Japan is known for having some of the world’s most enthusiastic pet owners, but as yet relatively few avenues for them to connect with each other. The founders of Play Until Dark, the company behind Meet My Dog, believe their app can fill that gap while segmenting a well-defined audience for advertisers.
Play Until Dark consists of co-founders Sifang Lu, an engineer who co-created the game FarmVille while at Zynga, and Rusaka Komatsu, who previously worked in sales for The Campbell Soup Company. Both dog owners themselves, they soft-launched the application in the US in 2014 and have so far built up a user base of around 20,000. They are currently based in Osaka.
The company plans to roll out a version tailored for Japan in this year's second quarter. The app has a simple aim: to help dog owners find “compatible” owners in their vicinity and facilitate socialising for both them and their pets. That means finding a match based on the dogs’ breed, size and energy level.
“It’s better than just going to the dog park and hoping for the best,” said Lu. “What we want to focus on is the relationship between people. A lot of people don’t just go to the park to give their dog exercise; they want to make new friends as well.”
He was quick to clarify that Meet My Dog is not designed to be a “Tinder for dog owners”, although there is some similarity between the services. He said the app evolved from an “Instagram for dogs” to its current format as a networking service for owners.
L-R: Sifang Lu, Rusaka Komatsu
“We’re not looking to be about dating, but of course, some people may use it for dating,” Lu said. “Others may use it to make coffee friends. If you have a dog, that’s something in common with another person. You feel it’s very easy to start talking to someone who has a dog.”
Given that it’s not unusual in Japan for dog owners to pay each other compliments and make other conversation through their pets, the market appears to have potential. Meet My Dog's user base is located mostly in the US and Canada (80 percent) , while most of the remaining 20 percent is in Europe. But Lu said a recent organic uptick in users from Japan and Korea was encouraging.
Lu also noted that while the number of dog owners in Japan is lower than in the US, online spending on dog-related products is similar. According to the Japan Pet Food Association, close to 16 percent of households own a dog.
Meet My Dog’s business model rests on advertising, but Lu said an aim within that is to provide useful location-based content to dog owners about products and services available in their specific area.
“One thing dog owners are telling us [in Japan] is that there are not enough convenient information sources,” Lu said. “We want to introduce services not so much as advertisers but through [partially paid] content. So besides needing to hire engineers, we want to hire content creators.” The company will also look to hire a designer and more engineers to improve the platform’s aesthetics and develop a more sophisticated matching system, he added.
As the service grows, it will aim to strike partnerships with major brands such as pet food manufacturers, employing member data to act as a bridge between brand and user to cater to their particular needs, according to Lu.
“We think we can do it better than Google because we know all about a person’s dog’s breed, energy level [etc.], so we can give the right coupons, for example," he said. "Big dogs and small dogs need totally different food. We have all that data, so we can provide the right information to users. We don’t want to push things via banners but in a much more informative way.”
In addition to revenue from brands, Meet My Dog is set up to make money through providing services to members, such as group membership. Lu said users can currently make unlimited friend requests free of charge, but that he is considering eventually limiting the rate, charging premium users up to US$5 per month for unlimited connections.
The platform has yet to localise for Japan. Globally, Lu said it is growing at a rate of around 1,000 new users per month, without the aid of marketing spend. He and Komatsu are currently in the process of fundraising, with a target of US$400,000 by the end of this year's first quarter.
Two Japanese pundits working in the pet-care sector at advertising agencies in Tokyo and Osaka agreed that the platform had good prospects, but had some reservations as to how it would initially attract users. “Unifying or grouping based on the type of dog—having a community where you can talk about health issues, problems, and fun things relevant to a particular type of dog—is interesting,” said one account director who works at McCann Worldgroup but did not wish to be named. "Usually large-sized dog owners have different attitudes and behaviours to those with ultra-small dogs, although basic involvement levels are equally deep. 'Toy poodle lovers', 'French bulldog/flat-face dog lovers' and 'Chihuahua lovers' all differ too...Dog owners with the same level of involvement, value-sets and with the same breed type will appreciate and listen to each other."
The source noted that while clubs for specific breeds of dogs exist, participation involves time and money, and an online network could make interacting with like-minded people easier. He added that while there is no shortage of dog-related information online, it can be difficult to find relevant content, and a trusted community that enables sharing of information could be valuable. “It’s who you get the information from that’s important,” he said.
From a brand perspective, the ability to target individual groups is potentially appealing, the source said. “If [the platform] segments a particular target, I think advertisers would be interested.” Pet care brands have also tried to build communities themselves, he noted, but have had difficulty scaling. “If a pet food manufacturer comes in [as community leader], it’s more sales-driven than social-driven. That can make things difficult.
"Instead of selling, it is important for brands, products and services to become a community member, sharing ideas and attitudes. When people appreciate a brand because of its attitude, it has higher relevancy, which leads to purchase [and potentially loyalty]."
Hiroko Kan, associate account director at BBDO in Tokyo, who works on Mars Petcare, said Japanese dog owners like to socialise with each other. “The only thing is that Japanese people are not so proactive in socialising on digital media—they are more hesitant towards socialising with people they don’t know [online],” she said. “They usually like to meet in person first. The idea [of Meet My Dog] is right but it might be a tougher challenge compared to the US.”
For Meet My Dog to succeed, Kan said dog owners would need to see specific benefits from sharing their data. Nevertheless, the potential user base certainly exists, especially in Tokyo. “There are a lot of dog owners in central Tokyo who spend a lot of money for their dogs to be happier, so if it can offer them a service they haven’t gotten yet, it could work well,” she said.