Founder Stories

TrustedHousesitters’ Mathew Prior on growing a category-creating pet sitting marketplace

Founder Stories

TrustedHousesitters’ Mathew Prior on growing a category-creating pet sitting marketplace

Words Mathew Prior

February 14th 2024 / 8 min read

Against the backdrop of our impressive growth numbers, and a recent $100m buyout, it may sound blasé to say that running TrustedHousesitters has never just been about the numbers. 

Since the day I joined as CEO, it’s really been about one thing: building the most loved travel solution for pet owners. Not the biggest, not the cheapest, but the most loved. From day one, this has been woven through everything that our team does. 

Many factors have accelerated the company’s growth, but this is undoubtedly one of the major reasons behind our success. It’s the reason we were able to navigate the travel industry’s devastation during COVID, it’s the reason we’ve hit profitability while raising minimal growth capital, and it’s the reason we have over 200,000 members—the majority of whom come via word of mouth. 

Here’s the story behind building and scaling a category-creating marketplace for pet sitting. 

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An opportunity “too good to be true”

I caught the travel bug early on in my career. After quitting a short-lived career training to qualify as a chartered accountant, I spent over five years abroad as a travel rep, working my way up to the leadership level of a travel company based in the Canary Islands. 

Various roles at travel businesses followed, taking me from yachts in the Caribbean to the Alpine ski slopes. I found a knack for leadership, heading up on Travelopia’s sale to TUI Group; and for entrepreneurship, starting my own travel business during the dotcom bubble, which reached £10m in annual revenue before its acquisition. 

Through all this, I was introduced to TrustedHousesitters, meeting founders Andy Peck and Rachel Martin. What started as an advisory role quickly became an opportunity to run the business as CEO. 

At first, the business seemed too good to be true. As a pet owner, you can have your pet looked after for £100 a year. And as a pet lover, you can travel the world and stay in these fantastic homestays for £100 a year, with the added benefit of pet companionship. 

But there was no catch. TrustedHousesitters had done more than just reach product market fit—they were a category creator, a truly unique operator with a unique business model that was highly differentiated. In the end, it was an easy decision to commit to joining full time.

Big plans for growth, until COVID hit

Trusted Housesitters was in a good place when I joined in 2019. With a small amount of seed capital, the founders had grown the business to 70,000 members worldwide, a team of 40, and they were breaking even. a small cap private equity firm (Rockpool) had acquired a majority stake, and the founders were essentially looking for someone to run the business.

I came in with an agenda to recharge growth, for which I had the full backing of the founders. The business was entering a scaleup phase, but was unsure of how to manage this transition. 

I wanted to bring more structure and process to operations. There was great intent across the business, but the cogs just weren’t fitting together. I started by putting in robust OKR processes, which gave everyone a great oversight of how the different business units were performing and enabled teams to work much more closely together. 

We also focused heavily on marketplace dynamics, understanding which side we wanted to recruit to grow the marketplace. We decided to focus on owners because we felt that was where liquidity started. This also led us to double down on member satisfaction as this was the lifeblood of the business. 

What we hadn’t factored in was a global pandemic hitting. All travel ground to halt, as did housesitting—and it was time for a quick course correction. 

But the next thing that happened was quite remarkable. People just kept renewing their memberships. Despite the fact that no one was travelling, and no one was looking for house sitters, retention rates for our annual membership never really dipped. It was a huge vouch of confidence for us, not just that we were doing something right, but that our members cared deeply about us still being there when the world came out the other side of COVID. 

Capturing post-COVID tailwinds

The immediate shock quickly turned into a huge opportunity. Strong continuity in revenue, and the fact we didn’t need to do any marketing, meant we could weather the pandemic without needing to take on growth capital. Not only this, but we saw that the tailwinds from COVID would be good for us.

For one, pet ownership was increasing at a rapid rate—in the UK alone, around 3.2 million homes acquired a pet during lockdown. This was combined with a trend towards pet humanisation—consumers’ increasing closeness to their pets meaning they weren’t happy to leave them with any old stranger. Thirdly, when travel did recover, people would want to travel in a more purposeful and sustainable way. 

So really, any pause in activity gave us an opportunity to focus on our priorities as a business. We had work to do on our pricing model, putting in place new pricing tiers that are still in place today. This allowed us to offer and capture more value from our members, seeing average order values going up as new members subscribed to additional premium features. This gave us a much better tolerance of CAC for when we were going back out into market. 

Then we realised we needed cash in order to effectively capture the COVID tailwinds once demand returned. We went out to raise our $10m Series A, the right amount of growth capital that would allow us to make the most of these tailwinds and capture new markets. The results speak for themselves—membership hit 100,000 in 2022 , and by the end of 2023, reached 200,000. Revenues in 2023 were four times what they were the year I started. 

Lessons from building a two-sided marketplace

Two-sided marketplaces, where you’re having to capture supply and demand in delicate balance, are complex to build. 

For one, they never behave as you’d expect. You need to pay close attention to:

  1. Which side of the marketplace you need to drive to maximise the benefit for everyone. With TrustedHousesitters, there’s a bias towards pet owners. But it’s not like marketplaces where you build one side and the other side will come. You really need to understand the dynamics. 

  2. What balance looks like. How many of one side do you need to entice the other? 

  3. How you can systematically pursue growth on the scale you want to. Are you building in a particular location, and then need to light fires across other locations? Or is it a platform business where you can expand globally without a localised approach?

I knew what we were doing was working when I started to see signs of three things: 

Firstly, virality. The number of new members we were seeing who heard about us through word of mouth was growing massively—now representing around two-thirds of new members. 

Secondly, network effects. There is an enormous increase in benefit that members get as the marketplace grows, evident in our usage rates, fill rates, and satisfaction rates. 

Finally, signs of a thriving community. Building this is no easy feat, but getting it right can be hugely rewarding. To emphasise, putting our community first runs through everything we’re doing—whether that’s local meetups, turning members into community ambassadors, or sponsoring local initiatives across the world (like fundraisers for pet shelters). 

Leading TrustedHousesitters towards a buyout

With the wind in our sails, we had an important strategic decision to make towards the end of 2022—to Series B or not to Series B? Against global economic uncertainty, particularly in the UK, it became apparent that a Series B was probably not on the table. Instead, we were looking at an acquisition or management buyout. 

The first thing we wanted to do was demonstrate that there’s a profitable business model here. You can afford to be operating at a loss at pre-seed, but in today’s market, profitability is really key if you want to raise any investment from Series A onwards. So we throttled back on CAC, developing a new scaling model that meant being more intelligent in growth—not just going for land grabs, but being laser targeted. 

In early 2023, we started looking for our next investor. We travelled around a lot, going to private equity houses on both sides of the Atlantic to meet investors, talk about the business, and gauge interest. We got a great response, and quickly built up a group of interested parties who we started giving quarterly updates to. That meant when it came to October, and we were ready to start the negotiation process, we had closely engaged investors. 

Mayfair quickly came out on top in these negotiations. They had a great track record of investing in businesses at the crossroads of tech and consumer, having taken stakes in the likes of OVO Energy, Epic Games, and Seraphine, to name a few. We saw a great cultural fit with them—they didn’t just want to throw money at us to supercharge growth, they really got the business, and they understood that we are purpose driven and care as much about the people and the planet as well as profit. 

More so than capital, we saw a huge amount to gain from working with them. Despite our team being mostly UK based, the US is our biggest market—and Mayfair has great local US expertise that we could tap into. They also have a strong arm of consulting experts, where we felt we could tap into knowledge on marketing as well as an AI opportunity around algorithmic matching that we’re working on. 

Don’t underestimate the time it takes to find the right investor for your business—because it really is worth taking the time to assess fit and potential benefits beyond capital. This can be dangerous—it can take you away from the business for a stretch of time, so make sure you have robust processes (like OKRs) in place to ensure you know what’s going on in the business. 

Fresh capital and new ownership puts a renewed energy into the business, and a renewed focus into doing what we do well. Ultimately, the platform exists to make sure our members have the best possible experience. For pet owners, you feel happy that your pet is being looked after by someone who is doing it for love rather than money. For pet sitters, you get an incredible experience of pet companionship and a unique homestay rolled into one. 

A recent survey revealed that 97% of members say that TrustedHousesitters has improved their lives. This is proof enough for me that we’re getting something right. 

About Mathew 

Mathew Prior is the CEO of TrustedHousesitters, having joined the company in 2019. Prior to this, he held various leadership roles at Travelopia, TUI, and First Choice. He started his own online travel agency, TheFirstResort, in 1999, which they ended up selling to Thomson. 

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