On the evening of Thursday March 19th, the unofficial "dog mafia" gathered behind closed doors at the Digital Garage startup space in San Francisco.
Far from being mafiosos, these entrepreneurs are leading a far-reaching movement focused on improving the health and happiness of humans worldwide by better connecting them to their dogs.
The Found event was created by Pack in order to bring together other leading startups, businesses, brands and investors in the space to take a collective look at the future they're creating. The founders, designers and CEO's of Pack, Rover, Whistle, PrideBites and Petcube took the stage to each share their own unique take on one thing: The dog industry is no underdog.
The evening was kicked off by a candid, emotional story from respected 'friend to startups', Micah Baldwin. But he wasn't there to talk about a startup, he was there to talk about his first dog. It was a personal story of finding sobriety and not being alone, thanks to a dog named Billie.
"She was the perfect dog for me. It didn’t take long for me to realize that having someone that didn’t judge, didn’t look at me in the awful, disappointed way I looked at myself, made me hopeful."
She just did what we as humans should do naturally: She gave without requiring taking, and she loved without expectation."
Megan Casey, cofounder and CEO of Pack, took the stage next to lay out her vision for why Pack cares about connecting the dog owners of the world. It was a three-part approach for connecting dog parents to each other, to their cities, and to their dogs -- all in order to inspire healthier living. If dogs are a niche, it's one hell of a niche.
Ben opened his talk by acknowledging the unique collaboration within the industry. "It felt like we were pushing a boulder uphill a couple years ago... I think we see less of that today, and part of that is because we see members of the pet industry bonding together."
He discussed the opportunity of the truly connected pet (in this case, connected to a Whistle device) and how that can bring about faster decisions for solving problems for pet owners, such as boarding, health monitoring, grooming and other services.
"Our goal with Whistle," said Jacobs, "is to give dogs a voice."
We've all heard of user-generated content, but what about user-generated products? PrideBites started with a single award-winning toy, and what the company quickly heard was a plea for more, and more choices. The PrideBites team realized the fastest way to more choices was to make it easy for their customers customize anything. "The important thing here is that when all these things come together, pet owners can have more choices."
"We love this Found conference because it pushes everyday pet owners to think differently to expand on our industry."
Moderated by Facebook's Jonathon Colman, the dog design panel featured Jon Lax of Facebook (also of Teehan+Lax fame), Kelly Strodl, Instagram famous owner of Gambit, Pack's own John Henry Müller, and Erica Hall of Mule Design.
It was an entertaining and thoughtful conversation from people who are used to designing delightful, everyday experiences.
Jon Lax summed it up best. "When I think about design for this space, I think about it as trying to be better caregivers to these animals we brought into our lives. All we want to do is be better humans for ourselves and for these animals. One of the constraints I keep an eye on is that it's easy to imagine that even though dogs take up a large part of our life, how much digital life are we going to spend on it. I don't want people diving into their phones for entertainment for 2 hours and forgetting to take the dog for a walk. The technology we bring in is more in utility to increase the time we can spend with the dog. If it gets inverted and we spend more time on the tech than the dog, the design is broken. If you can do something where with a quick interaction you become a better caregiver to your dog, that would be the goal."
Pet parents care about how they can see and interact with their pets when they are not around. "Big stories start with some little dudes like this chihuahua Rocky who felt really anxious when my cofounder left for work. So we came up with the idea of the Petcube to give him something to do, so he wouldn't feel so alone, and it worked."
There has been about $2M worth of pet products successfully backed on Kickstarter so far. Andrey challenged the room to get this number much higher by kickstarting more products driven by their insights about pet owners.
Aaron had the pleasure of announcing Rover's new $25M round, bringing their total funding to over $50M, and then dove right in to discussing the trends that drive dog tech.
Along with Megan Casey, Ben Jacobs and the rest of the speakers, Aaron also sees a huge underserved market before them. But in his powerful, economics-driven talk, he defined the fascinating shadow market that many don't realize, and cautioned against thinking too small.
"Don't get overly stuck on asking how big is the market. That's less interesting than asking: how big could it be?"
It was indeed a special evening, with a whole new generation of veteran entrepreneurs focusing intently, and with altruism, on building products and experiences for a whole new generation of connected dog owners.
Photography by Marc Fong • Emceed by Rahul Gupta