Saturday 21 September 2019

Online dog-sitting service: Irish brothers are barking up the right tree

Timothy and James McElroy set up an online dog-sitting service that has now expanded to the UK and Germany

Timothy and James McElroy are the founders of pet-sitting company HouseMyDog. Photo: Mark Condren
Timothy and James McElroy are the founders of pet-sitting company HouseMyDog. Photo: Mark Condren

Andrea Smith

As there is more than a four-year age gap between them, Timothy and James McElroy had different friends growing up. They loved to play pranks on one another though, usually to try to impress their older sister Ciara.

On one occasion, James dressed up as a clown, knowing that Timothy dislikes them. He hid in a wardrobe for an hour until his older brother fell asleep, and then started banging on the door. As Timothy got up to investigate, he jumped out, giving him a huge fright.

James thought it was the funniest thing ever. "Timothy wasn't impressed but Ciara and I laughed for an hour," he recalls.

Timothy (31) and James (26) grew up in Blackrock, and also have a younger sister, Mary-Kate. Their mum, Rosemary, is a dental hygienist and their dad, Gary, has a data storage company.

They were both keen on cycling, and their club went on a cycling trip to France every year. Their dad came along to make sure they were OK, but on one unfortunate occasion, he was the one to take a spill from his bike and ended up with a broken arm.

The brothers went to Willow Park and then on to Blackrock College. Timothy went on to do a BComm at UCD, and James to do a degree in business and finance at DIT. Timothy specialised in finance, a career path that took him to work in Prague and Berlin, and during this time, the brothers didn't see a huge amount of one another.

Timothy was living in Berlin when the idea for HouseMyDog came to him. The family had always had Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, and after their pet sitter retired, they needed a new sitter for their dog Holly. He realised that a lot of people were seeking the option of having their pet minded in a home environment rather than a traditional kennels environment while they travelled.

He contacted James to see if he would be interested in pursuing the idea of setting up an online community where owners could connect with sitters to find a safe and loving home for their dogs. At the time, James was on his J1 in New York, and still had a year left in college, but he agreed to join forces. They co-founded the company with web developer Egor Ferreira. and it launched after James graduated in 2015. "Timothy and I always had a really good relationship, but we didn't see each other that much while he was living abroad," says James. "We have gotten much closer since he came back to Dublin."

How the business works is that potential pet sitters go through a rigorous seven-step vetting programme. If they are accepted, a profile is created online for them, complete with images of their home and testimonials. Owners looking for a sitter put in their area and get a list of local sitters to choose from. Once they have an agreement with the one they feel is the best match, they pay the site for the service. The sitter is paid 24 hours after the sitting has been completed and everyone is happy with how it went.

The company provides emergency vet cover if it's required and also 24-hour support for the sitters. The site has taken off hugely and has now expanded into the UK and Germany (after HouseMyDog acquired its German competitor, Schnuff und Co). This means a lot of travelling for the brothers, and Timothy will eventually base himself in Germany - no hardship as his girlfriend of four years, Noemi, lives there.

Since its launch, HouseMyDog has grown from a small community in Dublin to over 40,000 users, with more than 50,000 nights booked. Demand is growing quickly from pet owners, so the brothers are always looking for good sitters to provide their services.

The company launched a crowd-funding company recently, and raised its initial target of €200,000 in 36 hours. This is the fastest time in which funds have been raised by an Irish company on the UK's crowdfunding platform, Crowdcube. They plan to expand their own team from four to 16 people over the next 24 months, release an app and expand to 12 new European markets. "It has been a long, challenging process to get to where we are but we're really excited about how it's going," says Timothy.

The brothers say that working together goes very well, because they are very honest and quickly veto suggestions that they feel won't work. It helps having a third co-founder, they say, to provide a vote when it comes to making decisions. They get on very well with their family, and their dad was a great help with advice in the early stages, being a business-owner himself.

While the brothers socialise separately at weekends, when they are around their eight-month-old nephew, Seamus, born to Ciara and her husband Joey, they both compete for the title of favourite uncle. "He is gorgeous and has brought a lot of love to the family," says James.

Timothy says that James is very funny and outgoing and likes to be the life and soul of the party. He is also more decisive in business and admits to being more impulsive. James says Timothy is more of a deep thinker, and says that his brother has a "good brain and is really intelligent and very kind".

Timothy also professes to hating James's colourful shirts, although he happily borrowed one for the picture and didn't look too "ruff" in it!


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