[02:54] So for the folks who don’t yet know what BabelBark is, we’ll start there. So what you’re your company do?
- So BabelBark is a software platform. It’s actually the world’s only technology platform that connects the whole pet ecosystem in one place. Think of it a little bit like Expedia—with Expedia kind of connects your flights, your hotels, your rental cars, your restaurants, all in one place for holistic experience. BabelBark does the same for the pet world. So, we connect the shelters, the groomers, the walkers, the trainers, the nutritionists, the veterinarians, the food you buy, the medications you take, the activities the dog does—everything in one place.
[03:37] And so your ideal customer, I’m guessing is a pet owner or is it a subset? Is it a certain type of pet owner that’s your ideal customer?
- Our ideal customer’s split into three. So, from the pet parent perspective, I would say it’s mostly millennials and Gen Z’s. So, people in their, you know, mid-30s and below, who are more technology-focused and more accustomed or liked to using technology across every aspect of their life.
From the pet services, it’s basically the same age group and same demographics. The fact that they are actually trained as the groomers, or as the walkers, they still behave and act in the same way because in the same age bracket and same kind of technology-enabled mindset.
On the vet side, I would say it’s all vets. Especially over the last several weeks, you know, when the COVID-19 epidemic. The whole need for connected care, for remote patient monitoring, for teleservices, be it telemedicine or telehealth. So, tele-whatever has, you know, come up in a very big way. And that’s exactly what we enable.
[04:44] Okay, what’s the pricing model look like?
- So, we have three different subscriptions. With the pet parent pay, there is a basic free app that the pet parent can download and use. And we have, you know, a ton of those, obviously, a hundred people on the platform already.
And then there’s a paid version; think of Amazon, like Amazon Prime. So, we have a BabelBark Prime version; we call it Alpha Pack that costs $2.50 a month. And that provides you with an unlimited amount of veterinary support hotline, provided with our partner, some farm services, and all those kinds of goodies.
The pet businesses—groomers, walkers, trainers—for a cloud-based portal that enables them to do cloud-based client management, online marketing, online payments, connection with clients, online scheduling, all that kind of stuff. It costs them a whopping $29 a month flat fee for business, regardless of how many clients and how many employees they have.
The veterinarians, they pay between $129 to $199 flat fee a month, no additional payments, no bells and whistles, and that’s according to the level of integration with a package management system, at the level of telemedicine that they want to enable for the platform.
[06:09] Okay, so what does that boil down to an average price per user, you know?
- So again, when a pet parent pays $2.50 a month, a clinic, I would say on average pays about $140 a month and pet businesses only $29 a month.
[06:27] Yeah. But um, what I was wondering is if you took all of those different types of users, and you just said, “Well, we’ve got, you know, 5000 revenue.” What does it equate on average?
- About $54 total pet per year.
[06:40] Okay. What year did you launch?
- We started the company five years ago. We came up with the idea in November of ‘14; we incorporated in June of ‘ And we were kind of in semi-stealth mode, you know, building it quietly and then we launched our production level products in January of ‘19, a year and a half ago.
Since then, we’ve had pretty amazing success, if I maybe, you know, if I can say so. And I apologize if it sounds a little bit arrogant. But we have about 300,000 pets on the platform already. We have about 900 pet businesses and over 300 clinics, and we’re going at a very fast rate.
[07:21] That’s fantastic. So, you were coding for four years?
- I’m not a coder, but Bill, my business partner, he’s in charge of the coding. But it’s more than the coding. It’s—and we heard this for multiple people—that when we started out, many people didn’t think we would ever succeed. And the reason was connecting on one platform, on one system—a hue between walkers, groomers trainers, all the way to veterinarian specialists, mobile surgeons, oncologists, hospitals, all the way through shelters and everything.
That was the code that we had to crack. How to build a platform that will talk to everybody, not leave everybody out, and everybody will feel comfortable on it. And that was, that’s really the trade secret that many other people couldn’t figure it out. And we managed to solve that problem. And that’s where the majority of the time went, not in coding it, but in figuring out what to do.
[08:27] Yeah, that makes sense. So where is MRR at these days?
- So at the moment, I mean, the MRR is relatively low, but that’s on purpose. Because much like Reddit and WhatsApp, and many other platforms, they didn’t charge initially until it got to a very fast user base. That’s what we’re doing. We believe that over the next four to five years, the pet market, just like every other market that millennials and the younger generations have taken over, have moved to be platforms and platform-owned. And you can take every sector of life, you know, that, it has four or five mega platforms at all. We believe the global pet ecosystem will move in the same direction.
And well, we’re targeting being one of those mega platforms. So, in the moment it’s all about user, user adoption, and utilization of the system.
[09:25] So your year over year growth rate and user adoption, now that comes your way. I think you said 18 months you’ve been onboarding users. Would you know what the year over year growth rate is?
- I can tell actually, I mean, right here. So, over the last 18 months, we go 480% in pets on the platform. We go over 370% in pet businesses and over 780% in clinics on the platform, in the year and a half.
[09:58] We’re going to talk about the growth strategies that are leading to that in a minute. I’ve just got a couple more questions. Do you have employees? And if so, how many do you have?
- Sixteen amazing employees, all in the US. We’re a work-from-home company by design. And we have people split out from New Hampshire to New Orleans and through Texas, Kansas, Missouri, all the way to Washington State and the West C
[10:27] And how much have you raised so far?
- We’ve raised nine and a half million over five years.
[10:33] And where’d that money come from for the most part? Was it VCs, private equity, friends and family?
- No, no, no. it was mostly angels, super angels and family offices.
[10:42] Okay. Before we transition on to the portion of our interview where we’re going to talk about growth and how you’re attracting all those people, I would like to close out this portion with asking you this: what advice would you give to other SaaS founders who are in the midst of raising capital or thinking about raising capital?
- I would say two things. First and foremost, I would say, don’t be blinded by love of the product; keep your eyes on the market. I’ve seen too many companies and too many people who have basically been so in love with their products that they didn’t notice feedback from the market, on what’s working, what’s not working, and if they need to change, pivot to anything.
Successful company, other than you’ve seen, are companies where the founders or the management team has been able to be nimble, adapt, and sometimes even pivot on the base product to meet it to what the market is telling them. When you’re just stubbornly focused on product because you’re so in love with it, and with the idea that, you know, tends to be a problem, and that’s a big risk.
And investors have a very keen eye on figuring that out. And you know, in the initial interviews, if the investors feel that out, or get that impression, you can be very challenged in raising money.
The second thing I would say is hire by talent. You’re not rich enough to pay cheap. And in many, many cases, when you hire cheap, you end up paying twice because you don’t get time to market. You don’t get quality. You don’t get a lot of that and any investor who will start doing due diligence on your team, especially the sophisticated investors, will immediately figure out how talented the team is, how much internal politics, how much well they’re, you know, working together as a cohesive team or not. And if you get that to home, I would take this investment goodbye. I mean, nobody will invest in a company that has a potential of blowing up internally because of politics and lack of professionalism.
[13:02] Good advice. Okay, let’s talk about growth. Tell me about your user acquisition systems.
- So with the pet parents, we’re focusing specifically on the millennials. And as we all know from all the aspects, millennials, work, live, and think in a different way. I’m 53 years old and what my generation did, I mean, they, you know, they spring TV, they don’t have cable TV by and large. They look at the Reddit versus, you know, the Wall Street Journal or paper, at least, that kind of…
So the whole marketing efforts have to be targeted to the specific market that you’re going after. When we’re marketing to the B2C, consumers, through digital marketing—Instagram, Facebook, Google ads, you know, all those digital marketing capabilities. We’re not doing TV ads; we’re not doing paper ads. We’re not doing billboards. We’re not doing everything which was used to be the staple, you know, 15 years ago.
[14:07] So, of the digital stuff, which is giving you the greatest ROI right now?
- I would say mostly Instagram and Google ads. And we’re getting to a CAC—cost of acquisition—of about $1.40 per user, which is really, really low.
[14:22] Do you have any competitor metrics or any way of knowing that $1.40 is going to work for you in the long term? If you model that out already, or how do you..?
- We have. What we have, it depends on which platform you’re on. But you know, most platforms show that companies, SaaS companies, their CAC needs to be somewhere between $1 to $3, depending on who the company is and what the value is, and you know, what the… If it is in healthcare or it’s in e-commerce or it’s in different kind of stuff. But we’re right in the middle of where we should be and we look at it slightly differently. Because with a monthly subscription cost of $2.50 per consumer, which any consumer would pay for, you know, unlimited 24/7 vet hotline and lost and found service and that kind of stuff. Can, you know, compare that to a $1.41 of acquisition cost? That’s an ROI of less than a month.
[15:26] Yeah, that’s fantastic. How much churn do you have right now?
- So, we’re not sure exactly. Because our growth rate has been so high, that it’s hard to figure out how many people are dropping off. I can tell you, for example, that a month ago, we had over 1.6 million sessions on the platform. This month, we’ve had over 1.85 million sessions on the platform. That’s an average of over six sessions per pet per month, which is a lot.
I mean, think of yourself, about platforms that you use, how many of those do you know log in and do something six times a month? So, the current growth in the current economic conditions of the COVID-19 and everything else, is not a standard situation going forward. I mean, there’s, everybody’s using now teleservices because of the situation. The big question will be, what will happen post pandemic? How many will stay on? How many will drop off? And what will be the situation? So, at the moment, I wouldn’t say it’s a tell-tale for what’s going to happen down the line.
[16:41] Yeah. I’ll have to maybe do an update with you, later on.
- I’ve decided to be honest.
[16:47] So you did. I want to go back just a minute because you mentioned to me that Instagram was the best marketing activity, and like, my audience wouldn’t let me off the hook if I didn’t go down that rabbit hole a little bit. So, do you happen to know what it is on Instagram that you’re doing that’s working so well?
- Yep, I would say, it’s carousel ads. So we’ll do… It’s something called carousel ads. So those are really, really, really working well. And when you compare or you, when you connect those with very targeted marketing about people who are interested in pets or in any kind of, you know, a longer list of tag of words that we use, that people are interested in, it works well.
We have a, we work with external marketing firms who do specific digital marketing, that’s their expertise. And they build those ads for us, and they help us manage those campaigns. And, you know, it’s working. At the end of the month, we’re rolling out new affiliate marketing programs, where we go in with influencers and people like that, blog posts, influencers, people in, you know, classic affiliate marketing programs, which we will, we will believe will be highly successful as well.
But it’s the combination of the visual and the marketing asset built in a very specific way to meet, you know, the target market. And then targeting it to a very specific set of people based on their, you know, interests, on where they lie, you know, to get the best return.
[18:31] Are you sending… So let’s talk about a specific Instagram carousel ad. Are you sending that traffic directly to your homepage? Or do you have a specific landing, or do you have landing pages that are each optimized to different audiences? What does that look like?
- We have both. It depends on what the ad is. So, for example, now we’re running an ad for the veterinary hotline, right. People are at home, people are worried, something happens to the pet; they need to have answer. In many cases, the clinics are shut down because of essential or non-essential business, whatever. So, we’re targeting people to go to a certain specific landing page where they can get all the information they need and sign up from that landing page.
In other cases, where it’s more informative ads about the value of the platform and the app by itself. There’s no landing page, but it’s, you know, specifically an ad that talks about the value and then you can go to the App Store and download the app or Google Play Store there. So, it depends, you know. We’re not fixated on only one methodology. We need to adapt according to the case in order to be nimble.
[20:00] So do you, do you have a sense yet of customer LTV?
- To be honest, not yet. Not yet. What I can tell you is that we haven’t seen a lot of drop off. I mean, we’ve seen, if you look at the classic, you know, utilizations over a lifetime per user, they haven’t been drastically dropping off. And actually, the usage on the platform has been going in a major way, way faster than the amount of users that are joining the platform.
For example, it just started that, you know, in the last two weeks, we go by 11% from 1.6 million to 1.85 million sessions on the platform. That’s a growth of way above and beyond the amount of new pets that join the platform. So, but again, like I said, it depends on the moment because of the COVID-19 situation and because it’s an outlier, and it’s been going on for the last two months or whatever. We’re not trying to do deductions from this, because that’s not the standard timeframe. And it’s gonna skew up a lot of measurements.
[21:13] So, I want to talk a little bit about customer success. So, back in Episode 315 of my podcast, I interviewed the founder of an app called JivoChat. And he, they’re an app that they make extensive use of an internal sales team to convert freemium users very successfully, to paid users. So, we’re going to call that sales-led growth.
Then there’s other companies out there that are focusing more on product-led growth, which obviously can be less expensive to do if you can get your app to be your salesperson for you. And the onboarding experience, I think, has a lot to do with a whole bunch of metrics that are really important to pay attention to.
So, would you say, I guess it’s a two part question. I’m gonna guess with you, you’re more product-led growth than sales-led growth. And then if that’s true, which I suspect that it is, can you tell me about the onboarding experience? And are there things that you’ve tried that didn’t work out? And are there things that you’ve implemented recently that have really, you know, kind of shot the ball out of the park, so to speak?
- So, we are product-led growth. And the way we do it, we utilize a marketing cloud and systems like that, you know, from Salesforce, where we go back to the users—the people who’ve downloaded the app on a periodic basis—and say, “Hey, have you noticed the app can only can also enable you to do this,” “Hey, have you noticed you can also do that.” And we expose them to more and more and more features that they are able to do on the platform on an ongoing messaging capability or outreach.
And that’s been working really, really well because it’s a platform and not just an app. Sometimes people will just look at the initial capability because when you sign up, all you need to do is put in your name, your email, your pet’s name, and you’re good to go. But much like on LinkedIn and many other things, you have this small little kind of clock that shows you what percentage of your profile has been done, and you go from zero to 100.
So, we slowly push people into enabling more and more pieces of their profile. Because, I’ll give an example, “Hey, you can choose the food and add the food that you provide to your pet that will enable you to also watch their weight and share that information with your vet, with your boarder, with you know your kennel, with whomever you need to share that information with. And we’ll enable you to look at a whole other set of capabilities like wellness, like ease of use, like all kinds of stuff like that.” Or, “Hey, you can ask your vet to add your vaccinations into the system that gets incorporated into the app that will make your life way easier when you go to the groomer. Or you go to board your dog, or you go to people like that, that need your proof of vaccination. Otherwise, they won’t take care of your pet.”
So, we use product capabilities inside the system in order to expose them more and more and more, piece by piece to the users, in order to get them to use the system more and more. And again, because the basic app is free, it doesn’t cost them anything. And it’s just more usability, and it makes it more sticky.
[24:33] Have you been able to, if I missed it, because I was writing notes for our show notes, apologize. But have you been able to incorporate any level of virality into the app where one user signs on and it really benefits them? You know, like, when you go on Facebook, they’re saying like add your friends, or on LinkedIn, add your connections, to get other people to start to come into your community or come into the community. Have you had any success with that and like I say, I apologize if you already explained it because I was writing notes.
- I can tell you that we have. We have a most of the B2B2C perspective. So well, businesses, groomers, walkers, vets, trainers are adding their end clients on to the system because they want those people to download the app in order to be able to interact and do a lot of different capabilities that they don’t have to do. But if they do, it makes everybody’s life way, way easier.
And what we’ve started to see now is B2C2B, where basically, users, consumers are going to their service providers and asking them to use the portal in order to enable all kinds of capabilities for them. “Instead of me having to chase after you for appointments, why don’t you just use the BabelBark system, so I can see exactly when you have free time, and I can schedule it on your calendar,” or, “Hey, why don’t you do this? Or hey, why don’t you do that.”
So, we’re seeing a significant growth, mostly in B2B2C, but also starting in B2C2B, which is something that we had always hoped for, but never really expected it to happen so quickly.
[26:18] So now I want to transition into the last phase of the interview, where we’re going to talk about leadership, principles, and people. And my first question there is have standard operating procedures been developed in your organization? Are you documenting your processes? And if so, how has that impacted the operations?
- The answer is yes, obviously. But bear in mind we’re a startup and I think the biggest difference between a startup and a large corporation, and I come from you know, I was in the VP operations of a bit of a large building company, Bill Works, at Microsoft. So, we have the experience on both, and I think the biggest difference is if you go outside process lines in a large organization, you’re going to get slapped. If you stay inside process lines in a startup, you’re going to get slapped. So that’s one of the virtues, in my opinion, for startup. But yes, we have processes.
So, on the development side, we have very clear development processes, with everything from, you know, the agiles and sprints, and all the rest of the keywords. And documented coding of what’s happening and where and how it’s done and the logic and everything else. So, if somebody gets hit by a truck, God forbid, we can pick up where we left off without losing any valuable information.
On the operation side, we have very clear procedures of account management, what you do, how you do, where you do it. Salesforce, how do you manage it, what we use, how we use Salesforce in difference to other companies, what do we do with it, and so forth, so forth. So, it’s a very clear process.
Onboarding a new client, if it’s a vet, what’s the process to onboard the vet, what’s the emails that go out? What links do they get? When do you touch them? All that kind of stuff. If it’s a groomer, it’s a whole different onboarding process because of the different level of need, and different feature attributes that the groomer uses versus the vet.
So, all of those are happening. And all of that is documented with all the regular platforms from Jira to Salesforce and everything in between.
[28:25] So, where does all the content for your SLPs live?
- Well, mostly, it’s on Google Drive. So we have a company Google Drive and where the majority live. But then we also have the additional systems, like, you know, Jira, like Salesforce that, you know, they’re not actually the process documents, but where a lot of the processes rely on those systems for different parts.
[28:59] You’d mentioned to me, I think 14 employees, is that right? 16. So what’s the division between sales, marketing, and engineering of those 16 people?
- Nine engineering. We have four in sales. Sorry, actually, five in sales and marketing. Nine in engineering, and then, there’s Bill and myself.
[29:22] Okay. And are you hiring much right now? Or you got all you need for the time being.
- For the time being, we have everything we need. We expect to need to hire another four to five people by the end of the year. Well, that depends on if the growth continues the way it is at the moment, then we’d have to hire another four or five people.
[29:42] What system—tell me about your systems that you use to recruit, to find the right people to put on the bus.
- So, we have found LinkedIn to be the most effective one, in addition to a friend bringing a friend, word of mouth.
[29:59] So, to be clear then, you’re using LinkedIn as a recruiting tool. You’re not so much posting a job and just having a barrage of resumes come in your outgoing pointer saying, “What about you? What about you?”
- Well, yeah, LinkedIn has a… I mean you can use it in many different ways. Obviously, the most simple one is just posting a proposition and waiting for the avalanche to come. But, you know, we’re working with an account manager in LinkedIn, where we’re utilizing them as an actual recruiting platform. They have pretty good services over there.
[30:32] What does LinkedIn charge you to do that? Yeah, what does LinkedIn charge you to use their recruiting service?
- So, it’s $700 on a monthly basis, it’s a subscription, depending on which part of the services you utilize and what you sign up for. We’ve had to use it at different levels according to different people that we were looking for. So, for example, we had a much tougher time, more challenging time finding a good back end developer versus an account manager. So, it depends on the level of effort and the complexities for that specific job. And that’s the level of services we need to pay for.
[31:22] Okay. What about the interview process? What does that look like for you?
- So, it’s the initial hiring manager, then it’s usually two additional managers. So if it’s a team lead, and then it’s the CTO, and then in addition, it’s Bill, who’s kind of our head of product and head of strategy. Versus if it’s an account manager, then the head of account management, then it’s usually myself, and one of the salespeople. Because those are the people they need to interact with and to get a second opinion.
[31:52] And when you’re actually conducting these interviews, are you following a structured process for the interview or you just, “Hey, does this person feel good, feel like they’re going to be a fit?” Like what, what determines an interview went well, from an interview. Or sorry, what determines an interview went well from an interview went spectacular?
- So, we have a certain framework, I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a process, but it’s a framework. Obviously understanding the background, understanding what their expertise is like, all that kind of stuff. But at the end of the day, being a small start-up and being a remote location start-up, where you don’t have the person sitting in a table next to you, we can keep an eye on, it comes down to chemistry and to instinct, and I would say a lot to management experience.
So, Rob Christensen, our CTO, you know, very, very experienced guy. Bill and myself, both in our 50s, you know, relatively experienced as well, you know, given the age and everything else. So it comes down a lot to that because you could have somebody who’s a perfect fit from the technical perspective, but you don’t get the warm and fuzzy [feeling] that they will be able to work independently, remotely, and interact via Slack. While you might have somebody else who might only be like an 80% fit for the technical perspective, but you get an extreme warm and fuzzy [feeling], that you know, it’s you know, it’s like a glove to a hand for the company culture and from how he’s going to be working independently, remotely.
So, it all depends. It’s not a, you know, checkbox that he has to be 100% technical fit; it comes down to what your gut feeling, how they’ll fit. And that’s why you have at least two senior people, the head of the group, CTO, head of account management, whatever, and either Bill or myself because it comes down to a discussion between the two of us, what do we feel about that specific candidate.
[34:01] All right, and then we’re going to finish up with this last question. What haven’t I asked you, that if you were interviewing yourself, that you think would make this an even better interview?
- What haven’t you asked me? I would say that as a starter, as an entrepreneur, CEO of a startup in a very challenging time and in a remote location, how do you make it work? Why do you make it click?
And what I would answer is that you need to remember, a manager needs to remember that their job is not to do their employees’ jobs. Their job is to open the roadblocks and let their team soar. If I cannot provide the runway to let my team spread their wings and take off, they’re going to go down, and I’m going to go down with them as well.
And I think that many times, especially in challenging times, like we have today, especially when you don’t necessarily see the team around you all day long, people get a little bit defensive and try to have their fingers in everything. And that creates a bad situation. You need to trust the people that you hired. You need to trust them that they know how to do their job; you need to enable the runway, both financially, and roadblocks from internal politics to anything else. No, make sure there’s no roadblocks, and then your team will soar, and when they soar, the company soars, and that comes back to you.
[35:36] Absolutely. The thing that I, and I’ll put my two cents into that. I agree with everything you said. And the thing in our case, you’ll notice there’s a plaque over my shoulder. We have the 254th spot in the 5000 in a company where I don’t even have a day-to-day role any longer because we did what you just said. And we made sure that there was a foundation of really great SOPs in place that predominantly I wrote. And then I said to the team, it’s up to you to take what I’ve written and improve it, and iterate it on an ongoing basis. And you’ll always be able to then have these great systems to rely on. So that if one of those people were to leave, and we’ve had a very small amount of turnover, you’re able to put someone else into that seat. And they’re able to essentially pick up right where the other person left off, because the other person was continually refining those documents. And that was one of the challenges we had early on when we had our documents in Google versus in our own software. That’s what Flowster is, it’s a workflow management application. It forces people to rely on the software, which in turn forces them to keep the SOPs up-to-date on an ongoing basis. Versus in Google, it’s easy, they’re just kind of over there and you could sort of forget, depending on what other process maybe you built in? Yep. But it’s anyway for us it was a big that’s kind of why I founded the software company. It was a huge game changer for us.