Doggie Bytes

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In this city of computer designers and chipmakers, it was only a matter of time before technology went to the dogs. And cats.

At least that’s the idea behind an Austin-based website that’s turning heads among pet owners and veterinarians everywhere and even has a major player in the pet products industry taking notice.

PetsMD.com is the brainchild of partners Tina Cannon and Christi Scovel. A longtime veterinary technician, Scovel was used to getting frequent calls from friends and acquaintances asking her for advice on their ailing pooches. The couple reasoned that with so many people looking for advice on their four-legged friends, a website with information on topics from heartworms to heatstroke might prove popular. PetsMD.com was launched in September 2008 with a relatively simple interface and a lot of content.

“From the start, we really believed in the concept,” said Cannon. “We saw the potential as huge and we had so many ideas.”

Together for 10 years and raising two kids, Scovel and Cannon knew how they complemented each other in a relationship. But now they were proving to be good business partners as well–Cannon, the former senior auditor and business consultant with her business know-how, and Scovel with her knowledge of animal care. That’s not to say it’s all been a walk in the park. “When you’re trying to build and nurture a relationship together, and then you say, ‘let’s start a business,’ it does add a new level of stress, but you learn how to maintain a balance,” said Scovel. Cannon agreed. “Sure, there is that stress, but at the same time, the highs you experience are really high, because you’re sharing them with someone you share your life with.”

PetsMD is taking advantage of a resilient sector of the nation’s economy. Americans spend $6 billion annually on pet services, from veterinary care to chew toys and everything in between. The industry experienced a 3 percent increase in sales last year, just as other sectors saw a dramatic decline due to the recession. “Even in an economic crunch, people are not going to shortchange Fido,” said Cannon.

But while the site was gaining traction with readers, Scovel and Cannon were struggling to figure out how to monetize it. They knew they needed help with direction, and they found it through Austin Capital Factory, a 10-week business acceleration program that aids tech startups with funding and, more importantly, mentorship.

“We were a small company that had just started out and we thought we had a really good idea that we were going with,” said Scovel. “Capital Factory came along at just that point where any entrepreneur needs to understand what they’re really doing in the business world.”

Up until last summer, when Scovel and Cannon completed the incubator-like program, PetsMD was a concept that had legs in the veterinary world but didn’t have a clear business model. Cannon said the group’s mentors, particularly Blue Fish Development Group Ceo Michael Trafton , forced them to hone in on a few ideas instead of looking at the magnitude of everything they wanted to accomplish.

Trafton  said he was immediately intrigued by PetsMD when he first heard about the venture. Knowing that the pet industry is typically counter cyclical–or experiences a surge when the rest of the economy is in the tank–he was naturally interested in an Austin company seeking to capitalize on consumers’ dollars during the recession.

“As I learned more about PetsMD, I liked the fact that there was not already an authoritative site on the Internet providing pet health information and advice,” he said. “As a pet owner myself, I knew that a segment of the market would be very interested in a site like that.” so Trafton  helped Scovel and Cannon focus. “When I saw that they had filled their office whiteboard with scores of new business ideas, I made them pick the top three and erase the rest,” he said. From accompanying the duo on market research interviews to helping them distill their findings into the development of a few core features, Trafton helped get PetsMD on the right path.

“You can really chase bright shiny objects in the entrepreneurial world, and he (Trafton) kept us focused,” Cannon said.

After Capital Factory, PetsMD was redesigned with a dynamic new look and feel. More importantly a revenue model was developed, which continues to evolve. This summer the company launched its Book-a-vet application, which allows the clients of veterinarians who subscribe to PetsMD’s nationwide referral network to book their appointments online. The company also successfully partnered with the retail giant Petsmart in a content sharing relationship that allows PetsMD’s articles to be branded on Petsmart’s site– dramatically increasing exposure.

“We’ve made great strides in the last few months,” Cannon said.

Another big outcome of the Capital Factory program was PetsMD’s hiring of a search engine optimization expert, who’s helped bring content to the masses. Today the site attracts roughly 100,000 visitors a month, with a 15 to 20 percent organic increase in traffic each month.

To be sure, PetsMD has benefited from the infrastructure ingrained in its hub city. “Austin is such a tech-savvy capital and that’s the piece we were missing,” Cannon said. “If finding tech talent was our hole, we were in the right place. If we were in Detroit, I would have been worried. But this is a startup friendly place; the mentorship and the talent pool are significant.”

Scovel added that, as an animal health services professional here for many years, she was able to test her ideas in an environment she knew well. “Austin is a city where there are a lot of ideas constantly flying; not everything sticks, but this city allows you to fail and learn–quickly.”

With the Book-a-vet platform launched, Cannon said the company will continue to work on what they’ve termed the “Wall of 50”, dozens of ideas that they hope to tackle over time as they build the business. “We aren’t nearly done,” she said.

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