Entrepreneurs starting Internet businesses in India rarely mention a dog as the inspiration for their venture. Yet, the trio that started Petnopolis.com, an online pet owners’ networking start-up in Mumbai, credits 14-month-old Rottwieler ‘Omar’ as its muse. Founders Zahir Wallani, Burges Dandiwala(Omar is his pet) and Neville Mehta, aged 25-26, seed-funded and launched the start-up a month ago and the site already boasts of 900 registered users, 300 service providers and 300,000 eyeballs. But, the founders are yet to figure out how to convert the traffic on their site into revenues.
“Somewhere down the line we will have to run ads on the website,” Wallani says. “Even now we don’t know if the site will make money or not.” Internet businesses such as Petnopolis.com, that are driven more by passion than hard financial objectives, are rare in the country. But as these businesses are driven by a specific interest, they address a unique marketplace, in this case animal lovers, that may otherwise be overlooked by mainstream Internet businesses. This also means that such businesses will not attract venture capital money in a hurry as the value proposition is not immediately evident.
However, there couldn’t be a better time to experiment with such ‘quirky’ business models. The number of new Internet businesses has spiked in the last two years, fuelled by VC money which has returned to India after a five-year hiatus. VCs, so far, have been partial to certain types of Internet businesses, chiefly, electronic payment businesses, travel portals and matrimonial sites. Petnopolis, in fact, does fall into one of the categories currently in favour with VCs—social networking. This is a relatively crowded space, both globally and here, and a couple of local players, such as Minglebox in Bangalore and Fropper in Mumbai, have even received funding.
Petnopolis’ ‘quirk’ factor stems from its unilateral focus on animals and animal lovers, unlike general social networking sites. The idea originated from a common love of animals and turned into a business plan during Omar’s walks. The three friends, who took turns walking the Rottweiler, often found themselves sharing notes with other pet owners on veterinarians and finding mates for their pets. The online community, apart from the canine-obssessed, now includes folks who own or are interested in cats, horses, rabbits, birds, hamsters and fish.
The co-founders also had the skills for the job. Wallani and Burges have a website design and development business called Brand Catalyst Media since August 2005 where they lead design and marketing, respectively. Neville recently finished his master’s in computer application. All three carried these skills into Petnopolis.com since they started building the website in July 2006. Wallani stresses that the site was made for all animal lovers, including those who don’t own pets. “For animal lovers,” Wallani said. “It takes one to know one.”