What happens when an entrepreneur has a personal challenge to solve? He finds a solution, turns it into a startup and becomes a serial entrepreneur. That’s how Karim Bacha co-founded Sidelick with his sister Maya and his lifelong friend Jane Nassar. The founders of the platform won the Femme Francophone Entrepreneure (FFE) Competition in 2018, recently embarking on their incubation journey at Berytech and joining its ever-growing community.
Can you walk my dog?
A busy landscape architect with his own office, long working hours were a problem for Karim and all the pet-owning architects that work with him. After a few consecutive overnights where everyone ended up having their pets over wreaking havoc at the office, Karim needed to find a solution. He came across a unicorn startup that’s the Airbnb for pet sitters in the States and decided to have the first movers advantage in Lebanon and the Middle East.
That’s how Sidelick was born – a platform that allows you to hire a dog walker in your neighborhood, book a pet sitter or find a boarding house for your pet while you are away.
“I didn’t think I would actually make it happen. I was already very busy with my practice and making a good living, but I was excited to start something new. I’m an entrepreneur by nature and I felt that it was the right time to get into the pet sitting business.” In order to make it happen, Karim decided that he will not tap into his personal finances but will rely heavily on the local startup ecosystem to see how well it will live up to his expectations and how far it will take him.
“Let’s see if anyone is willing to fund this startup.”
The first thing Karim did was to apply to the iSME grant from Kafalat. He was surprised to receive his first $15k. With the money, Karim planned to execute the intricately detailed application that he had personally designed. A quick meeting with his developers brought him to the reality that he will need 10 times that money to bring his application to life.
“My first lesson in entrepreneurship was to remain focused on the core solution and start with one thing. I had so many ideas and I was branching out in so many pet-related services. So I decided to focus on pet sitting to start with, which is a hard service to provide because of the human factor involved in it.”
Transparency Comes First
“Our biggest challenge was recruiting pet sitters,” explains Karim. “At first we thought that we would be attracting students, but when we launched we were surprised that the personas we got are freelancers and artists. There are also a lot of times where customers who used Sidelick to find a pet sitter were converted into one themselves.”
Similar to babysitting, pet sitting requires trust. The team connected with the founders of Jaleesa, a platform that connects users with babysitting services, to learn from the experience of its founders.
From there they created a very elaborate online application form, mandatory to qualify as a sitter. “A lot of people quit in the middle because they feel like the form is too long and personal. It has to be because we need some level of transparency. We need to have people trust us with their pets.”
The applicants who make the cut are shortlisted through a phone interview and then receive training with an experienced animal trainer. Once their profile is validated, people can start booking them. For an additional layer of transparency, the platform has a review system where clients can grade their experience with the pet-sitter.
“People who have pets and use Sidelick have high expectations of their pet sitter. Most of our work is providing boarding for cats and dogs and the pet owners want to know the conditions of the pet sitter’s home before employing them. We facilitate these meet and greet visits to create the trust and make sure that the owner has all the conditions they want for their pet applied.
We can struggle a little with that because of really great pet-sitters who have small houses or shared houses. The main criterium is our assessment of how much the person loves pets. A great example is one of our sitters, a converted Uber driver who lost his car. He doesn’t really have the most adept home to board a big dog let’s say, but he’s the kind of guy who goes to extreme measures to keep the dog happy and outdoors.”
Sidelick also has a drop-in visit option. “With cats, it’s ideal not to relocate them because they don’t like new environments especially if you are traveling for only a few days. A lot of people have requested these drop-in visits when we launched, which was not recommended at all by our lawyer. What we do is have people sign a disclaimer removing the liability of the pet sitter from anything that happens to the house. Despite that people trust us with their houses and their pets. This is the best part about Sidelick: it brings together like-minded people. We’ve really built a strong community of pet-lovers.”
Sidelick advises creating permanent relationships with pet sitters for last minute dog-walking requests for you get stuck in your office – the initial problem that catalyzed the whole startup idea. For that reason, Sidelick works on identifying pet sitters in every neighborhood to facilitate last minute requests. “The average walk costs 8 dollars. So the dog-walker is not necessarily willing to travel long distances to walk your dog in your neighborhood. It doesn’t make sense for them. This is why we work in local areas.”
Preventing the Leakage
A different kind of challenge the platform faces is customers skipping the online booking and directly contacting the pet-sitter for their services. To solve the problem, the team came up with 2 solutions. The first is providing pet insurance for every pet sitting mission. “With every booking, we have pet insurance that covers the pet while they are with the Sidelick sitter. We did that originally for the peace of mind of the customer but then we realized that the customer doesn’t really care. However, the pet sitter is relieved to have insurance coverage. If anything goes wrong they want to have quick access to emergency pet services. This played out to our advantage. It makes the pet-sitter insist that the client goes through the platform to book them.”
Another solution is having a profit percentage increase and the search algorithm move the pet-sitter higher into the search ranking when they have repeat customers.
Joining the Ecosystem
“As a fresh startup, you have a limited cycle to participate in startup competitions before moving forward. You cannot burn all your cards at once,” announces Karim,
Sidelick had first heard of FFE through a friend of the founders who had participated the year before but didn’t make it to the finals. Since they were determined to reap the benefits of the ecosystem they decided to apply to as many competitions as possible.
The team recounts that when they applied to FFE they did not expect the competition to be fierce but that impression did not last long. “FFE was a really good experience. It was tough. We didn’t realize how competitive the startups participating will be. We thought the angle which we will use to attack will be different from all the other startups. When we talk about pets, people listen. They have mixed feelings about it because it’s interesting. People remember us but they don’t forcefully realize that it’s a serious business. They take us lightly.”
The team won the 10,000 euro prize and six-month incubation at Berytech but what they did not expect is the media coverage they received and the exposure it gave them. “It brought new users, it also received the attention of the French Embassy in Beirut who recommended us to represent the Lebanese startup ecosystem in an event in Marseille.”
With the incubation period at Berytech just starting, Karim has committed to working from the co-working space at Berytech more often. “Being in this community and part of the ecosystem is about meeting other entrepreneurs that can add to your experience. It is also meeting talented developers, designers, UX/UI experts, and the entire community that can add value to your startup.”