The Real Startup Dogs of Silicon Alley

Dog Vacay, the Airbnb for Dogs, Launches In New York City

That 1-800-RENTAPUPPY you always wanted! Sort of.
final aaron and karine headshot Dog Vacay, the Airbnb for Dogs, Launches In New York City

The Hirschhorns

Accumulate enough animal-loving friends and you’re likely to find yourself on the receiving end of emails like: Anyone want to stay in a sunny 2-bedroom apartment next weekend FOR FREE . . . and watch Buster while we’re out of town? We promise he doesn’t bite! Or, even the occasional: Okay, so maybe he does bite, but we’ll leave a six pack in the fridge.

The idea behind Dog Vacay, a new service opening shop in New York today, is to offer pet-owners a third option besides pricey kennels and begging/bribing friends.

Like Airbnb, Dog Vacay lets users search a marketplace of homes by location–only in this case, it’s for their fur-covered friends. The company vets potential hosts and lets customers leave reviews. It also offers insurance and veterinary care (through a partnership with VCA Animal Hospitals). Hosts are permitted to set their own price and schedule. Including insurance, range is about $15 to $100 per night, depending on the location.

“Kennels are crowded, overpriced, your dogs are in a cage all day,” said CEO Aaron Hirschhorn told Betabeat when and his wife, cofounder Karine Nissim Hirschhorn stopped by our office last week. “You can ask a friend or a family member to pet sit, but you’re always calling in favors.”

The startup, which has $1 million in seed funding from First Round Capital, Quest Venture Partners, and Baroda Ventures, launched in Los Angeles and San Francisco in early March, but this is its foray East. In fact, Dog Vacay is the second startup from Science, a Los Angeles-based incubator run by former MySpace CEO Mike Jones and Color cofounder Peter Pham, to try to break into the New York market in as many weeks. Eventup, another play on Airbnb, but for the events spaces, launched last Tuesday.

Thus far, Science hasn’t shied away from picking startups that offer a different twist on a proven concepts. For example, Dollar Shave Club, a subscription-based service for razors, reminded us a lot of Birchbox.

The Hirschhorns, who own two dogs named Rocky and Rambo, started out of their home in California. Mr. Hirschhorn has a background in venture capital as a principal at Monitor Ventures; Ms. Hirschhorn was a screenwriter and filmmaker. After the concept took off, she said, “I quit my job, I wrote from home, and took care of dogs all day. Aaron helped me walk them and it was pretty remarkable the way we grew without advertising.”

Understanding other pet-owners helped them build the site. “We’re neurotic about our pets, obviously,” said Ms. Hirschhorn, which prompted them to offer meet-and-greets with potential hosts. She compared it to a dating site. “You have hundreds of options to choose from, so knowing your dog as well as you do,” she said, owners are able to assess whether a dog that’s socially anxious would work in a home with, say, another pet.

As of last week, Dog Vacay had about 400 hosts signed up in New York and another 1,500 waiting for approval. Thus far, about 30 percent of the hosts are professional dog-walkers or pet-sitters. “The stay-at-home moms, retirees, artists, writers, anyone who has a home-based business that can afford to take care of a pet,” make up another large chunk, said Ms. Hirschhorn, adding, “We also see a lot of professionals, especially in New York, who want a pet, but maybe can’t commit to it fulltime and might take in a dog during the weekend.” Betabeat would be lying if we said we’d never googled 1-800-RENTAPUPPY.

The main difference between New York and L.A. seems to be the lack of yard space and ranches, said Ms. Hirschhorn, although she noted a recent booking in Brooklyn where a customer found the host in the building next door. “It was ideal because it was right next to Prospect Park. They had maybe a one-bedroom apartment, but they were getting three long walks a day, which was more than the owner could ever do with their schedule.”

As for monetizing this peer-to-peer marketplace, Dog Vacay takes a 5 to 10 percent cut from the host, but that fee goes down if you do more business on the site and incur more positive reviews. (Airbnb charges guests a 6 to 12 percent fee for booking reservations and charges hosts a 3 percent fee for every booking completed.)

Although the Hirschhorns have personally hosted over 100 dogs at their home, they’re less active in that department these days. “On my profile,” Mr. Hirschhorn noted, “It says, ‘We’re very busy trying to grow this thing, but occasionally we do take another dog or two.”

Follow Nitasha Tiku on Twitter or via RSS. ntiku@observer.com