What does technology hold for the future of dogs? It’s an interesting question that was posed by the FOUND Dog Tech Conference held at San Francisco’s Digital Garage last Thursday, March 19. The inaugural FOUND event was created by Pack, a social network for dogs and their owners. One of the new breed of tech companies designed to serve next generation dog owners and their canine companions, Pack brought together tech movers and shakers to rally around common causes—to elevate the conversation around dog focused technology businesses, share new ideas and opportunities, and ponder their collective future. The leaders of Pack, Rover, Petcube, PrideBites and Whistle took to the stage to showcase their particular vision on dog business. Part product showcase, part tent revival—each presenter worked hard to convince the audience that the “pet space” was being reinvented and that the market opportunity ($80 billion annually) is huge and growing. The big message: dogs, and thus these start-ups, were to be taken seriously.
Dog tech today is based more on emulation then innovation, so one is more apt to meet the Fitbit for dogs or Uber for dogwalkers then fresh, radical ideas. The most successful business models are service oriented—helping dog owners (or pet parents as marketers like to say) hook up with care, products and social groups. But the financial investment appears to be real, and early success is helping people forget the failures of the past. Pets.com and its talking sock puppet is often cited as the poster child for misguided failure from tech’s big bust in the late ’90s. Today’s entrepreneurs are working hard to connect to the burgeoning pet market and find success.
What does tech have in store for dogs and their people? Here are a few takeaways from FOUND:
Dogs are not frivolous—they help us be healthier and happier, and thus should be considered part of the health and wellness industry. This shift in perspective reflects a line of thinking that may find traction with investors, and in turn foster more innovation.
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Dogs make us social—Pack’s goal is to connect dog owners … to each other, to their cities, to their dogs. Think of Facebook for dogs, a canine social network. Pack Co-founder/CEO Megan Casey emphasized the relationship between dogs and their owners’ well-being. She also noted that more than half of all U.S. smartphone users have dogs.
Responding to underserved markets—Rover connects owners to a nationwide network of qualified dog boarders. Founder/CEO Aaron Easterly feels he has identified a large underserved market, one that operates in what he termed “the shadow economy”—casual transactions between family and friends that operates under the radar of standard business analysis. The early returns of his venture are promising enough to secure a new round of $25M investment, raising Rover’s total funding to over $50M.
Customization—PrideBites is pursuing the megatrend of personalization, the desire of consumers to design their own product. In this case, it’s placing your dog’s name or likeness on to toys and apparel made in China but the greater potential lies in customized dog food, pharmaceutical products and data systems.
Digitizing dogs—Whistle is one of a handful of new “smart” collars or wearable devices that monitor a dog’s activity with the capacity to connect data to health providers. “Our goal with Whistle,” said Jacobs, “is to give dogs a voice.” As the technology expands, expect more complex data monitoring and analysis.
What was missing? For all the talk of unconditional love and dogs making us better people, we didn’t hear talk of a deeper understanding of dog people and their needs. Nor was there acknowledgement of the wide diversity of the canine community. But that may have to wait for Dog Tech 2.0—for now, companies are targeting the low hanging fruit. Speaking of community, scant mention was made of efforts to contribute to our most pressing issues … animal rescue/adoption, humane causes or education. I hope that changes.
For now, it was refreshing to see a serious gathering of energetic, smart business people committed to dogs, or at least, the dog market. Some good things will take hold, others will fail, but in the end, there will be new services and products to make your life and your dogs’ a little better. One of the most insightful comments of the evening came from panelist Jon Lax, director of product design at Facebook … “the goal for any dog app or website should be to make us better caretakers. If we are spending more time with our apps than we are with our dogs … then something is amiss.”