UK startup PawSquad brings the vet to your door, on demand

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As any pet owner knows, a trip to the vet for a furry friend is about as fun as a visit to the dentist for the average human.

Nor is a vet visit fun for pet owners, who have to take time out of their schedules to shift their unwilling beast(s) into a room full of other unwilling beasts — hoping the howls of protest from the blacked-out cage in the corner aren’t shrill enough to set off an answering caterwaul from their own misery crate… meooooooooowwwwwwwwwwl!

As experiences go, it’s one to be gutturally endured, not enjoyed. The only “value add” at the average veterinary practice is the ability to purchase a bag of expensive kibbles from the in-surgery store as you back your woeful charges out the door.

U.K. startup PawSquad reckons there’s plenty ripe for disruption here. And not only from the pet/pet owner’s perspective. It sees potential in offering veterinarians a different way of working, too, by giving them a platform to sell their services on demand — via its web- and app-based marketplace.

Its first service, which launched in 2015, was remote veterinary consultations — via text message or video call — for pet owners wanting to quickly and inexpensively get advice with a specific query.

But that was just the first phase, says co-founder and CEO Francesco Cardoletti, discussing the home visit service it’s since launched in a handful of U.K. regions — expanding from dishing out advice remotely to performing check-ups, administering vaccines and offering other routine and preventative healthcare functions to customers in their homes.

“Providing 360-degree care was always part of our vision,” he continues. “Launching the home visit offering gave us the opportunity to provide end to end veterinary care, with the ability to diagnose, treat and prescribe, but doing so in a way that is digitally supported and meets the needs of the modern pet owner.”

This year it’s intending to expand its coverage footprint for this home-visit service in a bid to scale demand. “Think of it this way; our vets act as a first opinion GP,” he tells TechCrunch. “We do all the routine and preventative care that a pet needs and then if there is any need for critical care, surgical care or emergency care, we have relationships with local practices where we refer the cases… And of course we manage the care process.”

Any medications required following a consultation are sent on to the customer by post.

“About 80 percent of the veterinary work that a pet usually needs can be done at home. That’s mostly the routine stuff. And the few times in the lifetime of the pet where the pet needs critical or surgical care, or maybe some dental work, or some more invasive diagnostics, then we use these partner practices with whom we have relationships,” he says.

While PawSquad’s routine/preventative pet care work may not be to the taste of every veterinarian, the relative freedom of not being tied to a bricks-and-mortar practice could be a pull for some.

“Our vets have their own registered veterinary practice, but we provide them with all the support they need to run their practice (business, operations, marketing, out of hours support, etc.). This gives them a new, accessible and affordable way to own their own practice,” argues Cardoletti.

“Compare it with the fast-vanishing opportunities to become a joint venture partner with one of the corporate groups (the largest being Vets4Pets, part of Pets at Home) that are very costly and involve large amounts of debt. More than that though, we attract the many vets who just want to practice their own way, in their own areas, on their own terms (away from the stress and politics of a vet practice) — and we give them all the tools they need to do that.”

PawSquad home visits last between 30 and 40 minutes to allow enough time for a detailed check-up, with its prices being a bit more expensive than the fees you’d typically pay at a bricks-and-mortar practice — though (it reckons) still cheaper than asking a vet at such a surgery to pay you a home visit.

Plus, really, the point is it’s selling convenience and reduced stress to pet owners. Though it also wants to retain the ability to have an ongoing and local relationship for your veterinary care, says Cardoletti.

“Our home-visit service doesn’t necessarily fit the ‘on-demand’ model that many tech startups use. With food delivery, or other services, you often get a different person turn up each time, and it’s quite transactional. With us, your PawSquad vet lives close by or in your area, and they become your point of contact for all health-related issues.

“We’re using technology to facilitate a local relationship… Both the human and pet healthcare industries have moved away from this personalized, local care in recent years (the veterinary industry has seen large scale corporatization), and we feel it’s important to bring it back. Technology has helped us do that.”

At this point — after just under a year of operating the home-visit service in a handful of U.K. regions (including the NW and SW of London) — it says it’s clocked up around 1,000 home visits.

On the veterinarian side, it’s aiming to have 30 vets “fully operational” this year in its marketplace, clustering new recruits in urban areas to ensure enough coverage as it expands to new towns/cities (it does also serve some rural locations).

All the vets on its platform are vetted — with PawSquad checking their qualifications and experience, and conducting interviews when it recruits additions to its marketplace. Users are also encouraged to leave reviews.

Scaling the service means finding local independent practices to partner with, says Cardoletti, being as — in keeping with its “buy local” philosophy — it prefers not to do tie-ins with corporate pet healthcare groups, which might be a faster way of growing its footprint. (Though it also counts insurance giant Direct Line as a strategic investor, and its video service is offered as a standard part of the policy for all the company’s pet insurance customers).

It’s also taken some VC investment to get this far, raising around £1.4 million since 2014 from GeCad Ventures, according to Crunchbase. Its business model involves taking a cut of any services delivered via the platform.

“Our focus has been on creating a sustainable business model,” adds Cardoletti. “On the home-visit side, we’ve been growing 20 percent month on month. We expect this number to go up as we scale up our geographic launches this year. To date, 60 percent of our customers have seen us twice, with 22 percent seeing us twice in a 90-days period. We expect this trend to continue.”

The home visit service is currently available for residents of NW and SW London, Edinburgh, Saffron Walden and Staffordshire Moorlands, while it’s launching in Devon, Southampton and Bournemouth “soon” — with more U.K. locations slated to be added throughout the year.

Could the model scale beyond the U.K.? Cardoletti believes so, and characterizes the U.S. as a likely “primary target” should PawSquad get that far in the future. “Our tech is scalable and our learnings are easily transferable to the U.S.,” he argues, though clearly it still has a lot of domestic scaling to be doing first.

“Pet population in the U.S. is huge (80 million-plus), spending per pet is increasing, the demographics and market dynamics are very similar to the U.K. and so is the regulatory environment. There are a few competitors that have a lead way in the market but no one that has a meaningful share of the market,” he adds.