Mary Ann Zeman
Conversation with Mary Ann Zeman, Co-Founder & COO, How I Met My Dog
Finding the Perfect Match: People & Dogs
February 13, 2019
1. What is your business?
How I Met My Dog custom matches people and dogs—dogs from shelters or dogs that need to be rehomed. Adopters answer 56 questions about their lifestyle and their expectations for their relationship with their dog. Shelters and rehomers report on who each dog really is. Our algorithm takes that information and matches dogs and adopters on the criteria that matter most–behavior and lifestyle.
Every year four million dogs end up in shelters, yet only half of these dogs ever find new homes. Working with shelters and rescues to help more of these dogs find the right homes is central to our mission.
As “a profit with purpose” company, we’ve kept basic matching free. Our business model is built on helping people find the right dog and then on continuing to help them deepen that bond throughout the many years of their relationship.
We are three co-founders. Jodi Andersen has been a dog trainer for more than 30 years. Jodi is also the author of a book called “The Latchkey Dog”, which is all about how our behavior affects the dogs we love. My other co-founder is Sharon Mosse, who brings deep marketing and business experience to the company. Other members of the team bring technology, branding, and social media expertise. It’s a great cross-generational group. Everyone believes in our mission, and we work incredibly well together.
2. What made you decide to start your business and/or switch careers?
About 20 years ago, my wife and I were living in New York City, and when we bought a country, weekend house the first thing we thought was, “Let’s get a dog.” Then, we did exactly the wrong thing. Someone recommended that we’d love a wirehaired dachshund, and we got two from a breeder totally on impulse–George was a joy but the other pup named Gracie was absolutely the wrong match. Of course, we loved her, but she was totally ill-suited to our life. She was terrified of the city and people, she was miserable, and we were challenged for the 12 years of her life.
After George and Gracie died and we were living in Connecticut full time, we adopted two dogs, (one also coincidentally named Gracie), who needed a new home outside of the city. This time we won the dog lottery—it was a perfect fit. But the process of finding these dogs was equally haphazard. So I thought, “there has to be a better way for people to find the right dog.” Dogs are a part of our families, and eight million dogs are acquired every year. People match with their human soulmates online, why not with their canine soul mates too?
3. Was there one moment that gave you the confidence that this was a good idea?
We launched the site in February 2017 with only a few dogs on the site in order to make sure everything worked the way it should. Then the Boston Globe ran an article on us, and suddenly we had 20,000 people on the site. That was the moment that we knew there was a big need out there and a big desire for people to find their dogs in a different way.
4. Were there any partnerships or advice that were particularly helpful?
In developing our algorithm and our service, we called on the collective knowledge and experience of leading animal behaviorists, veterinarians, dog trainers, and rescue professionals. Organizations like the Massachusetts Animal Coalition, the Center for Canine Behavior Studies, the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, and the Humane Society of the United States have been particularly helpful to us from the beginning of our journey.
5. What are some successes you have had with your business that make you proud?
We’re particularly proud that 80% of people who start our adopter survey finish it. For any business–especially a startup– that’s an amazing conversion rate. And that 80% has remained consistent from beta to present. We’ve also far exceeded our expectations for how many people want to be custom matched with a dog. More than 90,000 people have signed up since our beta launch 18 months ago. Shelters have also embraced How I Met My Dog, with 275 already using our service, with more joining every week.
6. What are some of the biggest positive or negative surprises in your business?
One of the biggest surprises is how receptive people have been to our matching philosophy. We were told early on by more than a few skeptics that most people don’t want help choosing their dogs. We’ve found quite the opposite. Our society is becoming a matching culture, and with dogs being so much a part of our families, making a considered choice is all the more important.
7. What would be your biggest piece of advice you would give to yourself ten years ago?
I would tell myself to embrace technology, be confident in my own ideas, choose the right partners and to keep going no matter what.
8. What was the best and worst piece of advice you have received as you were starting your business?
I received two bad pieces of advice from well-intended people. One was that the survey needed to be short because no one would fill out 56 questions. The other was a comment from someone who saw us as a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. This person said that people simply won’t go to a shelter and pick a cute dog–something clearly refuted by our numbers.
The best advice I received was “keep going,” because in the startup world you definitely need a high tolerance for chaos, and you need to be willing to work all the time. It’s energizing but also grueling.
9. Do you use social media for marketing your business?
We’re very active on our Facebook and Instagram pages. We’re in an emotionally driven business and people want to share– so it’s natural for us. The challenge is to put together a good social media plan on a tight budget, so we have to be really creative.
10. What are your hopes for your business for the next five years?
We want to be the first place people go to when they want to adopt a dog because they realize the value of finding the right match.
Date of conversation: September 26, 2018