Vetster’s founder tapped into his pioneering work on vacation rentals to bring telehealth to the world of veterinary medicine
Any pet parent knows well that furry (or scaled, or feathered!) loved ones don’t follow human 9 to 5 schedules. They get sick at all hours, find a way to dig a chocolate bar out of your purse in the middle of the night, and start acting weirdly just before your big presentation at work. This is why scheduling and attending traditional veterinarian appointments is often a pain, leading to hours spent waiting at late-night emergency clinics and unnecessary stress for all involved.
Mark Bordo, Co-founder and CEO of Toronto-headquartered startup Vetster, knows this struggle intimately—in fact, it’s what led him to the pet tech space. “I have a 17-year-old cockapoo and she requires a lot of veterinary care. One day, I wasn’t able to take her to her vet appointment because of work commitments,” he says. “I was disappointed that I couldn’t be there to understand her care plan or ask questions to understand the situation.”
Bordo’s frustration led to a novel idea: “I thought, well, why can’t I take my pet to the clinic through telemedicine?”
Through research, he discovered that, while the human telehealth market was increasingly competitive and saturated, no one appeared to be thinking about pet telehealth. In 2020, Bordo created Vetster with his Co-founder and CTO Regan Johnson just as veterinary clinics around the world were forced to shutter offices with the onset of COVID-19.
Vetster’s app allows pet owners to connect with licensed veterinarians from their phones.
A case of purr-fect timing
While there was likely always consumer demand for pet telehealth, the pandemic turbocharged it. Perhaps more important for Vetster’s business was the impact COVID-19 had on veterinarians and their clinics. Suddenly, if veterinarians wanted to continue serving clients, they had to shift to virtual care. This meant Vetster didn’t have to spend as much time, effort, and funding on recruiting care providers as they otherwise may have.
“When the pandemic started, we couldn’t release the platform fast enough,” says Bordo. “We saw pet adoption spiking, clinics closing, and people scrambling for technology to be able to connect. Those factors accelerated the rate at which we arrived at this point.”
In 2022, Vetster successfully raised $38.7 million CAD in its Series B round. The startup is now the world’s largest marketplace of veterinary professionals and with thousands of practitioners on its platform. Vetster offers 24/7 on-demand appointments via video chat, online prescriptions and refills, custom treatment plans, diagnostic testing, digital health records, and more for all types of pets from cats and dogs to turtles and horses.
Another way the pandemic helped Vetster grow quickly was the regulatory side of the business. Similar to human healthcare, veterinary care is overseen by regulatory agencies and licensing bodies. These sorts of bureaucracies can be notoriously slow-moving, but the unique circumstances of 2020 forced them to move quickly.
“Governments and national veterinary boards had to step in to allow for pet telemedicine as a viable way to treat animals,” says Bordo. “Emergency orders were filed, where they allowed telemedicine for prescribing and diagnosing, which really changed regulatory laws in the industry.”
Physician burnout impacts vets, too
As clinics were allowed to reopen, Vetster had to ensure it still appealed to veterinarians. Without them, there is no pet telehealth business.
“While I understood the consumer-demand side of Vetster instantly, I didn’t immediately recognize that the veterinary side of the business is a really tough industry,” says Bordo. “If you ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, they say they want to be a baseball player, or maybe a firefighter or veterinarian. Everyone thinks about it as a really great job.”
“While I understood the consumer-demand side of Vetster instantly, I didn’t immediately recognize that the veterinary side of the business is a really tough industry.”
But as Bordo and his business partner learned more about the industry, they realized just how many problems there are and that burnout is a major problem. “Veterinarians face long hours and high stress levels on the job, often struggling to balance work with family time or things like maternity leave.”
Telemedicine is a convenient answer to many of these issues. For the first time, veterinarians can choose where they want to work and have more flexibility over their shifts. Vetster also alleviates the physical stresses of in-clinic work, handles appointment scheduling, collects payment on behalf of practitioners, directly deposits their earnings, and can even encourage more regular bookings as clients can access care much more easily than going to a clinic.
In a clever move, Vetster also aims to reach more pet parents and encourage more frequent care by targeting employers as clients. Many businesses already offer workers and their families health benefits, so why not offer health benefits for employees’ fur babies, too? The idea is an appealing one for companies in competition for younger workers who often don’t value traditional health benefits as much as older workers do and who, as a demographic, are having children later in life.
From vacation rentals to veterinary care
Bordo didn’t start off in the pet business. Rather, his last venture, CanadaStays, was a vacation rental marketplace that sold to Expedia Group in 2019. While rental homes in cottage country and telehealth for pets may not seem related on the surface, Bordo credits his earlier experience with making Vetster a success.
Mark Bordo, Co-founder and CEO, Vetster
For starters, both businesses are fundamentally marketplaces that connect consumers with service providers. “We provide the platform to put consumers in charge—empowering them to choose a veterinarian based on location, budget, and specialty.”
Bordo also learned the importance of marketing from his years running CanadaStays: “When you’re operating a marketplace you need to understand how to scale both sides simultaneously to make sure you are meeting supply and demand.”
“Running a startup is not easy. Building a company is not easy. There are hurdles every single day.”
Finally, Bordo learned tenacity is a necessary trait for founders who dream big and create entirely new market segments. “I was the guy at trade shows in 2004 where people said to me, ‘Mark I will never stay in a stranger’s home nor will I ever let a stranger stay in my house.’ When you start there, you have to have very thick skin as an entrepreneur and belief in your mission,” he says.
Bordo’s bottom line: “Running a startup is not easy. Building a company is not easy. There are hurdles every single day.”
Funding is important, but the right partners are priceless
When it came to raising $38.7 million CAD in Vetster’s Series B round, there was a lot of interest to go around. “This is the way of the future for pet healthcare,” says Bordo. “Pet adoption rates continue to grow and there’s a massive gap between the number of veterinarians and the number of pets who need care. It’s a global problem.”
It was important to Bordo and his Co-founder that they find the right partners to scale. “Who we allow to participate in our company and who we believe in to help grow it is just as important as the capital,” he says. “We weren’t looking for the best deal as much as looking for the right fit in a lot of cases, as well as bringing in the right people and the right board.”
“Who we allow to participate in our company and who we believe in to help grow it is just as important as the capital.”
In many cases, this meant tapping into tried and tested pre-existing relationships. “When it comes to angels, some of the people that supported me two companies ago are still investing with me today,” Bordo says.
The belief that it matters who you work with also led Vetster to RBCx. “As another great capital partner, RBCx gives a lot of credibility to our business,” says Bordo. “We have a highly-intensive capital business and fundraising will always be a part of what we do. RBCx provides us the flexibility to access more capital, which gives us more time to fundraise should we need it or go and acquire an asset tomorrow.”
The future looks pawsitively bright
Bordo sees pet telehealth quickly becoming a normal part of many people’s lives. “Research shows that up to 75 million pets in North America may not receive veterinary care by 2030 if we don’t modernize our approach to providing virtual care. As we work to make high-quality veterinary care more accessible through telemedicine, what we’re witnessing now is a groundswell of momentum across North America recognizing the benefit of veterinary telemedicine, with regulations being revised on a go-forward basis.”
He predicts there’ll be even more movement in regulations related to virtual vet care over the next 12 months, which will result in a wave of new potential clients. “There’s four or five major states in the U.S. and an entire U.K. country coming online in the fall-winter period. When you add up that population, we’re talking about more than 150 million new people that will have access to pet telemedicine. With pet adoption rates well north of 70 per cent in some of these places, the opportunity becomes pretty huge.”
To learn more about Vetster, visit Vetster.com.
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