Published: Friday 15th of May 2015

I discovered Rover.com while visiting Seattle for the first time with my dog Bruce Wayne. I had work meetings lined up all day and no one to care for my pup. I called and emailed every dogcare location in every neighborhood of Seattle, and they all said they would not accept new dogs for drop-ins. So I turned to Rover.

Within an hour, I had scheduled a meet and greet with a kind dog sitter named Kristina who offered to provide daycare for my pup each day I visited. She put sweaters on my dog and sent me photos throughout the day, and Bruce made friends with her little pups too.

I’ve been an avid fan ever since, visiting their office to talk with a few of their team members, sending pictures of Bruce Wayne to be featured in their newsletter, and dressing him in Rover bandanas.

An action shot of a Rover pack (Bruce Wayne on far right)

An action shot of a Rover pack (Bruce Wayne on far right)

I’m not the only one addicted to Rover: over 10,000 people join Rover every week and their Net Promoter Score [NPS] is off the charts.

To spark this growth and customer happiness, they have actually taken a hands-off approach to community development, and it has proven that great community building is not about management. It’s about leadership.

I sat down with CEO Aaron Easterly to talk about how Rover has grown their community and how that growth has led to some major profits and VC funding (they just announced $25 million in additional funding). Here are just a few indicators of their community success:

  • Sitter revenue has increased by 5x this year.
  • Rover has already connected pet owners to more than 40,000 caretakers (and they plan to double that number in the summer months)
  • A whopping 90% of hosts who have ever received a booking are still bookable on the site (including the CEO himself, Aaron Easterly)
  • According to recent research, 90% of their users have recommended the service to others.

There’s a lot you can learn from the way Rover has grown without focusing on hands-on community development, no matter what kind of business you run.

In this interview with CEO Aaron Easterly, we uncover the secrets to building a community organically. Whether you work on a community marketplace or you’re building community as an ancillary to your core services, you need this advice from Rover’s CEO:

  1. Have a lofty vision.
  2. Start with friends, family, and investors.
  3. Be the gatekeeper.
  4. Be hands-off.
  5. When you do choose to manage, be picky about it.
  6. Tell your story with data.

Rover’s Approach

Aaron and his dog Caramel, courtesy of Tech.co

Aaron and his dog Caramel, courtesy of Tech.co

Rover was born three years ago, a marketplace that launched in the pet space to connect dog owners with dog sitters. The marketplace has expanded like wildfire, and is now active in over 10,000 U.S. cities where people turn to Rover not just for dog sitting, but to book any kind of pet sitting, grooming, or daycare services.

Aaron comes from a marketplace background. He built marketplaces at Microsoft before going on to be an Entrepreneur in Residence at Madrona Venture Group in Seattle. He has a love for business economics, and his little Pomeranian pup Caramel had already stolen his heart. So he combined the two.

Aaron is a unique type of CEO in this space: a community builder, marketplace expert, dog lover, and expert statistician. The latter piece is hugely important in this story. It’s the numbers that tell the story of Rover’s community health and thereby tell the story of the business’s success overall.

Here’s one of those numbers that we’ll start with: 2700% year-over-year growth in the business. What does he attribute that number to?

“What we found is that so many people love their Rover sitters that a lot of them started going to their sitters and asking for other services from them.” The platform doesn’t stop them from messaging and asking for more services, and Rover provides pet insurance and other security for those who stick within it.

“As the trust of the community has grown, people’s willingness to leverage the community for other things has also exploded.” Thus, the business has exploded. “This has taken almost zero intentional effort,” Aaron confesses.

While it may sound like this community growth happened by accident, there are actually six core tenets of their community leadership strategy that have led this seemingly effortless growth.

roverdog

A #Roverdotcom Dog of Instagram

1. Set a Lofty Vision.

Right off the bat, Aaron told me that Rover’s vision was much larger than its core service. This vision and their unwavering belief in it provide a mission that their members can rally behind.

“Rover is not just about offering an alternative to kennels for overnight dog boarding. That’s something we do, but that’s not our vision. We believe at Rover that there’s no development in the history of humankind that has contributed more to our happiness than the domestication of dogs.” This is backed up by actual science… He’s not just being whimsical.

“So we asked ourselves: Why does only 40% of the population have a dog? You have this incredible life-giving, happiness-giving thing, why isn’t everyone a dog owner?”

If we are successful in 5-10 years, we’ll move dog ownership rates. The number one reason for not having a dog is logistics. And it’s also the top reason people surrender their dogs to shelters.”

“Our community should make it possible for people to have dogs in their lives.”

Rover sitters and dog owners alike rally around this mission and join so that they can make their lives easier and ease the lives of other dog owners. It’s not about building a transactional relationship, it’s about sharing happiness through pet ownership.

A photo of Oliver in Seattle

A photo of Oliver, a corgi in Seattle

2. Cementing Rover’s Early Community: Friends, Family, Investors

Getting people in the marketplace in the early days was all about asking friends and family and a few key connections Aaron had made during his time at Microsoft.

“We started at Seattle dog parks and dog events. During our beta, dog lovers who happened to be friends of Rover were a chunk of our early sitters. We even had our investors participate, like Greg Gottesman, who is a partner at Madrona Venture Group. You could go book him for an overnight stay,” Aaron laughs.

“The next thing we did was work on existing dog communities.” This is something they still focus on to this day, and it’s a truly key development in their community growth. They did not immediately begin from scratch. Instead, they knew that dog-loving communities were already strong, and they found ways to add value to them.

“We would take trips to dog parks and dog events as a way of seeding the market and getting the critical mass of sitters. Over time, we stopped having our investors go to dog parks,” Aaron says. “But that was how we started. It was really about the ‘feet on the street’ as well as having people on board that viewed this not just as a business opportunity.”

Aaron stresses the importance of doing initial outreach to allied communities and also how this should come naturally. You should be building community for a group that you are a part of. Otherwise, what is the point?

“I’m always surprised when I come across another pet company and some percent of the time, some people in the company are not pet owners and don’t care about pets. We were pet lovers first and business people second.”

Here’s how you can apply this to your community:

  • Create a list of communities that already exist that would be served by your marketplace or community space. Find a way to give to them and build relationships in those communities.
  • Ask yourself: am I building something that I would use? Would this marketplace serve me? If not, you may want to re-work your community’s value proposition.
  • Reach out to friends and family first. See if the marketplace might serve them.

3. Be the Gatekeeper: Keep Barriers to Entry High

Have high bars for your community to reach. That will take care of a lot of other issues that come up in marketplaces, Aaron tells me.

Rover does not do much to actively engage their existing community in shared spaces. They don’t force community.

This may seem strange to professional community builders, but it actually makes a ton of sense. Instead of actively managing people and pinging them to get involved, Rover leads with their vision first, builds key relationships and meets communities where they are in the offline world, and, finally, keeps barrier to entry insanely high. As a result, those that do enter the marketplace as sitters are already highly motivated to do the right thing and organize on their own.

“We have a high bar for sitters. We only approve 20% of applicants. We’re aggressive about driving quality within those we approve. If sitters are not being responsive, we err on the side of putting them on away mode. We also look at sitters and their repeat customers. We intentionally favor those who interface more and who have more repeat business.”

When I first signed up to be a Rover sitter, I experienced this barrier first hand. It took about six days to hear back about my application, during which time I kept checking the site obsessively to see if I’d made the cut (spoiler alert: I did.). When I finally received notification and my training materials online, the excitement had built to almost ridiculous proportions.

Of course, this does not work for everyone and for every community, but it poses an interesting question: are there times when we need to take a step back as community builders and keep the bar higher?

Are you jealous yet? Don’t be. You can create this effect too.

Here’s how: in the early days, make sure your members are do-gooders. Create a call-to-action that allows the people with the most altruistic intentions to bubble to the top.

This is how Rover did this: “We wanted to know, ‘How often do people do this because they love dogs and don’t mind earning extra money?’ We wanted the people who love dogs. One of the things we did in the early days was launch our Sit a Dog, Save a Life program. This allowed sitters to give a portion of their earnings back to an animal-related non-profit.”

“Nearly a quarter of a million dollars has been donated via that program. It turned out that was a wonderful mechanism to see why a sitter was applying.”

You can also make the application process more rigorous, include a waiting period for approval during which you carefully review your members’ applications, or a training program to get people’s motivations in line with company vision.

One word of caution: if you introduce waiting times or an application process, keep applicants up-to-date about their status every few days. You should also absolutely let them know up front that there will be a waiting period.

4. Let the community organize organically

This is unorthodox advice for our community: don’t focus on community organization; let it happen organically.

Rover invests in several key subsets of its community, not everyone who is a part of it. By giving structure only to those with the highest “lifetime value” (like repeat sitters), they keep costs down and don’t limit their community growth. They don’t set expectations or try to organize people prescriptively. Instead, they step in to organize in key markets or with key sitters. Rover also only has community managers in its key markets.

What makes this possible? It’s not as simple as ignoring the community and letting it grow unhindered. Let’s look at how this is done.

4a. Let your community market for you.

“It’s not uncommon for marketplace businesses to say we have to launch market by market. We originally thought we would do that. We found that the community drove a sufficient amount of the growth. We just opened up the market and sitters sprung up. People would post themselves on Nextdoor, hand out business cards, post to Craigslist. Those markets sprung up without having to do a resource-intensive market-by-market approach.”

They’re also not spending much on marketing compared with other tech companies.

“In general, we have been more conservative than many tech companies in the sharing economy in terms of expenditures. We don’t mind doing paid marketing if we are in a position to maximize the spend and have the proof points that show it is the right investment. If the paid marketing works, that’s a sign the community works, so we view that as a badge of honor.”

4b. Have a voice in allied communities.

While Rover does have its own Q&A Forum, they also try to support the communities that spring up organically around the brand.

“We have seen sitter communities spring up that we don’t manage. Facebook sitter communities have cropped up. That dynamic is super important to driving quality.”

Aaron acknowledges that this is a challenge and a delicate balance: “There’s always a tradeoff. You don’t want to stifle the innovation of the community, but you do want to be a part of those conversations so you can figure out how to roll back in their ideas.”

A dog community site in Milan

A dog community site in Milan

4c. Create non-branded spaces as a test.

“We interact in other communities because it has a positive long term benefit. Fostering our long term vision. We actually own a lot of communities that are not branded Rover, like Friendzy,” says Aaron.

Friendzy is a set of dog-focused communities (i.e. Corgi Friendzy, Boston Terrier Friendzy and Boxer Friendzy that run on SocialEngine.

“One of the things we recognized a while ago is that dog owners and dogs are not monolithic. There are so many different temperaments, traits, energy levels, socialization levels. We have a variety of communication channels. Some are focused on Rover. Some are just dog communities.”

They’ve stayed flexible as they’ve grown and continue to navigate the balance between creativity and control.

Boston Terrier Dog Friendzy Page

Boston Terrier Dog Friendzy Page

5. Create unbelievable service in the spaces you organize.

Rover is very intentional about the way they manage certain parts of their community. While most of their growth has been hands-off, their engagement at the top levels of participation has not been. They offer high-touch engagement with these key groups:

  1. People calling in for customer support issues
  2. Top members with many repeat stays
  3. Those in their premium sitter program
  4. Forums

These are the four clear-cut communities that the company actively shapes. They’re intentional about how they interact with these groups, and they have dedicated teams for improving high-touch communication with almost every single one of these members.

Here’s how they serve each of those groups:

  1. Rover has incredible 24/7 support. When I visited their office, I waved hello to at least 8 people in a dedicated customer support area, answering calls and emails (while surrounded by dogs napping at their feet).
  2. “We work on beta programs with top sitters. We have provided mechanisms for people to share best practices and share experiences.”
  3. “We have a sitter development team who works closely with top sitters. We have our premiere sitter program who will take you through best practices.”
  4. “We have forums in addition to training material. As a sitter, you’ll encounter dogs that are a little different. You can try and face that on your own or you can rely on the rest of the community. We see that there is a decent amount of that going on as well. Asking Qs, sharing best practices, etc.”
Rover's Forums

Rover’s Forums

6. Collect data to tell a community story of change and triumph.

Rover tells their community story through data. Aaron originally planned to be an academic economist, so his background is in statistics. This is a rare quality for a community marketplace CEO, and one that is integral to Rover’s ability to tell stories about the health of their community through data. However, you don’t have to be a data genius to tell a story with numbers.

Look at data such as:

  1. What activities are the top members in your community participating in? What actions are they taking? How can you make that activity connect to revenue growth for the company?
  2. How has revenue increased in your business? What percentage of that is due to those top members?
  3. How many members are you retaining? What does this say about the effectiveness of your work as a community builder?
  4. How many members are joining your community/signing up for your product per week? How many stick around? What can you do to change that?
  5. If you’re providing a service and your customers are connecting with your community, you need to be measuring Net Promoter Score. This will get you started with a benchmark for how satisfied people are with your members’ contributions.
  6. How has engagement, retention, activity, top user membership changed over the last three months? Six months? Year?

 

Aaron has also figured out exactly what “critical mass” means to Rover specifically and this has a huge effect on their ability to scale.

“Critical mass is about $10,000 per month in a metropolitan area is the level where we see that the community is forming and bouncing around.

“Based on the data we look at, Rover is the leader in 19 of the top 20 markets.”

He also shares smore of Rover’s community health stats, such as:

  • Top sitters now pull in $2,000-$5,000 per month
  • 10,000 new members join every week
  • 90% of hosts who have ever received a booking are still bookable on the site
  • 95% of stays receive a 5-star rating
  • 90% of their users have recommended the service to others.

 

It comes down to this: “If you’re doing something with passion that is impacting people, you should be able to measure somehow beyond just anecdotes. If you’re really doing something that is going to impact people’s lives, you’ll have to be able to measure it.

A Rover Newsletter Featuring Bruce Wayne

A Rover Newsletter Featuring Bruce Wayne

Conclusion

At the heart of all the work that Rover does is one simple thing: a passion for pets. Aaron acknowledges that he is a pet lover first and foremost before he is a CEO.

“Most people don’t get to combine their academic passions with their personal passions. I’m a dog lover who loves online marketplaces.”

It may seem a wonderful coincidence that Aaron gets to build this community, but we know it’s no coincidence at all. Rover is thriving under his leadership because his passion and vision are in line with the community’s passion and vision. Everything else has just fallen into place.

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Carrie Melissa Jones

Carrie Melissa Jones | @caremjo

Carrie is the COO and Founding Partner of CMX. She has built community at Chegg and Scribd and has consulted with community companies around the world. She lives in Seattle, WA with her pup, Bruce Wayne.