Interesting Journeys Into Petpreneurship: Chloe Smith

In this episode of Interesting Journeys into Petpreneurship, we talk to Chloe Smith, the founder of Tuft, and learn about her interesting journey into the pet industry.

Interesting Journeys Into Petpreneurship: Chloe Smith
Chloe Smith, founder of Tuft (Software For Salon Pet Management)

Welcome to another episode of Interesting Journeys Into Petpreneurship, this is the second episode in our new series where we talk to entrepreneurs operating within the pet industry to learn more about their stories, and the journey they took to becoming a petpreneur. I personally find these stories fascinating, as an entrepreneur I have always found my peers and their startups deeply interesting, but as a newcomer to the pet industry I am especially curious about them.

This week I have been speaking to Chloe Smith, the founder of Tuft, about her interesting journey into petpreneurship. Amusingly, it began with her father annoying her one afternoon. If you are an aspiring petpreneur definitely take the time to have a read through our conversation, Chloe is a true entrepreneur where it counts, she has the grit, the smarts, the focus, and instincts required to win in startup land, and right now winning with her startup is exactly what she is doing.

Guy: Tell me about you Chloe, did you have a background in the pet industry?

Chloe: No, not at all. I studied business and psychology when I was in college, but I slowly lost interest in that and started to focus more on the creative side of things, and started a course in graphic design. Through that began my love of brands and customer journeys. Although back then, I don't think it was recognized as a customer journey, this was 16 years ago. So when I got to university, really started looking into the customer journey side of things.

Guy: Is that because you wanted to start something for yourself?

Chloe: No, not at this point. I was simply sort of doing my course, trying to understand what a graphic designer does in the world and trying to understand where my place was. I just knew I had a very, very keen interest in branding.I love the way people think and they work and they buy and the way that brands can influence them. I knew that I wanted to do that kind of thing.

But where it really started was when I left creative school, typically you are expected to do two years of unpaid work as an intern to get some experience. Although my parents supported me through my studies, they didn't like the idea of working for free at all and bluntly told me to get a job.

I struggled to find work as a graphic designer with zero experience, so I had to build my own little agency in order to find the work I needed to stay afloat. It started to become successful, we steadily got more and more inquiries, and that's the story of how I founded Forty8Creates, my little London based branding agency that grew into a real creative business.

Seven years later I had extensive experience in developing customer journeys for different brands, and I loved it. I loved helping companies work out their brand messaging, and I worked on projects like that for years. But then I realized that, while I loved the work, I don't want to be graphic design for the rest of my life, I wanted to start my own business and brand it. I wanted a scalable business, and eventually passive income. Well, that's the dream.

So I started to look at how did we go about achieving that, and my branding agency wasn't the answer, even though I loved it. I knew that I wanted to do something else, but I didn't know what, it was something constantly on my mind.

Guy: So how did you settle on dog grooming and Tuft?

Chloe: Its quite a funny story actually, my dad was annoying me one weekend and complaining that he couldnt get our dogs groomed, and I just rolled my eyes like a typical daughter. I was like, dad, you're just being old, of course you can find a groomer, give me the phone. It was only when I started to try and book him in at the dog groomers that I discovered the problem. It wasn't just him being old, it wasn't a dad problem, it was actually a problem that needed to be solved.

This was back in 2017.

Guy: So what was the problem? Calling around different pet groomers?

Chloe: Yes! It quickly turned into a nightmare. You're trying to find some fixed hours that convenient for you, but you call one and that time isnt available, you call another and they only have availability three weeks ahead. You end up having to call around five or six dog groomers to find a convenient time and a groomer that was close enough, it was frustrating.

Guy: Why was it so difficult to book a dog grooming session?

Chloe: Think about the people who run these grooming salons. They're small business owners and they go into it because they love pets, they don't necessarily go into it because they love business. They love pets, they've got a skill, and they're putting it to work for them, which is great. But many of them are operating on their own, the thing they're not great at is business growth, expansion, managing the business, and thinking they can be more than one person.

To do that, you need to put a degree of automation in your business to make sure you're scalable. So having used software all of my life, and having used various apps to schedule my own appointments, I thought was ludicrous that it hadn't been done for dog grooming.

Guy: You saw a better way.

Chloe: Correct. It was just a problem that needed solving. That was back in 2017. I had the idea and left it for a couple of years, but then I came back to it when the agency was at a point where they really didn't need me anymore. And then suddenly COVID hit!

Chloe: So we started building in 2020 and launched towards the end of 2021.

Guy: So you built this MVP and launched just as lockdown was ending, how did that go?

Chloe: So, I'm very well versed in launching brands and launching companies through marketing campaigns through my agency background, and before we even built the thing we had already gotten pre-signups through our pre-launch marketing, we had built a bit off an audience before we launched, and so we had 150 groomers to start with when we launched. It was a great start.

The reason we did that is because they're all from different business models of grooming, so you've got some that are mobile, some not mobile. Some of them are at home, some have a van, some have a salon, and many do all of those at once. They all have different requirements for their system too, so those early post-launch days were a steep learning curve, to say the least, about what features and functionality we should be building into our roadmap.

Guy: Sounds like you were well prepared, guaged interest before you launched, built up an audience to launch with, and then listened hard post launch.

Thats solid textbook startup strategy!

Chloe: Exactly, so I'm hesitant to say I'm lucky because I put a lot of hard work in, the team around me has put an incredible amount of hard work in, it was a mammoth slog. There are now eight of us in the UK and another six developers working on the Tuft pet salon management app that we first started building in those early days. It's not just me, it's been an incredible push from a hardworking team to make sure the launch was successful, and to make sure that we continued to get things right with our roadmap and the features our customers wanted.

Guy: Thats a great startup story, and you've been around three or four years now, you've signed up thousands and thousands and thousands of groomers since then!

Chloe: We have done pretty well, yes. There's some secret sauce in the marketing, but it's not magic, it's just a customer journey, and we figured it out. That's pretty much the basics of marketing, figure out your customer journey and make it better.

There were also a lot of early indications that we were on the right track for the product, it was clear to us that there was a need for this. It was also clear to us that we might have been a little bit too early for the marketplace, but we're not seeing that as an issue anymore. Grooms are getting used to the idea of, you know, they were on pen and paper, but now they have automated online scheduling, and now they're letting clients take control and manage their own bookings.

That's what makes Tuft unique, it's got a matrix of different preferences. As a dog owner you're booking in with a groomer and seeing one price, but behind the scenes, that's doing all sorts of calculations as to size, type, temperament, and things like that. But from the outside, it looks like a very simple product, and we've done that on purpose.  We don't want a huge learning curve on our customers, so we made it as simple as possible and probably gave ourselves a bit more complexity on the back end because obviously, we had to make everything variable or user-defined, but that gives you lots and lots of different variables, especially when you're digging into bugs that individuals have.

What we've learned that over the years and the last two and a half years have been a fantastic roller coaster of a ride, i'm not a first-time founder, but it feels like I am. I've learned so much. And one of the things that I've been very privileged to go on the journey of fundraising and investment. So through that, I have really developed myself as an entrepreneur, and because I got a whole ton of rejection and because it's so hard to raise investment, I think it's made me a much better business leader, and a better business owner.

Guy: That’s a great origin story Chloe! Before we finish talking about the Tuft app, tell us a little bit more about the business, you guys have been getting serious traction over the last twelve months particularly or so right?

Chloe: Yes! We just passed a major milestone of 60,000 appointments. Remember that it took us nine months to get to our first 10K appointments, then it took us six months to get 20k appointments, three months to get to 30k, two months, and it just keeps snowballing. We've gone from about 40 bookings a day to about 250 a day. So, yes, wonderful traction.

Guy: Thats fantastic, and the traction has helped you raise investment?

Chloe: Yes! The more traction you have, the easier it gets to raise investment, we have raised approximately 800k GBP so far, just over one million dollars.

Guy: Well done! In this climate, that's a nice raise. Great work there from the whole team.Lets move onto the subject of petpreneurship in general, you are definitely what anyone would consider to be a successful petpreneur.

So tell us, what does it take?

Chloe: I think patience. The pet industry is not the fastest to adapt to change.

It's kind of – it's a huge market for customers, so pet owners. But for the people – if you're doing B2B like we're doing, the people that are running the show and supplying the products and the services, they tend to be on the laggard side of the technology curve. Maybe late – early to late adopters, some of them, but most of them will be laggards. And a lot of it is about trust.

So, you know, we've been in the market for two and a half years, and we are only just seeing our name come up mentioned in, you know, social media as an option. So its a lot of relationship building, it's about that brand recall, and you've got to have a lot of patience. And, yeah, you have to drink a lot of gin, I think.

Guy: What's it like working in the pet industry compared to other jobs you had?

Chloe: Well, I've never technically had a job, which is fantastic. So like I was saying, it's a huge market in terms of pet owners, right? So you've got 12.2 million dog owners in the UK, and 40-odd million worldwide. So the end user is huge.

But the people that sort of sit at the top, like I was saying, are a small industry.

So I think, again, a lot of it goes on trust. I know quite a few of the people in the top rungs now, which is fantastic. But that's only been through networking, I didn't naturally have those connections. I think one of the nice things about the pet industry is that everyone's willing to help each other, and I think it's because we're ultimately all doing it for the animals.

We all just want the dogs and the cats and, you know, our pets to have a better experience, so we kind of put our egos aside and go, okay, well, are you making pet's lives better? So I'll help you as well, and that's nice. That's a really nice thing.

Of course, there's competition, there'll always be competition, but the competition is good. Competition means that you've got a market if you didn't have a market, you should be worried. If you didn't have competition, you should be worried.

Guy: I forgot to ask you about tough competition. I didn't know if there was any.

Chloe: In the UK, there is maybe one brand that's doing something similar. But on a wider scale you see your competitors as other booking platforms that aren't necessarily in the pet grooming space yet, because they could be with a pivot.

Guy: Do you see them as a threat?

Chloe: They're not a threat. I think because of the nuances of the grooming world, I think they're more likely to buy us than be a threat to us. I think because we've done all the research, we've got all the customer trouble, all the customer loyalty, we've got 32,000 pets on our system too. So rather than them competing with that, I think it would be easier for them to just buy us, right?

Guy: Yes, that line of thinking makes sense to me too. 

So a lot of – in my – this is purely my opinion. But I think it's a business model that works over and over again is what you should focus on. We cpuñld quite easily expand from dog grooming to dog walking board, training, psychotherapy, and vet visits. You can literally do everything, and some platforms have chosen to do that. If they've got deep enough pockets to be able to do that, then great, but I haven't so we're focusing on groomers and the ecosystem around them.

And from that itself, it's a very, very good business.

Guy: A solid foundation to expand from too.

Chloe: Correct. And, you know, the goal is for us to be bought out eventually as it is with most startups, we have investors who want to see a solid return, so we do have that in mind. But we're talking sort of, you know, in five, or six years time.

Guy: Lots of value to build before you sell.

Chloe: Correct.But once you own that pet profile – because if you think about what Tuft is, it's collecting grooming information right now. But if we added nutrition and diet to their profiles, you've got 32,000 pet owners willing to tell you what they feed their dog. And then, you know, all of a sudden, you know, you get advertising partners and pet food companies that want to work with you because you hold the data. The same goes for pet insurance, you put a renewal date in there and suddenly you're your insurance partner's best friend, right?

Guy: Yeah :)

Chloe: But, you know, right now we are fully focused on grooming, I guess, what do you call it?

Guy: Journey?

Chloe: But it's more than a journey. It's like a frickin' battle. We're more than happy to stay in our lane and, you know, develop the tools. There are so many tools that you can develop around grooming as well. And, you know, we're going with we're looking into things like e-commerce and AI and things like that. So it's a huge market in and of itself. We are also expanding internationally, we've already launched in Spain, we're looking at launches in sort of Germany, France, Italy, the Nordics, USA, Australia, so it already feels like a constant battle on many fronts.

Guy: That is incredibly insightful, feels like you are telling me insider info on your ambitions I love it! Lets talk about the wider space a little, where do you see the pet industry heading over the next five to ten years?

Chloe:  It's got a lot of digitization to go, for sure. The uptake of veterinary AI kind of – it's going to be huge. The tracking and diagnostics of pet health is going to be huge.I think there's a lot of diagnostic veterinary and healthcare side of things to come, because veterinary is actually the number one spend on a client's pet owner's list, grooming is second. So I think there's a lot to be done for tools that enhance the end user's experience, and also maybe access to services.

Guy:  I'm hearing you see more digitization, personalization, and sophistication in the way the pet industry delivers services to customers and their pets.

Chloe: Yeah. And it will take the same technology kind of curve that most technology kind of enabled industries do. You get loads of companies start up, they jump on the trend. Then you get the big boys come in and they'll consolidate everyone, and they'll make a super app, essentially. Which will just be like the sort of Asian – well, Asia's answer to Go. I think it's called Go. Where they just have absolutely everything on one app. So I think that's where the market's heading towards. You as a pet owner will be able to go onto an app and you'll be able to get your services, products, descriptions, and accessories.

Guy: I like the convenience of that reality.

Chloe: And it will happen. It will happen. I'm not just hoping, I am working towards it. Everyone should have easy access to pet care.

Guy: Good answer! My next couple of questions are about trends, what sort of trends are you seeing in the industry? What trends do you see emerging in dog ownership?

Chloe: So I think there's a skew towards carbon-friendly, carbon-neutral, net zero products. People are trying to look at the carbon footprint of their pet and the impact on the planet. So whether it be food bags or whether it be food or toys, or accessories, people are more looking – especially like the younger generation, right? They're looking at their impact. Given the fact that they're choosing pets over children, so generally, you know, before it would be get married or have a partner, have a kid, have a dog, now it's the other way around.

Kind of, you know, be single, get a dog, get a partner, have a child if you wish. So I think there's a definite sort of skew towards pet ownership and pet parent ownership. But the humanization of pets is massive right now. You know, you've got owners that treat their pets like they're babies. So this humanization of pets means that they're looking – when you go to a salon yourself, you're not looking for some grubby kind of person in the back of a pet shop that smells of dog hair. You're kind of looking for an experience, and that's where the grooming industry is certainly going to go. The owners are looking for this experience where they go in, smell great, have great customer service, the dog comes out, super happy, buy their products in the store, and all of that. So it's all about that kind of humanization.

Expecting the same service, the same access, like you're doing with restaurants, the same access for their pets. And that is a trend that is going to continue, and we will see more and more things like that in pet travel and hospitality.

Guy: Yep, I am definitely seeing thst trend. Moving on to my final question, what advice do you have for aspiring pet people who want to follow in your footsteps?

Chloe:  Just, you know, stay focused. There's so much you can be doing, the world of pet is huge.It's not going to run out any time soon. There are enough pets for two, three, or four major companies to come onto the scene and do big things. 

Guy: So, you're saying to aspiring petpreneurs, don't worry if you see lots of people doing something, there is plenty of room for someone new to start something new?

Chloe: Correct. Just, like, get stuck in, get learning, be willing to fail, all of that stuff that you say to a classic entrepreneur. Pivot if needs be. You know, I've made so many bloody mistakes.

Guy: You and me both when it comes to our startups I think Chloe, best way to learn. Is there anything you wanted to tell us about you don't think we've touched on?

Chloe: I think one of the things that people need to be aware of is that LinkedIn's great, but it doesn't cover the whole story. So there are a lot of times when I've struggled as a business owner because I keep comparing myself to people on LinkedIn. You go on there every five minutes and someone's raised a billion pounds, won some sort of award, or landed a massive deal right? 

So just be careful of comparison because I think it's really bad for you. You could sit there for hours scrolling. And I used to have, I used to sit there in the morning and get really sort of upset. Why am I not doing better? What am I doing wrong? And it set me up for a bad day.  And what's the point of that, right?

Guy: I completely agree with you. This is also a great place to wrap up the interview, Chloe thank you so much for coming on to speak with me. It has been fantastic learning about your story and startup journey, I think there is a lot in this talk for aspiring petpreneurs to think about.

Chloe: You are welcome, thank you for having me on!

Editors Note: This brings us to the end of the interview, thank you so much for reading. Do please give Chloe a follow on Linkedin, TikTok and Facebook, and be sure to check out the Tuft App, available in all good app stores.

Read On: This is Part Two of our Interesting Journeys Into Peptpreneurship series, click here to see the first article in this series featuring an interview with Niki French, the founder of Pup Talk, and Author of Stop Walking Your Dog.