Chris and Natasha Ashton risked a lot to get Petplan off the ground.
“Two years of funding the business on credit cards and taking cash out on the credit cards to pay off student loans at Wharton,” says Natasha, the pet insurance company’s co-founder, co-CEO and CMO. “Two years of sleepless nights. But it proved to us that there is always a way and perseverance is the greatest strength of an entrepreneur. You can’t give up.”
It was ultimately the confidence that she and her husband, Chris, had that they would find an insurance carrier willing to underwrite their business that kept them going. But once that happened, the work of building their business didn’t end. The next step was selling the idea of buying insurance for pets.
“In the U.K. today, close to 30 percent of all pets are insured,” says Natasha, who grew up in the United Kingdom. “In the U.S., it’s hovering around 1 percent. When we were looking to enter the market, it was less than 1 percent. So it was a tremendous opportunity.”
Since the industry was so new to the United States, Natasha says it was helpful to look at what other industries did to gather ideas on how to build their own business. Petplan now has more than 100 employees and topped $50 million in revenue in 2013, but that didn’t happen overnight.
“Even though we’re a pet insurance company, we never saw ourselves as such,” she says. “From the beginning, we saw ourselves as a pet health company that happens to do insurance very well. That really allowed us to grow where others failed. We came at it from a completely different approach.”
Be cautiously bold
Chris says there were some who questioned the logic of focusing on new approaches and innovation in an industry that was still so young.
“You could argue, ‘Why are you trying to differentiate when it’s such an untapped market?’” Chris says. “But you still have to establish your reputation and what you stand for, especially if the market does get busier and larger.”
The goal was to educate people about why pet insurance is important and then demonstrate how Petplan could do it in a way that made the most sense for pet owners.
“If you’re introducing a coffee shop, people obviously know what a coffee shop is,” Chris says. “They just want to know why you’re different. With us, it’s more a question of what pet insurance is, how does it work and why do I need it? Then you get into why you’re the best pet insurance company.”
To help get the word out, the Ashtons got into the publishing business and launched a print magazine called Fetch!
“It’s now one of the leading pet health publications in the country,” Chris says. “That innovation really helped us differentiate in the marketplace.”
Selling your product or service effectively requires the right mix of boldness and restraint. The publication was a good way to get the message out on Petplan without a ton of risk.
“We have a lot of friends who are entrepreneurs, and it’s very easy to think you can spend your way to success,” Natasha says. “It’s very tempting sometimes and goodness knows there are lots of providers out there that will say they have the perfect vehicle to help you generate sales if you just hand over $1 million.
“We’ve found it’s better to do small things quickly and get out quickly if they aren’t working. And then on the flip side, if they are working, put more money into it.”
Find the right people
Another key component of Petplan’s success is the culture that requires employees to love what they do. At Petplan, that means pet lovers are welcome and those who have a tough time with animals need not apply.
“If they are not passionate about pets, we will not hire them,” Natasha says. “Your culture is the be-all and end-all. Competition will come in regardless of the industry, regardless of the market. Products will be commoditized, and all that you have at the end of the day is your brand, your culture and your service. Those are the things you have to be true to because those are what endure.”
That doesn’t mean you just have to be nice and have a bunch of dogs at home to get a job at Petplan. You need the skills to do your job, but you need to be able do that in a way consistent with the company’s culture.
When he’s interviewing prospective new employees, Chris says he looks for situations where the candidate made a difference.
“Give me an example of a situation where you made a real difference,” Chris says. “Where did you improve a process or make something better? It lets people talk about anything from their personal life to their business life. We aren’t looking for people who just want a job. We want people who want to get in here, get better and improve. Some people want to come in and just get told what to do. We want people who can think and are looking for ways to be better.”
Know your stuff
Petplan now insures more than 100,000 pets across the United States. The company continues to expand and the Ashtons see a bright future ahead.
One of the lessons that Natasha took from the experience of getting the company off the ground was the importance of preparation. It’s particularly critical when you’re asking people to invest in your business.
“You have to have the answers for everything,” Natasha says. “You have to be prepared, polished and know the industry better than they know the industry. Know your presentation inside out and back to front.”
Chris adds that you’re not just selling your business plan.
“They are investing in you the person as much as your business,” Chris says. “They have to believe in you.” ●