How CEO-doctor duo gave up stable jobs to build online vet service in Singapore
They were told not to leave their stable jobs, but the ZumVet founders took the plunge and now operate the remote pet health biz regionally.
SINGAPORE — Trips to veterinary clinics can be expensive and time-consuming, not to mention the anxiety it causes in pets and owners. This can deter many busy pet owners from going to the vet, opting for a wait-and-see approach, sometimes until it's too late.
ZumVet founders and fellow cat lovers Athena Lee and Dr Grace Su saw an opportunity to provide pet tele-consultation services, offering convenience and cost savings. The duo first met when Lee onboarded Su, a former doctor with the Singapore General Hospital, onto the Doctor Anywhere tele-consultation platform – Lee was its chief executive officer then.
"You can tell your boss or colleagues that you aren't feeling well and need to see a doctor. With pets, you can't tell every boss that your cat had diarrhoea and that you needed to take the morning off to attend to that," Su said. "This is where both of us saw how a modality like video consultation or remote care could be especially important."
Last year, the company successfully raised about S$4.8 million in funding from investors to expand the business, which now has 20 full-time Singapore-based staff. It operates in Hong Kong and Indonesia as well.
The COVID-19 pandemic also served as a catalyst when ZumVet launched in October 2019. When the world was on lockdown, the business boomed. Charging lower than conventional vet fees helped too — ZumVet's tele-consultation fees currently start at S$35, while a traditional vet visit can cost up to S$100.
Told not to give up day job
When the pair first started out, they pooled together a sum of money — the amount of which they don't recall because "it wasn't anything that was significant" — to mainly develop an "inexpensive" app.
"Neither of us were full-time when we started. Additionally, we did have friends come in to pitch in and help. We were quite cognizant of the fact that we wanted it to remain quite small, so anyone we did bring in would be part-time, or they would be advisors. I'd say financially, it wasn't a big risk, and we were fairly careful about our spending," Lee said.
Still, they faced objections, including from family and friends. "I think initially when we started, most people thought it was a good idea, especially when they thought it was more of a passion project. A lot of the objections came later when we were trying to scale it commercially," said Lee who went full-time in January 2020. Similarly, Su was told not to "let go of her day job" at the hospital – she too made the move to work full-time on ZumVet just months after its launch.
"Luckily, there was some revenue coming in from the get-go. The timing worked out quite well for us," Lee shared. Demand quickly outgrew supply and the duo spent many hours onboarding more clinics and getting more medication.
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From boom to bust
But it wasn't always smooth sailing for them. After the lockdowns ended sometime in 2021, demand for pet tele-consultation services dried up. By focusing on a remote type of business model and spending time onboarding clinics and vets, the duo had not anticipated the challenge of retaining consumers who initially came so easily.
"We had no marketing team. We had no business development team. It was just up to Grace and me to get users to come on board, so we struggled quite a bit," said Lee. "Our products weren't optimised to onboard people through marketing channels. So it took us a little bit of time to upgrade the product, and from then, we started seeing growth again."
They also discovered that the business was a cyclical one with demand going through ups and downs during certain periods of the year. Operating as a lean two-person team also meant doing widely varied day-to-day responsibilities "jumping from something that can be super admin and detail oriented to something that's very big picture".
Su concurred, adding that the nature of the business and the way they were trying to grow it wasn't exactly traditional.
"It's not like setting up a brick-and-mortar shop, or waiting for customers to come in, or when the customer knows us, they are happy with our service. In various seasons or quarters, we would have a new vertical that we're working on and isn't doing well because it is brand new," said Su.
For instance, in 2022, they launched ZumVet's online store which offers a range of pet products from supplements and treats to accessories. A featured product is its vet-curated pet kit for new "pawrents" that retails at S$101.
New markets, different problems
The company also faces new challenges, such as navigating different cultural and compliance requirements, in trying to expand its operations into new markets. For instance, in Hong Kong, regulators are not as embracing towards the idea of pet telemedicine as compared to Singapore.
Additionally, Lee said that Southeast Asia is still culturally "immature" when it comes to pet care. "It's only been in the last one or two generations where you're starting to see people start to treat their pets as part of the family. What we realised is that a lot of pet owners would only come to us at a fairly late stage of a pet's condition," said Lee. Most pet conditions, according to Lee, are much cheaper and easier to treat if they are detected early.
With the additional investment, the duo plans to "create an ecosystem where remote care can be an important part of end-to-end care for an animal". There are also plans to hire and train its own vet technicians and nurses to take on more house calls, and to collect samples for interpretation in the company's own system.
"We're also looking at ways to provide things like tele-triaging, tele-advice, and ongoing monitoring of chronic conditions. We also want to make medical records more accessible among different caretakers," said Lee.
In the long run, Su said that she "hopes to raise the quality of life and care for animals", while Lee said that she would like for ZumVet to have facilities and services that cater to geriatric pet care within the next "three to four years".
Don't be afraid
Looking back, Lee and Su agree that there was a lot of initial excitement when they first started out. The challenges came later when they were faced with scaling the business and answering to various stakeholders.
Thankfully, "we're getting into a groove and rhythm of how we're running the business, so we've also had more time to invest in how we're able to manage things in a healthier way", said Lee.
Similarly, Su says that having to overcome "the idea that we can do everything" was something that she has learnt, as well as learning to work with people who have skills and talents they don't have.
Ultimately, the duo has this piece of advice for aspiring women entrepreneurs: "Don't be afraid to do something that you set out to do... If you're sure of something, then there's no better time than now to do it".
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