Mark and Steven Perissinotto have really let their Sunshine Coast business go to the dogs.
And it’s one of the best things they’ve ever done.
VetShop Australia, a low-cost, online pet healthcare business was set up by Mark, a vet, and Steven, a lawyer, way back in 1999, and has proven to be well ahead of the pack in terms of providing a flexible and stress-free workplace by allowing staff to bring their dogs to work, and giving them sick leave if they need to stay home to care for sick pets.
“We’re all pet mad here,” Steven told The Huffington Post Australia.
“From day one we’ve had pets coming into work with staff,” he said. “We really wanted to be the sort of bosses we wished we’d had -- and we’ve had some great bosses -- but being a privately owned company, and based in a region, we don’t pay top dollar, we can’t pay top dollar.
“But what we can do is treat our staff the way we’d like to be treated in terms of flexibility for family and flexibility for pets.”
Steven said they also give staff time off to care for sick pets.
“We were giving people time off to look after sick pets from day one anyway, so we formalised it and decided to shout it to the world.
“When you're a pet person, it’s highly stressful when you have a sick pet and have to leave them at home alone while you go to work. So we either say bring them in with you so they can sit quietly and you can keep an eye on them. That doesn’t work if it’s a horse though, and you need to stay with them while the vet comes.
“We just say take the time off without having to worry about your job for a day or so. Of course, we let people have time off for sick children, so why wouldn't we do it for a sick horse?”
He said having pets in the workplace decreased stress levels among the staff.
“The pets remind us what it’s all about -- family, and friends and pets,” he said.
“The staff are less stressed and more focused, and they’re getting out every hour or so with the dog to stretch their legs too.
Customers come in to pick up orders and they see that dog and they have a pat and talk to us about it, it really gives everyone a lift.
“There would be a risk it became a stressful workplace -- the phones are always ringing and orders you have to get out the door, we all know there’s a pet at the other end waiting for it.
“So our packing staff really move. It could be one of those workplaces where it’s high stress but it’s really not and I attribute a big chunk of that to the pets in the workplace.”
One of Australia’s first online businesses
The entrepreneurs founded the business back in the dark ages of dial-up internet, and were one of the first e commerce businesses to launch in Australia.
They taught themselves to code and built their website themselves, stocking around 300 products which has now grown to more than 9500.
“We started the business in 1999, part-time out the back of Mark’s vet clinic in Nambour initially,” Steven said.
“It was before the first tech boom and online retail was a really early thing. We’d always been quite interested in tech and we were really early adopters in terms of the internet ourselves personally so we sat down and had a chat about what we thought we thought we could sell online -- it was either law books or animal health products, and we chose animal health products.
“At the time the people who were online shopping were really just enthusiasts -- it was an exciting time, we were all enthusiastic amateurs -- there was no best practice, no one to copy or get ideas from.
"We were on our own. Nothing was off the shelf, everything was from scratch. The flipside was that people’s expectations were limited, the colours were dreadful and we look at early versions of the website and we go, ‘Oh my god! How daggy! But it was functional.
“By 2005 we had a couple of staff and Mark went on board with the business full-time, and I came on board full time in 2007.
"We've now got around 12 staff, and we still have our very first customer -- who wasn’t a friend or family -- he’s still around, so we must be doing something right. We have many, many long-term customers and it’s really satisfying.
“We also get new customers all the time which is really great -- there are lots of choices now, so it’s great they come to us.”
Changing attitude to pets drove the business
Steven said back when they launched VetShop, 30 percent of pet owners allowed their dog to sleep on their bed -- now it’s 60 percent, showing just how much Aussies have embraced pets as part of the family.
“In 1999, the products we sold were products that you would physically have to go and buy -- it was either supermarket brands or visit the vet, so we really just tried to cater to that real convenience aspect for people,” he said.
“We gave people the ability to order from home with the comfort of knowing you were buying from a vet-owned company.
“A lot of what we sell are animal health products -- flea, tick, intestinal worming, heartworm control -- and there's been a real shift in the position the pet has in the family.
“Now dogs come everywhere with us, they come to cafes with us, they sleep on our beds… there are very social factors for why that trend happens and how our families are developing, and we’re happy about that trend.”
Viability, growth and expansion came early
Mark and Steven realised early on that international sales were going to play a big part in their early success and offered international shipping for the get-go.
“We went from a couple of orders a week to a couple of orders a day back in ‘99,” Steven said.
“When we hit 10 orders a day in 2000, we thought ‘hey this is actually a business here’. We had some phenomenon growth in the first 5 or 6 years; we’ve always had our up years and our down years, but we’ve had consistent growth across the last 10 years.
“In about 2001-2002, we had quite a few international orders -- it was way before anyone had any concept about cross-border trade of this type; people just weren’t putting parcels to customers in the mail or on a courier and sending to the US or the UK back then.
“Our very first order to the US, we packed it, put it in the mail and hope it turned up. We couldn’t track it like you do now. There was no one who had any experience sending a parcel or something consumer from a retailer in Australia to the US in any sort of significant way.”
Steven said now international trade accounts for around 40 percent of their business.
“We get a lot from the US and the UK that’s progressed into Asia now, Singapore and Malaysia and a little bit into Japan and China,” he said.
“We launched our first US-focussed site in 2002 with US spellings and accepted US dollars for payment. It’s grown to be about 40 percent of our business, the international market. We got a call centre in Vancouver in 2005 to handle that site.
“Now we do somewhere between 8500 and 10,500 orders a month.”
Payment gateway pivotal to success
Steven said it was crucial to the success of the business to choose the right payment gateway.
“Back when we started, people were just online shopping enthusiasts,” he said.
“But then it grew so quickly, and we had to make sure we had the right platform for us. If the payment processing is down, it costs us money and people may not come back.
“We’ve been with eWAY since the beginning for that reason -- we just don’t have those problems with them.
“Their customer service is amazing and they do contact us when they have new ways of doing things so we stay up-to-date and current. They’ve always been great like that -- back in the early days, my wife had to call them and (eWAY founder) Matt Bullock answered the phone himself.
"He was trying to deal with the query, but said ‘would it be OK if I called you back tomorrow?’ and she said yes, and he said ‘thank you so much because I’ve evacuated the premises, sent all the staff home because some bushfires are coming’. He was loading up the servers into the back of his car to keep them safe, but he still took the phone call and tried to help.
“That’s amazing customer service, and it didn’t exist like that back then. We’re one of his oldest customers but we’re certainly not one of the most valuable by any means, but he’s always happy to help.”
Keeping in touch with customers is important
VetShop Australia run an annual event called the VetShop Australia Surfing Dog Spectacular on Noosa Main Beach as part of the Noosa Festival of Surfing to have some fun and connect with customers.
“It’s a really fun day and it gives our staff a lift too,” he said.
“It gives something back into the community and, for me, the real take to the bank value is that we get out and we’re talking to dog and cat owners, we’ve got time to have a chat without overtly selling anything.
“We had five competitors in the first year, and we had about eight now. It gets big crowds -- first year we got 2500. This year we got 6500, which is amazing. For someone like Layne Beachley, who is one of the greatest ever sports people, a real champion, you’ll get 400 people on the beach watching her.
“But you put a dog on a surfboard, and you get 6500. It’s such a fun event and is great way to promote healthy pets.”