The landscape of the petcare sector has undoubtedly changed in recent times, with a shift in consumer habits and the commercial landscape accelerated by the pandemic. Businesses across the sector have looked to diversify and adapt in order to take care of both customers and pets in the age of Covid.
Some have gone one step further, however, and used the pandemic as a chance to start afresh, and disrupt the sector with an all-new offering. Once such business is Flerm. Founded by Chris Walker, the business has already made waves in the pet industry, whilst tackling the normal challenges of setting up a new business.
So, what is Flerm? At its crux, Flerm is the UK’s first online flea and worm treatment subscription service that includes free 24/7 digital access to emergency vets. The service also includes a free annual health check – delivered by video call, as well as optional extras such as treats, multivitamins, toys and even litter tray liners. Pet Gazette sat down with founder Walker to find out more about the business, beginning afresh in a pandemic, and his thoughts on the future of an ever-changing industry.
New business, new beginnings
“It was kind of a pivot business during lockdown,” begins Walker. “I actually spent most of the start of last year trying to build an ethical pet insurance business, which we got very close to launching, but then Covid obviously caused problems for our underwriters and so we put that on the back-burner. But during my time building that business, I made a lot of connections within the pet industry, which eventually helped pave the way for Flerm.” One such contact was the pharmaceutical company that would go on to provide the flea and worm treatment central to Flerm’s offering.
As lockdown continued, Walker furthered his relationship with the company, noting that their outlooks were “very much aligned in regards to being ethical about what we were doing, how we were doing it and how we were treating people”.
“The idea kind of came about as he originally wanted me to sell products along with the pet insurance,” he says, “which I didn’t want to do directly. But the more I thought about it during lockdown, because I knew that I was on hold with the underwriters, it just started playing on my mind about how I could maybe do this as a standalone business in its own right.”
And so Flerm was born. The original starting point for the business was the offering of a flea and worm treatment by subscription, according to Walker, though he notes that this was not entirely unique. “There were already maybe four other companies in the UK that were already doing that, major companies too, such as Pets at Home and Itch Pet,” he says. “So I was looking at it thinking: ‘Well, how can I differentiate? How can I make this one the better version of what exists out there already?’.”
The age of teleservices and subscriptions
One thing Walker was aware of from his prior knowledge of the pet insurance industry was the growing use of telemedicine and tele-veterinary services. “I was aware that more customers were looking at different ways of looking after your pet in an emergency. So I spoke to the people at Pawsquad about maybe working with us on this new business to make it a more expanded offering,” he says. “The idea therefore came about that we would offer this 24/7 veterinary access but with Pawsquad’s service, which is itself unique within the telemedicine arena.”
An added bonus was the annual health check system offered to customers by Pawsquad. “So, we can now offer our customers not only the preventative care for their pets, flea and worm treatments, but we can also offer them access to a vet 24/7, as well as a free annual health check by video. Obviously given that we’re in lockdown, this just seemed like the way forward.
“Last year, I remember going to the vets myself, and standing there thinking ‘this is just a nightmare’, standing outside in the freezing cold in a queue of people, waiting for a vet to come outside,” Walker adds. “That’s when it kind of played on my mind that, well, we now live in a world now where people subscribe to everything. Your mobile phone, the TV you watch, the food that you eat. So it was just a case of why can’t this be done in petcare as well?”
Walker believes that the pet market would have shifted to increasingly online and subscription-based avenues without the pandemic, though it “may have taken a few years longer, and we may have seen slower growth across the industry”. He continues: “Obviously online shopping as a whole has exploded over recent years, but the pet sector was perhaps a bit slower on the uptake. I think it would have happened eventually, but absolutely. I think the pandemic has accelerated a lot of online pet businesses.”
For pet lovers, by pet lovers
Walker notes that he built his pet insurance business and Flerm “as a pet owner”, approaching both with the mindframe of what owners are looking for in the new age of the industry. “I’m not what you would call an insurance expert or a pet industry expert – in fact my background is actually as a trained solicitor. But I’ve always been a big pet lover, and in the past I have had bad experiences with pet insurance.”
“The thought process would go through my head that there’s got to be better ways of doing this. There’s got to be a better way a pet owner can be insured and pets can be cared for. At the end of the day, I wanted a business which had a product that cares more about the animal and less about making profit. That was very much the inspiration for the pet insurance business – doing things fairly, ethically, transparently – and that’s carried over to Flerm as well.”
Walker, who has spent the last eight years working as a therapeutic foster carer for children that have been neglected and abused, adds that he “doesn’t live my life chasing money”. “I’m not here to squeeze money out of people. It’s about treating people well.” He notes, for example, that the company recently had a ‘catastrophic error’ on its website which meant a handful of subscriptions almost missed their delivery. “I still sent the boxes out and customers still got their flea and worm treatments, but for me – it didn’t matter that I lost stock or gave away free stock. It’s about making sure that those pets are cared for in the best possible way.”
Flerm has undoubtedly been bolstered by the shift to online services, which, although in place for years, has never been more important as the world continues to adjust to the pandemic age. But in such uncertain times, Walker was not deterred by the prospect of starting his own business when few knew what was around the corner. “I wasn’t that apprehensive about launching this business last year, if I’m going to be totally truthful,” he says. “I’d already seen that pet ownership was thriving at the start of lockdown. Of course, the pet industry was deemed essential, which in of itself gave added confidence to venturing out in this industry.”
With pet ownership on the rise, however, Walker notes that it has become harder for vets to facilitate their usual care due to the restrictions and social distancing put in place. “If we weren’t in lockdown and weren’t in this situation due to the pandemic, I’m not entirely sure whether or not Flerm would have ever happened,” Walker says. “Of course, I don’t want to take positivity out of other people’s suffering in any way, but it does make one think that this is a great time to launch something like this, because it gives people a solution to a problem that they’re currently experiencing.”
Subscription shopping – the way forward?
Looking ahead, Walker believes that the industry “absolutely” will start to see more businesses like this, as the consumers and businesses look ahead to a post-pandemic world. “I think, because society as a whole has been moving towards subscription-based and convenience and online shopping for some time, the pandemic has just reinforced the nature of this,” he says. “And I really can see it happening for the petcare sector in particular, especially when it comes to subscriptions.”
He adds: “After all, if you need regular or monthly treatment for your pet, that’s not going to change. In the next five, 10, or 20 years, that will always remain the same and that treatment will still need to be there. But with the added convenience of a subscription service that lands on your doorstep, this section of the industry is going to keep growing and I’m sure that we will see other companies launch into this sector in the coming years. And look at the bigger companies, like Pets at Home and Inch Pet. They too have grown their online presence phenomenally in recent years and months.”
He notes that this is “not to take anything away from the vet surgeries”, however. “There’s always going to be a demand for vets, obviously, but I certainly do think that the days of people taking a car journey a couple of miles down the road every month to pick up their flea treatment from the vet is going to be less and less.”
As Walker notes, it seems that more and more pet owners are realising the benefits of receiving their pet’s treatment in a letter that can “fit through your letterbox and land on your doorstep every month”. He adds: “As treatment is due at the same time every month, all the pet owner needs to know is: when the box comes through the post, it’s time to dose. You simply open the parcel, and the treatment is there. You don’t have to set reminders or look in your diary. You’re not going to risk forgetting the treatment – it’s the kind of convenience that consumers will be looking for going forward.”
In the midst of a costly and damaging pandemic, Walker seems to have successfully launched a leading, disruptor business in the sector. So what was his advice for those looking to make their own way in the industry? “However long you think it will take, triple it,” he says. “However much you think it will cost, triple it. And however much money you think you’ll make, divide it by a third, and then if it still looks like a great idea, then go for it! Things just take longer and cost more to do than one might initially think. In the case of Flerm, I’m hoping this business will grow rapidly, but I’ve also planned for the fact that it may take a while to build momentum and traction in the industry.”
He concludes: “It can often be very hard to become visual, and certainly in an online environment, and in the pet sector. There are of course a lot of other people doing, perhaps not the same thing, but similar things, and you have businesses in this sector trying to get the same eyeballs on their own product.
“So it’s not easy, but pet care is a growing industry and will continue to grow over the coming years. So if somebody has a good product, and a good idea, and if someone has a way of differentiating themselves, then why not go for it and give it your best shot?”