You’ve found your niche and your product for your startup. How do you now go about creating an entirely new marketplace. How do you create demand for your product? We spoke with Rukmini Vaish from pet travel startup CollarFolk about just that.

Transcript Of the interview

Let's start off with what I think is the elephant in the room. What is the pet travel space and what is CollarFolk doing in this space?

Rukmini: Ok, so pet travel would really mean that today in India, people are largely restricted to their homes when they want to spend time with their pets. The idea behind CollarFolk really is that we want people to step out with their pets.

Now, an obvious gap in the market we've identified is holidays. When people want to go on a holiday, the entire family wants to go and if you speak to people who have pets, they are left with very little choice. If you have domestic help, you can leave the pet, or even the boarding or kenneling facilities are nascent and obviously they are not the ideal choice, because you would want your pet to come along with you.

That is the gap we are intending to build in as of now. That's how CollarFolk came about, to solve for pet-friendly holidays. That's the first thing that we're doing.

Also, when we started with that, we had a lot of customers that perhaps don't have the ideal car to take a long journey with their pet or they don't have a car at all, or their dog is too big for the car. Which is when travel really came into the equation.

We actually went ahead and spoke to some service providers and figured out if we could provide pet-friendly taxis, we failed miserably and then we said okay, let's put our neck on the line here and we went ahead and bought our first car. That's how the pet-taxi service began.

We then realized that not only do people want to take holidays with their pets and take our car for that, but they also wanted then to travel within the city. Because if you look at an ideal car, if people have a sedan or a smaller car, it's difficult for an average pet to go in comfortably and we had this modified car with a lot of space and people then wanted to use it within the city as well. For a family picknick etc.

It really started more out of a personal journey and a personal challenge that we started, being pet parents in India and as we evolve -- I've been working on this now for a year --- we're looking to essentially solve for the ability of pet families to step out with their pets beyond the home.

On the first sight, you would say this is a petty niche market and this market can not possibly be that big. But I've seen some of the numbers that have been floating around your start-up. I saw US$119 million for this market, is that correct?

Rukmini: There are about 4 million pet families in urban India. If you take into account a market of a family wanting to take one holiday a year with their pet and we're looking at a very basic transaction value. You have a market ranging anywhere from 500 and 615 krore and this is not the GMB, this is actually what an aggregator or a curated like us could stand to make.

Right, and this market is still growing?

This is growing. India is the fastest growing pet market in the world. Even in terms of people getting pets. The numbers that are floating around are 600,000 pet dogs are added to families every year. So yes, the opportunity is huge. It is a new market at the moment.

By way of our experience in the last three months, it is just such a compelling and latent need. The moment you talk about it, people jump at the opportunity.

How is CollarFolk in this market. Are you guys cashflow positive?

Not yet, we only launched on the 15th of February and we're still focusing a lot of our energies on developing the product, because initially the idea was to get a basic minimum viable product ready. Put it out there in the market and see how people interact and react to it and evolve from there. Since we are in such an initial phase, we are still pouring in money in product, manpower and marketing. So, no, we're not cashflow positive yet.

What's going to happen in the next couple of months? What's next for CollarFolk?

What's next is we've identified the top 5 cities where we want to focus, where we've seen very good traction from consumers and a lot of demand. The idea from an inventory point of view is we're adding inventory which are at a driving distance from these cities so that's one. The other thing is, we've realized that we don't want to be just someone who drives to pet-friendly hotels and resorts which is what you see on the website right now.

It's important, just telling someone that you'll drive across the country or their properties are pet-friendly doesn't help because people still want to call you and want to ask how they travel and whether this driving distance is actually okay for the pet. When we go there, what are the do's and don'ts? What can we do at that destination?

The idea is from suggesting these places, we want to curate the entire experience, which is why one step in the process, the first phase is our focus on the travel part that we will integrate, the second phase that we're working on is the experience part.

In fact, at the moment, we're tying up with a lot of adventure companies as well as other service providers who can help arranging safe co-experiences with pets. For example, we've approached Aquatel and they're known to be the best and safest adventure company in the country and our request is 'what are your pet-friendly trips that we could perhaps offer?'

The movement is trying to make connections and develop partnerships with the right stakeholders and increasing the pool of options for pet-families beyond just hotels.

Reading between the lines, pet-travel first, but pet-experience is the next frontier for you guys

Yes, how we break it up internally is between three broad pillars at the moment. There's travel, there's the actual stay and there's the experience at the destination.

Rukmini, you're trying to define a market from scratch. I don't see any competitors in the market presently who are exactly doing what you are trying to do. What kind of challenges are you facing in the market you are planning to raise investment in? Obviously you have a minimum viable product already running. How will you talk about the challenges that you face and how will you overcome them?

Facing challenges, we'll do that across two fronts. The first one being that, given that we're trying to create a market, the stakeholders could be both customers and partners. A need to educate them and to get them to adopt the idea, that is what is taking us time to figure out and I think that the biggest way we try to overcome is by not being inflexible.

You would want that everything happens on your product and the transactions happen there as well, but we've actually been very fluent in our approach and with people's requests. We've documented each of the requests rigorously so that the next level of product-development and product-offering is such that we'll address the issues and concerns and questions that people will have.

You have documented case studies from different consumers on your website. Do you think that now the requests you are getting are within those case studies or are you still building further case studies to capture a larger audience?

See, Pritish, when it comes to travel and stay, we're 60 percent there. At the moment, we're working on our product so that our product can go forward and handle all these requests. Currently, we manage these requests with a combination of the product as well as manual intervention until the product is up and running.

As far as the experiences is concerned, we're still in the exploratory stage. We had a few interactions with customers, we are now developing a database. The idea is also that there is going to be rigorous research. We are actually going to have focus group discussions with people who have travelled with us, people who haven't and we're going to gather them in a place, speak to them and figure out how best to tweak this particular offering. And then we'll take it from there. So that one, I say, we're only 20 percent there. For the other two, definitely around 50-60 percent.

Coming to the other part of the spectrum. Now that you are building this space and there are OTAs (Online Travel Agents) who already have the inventory of hotels and resorts, who could be pet-friendly while the OTA offers the service. I am assuming some OTAs are also trying to get there. How do you see actually competing or working alongside these competitors that will come up in the next few months or a years time.

See, we realized very early that OTAs are going to pose a threat. For them, if they just add a particular cab which says pet-friendly and they list properties, half the job is done. Therefore we moved away very early from just inter-city trips to a curated experience.

Who do you think would be the next hire? What kind of individual would you look at and what kind of abilities or background would you consider for that position?

At the moment, I am the only full-time co-founder. We have two other people in an advisory role and we would like them to come onboard. We have a roadmap of six to eight months. One of them brings a very solid industry understanding and experience in a key growth role in a start-up that is doing very well now. One in that space, and the other person comes with a very strong financial and operations background to cover that front. So these are the two people we're looking to bring onboard as co-founders.

Apart from that, I think we'll definitely need in the next six to eight months a strong product team.

 Would you need offshoots in other cities to expand?

Absolutely. In fact, we're exploring with someone in Bangalore, someone who loves to travel, someone who is a pet-parent and she has in fact been traveling all across the Southern part of the country to physically check pet-friendly properties, experiences and add a lot of content. It's very important. The small things are what make a difference.

When you travel with a pet, it's like traveling with a small baby. This girl said who you have mentioned on your website. For Bangalore, it's a very spot to head to over the weekend. But do you there are a lot of snakes in Bombay, did you know that? You would probably want to have a basic snakebite kit at each resort and tell people not to leave their pets out unattended. I said, oops no. And she said: well, you need to mention that.

The fact that you need people who actually go there, experience the entire experience, who travel with pets and gather that first-hand knowledge instead of just researching stuff on the internet and putting stuff up. Our approach is therefore true to the idea. We are really pet-lovers and pet-parents and we really want to solve a problem.

The focus is not customer acquisition any which way.