Startups

Why Did Pet Concierge Startup Baroo Fail?

Read more at hbr.org

BRIAN KENNY: Please raise your hand if you live in the U.S. and you own a dog. Right now, according to the 2020 National Pet Owners Survey, 63 percent of you have your hand in the air. That’s about 85 million households feeding, walking, training, and cleaning up after 90 million wagging tails. Valued at 99 billion over the past year, pet care is a big and growing market. Over the past ten years, American expenditures on pets has doubled and its influence is felt in other segments. Dog ownership has become the number one factor driving first home purchases by millennials. It seems like any business idea that enhances our relationships with our furry little friends is a surefire bet to succeed. Or is it? Today on Cold Call, we welcome Professor Tom Eisenmann and case protagonist Lindsay Hyde to discuss the case entitled, Baroo, Pet Concierge. I’m your host, Brian Kenny, and you’re listening to Cold Call on the HBR Presents network.

BRIAN KENNY: Tom Eisenmann studies and teaches about entrepreneurship and lean startups at Harvard Business School. He also spent over a decade as a consultant at McKinsey. His new book is called, Why Startups Fail: A New Roadmap for Entrepreneurial Success. Lindsay Hyde is an entrepreneur, and prior to founding Baroo, she founded and led Strong Women, Strong Girls, a nationally recognized mentoring organization. And Lindsay Hyde is joining the HBS faculty this fall to co-teach the MBA elective “Entrepreneurial Failure,” which is quite a compelling title. We’re really happy to have both of you here today. It’s always a treat to have the protagonist in on the conversation and this’ll be a really fun one, I think, so thanks for joining me.

TOM EISENMANN: Thanks for having us.

LINDSAY HYDE: Thank you.

BRIAN KENNY: Tom, I’m going to ask you to start by telling us what would your cold call be to start this case when you walk in the classroom?

TOM EISENMANN: Most cold calls are a decision. Do we go left or do we go right? Put the student on the spot. This one’s a little different. This one starts with a role-play and the opener gets to be Lindsay Hyde and Lindsay has to deal with the aftermath of a pretty disastrous board meeting. At the board meeting, she’s tangled with an angry investor who basically says the business is off track. The financials are never going to get there. Your leadership style, Lindsay, is deficient and I’m particularly upset because the finance director who just left the company just sent us an email apologizing for errors in the financial projections you just shared with us as we’re considering whether to follow on and make more investments in the company. So at the board meeting, our venture capitalist observers who want to back Lindsay in the next round, and they’re watching this chaos unfold. And so the cold call is: You’re Lindsay Hyde. You’re about to get on the phone with those venture capitalists who observed all this and explain to them why they should still have confidence in you and still have confidence in Baroo.

BRIAN KENNY: Why did you decide to write about Baroo, and how does it relate to the ideas in your new book?

TOM EISENMANN: Thank you, Brian. The book, as befits something from a Harvard Business School professor, is built around case studies. There are six failure patterns. Each is a chapter and each of those chapters is anchored by a case. Baroo is one of the cases and it serves the same purpose in the book as it does in the course is it illustrates a failure pattern that in fact is a problem for a lot of early stage startups and that’s the false positive, false positive, just like COVID testing. We all know about false positives and false negatives now. And it turns out that entrepreneurs are vulnerable to both. False negative is a little tragic because the entrepreneur gets a signal that the business isn’t going to work. And then the false positive is, you’ve got a signal that you’ve got a great idea, and it’s really going to work and you step on the gas and head in the direction of that opportunity, when in fact it’s not as good an opportunity as you thought or the opportunity may be elsewhere. So we illustrate with the Baroo case, the false positive. In the course that serves a really important purpose, which is, it turns out failure, shutting down a business, is a protractive process versus a decision about whether to shut down the venture at all. And that turns out to be hard to make. We see Lindsay wrestling with that, and then all of the moves you make on the way, and then something about the healing, the learning, the making sense of what happened.

BRIAN KENNY: Just give us a sense though, how many, approximately, how many startups make it to the finish line, whatever that is, and how many fold after a relatively short period?

TOM EISENMANN: So Brian, you’ve dealt with enough professors to know we love definitions. So I won’t define startup and I won’t define failure, but the answer to your question depends on the definition of what’s a startup and what do you mean by failure? If the definition is, did your investors make money, which is one way to define a failure, and if the focus is on folks who raised venture capital or something like venture capital, then it’s about two out of three fail along the way. So one in three will make it, survive, and enter in some profit for the investors.

BRIAN KENNY: All right that gives people a sense. Lindsay, let’s turn to you for a minute here. Welcome back, I will say. I’ll let our listeners know that you’re a graduate of Harvard Business School, and now you’re coming back, this is so cool, to actually be in the pit, teaching the students. So that’s awesome. Great to have you do that. Tell us a little bit about your background.

LINDSAY HYDE: So prior to founding Baroo, I was an entrepreneur. I founded and led for close to 12 years a not-for-profit organization called Strong Women, Strong Girls and had some fabulous experiences building a team, growing that to a number of different markets, hired my replacement and then came to Harvard Business School really to hone in on my skills that I had learned on the job, but didn’t have any formal training in. When I first came to business school, I said, “No way, no how am I doing another startup. I have lived that life and know how hard it is,” but it turned out I had really just had such a passion for that early stage and for building things and founded Baroo immediately coming out of school.

BRIAN KENNY: Okay. So tell us about Baroo. What is it? And I will say, I love this idea, but tell our listeners about it. What’s Baroo?

LINDSAY HYDE: So a “baroo” is, the name, comes from a motion that a dog makes where they prick their ears forward and turn their head to the side when they hear a human voice. And it’s how dogs show that they’re paying attention to you. And the idea really came very much from my own experience of needing pet care for my own dog. We partner with luxury multi-family properties, so large urban apartment properties, where upwards of 60 percent of people own pets. And we become the in-house pet concierge. So doing everything from daily dog walks to offering grooming onsite, veterinary care, and even in home delivery of treats, toys, and food.

BRIAN KENNY: Can you just talk a little bit about sort of how you started to shape the business model and what informed that?

LINDSAY HYDE: We started very much with tests out of the i-Lab at Harvard. So our first question was, do people want to bring their pets to work? That was the initial idea. So ran a bunch of tests on campus, turns out people do not want to bring their pets to work. They would much rather leave them at home. And so started iterating on an idea of, what would it look like to bring pet care not just close to home, but into your home. How could we make it the ultimate convenience? And partnered with an HBS alum who owned multi-family properties and really started to build a business that was designed specifically for pets that were living in apartments.

BRIAN KENNY: And how did you get support for this? How did you fund it?

LINDSAY HYDE: We started out with funding from angels and the original conception of the business was to start in one market, grow, get profitable, use the proceeds to then scale to the next market. So, thought that it would be very much a slower growth path. And that’s the story that we told our investors was this was going to be something that would take a number of years, but we would really be focused on profitability and so had angel investors who were very much aligned with that vision of the world and that pathway for growth for this business.

BRIAN KENNY: Tom, I don’t want to assume that our listeners understand how investing works and what an angel investor is versus a venture capital. And can you just explain sort of 101 how do these ventures start to get funded and grow?

TOM EISENMANN: The path that Lindsay took raising from angel investors is a common one. The angel is anybody who is willing to write a check for a new venture. Very often successful entrepreneurs themselves, they like to come back and give back. And the angels, like any investor, will often contribute not only money, but contacts and advice. But at some point, if you need a lot of capital, an angel may write a $50,000 check. They’re not going to write a $5 million check. So when a venture gets to a certain scale, you’ll shift over to venture capital. Venture capital is more professionally managed. The angels are usually doing it by instinct. The business model for both is you kind of assume, because of the nature of entrepreneurship, as we said before, two out of three will fail, that a large share of what you invest in is going to fail. And it’s really difficult to predict that. Obviously you’d avoid it if you knew it was going to fail. So it’s just inherently difficult to predict upfront. And the way venture capitalists make money is big, big returns, ten-fold, 20-fold, 100-fold returns on a small share of the companies in their portfolio, okay returns on 20 or 30 percent, and then losing money or losing everything on as much as 60 or 70 percent. So as a result of that, Brian, everything in their portfolio has to have the potential to be a ten-times return. And the VCs will push every company in their portfolio to essentially, to use baseball analogy, swing for the fences. And when you swing for the fences, sometimes you strike out.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. And when we see that that’s a little bit of a foreshadowing, I think, is the term for that, which is going to come up a little bit later, but before we go there, LINDSAY HYDE, tell us about the sort of early days at Baroo. How did you build a team? How did you start to really scale this?

LINDSAY HYDE: Whenever you’re building early team, you start with thinking about who are people I know in my network who complement my skill set and that was very much the case for me. So reached out to a woman named Meg Reese, who had been my COO at Strong Women, Strong Girls, asked her if she’d be willing to take the leap again, go through another round of startup. And she jumped in very early. We together really built all the internal operations, all the processes, basically everything beyond the initial concept and got that rolling together. And then beyond that, it was really a question of building out pet care providers, our customer service organization, and kind of scaling out the team as we continued to grow, but in the very earliest of days, it was literally just the two of us.

BRIAN KENNY: Okay. And as you started to bring employees into the fold, what would a typical day be like for somebody who is delivering the service on the front lines?

LINDSAY HYDE: So for our pet care providers, they’re typically assigned to one apartment or one apartment building. They’re interacting with the same pets on a daily basis and so really getting to know those owners and the dogs and cats that were in their care and in many ways, getting to build this really beautiful community. So our early Baroo pet care providers who were servicing, for example, the Ink Block, had this experience of showing up every day. They’d say good morning to the concierge. They’d go see the puppy that they walked three times a day, then spend some time cat sitting, then maybe take a break for lunch and then do their round of afternoon walks with the dogs they walked every day.

BRIAN KENNY: That sounds pretty good.

LINDSAY HYDE: Right. It’s the dream, particularly if you’re a pet lover. As we continued to scale, unfortunately, and didn’t have those beautiful full days, our pet care providers started to have the experience of going to five, six, seven buildings a day and not really being able to have that community-driven experience that so many of them found really rewarding.

BRIAN KENNY: I want to talk a little bit about the process of forming a board. How do you decide who you’re going to invite to be on the board? And Tom, I would love your thoughts on this too, but Lindsay, maybe you can start just by telling us what your board looked like.

LINDSAY HYDE: Our board was a mix of investors, so folks who had put capital into the business, as well as people we brought on as industry experts. I think in our case, we were weighted a bit too heavy on investors and did not have enough independence on our board to really help to balance out that viewpoint. I think in the early days of taking capital, that can be a challenge that a lot of entrepreneurs run into is investors demanding board seats as a part of their investment. But the goal was to really have a mix of expertise and talent to help to shape and advise and guide the business.

BRIAN KENNY: Great. Tom, anything you want to add to that? You’ve worked with so many entrepreneurs over the years. How do they think about forming a board?

TOM EISENMANN: For listeners who aren’t familiar with startup boards, there’s a world of difference between that and the boards of directors of big public corporations, where you might have 12, 15 board members. Here at the start, at the stage Lindsay has been talking about, three is a pretty typical number and it’s two individuals from management, essentially the co-founders, and a single investor is very typical. The other thing that’s different is whereas public company boards will meet once a quarter, these boards are deeply involved. The startup boards will meet once a month and there’ll be just a flurry of ongoing communications, phone calls and emails, in between those board meetings. So board members are very, very engaged. And then the other key thing to know, same responsibility for the board and a startup as a big public company, the chief responsibility is hiring and firing the CEO. If the founders outnumber the board members at the beginning, which they often do, the board is not going to throw out the founder CEO, but every time you raise a new round of capital, as Lindsay says, the investors will demand a seat. And it’s quite common to go to four board members and five board members and six, and eventually the investors will outnumber the founder CEO. They did right from the start with Lindsay because her angels wanted board seats. And if you get into any kind of trouble or just have ornery board members, they’re in a position, as the founder CEO, to replace you.

BRIAN KENNY: Hmm. Okay. So let’s talk a little bit about what started to unfold here in the case. The pressure is beginning to build and, and so tell us, is that coming from the investors or from someplace else, the pressure to grow the business?

TOM EISENMANN: Well, let’s talk about how Baroo grew. So Lindsay mentioned Ink Block a minute ago and almost everybody listening has probably lived in Boston for some time. If you lived a long time ago, you’ll know Ink Block is the old headquarters and manufacturing building of the Boston Herald newspaper. It was converted seven or eight years ago into condos, so Lindsay, 400, 300, 400, kind of this gigantic building.

LINDSAY HYDE: Yeah. It started with 300 units and then has grown, I think, subsequently close to 800.

TOM EISENMANN: Yeah. So it’s their first customer. And the key thing here is they flipped a switch. They went from no tenants to full, all in one day. A second, so you might imagine that there are a bunch of new people in the neighborhood who are moving there from another part of town or in the case of the Hollywood production crew that was there for months and months on end on per diem, they brought their pets from Los Angeles. They’re working 15-hour days and they need a dog walker. So Lindsay, one more twist here, people who were in Boston in the winter of 2015 will remember that we got 108 inches of snow in 30 days in that period.

BRIAN KENNY: That’s awful.

TOM EISENMANN: And so obviously if you proved you could walk dogs in that condition, your services were in great demand. So Lindsay had spectacular customer demand in the Ink Block and the other buildings in Boston heard about that and reached out, unsolicited, like this magical concierge service—we need it, too. And so she signed up a bunch of other Boston buildings faster than she expected. And, the growth started to take on a life of its own.

BRIAN KENNY: So, Lindsay, how are you feeling at this point? You must have been freaking out a little bit, I would think.

LINDSAY HYDE: It was magic, right? We couldn’t believe that this idea that we had had had taken off so fast and that people actually wanted us to come and do the thing that we love doing. I mean, this is every entrepreneur’s dream is that you have this idea. You imagine how it’s going to work in your head. And then it actually really works that way. So we were not freaking out. We were walking on air because we couldn’t believe it was working so well.

BRIAN KENNY: And at that point, you weren’t concerned that the scale of the business would start to overwhelm the resources that you had?

LINDSAY HYDE: At that point, we were getting so much encouragement from all sides. So we were getting encouragement from our investors to continue to grow. We were getting demand from big, huge multi-family clients to come to other cities and encouragement that they would grow with us. And so the belief was that the resources would be there, right, that our investors would help us, that our partners would help us and that we’d be able to raise the capital to do it. So at the encouragement of our investors, we took the next step and actually jumped to a second city very early to prove out that we could actually run operations in not just one market, but in two markets, with the idea that that would then serve as a proof point to pull in true venture capital dollars and really go into hyper-growth mode.

BRIAN KENNY: So, Tom is this fairly common from what you’ve witnessed over the years that the board starts to get excited, the investors get excited and they start to push harder for more faster?

TOM EISENMANN: Boards get excited and usually that comes in the form of new investors sort of coming in and investing at a high valuation. What’s different here and very important to remember for this case, so remember what Lindsay said earlier, the original plan was to raise just enough money, she didn’t say it, but it was true from reasonably patient angels, from angels that weren’t expecting a fast, big return, but a moderate paced return. And to grow into other cities eventually from internally generated cash flow and avoid venture capital and the hyper-growth pressures that come with venture capital. So now she has a tiger by the tail and in the case, she uses a fantastic quote, which I love, which is, “sometimes you land a big whale and it just drags you along.” So the Ink Block is that, and it drags her throughout Boston fast, and then quickly to Chicago. Those very folks who were supposedly patient and willing to take moderate levels of risk are now sort of seeing the big, shiny brass ring of venture capital scale returns. And, boy, they could make a fortune if the thing really takes off and sort of grows into a unicorn. And so at the same time, they’re still the same individuals who were betting on the slower growth plan.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. So as the founder then, how do you manage that? Is there a way to sort of set their expectations to dial it back a little bit? Is that just all based on your relationships with them? Or is there something more to it?

LINDSAY HYDE: I’ll speak to it from my perspective, and I’d love to hear Tom based on his research. I think in the case of Baroo, we had every permission from our investors. Initially, we had set the expectation that this would be a slow growth company. We could have very much said, “No, no, no, no, this was the plan. Let’s hold to that plan.” And what happened was, I was very excited about moving into this growth phase. I was very excited about moving forward with taking on these new buildings and the reception that we were receiving. Speaking just from my own experience, I think a lot of it is about how the founder manages their own expectations and their own vision for the company and what it is that they’re willing to do. In addition to then, you’ve got to have your own conviction about that before you’re able to really manage your capital partners and help them to have conviction around whichever the path is.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. That is really, I would imagine as an investor, you want a founder who’s excited and optimistic and feeling good about things, but as the founder, you’ve got to realize that your excitement may be getting everybody else excited too. Tom, do you have any thoughts to add to that?

TOM EISENMANN: Just that founders who take venture capital rarely need their arms twisted to want to grow fast, right? Fast growth for many, many entrepreneurs is the way they keep score. And it’s not like the VCs are, in a nefarious way, sort of pressuring them to swing for the fences to grow. Usually the entrepreneur comes along for the ride. In the course that we teach, we’re going to teach that together. She sat in on all of the sessions this year, and she’ll have the unique, fairly unique, experience of teaching a course, a case where she is actually the protagonist, which I don’t know how you do that if you sort of have a hat that you change halfway in between, but the founders who come to it, and there’s a protagonist in almost every class and almost all of them say, “I didn’t have my arm twisted. I knew what I was getting into in the abstract. Intellectually I knew.” Until you’ve actually experienced the pressures that come with trying to grow at that rate and how some of the wheels can come off and just how difficult it can be, you don’t really understand. So a lot of these founders come back and say, “I’m not going to do that again. Next time it won’t be with venture capital.” Lindsay’s just the opposite. If she were to go do it again, she’d go raise a boatload of venture capital and go for a moonshot. So in some ways, this is an unusual case.

BRIAN KENNY: First of all, I give the protagonists who are coming into the classroom for this class a lot of credit for being willing to come in and sort of bare their souls and talk about what they learned from it, because you learn a lot from failure for sure. So just tell us a little bit, LINDSAY HYDE, what happened? How did things unfold sort of chronologically here?

LINDSAY HYDE: The key belief that myself and Megan held about the business was around how many customers in any given building we could get to use the service. That was the driver of everything. It was the driver of how efficient the labor was. It was the driver of our revenue. And what was so magical about the Ink Block was that 60% of the units had pets and of those 70% were using Baroo. So our utilization rates and our revenue was incredible. We were not able to replicate that in other properties, right? We could not get investors to come with us on that journey. We just could not get the belief and the conviction. And so when we went out to raise our A round, which was the capital we needed to really take the next step in growing the business, we came back empty handed. We just couldn’t get the round done. And so then we’re faced with this decision of what do we do with the business? And so first step was, can we try to get this profitable? We cut a bunch of staff. We made a bunch of changes to the service offering, tried to get profitable. Couldn’t get profitable fast enough. And in the process of trying to get profitable, really put too much pressure on our operations. When it became clear, we couldn’t get profitable, our next step was, “Okay, well, we still have a lot of great customers, great brand equity. Can we sell the business?” Ultimately couldn’t get the business sold. And so unfortunately the end of the story is we went out to all of our employees and all of our customers in five markets and said, “We are very sorry, but we’re going to be ending our time as Baroo. And we’ll have to be transitioning you to other pet care providers.”

BRIAN KENNY: That’s got to be incredibly painful. All of those decision points along the way have so much riding on them. Tom, is there an obvious moment for founders when they know they’ve just got to fold up the tent and walk away?

TOM EISENMANN: Sometimes, but surprisingly rarely. I mean, sometimes you’re so dependent on a single big customer and that customer disappears. So your businesses is gone. Usually it’s a surprisingly drawn-out process and there’s always a series of ups and downs, more down than up, but enough ups that the hopeful founder will think, “Maybe this is the turnaround.” So there are a bunch of reasons why it takes a long time for founders. And many of the founders I interviewed for the research and for the course would say they waited too long to shut down the business. They wished they’d done it sooner. They could have given more money back to the investors. 20 cents on the dollar is better than zero. And that they could have gotten on with their lives. Their employees could have started new projects, et cetera. And so Lindsay described the series of moves they made. There are a couple others in there and you see it over and over again, it’s basically that same series of moves and you need time to play them out. So that’s one of the reasons this stretches out. You want to try a pivot and it takes time to see if it’s working. Sometimes you cut costs and what’s going to happen in the wake of the cost reduction, you try to sell the business, you try to raise money from new investors. You go back to your existing investors, this is a part Lindsay didn’t talk about, and then she had knocked down, drag out board fights over, would they provide a bridge loan and that’s very typical. And so you need time to play out those moves, but there’s more going on. Your self-image as an entrepreneur is one who persists. Great entrepreneurs don’t throw in the towel. They’re gritty. They stick to it. And so if I do, if I shut the thing down, am I a bad entrepreneur? You have people depending on you. I mean, her employees got their benefits. People were having babies and suddenly they’re out on the street looking for a job again. Investors believed in you. And then many entrepreneurs actually have no one they can talk to. Lots of pressure.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. Lindsay, it sounds really hard.

LINDSAY HYDE: The one other thing I would add, the thing that we kept thinking about was, is there a way, can we think of a way to get the capital back for our investors, right? Whatever that looks like, like Tom said, 20 cents on the dollar is better than zero. So can we find a sale? Can we find a something that will allow us to do that? And that is really where, for me, the persistence came from was this idea that these were folks who sort of bet on us very early. We had to do absolutely everything in our power to try to make good on that.

BRIAN KENNY: So you’ve had obviously time to reflect on this. The case is there, it’s published for people to see, but tell us, tell our listeners, what are some of the insights that you take away from this experience? If there’s a couple of things that sort of stay with you for either when you do this the next time, or if somebody’s asking for your advice on whether or not they should do it, what would you say?

LINDSAY HYDE: The number one thing that I keep coming back to as the critical turning point was not holding true to that initial slow growth vision. And so the first piece of advice I would say is, really be clear as an entrepreneur first about what kind of business you want to build. Do you have a sense of who you are and what you want your life to look like and build a business that suits that, and then related to that, if you do need to raise capital to fulfill that vision, be sure you have the capital partners that match that vision. So where I think we went wrong was we started with a certain vision around this slow growth, get profitable, then scale, and brought investors along on that dream. We intentionally didn’t have investors that would come on for many millions of dollars of follow-on rounds and that ended up being what we really would have needed to achieve the kind of scale we were looking to get to.

BRIAN KENNY: So, Tom, let me sort of give you the last run at this. You’ve got this course that you started last year. You’ve got the book that just came out. I would assume that there’s a purpose in telling these stories and talking about these failures. And I would gather that it’s so that more things become successful over time, but if there’s one thing you want people to take away from Baroo, what is it?

TOM EISENMANN: Well, I think Lindsay just said it. It is, “entrepreneur know thyself.” And introspection on what kinds of risks you’re willing to take. How eager are you to grow? And that’s important. The other lesson from the case is this lesson about the false positive. Almost every young business has a version of this. Every young business needs early adopters, they’re often foaming at the mouth with enthusiasm for whatever you bring. That enthusiasm may not extend to the mainstream customers, the folks you’re going to pursue later. And in fact, the needs of the early adopters may be fundamentally different. They can be power users with very sophisticated needs. And if you put too much energy into serving them, if you tailor your product for their needs, you may actually be missing the mark in terms of what the mainstream wants. So it’s really, really important for an entrepreneur to know the differences between early adopters and mainstream customers and having some plan. There are a lot of ways you can manage those differences. You can create two versions of the product. You can migrate a version. You can hide the advanced features over time. You can bet on the mainstream and hope that it’s good enough for the early adopters if you leave out the advanced stuff. So there’s lots of ways to solve it, but you need the knowledge of the differences and a roadmap for dealing with them.

BRIAN KENNY: Tom Eisenmann, Lindsay Hyde, thank you so much for joining me today. This has been a lot of fun.

TOM EISENMANN: Thanks, Brian.

LINDSAY HYDE: Thank you.

BRIAN KENNY: If you enjoy Cold Call, you should check out our other podcasts from Harvard Business School, including After Hours, Skydeck, and Managing the Future of Work. Find them on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Thanks again for joining us. I’m your host, Brian Kenny, and you’ve been listening to Cold Call, an official podcast of Harvard Business School, brought to you by the HBR Presents network.

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