Sydney based startup Mad Paws – an online marketplace for pet services – has today announced a $5 million series A funding round led by Qantas. Calling themselves “the Airbnb for pets”, Mad Paws connects pet owners with walkers and sitters via its online platform.

The Qantas investment includes a partnership where Mad Paws customers can accrue Qantas frequent flyer points for using Mad Paws services. Mad Paws will also now be recognised as a trusted partner for Qantas customers in search of a pet minding services when traveling.

According to Mad Paws, 300,00 pets have been registered since the platform launched in 2014, and pet owners now have access to more than 15,000 vetted and insured pet sitters.

Which-50 spoke to Mad Paws cofounder and CEO Alexis Soulopoulos about the investment and the battle for in the sharing economy.

“We are really excited,” Soulopoulos said. “We know how to deploy the funds in a way that will make our service much better for all of our users – for all of our pet sitters and owners. And in doing that we intend to grow very fast in the future as well.”

Mad Paws’ platform revenue more than tripled last year, according to the company.

Soulopoulos cofounded Mad Paws to solve what he believes is the biggest problem for Australian pet owners – what to do with their pets when they travel? “Kennels are expensive and often not the best experience for the pet,” Soulopoulos says, and turning to family and friends can also be inconvenient.

“We address this problem at scale through a proven marketplace model that has reviews to make sure its a trustable solution.”

Mad Paws initially developed a digital platform to link pet owners with pet sitters. While that feature is the bedrock, the company also tested other features like dog walking and day care. According to Soulopoulos these daytime services features grew even faster.

“These services are working very, very well for us. In fact, those daytime services – dog walking and daycare, are growing faster than our holiday/pet minding service.”

Following the success of share economy giants like Uber and Airbnb, the pet sitting space was “originally very competitive”, Soulopoulos said. It meant Mad Paws had to move quickly, including introducing features that were not 100 per cent polished, he said.

“I believe Mad Paws did a good thing growing something so quickly and getting it in the hands of customers quickly to really start a business,” Soulopoulos said.

“We were able to learn what the customers liked and what don’t they like about it, and really build on their respect and their preference.”

While there are “core” aspects around user experience that can’t be compromised, some features are better adapted through market testing, Soulopoulos argues, and taking too long to refine technology during early growth risks missing out on valuable user feedback and trust. Ultimately slow moving technology companies can end up with a well developed feature that “actually wasn’t so important to the real user,” Soulopoulos said.

The Trust Economy

Capturing consumer trust early is critical for share economy platforms. Soulopoulos says platforms like Airbnb had helped change the perception about exchanging services with strangers but it was still important to be able to reassure users their pet is in good hands.

For most pet owners, pets are “on the same level as their children” and Mad Paws has to guarantee the very best pet sitters and walkers, Soulopoulos said. To ensure this Mad Paws adopts a three stage approach to consumer trust.

Firstly, all potential pet sitters must be verified and complete online training courses. It’s quite stringent according to Soulopoulos and ultimately only 25 per cent of the applications make it onto the platform.

Second, before a job begins most pet minders  (90 per cent according to Soulopoulos) also do a strongly encouraged meet and greet to align their expectations and build confidence.

Finally, the review system ensures the best pet minders raise to the top. Currently veteran pet sitters on the platform have hundreds of rave reviews, Soulopoulos said. Bad experiences, which Soulopoulos stressed were rare, are investigated and offending parties removed from the platform.

The challenge for Mad Paws, and what Soulopoulos says the funding will help with, is growing those numbers while maintaining customer experience.

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