The scaleup’s CEO discusses the new easyJet partnership, what makes global expansion tricky and why he’s not fussed about Brexit
Do you like animals and travelling? Then this startup may have the perfect opportunity for you. “TrustedHousesitters is revolutionising the way people travel by allowing home and pet owners to connect with trusted and verified sitters who pet-sit for free in exchange for a place to stay in amazing locations,” says Tim Lyons, CEO of the scaleup.
From staying at European chateaus and Downton Abbey-esque homesteads to cottages overlooking the Norwegian fjords and houses right next to the beach, TrustedHousesitters certainly provides people with an affordable chance to see the world. No wonder it’s become so popular. “Members tell us it genuinely changes their lives as they are able to travel more with peace of mind,” continues Lyons.
This approach hasn’t only given the company a number of awards but last year it also saw the business launch its own app, raise a significant investment from private equity firm Rockpool and land a partnership with easyJet. “It has been a great year for myself and the business,” he says.
Today the company is operating in over 130 countries. However, back in 2010 this success couldn’t have been further from founder Andy Peck’s mind. At the time, he was preoccupied with surviving after contracting two life-threatening conditions. Peck had first contracted Guillain-barré syndrome, a rare but serious autoimmune disorder, in Thailand, and then, in the same year, high altitude sickness with swelling of the brain in the Bolivian Andes. “I spent weeks in intensive care and two years recovering, coming very close to not being here today,” Peck remembered in a blog post.
While recovering from the ordeal, he found himself house and pet-sitting a villa in Spain. Caring for the dogs and cats, he realised how difficult it was for owners to find sitters they trusted. “After speaking with other pet owners, it was clear there was a huge need for a comprehensive house and pet-sitting website,” Peck said. “I saw the relationship between owners and sitters being far warmer and more effective when no money changed hands. By providing a win-win for both sides of the network, deeper connections were being made and a new and unique way to travel was born.” One year later he founded TrustedHousesitters with his fiancé.
Lyons joined the company in 2015 after meeting Peck during a family vacation in Turkey. “I got involved because I could see the potential for a business like this to revolutionise the petcare landscape and change the way pet lovers think about travel,” he remembers. At the time Lyons was working as a finance director at the motoring service provider RAC. Even though some people would have been hesitant to join the fledging business as a CFO, Lyons was excited about the prospect of joining the company on the ground floor. “The thing about working for a smaller business, as it was then, is that you can make a real difference very quickly,” he says. “It’s a huge shift from working for a very large, hierarchical firm. You get to wear a lot of different hats – whilst I was the CFO I looked after the numbers but I was responsible for so much more than that.”
Over the next three years Lyons was first promoted to managing director in 2017 and then to CEO at the end of 2018. As such, he personally spearheaded the growth of the business and faced the challenges of growing into different markets. Going across the pond was especially demanding. “We gained more new members in the USA last year than [in] any other country and that’s amazing, but it comes with its own challenges because it’s such a big market and so regionally different,” Lyons says. Tackling this hurdle head on, TrustedHousesitters has focused on localising its offering, adapting to regional differences.
But that glocal approach isn’t just relevant in the States but across the world as the company continues to scale. “The biggest challenge for us now is localising the experience, globally,” Lyons explains. “We drive awareness in global markets by sharing member stories that are locally relevant and promoting referral by existing members. Our dream is that we have both a fully translated site in the future but one that also assists relationships between owners and sitters who speak different languages, because the language of pets is universal, so it shouldn’t matter if owners and sitters don’t speak the same one.”
Given how central international growth is to TrustedHousesitters’ business model, one would think the uncertainties caused by the UK crashing out of the EU would worry Lyons. But that’s not the case. “Due to our unique model, we believe that [we’re] not impacted by Brexit,” he says. “[We’ll] still be able to sell memberships to EU countries and so the business continuity is not impacted. When it comes to the travel aspect potentially being impacted, we see the main reason a lot of people want to house-sit is that they want to care for animals. Therefore, you don't need to go and find swaying palm trees in Vanuatu or St Kitts – you could just go look after a nice dog in Dorset.”
The confidence is undoubtedly strengthened by the scaleup’s accomplishments from the last 12 months. “The partnership with easyJet and our recent investment from Rockpool add strong validation to what we’re achieving,” Lyons adds. “It’s a very exciting time to be a part of TrustedHousesitters right now.” The undisclosed sum of money will be used to increase the global expansion.
While undoubtedly proud about the results from 2018 and the prospects of the wins to come, Lyons adds that he’s particularly happy about being able to offer “life-changing experiences for even more people as they find the freedom to travel with peace of mind.” “We hear about our members’ stories daily and that makes it all the more rewarding,” he continues.
When asked what advice he would give to entrepreneurs aspiring to open their own international business, Lyons answers: “Knowing the market and validating your proposition is the first step. If we didn’t solve a problem [that's] faced by so many pet owners we wouldn’t have achieved the success we have, which then led to investment.”
It certainly seems as if taking the lead in the petcare market has proven to be a bit of diamond in the ruff for this scaleup.