Cat-sitting startup Meowtel clawed its way to profitability despite trouble raising from dog-focused VCs

Dogs are the most popular pet in the U.S.: 65.1 million households have one, according to the American Pet Products Association. But while cats are not far off, with 46.5 million households with one, a lot of innovation in the pet category has focused exclusively on dogs. And even if the service serves both species, the focus is more prominently on dogs.

Sonya Petcavich, the founder of cat-sitting app Meowtel, thinks that cats, and cat people, deserve more.

When Petcavich’s cat Lily died in 2015, she realized she might not have been the best cat mom. Petcavich traveled a lot for her job in sales for Philip Morris and wasn’t home as much as she thought her senior cat might have needed. She knew that pet-sitting services existed, but she didn’t think they did enough for feline friends.

“There needs to be a service for cat people specifically; they have very different needs,” Petcavich told TechCrunch. “Rover had been around for a few years, and Wag was picking up steam, but they were so dog focused. I said, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to be the crazy cat person who does this.’”

She took $100,000 of her own money, found a developer team and launched Meowtel in 2015. The startup is a marketplace for cat owners to find cat sitters and only hires people who have direct experience with things like giving cats medicine (cats are especially prone to chronic illness as they get older) and taking care of cats with special needs. Prospective sitters go through a rigorous six-step process until they’re allowed to join the app. This includes a 30-minute call with the Meowtel team to verify that they are a real person, something other sitting sites don’t do. Petcavich joked it’s easier to get into Harvard than it is to become a Meowtel sitter.

The company has been operating largely in stealth since its founding. Petcavich said the company only came out of stealth now because for the last nine years, the team has put in the work, built up its brand and gotten its user experience where it wanted it to be.

Meowtel is profitable and its gross booking volume revenue is growing 50% year over year. The company has more than 2,200 sitters on the platform, some of whom have been with Meowtel for all nine years. The company has completed more than 95,000 sitting requests and has largely focused on bigger cities, including New York and Los Angeles. It’s looking to expand its paw print to smaller cities, too.

Meowtel has made it to this point raising just under $1 million in venture capital. Of that total, $500,000 came from angels, including Jason Calacanis’ Launch and Elizabeth Yin, a general partner at Hustle Fund. Additional capital came from accelerator programs, including Tech Wildcatters and Sputnik ATX. The company’s most recent funding was in 2020.

Petcavich said that raising from VCs was tough because the venture capital community is more dog-centric and many people didn’t get why cats needed their own sitting service. Petcavich said that even still, she wanted to pursue venture funding for Meowtel because of its marketplace business model, which she thought made it a good fit for VCs. Also, due to the capital-heavy nature of marketplace businesses, she thought VC money made the most sense.

She’s right that there seems to be significantly more venture-backed companies focused on dogs than there are on cats. There are several startups focused on areas such as better dog food, accessories and even ones focused on health. Butternut Box, a U.K.-based dog food company, has raised more than $466 million in VC funding. ImpriMed, a dog oncology startup, raised $23 million in November, and Fi, a smart dog collar, has raised more than $40 million in venture capital.

As for the cats, there are noticeably fewer. Fresh pet food company Smalls is one of the few venture-backed companies in the category. It raised $19 million last year, and its founder Matthew Michaelson told TechCrunch’s Christine Hall that he also thinks innovation in the pet category has largely been focused on dogs.

But does the market really need, or have the ability to support, a sitting service just for cats? Petcavich says yes, and her company’s success so far and growth trajectory seem to back that up.

“In the era of 2020, there is a brand that caters to every specific type of audience that exists,” Petcavich said. “These species are different, but no one is making that distinction. I think it’s the psychology of the cat owner, the medical needs of the cat itself, that really opened up this blue ocean.”

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