operation is currently centered in New York – a healthy market with a dog population of over a million strong – Swifto’s set the following objectives to be met by years end: The Company expects to expand its services to Boston, Chicago and San Francisco. Additionally, according the First, Swifto expects to end the year with revenues exceeding $1M.
When asked whether Israel’s scent is also on Swifto’s radar: “Of course! I give it an estimated two years or so. Israel will be the first country we enter after reaching all the major cities in the US.”