Matt Meeker admits he finds it stressful to take his Great Dane Hugo to the veterinarian. Large in size, Hugo has a way of intimidating others.
Meeker's entrepreneurial nature was sparked by this problem, and he started looking for solutions for a more relaxed experience. And that's when he turned to his inspiration: his dog, Hugo. How would Hugo want his healthcare delivered? The answer came immediately. He'd want it to happen at home, on his own couch. So Meeker set out to make this idea happen. And the result is BarkCare, a house call veterinary service that offers wellness exams and care in the pet's home.
"It's designed to be an hour visitation, and we've built out some very sophisticated back-end scheduling software that helps the vets manage their routes more effectively," Meeker says. "We have enough volume and enough technical sophistication that we minimize that time traveling around the city and give them the perfect schedule. And they get to spend an hour with each pet and really get to know that patient quite well."
A passion for helping people—and pets
It's been almost four years since Matt and his wife Tiffany adopted Hugo. Matt grew up with a Great Dane, so when he and his wife decided to start building their family with a dog, he pushed for a Great Dane.
Meeker's first Great Dane, named Smoky, had a very short life. So Meeker is passionate about making Hugo's healthcare a priority.
"I just wanted to make him very happy, like any parent does for his child. I just wanted to make him as healthy and happy as possible," he says. And out of that love sprung BarkBox, a subscription-based company that delivers toys, gifts and gadgets for pets every month.
Meeker says another light went on when he hired a veterinarian to the staff at Bark & Co. to make sure that the products, especially the edibles, were healthy for the dogs and that they were veterinarian-approved. The veterinarian then began offering care for Hugo right at Meeker's home.
"And I thought, this is really nice that someone comes up, rings the doorbell and spends an hour with Hugo and gets to know him. He's comfortable. We're all just in our natural environment," Meeker says. "So the light bulb went on. If I love this, I wonder if other people will love this. It turns out that they do."
Besides his role as a beloved family member, Hugo also serves as an inspiration. Meeker keeps a regular schedule to make sure he enjoys plenty of time with his canine companion. And Hugo has his own schedule too. Twice a week he goes on day trips to upstate New York with four of his dog friends. On other days of the week, he has dog walkers.
"So he has a very fixed schedule and he knows it quite well," Meeker says. "And then I do too. I try to come to work at the same time and go home at the same time. It's important to have a lot of interaction and experience with him. Because it just fuels more ideas and passion for what we're doing here."
Hugo occasionally visits the Bark & Co. office, and when he does it can be a challenge. First off, he's not welcome on the subway, so Meeker has the New York City transportation problem. Hugo's also very protective of his space, Meeker says, so when he's at the office and they have visitors who come off the elevator, Hugo is the first to greet them in a very loud manner.
"So we can have that occasionally, but we can't have that every day," Meeker says. "But his birthday's coming up in a couple of weeks, so I think he'll come in for his birthday. The tradition has been that he gets a steak that's equal in pounds to the number of years he is. So this year that would be a 4-pound steak. But that might be a little much. My wife has told me that she's put together a bunch of goodie bags for him and his friends to celebrate on their day trip."
The bark business
Meeker says the plan for BarkCare's future changes all the time, based on customers' feedback and enthusiasm. BarkCare asks all of its customers to rate its service on a one- to five-star scale, based on their experience. And with more than 500 visits so far, the company has perfect five-star scores across the board. Based on this volume and satisfaction, the team is ramping up plans quickly.
"The initial plan was, let's launch in New York City and see how that goes. And then maybe we would be in two or three cities by the end of the year," Meeker says. "That has changed based on the response in New York, where all of our veterinarians are busy all the time."
This year, BarkCare plans to be in at least 10 cities worldwide, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and London. And Meeker says that the company will continue to grow from there based on need.
"Wherever we can bring really great healthcare to dogs and convenience and a great experience to people, we will go there," he says. "So right now we're following the demand of our BarkBox customer base. But I think as our care starts to get out there and is better known across the country, we'll start hearing from outliers who are perfectly suited to that product or are really in need of it. And we'll follow where people ask us to go."
So far, Meeker says he's seen many different types of veterinarians interested in working for BarkCare. One consistent thing he's noticed is that many applicants are still wrestling with a good amount of student debt even five or more years out of school. "It was pretty surprising viewing resumes of vets who have a full-time clinic job during the day, and then they have three or four other jobs throughout the week to supplement their income," he says.
Meeker says he's also seen interest from veterinarians who want to own their own practice or clinic, but the finances or life-balance and scheduling issues put traditional practices outside of their reach.
"This job can be supplemental income," Meeker says. "It can be a way that they build out a full practice without taking on huge up-front expense and ebb and flow around their schedule. And then we do a lot of the heavy lifting in the back of finding customers for you. We create a lot of back-end products and management systems for the veterinarian, like pet records and scheduling systems. And they basically get the opportunity to just show up five, six, seven times a day, meet a dog, spend an hour practicing medicine and get paid pretty well for it."
So far the reception has been good, Meeker says. "It's one of those things where you get to bridge something that customers really want with hopefully something that's serving vets pretty well too," he says.
He adds that he's always open to feedback and hopes veterinarians will share their thoughts with him through the website. He plans to continue to steer the future of Bark & Co. based on the responses from pet owners and veterinarians.
And don't expect Meeker to bow out of the pet scene anytime soon. Bark & Co. has plenty more ideas to expand on its success.
"Within the company we have 10 more ideas at least. And we will just keep producing those," Meeker says. "I can't imagine working on anything else. My dog is—he has a lot of needs. He's a needy guy. Demanding too. So we have plenty left to do."