Dogs are already all over Instagram, have their own clothing, and often eat the same meals we do. It's increasingly the case that man’s best friend is being treated more and more like man and new technology businesses are capitalizing on the giving nature of a pet parent.
In Los Angeles, two dog-loving University of Southern California graduate students recently launched a phone app that lets man’s best friend have digital friends of his own.
The Where My Dogs At app let dogs and their owners connect with the dog-friendly community around them. Pet fanatics can download the free app for iPhone and Android and create their own profile with a subprofile for their pooch and use the platform to gather new friends, set up doggie dates, or compare information on the best parks, places, and pet stores in the area. Naturally, the company’s slogan is “It’s a Dog Meet Dog World.”
“We just know that dogs are social and friendly, and people who own dogs are friendly and amicable themselves,” app co-founder Jonathan Kolker said of himself and his partner, Gareth Wilson. “We thought it was a natural progression so you could check out the dog-friendly people and places around you and connect.”
In addition to the social media portal, Where My Dogs At provides a list of dog-friendly spaces in the area such as the best parks, restaurants, and vets to visit. Imagine Facebook, Yelp, and Foursquare combined into one—all for your favorite furry friend. “When you check in you mark your territory, you give a place a paw of approval, and built around that are these social elements,” explained Kolker. (Think of it as Man’sBestFriendster.)
So far the app has 10,000 users, half of whom live in Los Angeles. Most are between ages 20 and 40. The founders hope to profit from the app by charging for upgrades, access to information on hidden trails, and sponsored content and profiles.
The market for dog lovers isn’t new, but the way owners interact with their pooches is “For many years the baby boomers have been the primary target for pet products,” said Leslie May, founder of Pawsible Marketing, a firm that caters to pet-based businesses. “A lot of baby boomers actually opted to not have children, so pets became their kids, and because of this, pets have become more like family members than they used to be."
Product distributor BarkBox caters specifically to “dog parents." “The way we think about it is a dog parent is somebody who has a very parent-child-like relationship with their dog, and they take a very active interest in their health and happiness,” said Matt Meeker, co-founder of BarkBox.
You may have heard of BarkBox through its predecessor Birchbox—a company that distributes an assorted collection of beauty products to customers once a month. Customers sign up for the service so they can look forward to trying out new products while enjoying the surprise of what’s inside. BarkBox is the same thing, but for dogs. Every month dog owners and their significant pooches receive a package of assorted dog toys, treats, and care items.
Meeker personally connects to the customers he sells to because he himself is a dog enthusiast and owner of a great dane. “Our audience, they are obsessed, and they really just want to spoil and make their dog happy,” Meeker said. “I had this pattern of three days a week I would stop at a pet store and look for something for my dog Hugo. So taking that personal need and comparing it to everyone who has that dog as a family member, they would want something in the mail once a month too.” Meeker says that BarkBox’s clients are mostly women either in their early 30s or empty nesters of the baby boomer generation between 45 and 65 years old.
This is clearly a growth market. According to a survey by the American Pet Products Association, pet ownership in the U.S. is at a record high. The report says that 68 percent of all homes have a pet, and dogs are the most popular. About 56.7 million households own a dog. Subsequently, a lot of money is spent on raising those animals. The association estimates that in 2013 owners will spend $55.5 billion on pet-related products.
Although there is currently money to be found in investing in a pet lover’s playground, May warns that the tides may be changing. “Baby boomers are getting older, which means that they may not have a pet because of life-expectancy issues,” she says. “We are going to see a shift in who purchases these pet products from the baby boomers to the Generation X’s to the millennials. Those generations are smaller in size and have different priorities ... so we are going to see a shift in not only the pet market business as a whole, but the number of pet owners just won’t grow as fast as it has.”