'Airbnb for pets' eases anxiety about keeping pooch or moggie home alone

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 January, 2017, 7:30pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 January, 2017, 11:19am

Chinese pet owners returning to their hometowns to celebrate the Lunar New Year are often forced to send their animals to cramped pet stores where dozens of pets are caged together and in often unsanitary conditions.

However, Goumin.com, which translates to Dog People Network, offers a service similar to home-sharing platform Airbnb that provides temporary homes for their animals with fellow pet owners nearby when they are away.

“Spring Festival is one of the busiest seasons for us. We’ve seen online orders pouring in to find reliable animal sitters since December,” said Jia Tong, founder and chief executive of Beijing-based Goumin.

Initially launched in 2006 as an online community for pet owners in China, Goumin started to offer pet homing services in January 2015 in an attempt to ride the growth of the sharing economy in China.

It was a time that saw global lodge-sharing giant Airbnb starting to persuade Chinese to stay in other people’s homes rather than hotels when travelling abroad and the rise of Uber Technologies as it competed with Chinese local rivals to attract people to pay for rides in cars other than taxis.

Goumin’s smartphone-enabled service is gaining in popularity as an increasing number of city-dwelling pet owners grow more sophisticated in consumption not just for themselves but also for their pets.

“People have started to pay more attention to the use of science to raise their pets. They care about what dog food suits their pets and even what kind of nutrition supplements can make their pets healthier. In the past, people simply gave table leftovers to their pets,” said Jia, 36, who owns a teddy bear dog.

The overall upgrade in consumption is the reason Jia is upbeat about the future success of her pet service, though for now it is just an innovative feature to better engage Goumin’s 50 million registered users.

The company, which has 81 employees, has started to make a small profit since 2016 after two rounds of fundraising. It makes money from advertisements and e-commerce services as most of Goumin’s pet-owning users are middle-class women, an important group courted by retailers.

About 10,000 pet owners provide animal sitting services via Goumin. The site has clocked 20,000 stay nights for pets over the past two years.

Goumin does not charge for its matching service or the pet insurance it provides. Boarding fees – which include cage-free pet care and daily photos updates – start at 50 yuan a night, all going to the animal sitters. Putting pets in commercial pet stores can be cost between 80 yuan to 150 yuan a night.

Most of the animal sitters work part-time and enjoy making some extra money.

Xu Yingying, a kindergarten teacher and a dog lover, said she enjoys taking care of other people’s animals during summer and winter holidays.

“I have a teddy bear dog. But the service allows me to play with other dogs and make money equal to my salary,” Xu said.

The health and safety of the animals is a major concern for many first-time users of the service. Goumin helps relieve the anxiety by carefully screening animal sitters. “Only about 30 per cent to 40 per cent of sitter applicants are approved by us. Successful applicants need to have apartments bigger than 60 square metres, abundant experience raising pets, and they must have one pet or less so that they can give enough attention to guest animals,” Jia said.

Goumin does that by checking flats via video link. “And only when their services satisfy pet owners, can they get paid,” she said. Jia claims the satisfaction rate is very high. Only one animal have ever been injured during a stay in a host flat – a cat.

“It fell from a high place and was sent to a vet immediately. Goumin and the host family shared the medical cost,” she said. Though it was the cat that fell, Jia said the host should have stopped it from climbing up.

There are other potential risks as well. Xu said one guest dog ruined her furniture but she never got compensation because it was difficult to prove. “But I love dogs, so I chose to let it go,” she said.

There are other sites offering similar services, such as the Xiamen-based Xiaogou Zaijia (Puppy at Home). But Jia said she is not afraid of competition because the pet industry, estimated to have a value of 105.8 billion yuan in 2014, is big enough for more players.

She said it will take time for Goumin to make a profit because most of the sharing economy businesses in the mainland are losing money. Still, the bright side beckons and Jia is aiming for an initial public offering in China in the future.

“We haven’t set a time, but we will get there,” she said.