Second Time’s the Charm: How Pivoting Raised Dogiz from Its Ashes After COVID [Podcast #91]

This week on the SOL Podcast, we are joined by Danny Djanogly, Co-Founder of Dogiz. Our discussion revolved around the impacts of past experiences and one’s own pain points whilst becoming an entrepreneur, bouncing back from the negative effects of a global pandemic, how to pivot a business based on the changing market, the ways in which being an entrepreneur affects the daily lives, teaching power of mistakes, the perception around startups, and especially failure, within London’s startup ecosystem. 

Dogiz is a mobile app that helps dog owners to get a better understanding of their dogs’ health and gives rewards for keeping their dogs active. Dog owners can track their dogs’ fitness activity and health and by doing so earn coins to spend on Dogiz shop where they can find services and products for their dogs. With their technology, Dogiz aims to help dogs live longer, healthier and happier lives.

To learn more about another startup’s journey and its founders’ insights about the startup ecosystem you can listen to the episode or read the transcription below!

Ozan Dağdeviren

Hello, and welcome to the Startups of London Podcast. I’m your host Ozan and the founder of Startups of London. Today, I’m joined by Danny, Co-Founder of Dogiz. Welcome to our chat, Danny.

Danny Djanogly

Hi. Awesome. Thank you so much for having me.

So tell us all about the business. What is Dogiz? Am I saying the name right? 

Dogiz, yes. 

Ease with dogs. So tell us all about the business. When did you found it? What’s the story so far? And then we can take it from there?

Sure. So Dogiz is an interesting journey. We actually started – I met my co-founder at university around six or seven years ago. We met in the startup class. I was studying government and politics, he was studying economics. We very quickly realised economists and politicians, we would not be. And so I kind of adopted my dog Mufasa in my second year of university, and then in the last year, as I said, I met my co-founder in the startup class. 

And kind of after university, I suppose not like dissimilar to many students after university wasn’t exactly sure what to do. Looked around, you know, interviewed a few places, and apparently found out I was totally unemployable. So I started my own business. But no, I think we kind of started off as more of on-demand professional pet care services. So from our own personal experiences of living in big cities, and small apartments with big dogs. You know, often the struggle of juggling between girlfriends, university, work and social life often meant that and all the time the dog was kind of alone for long periods of time. And we kind of found that if you depend on a friend or a neighbourhood granny or someone to take out the dog when they do let you down, ultimately, it was the dog that always suffered. 

So Dogiz actually began its journey as an application for urban dog owners to help manage professional pet care services. So it was on-demand, dog walking, daycare, boarding, training, grooming, etc. So the idea was that you could come on to the app, and connect with listed professional pet care service providers in your area. And then there was a whole booking system, you’d get live updates when the dog walker would actually come to your house. So you would know if they’ve been there, and then could actually track the walk live in real-time so you could see how long he was out. And all the payment was done by credit and debit cards, kind of eliminating a lot of this kind of cash-in-hand nature of the business. So we started that and things were kind of going very well. There was then until kind of 2018, we started expanding here in London. End of 2018, and 2019, everything was going fabulously well. I think 2020 January and February were our best months ever. I think we’ve already smashed our Q1 projections, just from January and February. And then, of course, March 2020. Can’t tell the exact day, but it was, you know, March 10, March 15, COVID hit and that completely shattered our business. You know, the whole, the whole concept of our business was “you’re at the office, your dogs at home, let us take care of your dog.” And obviously, you know, we were doing hundreds of bookings a day, and we saw our numbers collapse by a little over 80%.

Now, I think probably like everyone, when COVID happened we were like, everyone else was like, “Oh, I’m sure this will be over in a week or two in a month or two.” And then as the weeks kind of started to move on. And we had lockdowns. And we saw a lot of our dog walking companies kind of closed down. And you know, things kind of really became quite a struggle. You know, obviously, we had to put people on furlough, we had to kind of try and ease and cut costs where we could. And we then kind of were faced with a very harsh reality of coming to our board and saying, “Look, either we shut up shop and we call it a day. Or we go back to the drawing board and we build a far more holistic solution for all dog owners, not just the kind of small minority of those who are dependent on these services.” And we wanted to build a far more technological platform that wouldn’t have the same operational constraints that you know, dog walking and on-demand kind of supply and demand operation that our previous business had. 

So that’s kind of over the last two years really, we went back to the drawing board and built the kind of new Doggiz 2.0 which is what we’ve released over the last few weeks. And it’s been a crazy roller coaster. The new Dogiz app is basically an AI-enhanced platform that enables and motivates dog owners to be more active with their dogs and rewards them with Doggiz coins, which they can use as discounts on our partners’ products and services. The whole idea is to kind of gamify and reward active dog ownership with these kind of this loyalty reward program, that, as I’m sure you know, the rise of cost of living is obviously hit the pet world as well, like every pretty much every aspect of life. And so what we wanted to do was to kind of help dog owners make more informed better decisions about their dog, and reward them for this being more active with these Dogiz coins, to make it more affordable to take the best care of your best friend. So that’s the kind of very quick Dogiz summary today.

Much appreciated. I think it’s a good recap of what has gone on over the years. Let me ask you, you’ve talked about the pivot that you’ve done, you remade the strategy. This is by no means a foreign concept for the people who are in the world of startups. But we don’t talk nearly enough about what it actually feels like while you’re going through that. So could you perhaps share what did you feel? What did you think while you were making that strategy during that pivot?

Well, I think, something I’ve always found and I’ve always said, first of all, we’ve been very blessed and very lucky to have really amazing supportive investors who truly believed in it myself and my co-founder, Alon [Zlatkin]. But I think part of the process of really when you’re starting up a business, it’s a weird, blended mix because, on one hand, you need to have the arrogance to be able to say “I can do something better and different than anyone else.” But on the same side, you need to have the humility and also to take your pride out of it to look and say, You know, when things aren’t working, you can either stick to your guns in the state of these ideas and say, “I’m going to stay gung ho until the end.” Or you can listen to the market. And that’s what we were kind of forced to do. So of course, in the beginning, you know, it wasn’t easy. And I think, you know, and that’s why I touched upon – both Alon and I, maybe we were in a little bit of denial with our “COVID will be over soon, I’m sure things will get back to normal.” And of course, it’s not an easy change to make. But I actually think that short-term COVID was horrible for our business. Long-term, it was ironically, the biggest blessing in disguise, not just for us personally as founders and for the pivot and changes that we made, but as, I’m sure you know, dog ownership sold in across the world that dog shelters, emptied.

People started spending more time at home, but it helped.

Of course, of course. And also people wanted to – during lockdowns if you had a dog, it was a good excuse to be able to actually get out and walk your dog. And I think we’ve seen in the UK alone, there were 3 and a half million new homes to welcome a dog just in COVID. So it was definitely, you know, as an entrepreneur, it’s sometimes tough to realise and admit when something’s not working. Again, some of the things are in your control, and some of them are not, of course, obviously, the pandemic – there was nothing we could have done. And that’s why it maybe would have been an easier choice to just put our hands up then and say, “You know what, this global pandemic destroyed our business, we just need to put our hands and, and give up.” And maybe that would have been an easier choice. But you also have to sometimes be stubborn – we joke -, stubborn bastards. And you have to have belief in what it is that you’re doing. And I actually found once we made that switch of “Okay, we’re going in a new direction,” I actually found that kind of re-fell in love with the business again because it was that kind of really exciting, fun part of creating something new. And again, it was also based on a lot of the feedback and knowledge that we’ve gathered from having a community already for quite a number of years. And that’s really, I found it quite inspiring. And I know my business partner Alon as well as getting our teeth stuck into a new project. Although obviously it was still connected in the dog world. I found once we made that shift you get over that “okay, it’s not working, move on.” When we move on, I actually think it kind of it really was quite invigorating, because it kind of in a way felt that you’re again at that beginning stage of starting something new, which is of course, as we mentioned earlier, extremely stressful. But also I found it very exciting.

It’s really interesting. It almost is like falling in and out of love with the relationship a founder has with their startup. 

Oh my god. 

Really, it’s just a new experience. Thoroughly exciting. Lots of dreams for the future. 

It’s a roller coaster. It’s a roller coaster. 

Reality hits you in the face.

Exactly! And it’s so funny and why I always say, and I think one of my biggest blessings, and I’ve been so lucky in that my business partner Alon has not just become, you know, one of my closest friends but exactly that kind of confidant and we joke that you know, sometimes when it’s stressful we’re each other’s counsellors. His wife jokes that I’m his second wife, you know, the amount of we speak on the phone and the amount of time we talk. But having someone with you along the way, who’s in the trenches to laugh about the good times and celebrate the good times. And sometimes it’s super soul-crushing, it’s super depressing. It’s, there’s nothing worse than working on a big deal that you’ve been working on for a month, and then the investor last minute pulls out or the strategic partner something happens, it’s more important than you and it collapses. And it’s something as you say, every startup founder goes through of those rollercoaster highs and lows, and having a good team and a business partner, although, as, you know, makes it so much easier and more palatable. Although, of course, as I’m sure you know, sometimes you just get slapped in the face, and you’re just like, “Why the hell do I not just have a regular nine to five, where I can leave my job and not care what happens.”

It’s an easier way to make money, let me tell you that.

Definitely, definitely. That’s for sure. 

I really like this second, falling-in-love aspect. Because I think that’s a very particularly special moment when you have a foundation of a business, you have fallen out of love, you’ve lost interest, and then you find yourself re-interested in that. So there’s a kindling of that enthusiasm again, and they come back for a second time. Now you’re not starting from scratch, now you have a better understanding of the market you’re in, and now you have a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities. And you go in again, with that optimism, but this time is somewhat cautious optimism. Does that reflect your situation?

100%. And what I would say, as alumni, over our last few years of journey at the beginning, and I’m probably still like, we made every single mistake in the book. We screwed up so many times, whether it be with investment deals or strategic partners, or just things, you know, marketing things, things that we thought we had right and we just got wrong. And you muck up so often it’s part of the game that we play. And we joke now. I think one of the biggest struggles, and I think especially around actually closing funding that as a first-time founder, there’s just nothing that can prepare you for the craziness that’s going to ensue no matter what field, what business, whether you’re B2B or B2C, whether you’re technology, whatever field of startup you are, starting a business, from scratch, raising funds, building a team, building a product, product-market fit; whatever field you’re in is, is so hard. And we joke you know. I joke with you, obviously before we started I used to have a little bit more hair before I started. 

So aside from the stress, I think we mucked up so many times, because of the fact that we were first-time founders that had no idea and hoped the business will be a success. And the next time I think there are so many lessons that we learn the hard way that, I hope that means next time we’ll be able to avoid these pitfalls and these mistakes. But I also think that ultimately, the way people view failure is sometimes a little bit skewed and a little bit wrong. I think, especially in the startup world, and kind of what you touched upon about kind of falling in love again, and I think failure is part of the process. And I think we sometimes stigmatize it as a very negative thing, “Oh, he failed.” And I think if you judge it in that sole prism of a success-fail in a specific task that you’re trying to do, it’s very easy to just shut it off and be like, “Okay, he failed. That’s it, it’s over.” But if you actually learn from that failure and take the lessons that it taught you, and take that knowledge and throw it into that new project with, as you said, the lessons you learned and use it to kind of build on the experiences that you gained? It’s a real mental shift that took me a while as well to look at that. Failing in of itself is not a bad thing. I think if you’re not learning from your failures, and you’re not taking those things, and you’re trying to do the same thing 1000 times and it’s not working, that for me would be a failure, but I think the failure is more failure to adapt and change and try something new and use that knowledge to really push through success in another way or field or how it might manifest itself.

Yeah. So I learned to juggle last year. And you might be thinking, why is this relevant? Something I think really inspired me when I was learning was I came on came across this YouTube video of a teacher who is teaching juggling. And they said, “Juggling is about dropping the ball.” It’s not about the act of keeping the balls in the air at all times, it is about actually dropping the ball. So if you’re going to juggle, you should be ok with dropping the ball, right? And it’s like incredibly deceptive. But it’s incredibly powerful I think this way of approaching. It is just like this game people play where they seek out rejections and whoever gets the most rejections that night kind of wins. It reframes the game, right? So you are going to drop the ball as a startup, you are going to fail, and so on. And having that perspective, I think is really helpful. But at the same time, we are not living in a bubble. 

We are really affected by how society perceives us I think, and in a lot of ways, especially as we are the Startups of London podcast, we are focused on this market, not the international audience perhaps, is what we care about is how failure is within the UK, especially within London and within the professional surplus. So what do you think about that? That bit? How do you think people perceive founders who have built a business for a verdict on it for 2, 3, 5, or 10 years, failed and learned some skills? This might be in marketing, tech, finance, operations, and all other aspects of the business. And how does society and work life value them? And this goes, I think both ways. One component is: Do they value them? Emotionally, perhaps? And the second is do they value them financially as in, do doors open in terms of job opportunities if they would like to go back to work? Or are they seen as indeterminate, permanent outcasts who’ll never make it to corporate life? What do you think?

Well, yeah, that’s why I think, as you mentioned, the perception of startup success, I think is fundamentally flawed. I mean, right now, success -which startup succeeded, which startup failed- is measured, typically on quite a binary scale. So it’s “Did he set up a business?” and “Did he sell the business?” You know, or “Did the business close down?” Of course, in a very simplistic way, it’s very easy to say, “Okay, this guy started up a business and sold it for 100 billion. He’s a success story.” And then it’s very easy to look at a guy, “He started a business and they’ve got some revenues, but then they ran out of money, and it failed.” It’s very easy, of course, to say the one who sold his business for 100 billion is a huge success and the one who failed is a huge failure. But I think it comes down to the journey along the way. And I think as like with anything when you’re coming, I suppose in an interview, and, “Look, I’ve no, I’ve no guarantee that my business is going to be a success. In fact, if we look at the statistics the more, statistically more the chance my business is going to fail than my business is going to succeed. If you look at the statistics, there’s more chance I’m going to close down and sell my business for 100 million or 100 billion.” 

But I think it’s about what you’ve learned along the way, and the people you’ve met, the investors who believed in you, building that network. I think that ending up going on the journey is priceless. And I’ve had a few people who’ve gone on and done MBAs amazing schools, or Harvard, Cambridge, and they said, “When I went and started my business, even an MBA and business masters and all these things, nothing could have prepared me for what I actually learned along the roads.” And I think what you can learn in a classroom, from a theoretical point of view, doesn’t incorporate or encapsulate the emotional lessons that you learn from failing and from mucking up, because it’s very easy when you get a math question wrong. But when you’re actually making the wrong decision, and it impacts your business, you learn the lesson in a much deeper and more powerful way than merely getting an exam question wrong. 

So I do think that people, the way people perceive success and failure is skewed and is based, as I said, on that paradigm of whether your business was sold for a lot of money or, or it wasn’t. And I do think that founders, by definition, even the ones who have failed- it takes a lot of courage to go out and start new. It takes a lot of balls to go out and say I tried something and it didn’t work. It takes a lot of balls to go out and own your mistakes and not a lot of people can do that. And although my friends, of course, work hard in the corporate world and they sometimes also have crazy hours but the life that they live in a way kind of is an easier life than that of an entrepreneur. So I don’t think entrepreneurs necessarily failed, can then never make it in the corporate life or could never make it in any other walks of life. If anything, I think having an entrepreneurial spirit and mindset is the biggest asset to a business because you do want someone who thinks out of the box, you want someone who’s a go-getter, you want someone who will know how to think we’re all gonna have a big hit not just come in a nine to five and tick the boxes and do what they need to do. So I would always encourage I think people- if you’ve started a business and failed, I don’t think that means you can never make it at Goldman Sachs or the banking world, I don’t, you know, I think you, if you’ve learned the lessons and you’ve learned how to sell your business or sell yourself, then I think at the end of the day, everything is a sales game. So if you know, in a way, you’re in an interview, you’re selling yourself. And so someone who’s been out there and sold their business, whether to investors or to partners to corporates and has managed to successfully do that, for me, this shows obviously some sort of sales skill that at least I would believe, gives me the confidence to make that they could make it and do it in the big corporate world.

Yeah, look, I agree with you. But I also think there’s a difference between someone who’s a founder– because we are living in an economical system, whereby we are integrated to such an extent, we have to be a part of it one way or the other. And I think there’s a difference, a categorical difference between; scenario A, a founder stops their startup journey, and then they’re perceived as this gem, by us, other startups, other people, other organizations, medium size or larger are competing to poach this guy. And on the other hand, Scenario B, where they’re like, quite sceptical about this person, “Okay, he’s like an entrepreneur, we get it. But we don’t know what he has done. Like, we don’t know if his skills would be a match.” And then they are really not interested, in getting that person and an opportunity in a different environment. Now, I think the difference between the two scenarios is it kind of goes back in time and changes how people appreciate, and how people are willing to start being an entrepreneur. Because in Scenario A, you have some kind of insurance, right? Because of your experience, because of your value, you know that you will be valued, even if your startup does not succeed. Whereas in Scenario B, it’s kind of like a win or loses all type of a scenario, when you’re this incredible person, genius, successful, founder of businesses, amazing entrepreneur. And if you do not make it, you’re this imposter. And I think we are closer to Scenario B in my personal opinion than Scenario A. And I think that is exactly what is hurting the startup ecosystem in London. What do you think?

Maybe? Yeah, thankfully I haven’t done – still doing well enough that I haven’t done any interviews with any big corporates. I hope I never have to.

There are a lot of founders, certainly, a lot of founders who have been founders and compared to, for example, 2015-16. And a few years back, a lot of people who started one startup and failed are in the economy now, compared to 5, 10 years.

I’m sure that it’s definitely become more popular. And I think that’s one aspect of it. And yeah, I think people who I think sometimes entrepreneurs or founders, one reason maybe why could be corporate might be a bit sceptical, as I do know, and other founders, you know, who set up businesses, and once you’ve been a founder, it is very hard to go and then work for the man or work for someone else. Once you have had your own business, and that autonomy, to be able to make decisions and make things happen faster, and be in charge of your destiny. I do understand why sometimes corporates might be a bit sceptical. Some personalities aren’t suited to work in the big corporate environment. I don’t necessarily think that’s exclusively true of founders. But I do think that in general, by nature, some founders might maybe go you know, when you’re used to being the economy and making the decisions for the business and all of a sudden you go work and you’re just part of a chain, that I can understand why that would be hard and I’m sure if I think about it myself, I’m sure I would probably struggle if I was just a little key and a chain of 100 different keys above me. That I can imagine what would be quite frustrating. But with the whole thing of success and failure I think even now just the other week when you know, Adam Neumann with you know, obviously with the WeWork, with him now raising I think was like two $300 million for his next venture. And there was a whole outcry about, I can’t remember exactly, but some sort of social housing. I also saw so many people giving this outcry of “how can people invest money in him,” and “this guy did this and that,” and at the end of the day, I mean, I think what he built was an incredibly impressive, he changed the co-working space forever. Now again, I’m not going to get into the ins and outs of what happened at WeWork and what he did wrong and the personality and all, I’m sure there’s a lot of criticism, which is justified. And I don’t really know enough about it to make an opinion. What I can say obviously from a founder is this is someone who went out from nothing and managed to– he was an incredible salesman, managed to raise a lot of money to build and do something that changed the working environment, changed the co-working space, how many companies spring off now again, how he managed his company’s finances and the leases and all of that? 

That’s a good point actually.

That’s nothing, I have no idea about it. But what I found really inspiring was that, okay, this was a guy who built a company from scratch to one of the biggest household names, he changed the coworking space, the office space entirely. And yeah, okay, maybe towards the end, he mucked up, maybe he did things wrong, I don’t know, again, as I said, I don’t know the ins and outs. But the fact that he was then willing, able to go back and for a completely new idea, though, on this, for my understanding, as well as some sort of co-working or co-shared living experience, the fact that he was out able to go out and raise $300 million on an idea shows to me that people failure does not have to be the be all and end all. And just because you muck it up once is not a guarantee that you’ll muck up again. And if you fail and learn from it. And you know, who knows, again, as I said, I don’t know, the ins and outs of how WeWork was handled. And towards the end, obviously, I know the famous things are they went from 40 billion to one over 7 billion, but no one talks about that. He started a company from scratch, and they got to a $40 billion valuation, like, that’s insane. You know, it’s amazing. And I saw a lot of lash back and people, you know, criticizing “How can these investors give this guy money and all of these things?” And they kind of made me think that yeah, well, first of all, I don’t necessarily think that WeWork was a failure, he might have failed and things towards the end. And as I said, I don’t know enough about it. But from just the conceptual point of view, he started the business from nothing, he got it to an amazingly high valuation. And then for whatever reason, it went down a considerable amount, but still a lot higher than it was when he started and he disrupted the entire industry. He changed office, the whole office space mentality that co-working spaces were a completely foreign concept until WeWork came. 

It’s kind of the bets people are taking, right? So your investors, they see a trajectory of a change in how we work, how we live. Exactly. And then like not just for co-working spaces, in the case of Dogiz, for example, it’s how we interact with pets, or we expect services around pet ownership, and all other things. But because running out of time, I just would like to ask you one last question. What do you have on the horizon as the big milestones for Dogiz?

Sure. With Dogiz 2.0, the idea is really to kind of help incentivize and motivate dog owners to be more active with their dogs and reward them with discounts on premium pet products and services. So in Israel, we’ve now signed a deal with Nestle and Purina, which is, they are monsters in the food business and the dog world. Well, here in the UK, we’re extremely excited. Last week, we announced the launch with Harringtons, which is one of the largest and most trusted UK dog food brands. We’re now working on some very big deals across the globe, I was speaking with some big US e-commerce players, and we’re speaking with some big Asian e-commerce players. And the idea really is to kind of help these brands build a loyalty platform that motivates their dog owners to be more active and ultimately uses dogs’ data to make AI-based recommendations on the best products or services suited to your dogs based on what other dogs of similar breeds, and similar ages are, are using and enjoying. So the idea really now we’ve got a lot of big partnerships that we’re working on, is to really help dog owners make better more informed decisions, and also to help brands better understand who their dogs are and who their customers really are. 

So we’ve got a lot of exciting things and the main exciting feature that we have now is Doctor Poop, so you can take a picture of your dog’s poop and instantly find out if it’s healthy or not. We’re now working on a few other kinds of AI, digital image-based analysis that can help dog owners make better quicker informed decisions without having to necessarily run to the vet every time they panic and something’s happened. And especially now with the rise in the cost of living, we want to make it more affordable for dog owners to take the best care of their best friend. And I think we’ve been inspired by our dogs in the community that we built. And I know you said you’re not yet a dog owner I know. But we’re hoping and maybe after this call, you’ll change your mind. 

Maybe in the future. 

Maybe that’s in the future. And as I said, for us, you know, we were really excited about the next stage in dog ownership. I think over the last 15-20 years, you’ve had what we know many people are calling “the humanization of pets.” So we’ve seen the way we interact with our dogs is drastically different to our parents’ or grandparents’ generation. Dogs used to be something that just lived in the garage, and ate a little bit of chicken from your supper. And that was it. And now we’ve really seen that humanization, people really believe in their dogs are members of their family, people buying their dogs Christmas presents or all sorts of different ways where we’ve seen that. And I think the next stage for us is really this digitalization of pets. And we’re using an understanding data, specifically, health data about dogs to enable dog owners to keep their dogs happier and healthier for you know, hopefully, a much longer lifespan.

Danny, thank you so much for joining this chat today.

Ozan, thank you so much, it was a real pleasure. Looking forward to many more discussions.