Described as ‘Uber for pet owners’, Vets on Call—an app-based mobile veterinary service—looks like a win-win-win for vets, owners and pets. But is the game-changing business model viable? By Merran White
For Bendigo-raised Morgan Coleman, who cut his entrepreneurial teeth founding an eponymous real estate company, the light bulb moment came in 2015.
Coleman’s beloved lab and staffy, Milky, fell ill at a time when his work schedule made visiting a conventional clinic difficult. “I was doing 13-hour days; visiting the vet in working hours really wasn’t possible,” he recalls. “When I did take her, she was stressed, which stressed me. I thought, ‘There has to be a way to deliver great vet care without people having to take time out during work hours or put their pets through stress’.”
Preliminary research revealed a gap in the market for an at-home veterinary care service—so the then 25-year-old sold his house to raise the $60,000 needed and set about developing a business to fill it. “It took around 18 months,” he says. “I was going to dog parks, talking with owners about their ‘pain points’ with regard to vet visits and whether they’d use a service like ours. And there was a lot of interest.
“The next stage was finding out not just what customers wanted but what would attract good vets to the service. So, I spent lots of time talking to vets via Instagram, Facebook, vets’ websites, veterinary clinics, vet friends of friends. At first it was just me, cultivating this idea, but I soon realised I needed help from a vet, which is why Henry [Wong] came on board.”
Everyone’s a winner
Melbourne veterinary practitioner Dr Henry Wong helped Coleman create a business model that was a win-win-win for pets, clients and vets while maintaining Vets on Call’s ‘core values’: transparency, affordability and convenience.
“The aim with Vets on Call (VoC) was to be able to offer people and their animals convenient access to compassionate, affordable veterinary care, anytime, in a stress-free environment—their homes,” Dr Wong explains. “That way, the stress of coming into the clinic I see in patients every day is reduced significantly.
“For clients, it doesn’t matter if they lack time or transport, or have disabilities. And an in-home consultation will cost around the same as they’d pay at a clinic.
“Essentially, we can do most of the work that’s done in clinics, though VoC doesn’t handle surgical or emergency consultations: we think these patients are best seen at specialist centres.”
So far, VoC vets have treated ear and skin conditions, administered vaccinations and performed euthanasia, which Coleman thinks will be “among our most important services, going forward”.
How Vets on Call benefits vets?
It’s terrific for time-poor owners, less stressful for anxiety-prone animals, and ideal for end-of-life pets. But what can the new app-based service offer vets?
For starters, treating pets on familiar turf makes the vet’s job simpler. “Once an animal’s stressed, it’s harder to make an accurate diagnosis,” Coleman notes. “It’s a lot easier if the pet is at home, where they’re less likely to feel anxious.” And as the Vets on Call service is limited to dogs and cats, it matches most vets’ skill sets.
Down the track, the service will also offer signed-up vets job mobility, Coleman notes, “so if they move to Sydney, they’ll be able to pick up where they left off. They’ll have an active customer base wherever they go, working in a system they’re familiar with.”
And while Coleman’s keen to keep the price point comparable to that of a regular clinic visit—$80 for a general consultation—the streamlined business model helps ensure participating practitioners are well remunerated.
“We’re able to pass on the majority of what we take for a consultation to the vet. So there’s a financial incentive for vets: they’re able to earn significant amounts of money, well over $90 an hour,” Coleman says. “And the reason we’re able to do that is our low-cost structure.” VoC’s overheads are substantially lower than those of fixed-location veterinary clinics. “Our vets carry their own supplies, with an ‘essentials’ list compiled by Henry provided.”
And the digitally based business model, in which data is entered into the system by clients and vets via the secure app interface, removes double-handling and sidesteps much of the tedious, time-consuming admin that burdens fixed-location clinics (and VoC’s main competitors, mobile vet services), adding to their ongoing costs. But for most participating vets, “the real value is flexibility”, Coleman says. “It’s completely up to you what hours you work, and the area you serve is local, which makes it great for work-life balance.
“A lot of new and recent vet graduates are women and, down the track, many need flexible work—if they’re raising kids or wanting to ease their way back into the workforce.”
After 18 months developing the Vets on Call app and the business model underpinning it, “we’re incredibly confident we’re on the right track”, Coleman contends.
The VoC app is “very comprehensive”, he adds, crediting tech partners Nathan Sinnott and Rael Kuperholz, who hold a stake in the business, with “an amazing job”. It reflects the business’s core values of transparency and convenience, and bristles with user-friendly features.
Pet owners can peruse customer reviews of VoC practitioners, choose their preferred vet, book at-home consultations, view their animals’ medical histories, pay veterinary bills and buy pet care products (medications, vet-recommended pet food, shampoos, etc) for home delivery. Notifications via the app remind owners when to administer medications, book vaccinations, replenish supplies and more.
Participating vets can use the VoC app to manage appointments, log payments, view and update patients’ veterinary records, and remind clients about vaccination and other important dates. Security features such as a ‘distress button’ linking to VoC HQ are built in to ensure vets’ safety, and accountability clauses, insurances, liability and indemnity are in place so everyone’s covered, Coleman stresses.
Getting vets on board
By the time the VoC app launched, in December 2017, the fledgling business had signed up 27 vets along with two dozen odd referral clinics across Melbourne. Its customer base is growing steadily, as are positive client reviews.
Participating vet Dr Michael Yeung is excited about the new service. “Vets on Call has the potential to revolutionise the veterinary industry for clients, their pets and veterinarians—similar to what Uber’s done for car transportation,” he says. “VoC provides us with opportunities to work for ourselves, without the heavy investment required to own a traditional bricks-and-mortar clinic.”
Where to from here?
Right now, the service extends only to the Melbourne metro area but Coleman says the plan is to expand well beyond that.
“We’ve only just started so at this point, it’s not providing our vets with full-time work. As we grow, though, we expect it to offer viable incomes. Then it’s a matter of managing demand and supply, of scaling up the business accordingly.
“Recent graduation rates suggest a lot of vets are entering the industry, needing employment. But we need to be realistic. We won’t get a million users overnight. So our focus now is on ensuring that all participants are delighted with the service, so we get good word-of-mouth and repeat business.”
Signing up to Vets on Call
Interested vets can register their details via the Vets on Call (Voc) website, www.vetsoncall.pet. “We’ll be in touch to follow up and take them through our ‘on-boarding’ process if we’re happy with their suitability,” says Morgan Coleman.
Interested vet-clinic owners should email Coleman direct at firstname.lastname@example.org. And get on board quick, he advises, as Vets on Call plans to sign up only enough clinics to cover all postcodes adequately, “so clients are no more than 10 minutes’ drive from a referral clinic but participating clinics aren’t rubbing shoulders”.
Prospective customers can download the free app from the Apple Store or Google Play. “It’s then a simple three-minute registration process via the app to register their details and those of their pets.”