Dutch Founder & CEO Joe Spector on Unlocking the Pet Telehealth Landscape
As Co-Founder of telehealth pioneer Hims & Hers, Joe Spector spent all his energy thinking about how best to grow the brand—like entering retailers like Target, or partnering with big-name stars. And oh, Hims grew. The company made its public debut in 2021, just four years after it was founded.
From the moment he realized Hims was going to be a big company—or more aptly, that it already was—Spector also recognized that he is an “entrepreneur at heart.” He felt at home in the earliest stages of business-building. “I love creating the universe and the uncertainty of it all,” he says. “It scares a lot of people, but I find it motivating.”
While Spector wanted to stay in healthcare, he’d begun noodling on what it might look like to grow a new venture around October 2020; at the same time, he had just adopted a puppy. While he had been on the forefront of big shifts in human healthcare, Spector couldn’t help but notice that he had to do everything the antiquated way when it came to his new Corgi. Curious, he looked at the laws around veterinary telemedicine, and saw so many parallels to the regulations he’d seen while building the digital health landscape at Hims. “I just felt, Oh my gosh. This is a skillset I have that I can translate here,” he says.
Spector was uniquely capable of leading Dutch based on his experiences in digital health, keenly interested in building a new telehealth platform from scratch, and excited by the opportunity to help people everyday—again. “What I loved about Hims was that it was mission-driven,” Spector says. “I’d love to read comments on Instagram from guys who felt more confident, or whose marriages were saved because of Hims.”
He left Hims in early 2021 to found Dutch, a telemedicine platform for pets. After raising a Seed round in May, Dutch has now launched in 38 states and is continuing to scale. Here’s more from Spector about what it's been like building the pet telehealth industry, as well as stepping into the role of founder-CEO for the first time.
JB: If you have a pet, you know going to the vet is rough on both the pet and the pet parent—even for something very minor. What problems did you notice with the experience, and how did you decide on the best approach for tackling them?
JS: When I first started, I took somewhat of a Hims-centric approach. I went condition-specific, because Hims started with two specific conditions: sex and hair. What we realized is that pets and pet healthcare are different. The first key difference is most pet parents don’t have insurance, whereas humans do, so it’s much more of a cash-pay market across a wider array of ailments. With Hims, there are only so many conditions you can target, because people will want to use insurance. With Dutch, there’s a wider array of treatable conditions, beyond just picking a few. Another behavior difference is that pets have an array of issues across a shorter period of time. They may have an ear infection one period, and a few months later they have a cut. A few months after that, they’re dealing with nutrition or obesity. It wasn’t like Hims, where a guy comes in for hair loss—he’s in, he’s out, and that’s it. Here, with Dutch, it’s more nuanced. We are currently introducing video conversations into the product more upfront, because the consumer doesn’t always know what the problem is. They know, ‘My pet just threw up,’ but there could be an array of reasons why. With Hims, it was often much more black-and-white.
JB: You started conceptualizing Dutch about six months into the pandemic. How do you think the timing of Covid played into how you are tackling this problem and the mechanisms you can explore?
JS: So much. First of all, at some point, we are going to go back to work and there will be a lot more pet separation anxiety. Then, in general, on the veterinary side, people are seeing all the applications of telehealth. The consumer is expecting telehealth as part of a normal clinical experience; on the veterinary side, a lot more vets are saying, “My colleagues in traditional medicine are getting to do telehealth, and I have to go to a brick-and-mortar location.” It's tough. One of the bigger shifts across so many industries is The Great Resignation. That is certainly happening with veterinarians, because in that profession, they still have to go to grad school just like doctors. They often accumulate several hundred thousand dollars of student loans, but the average vet is only making about $100,000 annually—so not nearly as much. The people making money in the vet industry are the clinic owners. Many vets are thinking, Why am I going into this brick-and-mortar location, seeing 30 to 40 cases per day, when I could be at home seeing patients? Almost 80% of vets are women, and with Covid, we know many moms had to drop out of the workforce to take care of their kids; they really are seeking flexibility and higher pay. We are getting way more organic resumes from vets to join Dutch than I ever remember at Hims, and I think it’s because even on the medical side, there's just this huge desire to do more telemedicine.
JB: Tell us how you built the experience of Dutch. Where did you start?
JS: After being in Silicon Valley for 20 years, I wanted to build a business that focuses on culture, mission, and values at Day Zero. Or Day Negative-Ten. [Laughs.] Most founders that I’ve ever worked with have focused on product-market fit first, and we’ll get to the mission later. Here, we spent time even before launch deciding what we stand for and why we exist. We came up with four guiding principles, the first of which is “pets first.” That’s the prism through which we think. The second is “be the human your dog thinks you are,” and dogs think quite highly of us. The third is “agile like a cat,” which means we want you to move really fast but not necessarily break things. And the fourth one is “creativity is our kibble.” We’re doing this for the first time, so you might have to do multiple iterations before you get it right. So, with all that in mind, we built Dutch starting with two conditions that are pretty huge. Seventy percent of dogs have some form of anxiety, which takes many forms—situational, generalized. Then a focus on dermatology, which is one of the main reasons you take your animal to a vet. Within that, there are food allergies and skin issues. We have demonstrated the ability to do derm telehealth, so why in the world can we not do this for pets? It just seemed like that could be a huge solve in terms of access and affordability. When you go to a vet, when do you leave without a $200 or $300 bill? At Dutch, it is $50, so a fraction of the price.
JB: You’re scaling quickly since launch. What are you planning to build out next?
JS: By the end of this year, Dutch will be live with 12 different conditions. We also launched in eight states originally, and by the end of the year, we’ll be launched nationally. We spent the early part of our business life setting up our network and building our own Electronic Medical Record (EMR) dashboard tool. We’ve built out the infrastructure, so come December and early next year, we will be scaling geographically and across conditions.
JB: I’m curious. You’re not a first-time founder, but you’re a first-time CEO with Dutch. What have you found to be different about this experience at the helm of the company?
On the industry side, the reality is that Dutch is much earlier on the scene than Hims was. When Hims came around, you already had Teladoc, and Teladoc took some of the hits in the face from the old guard. Dutch is in that 1.0 arena; there’s a giant number of vets that want to support telemedicine, but it’s in its earliest days. Change is inevitable, but there’s still a contingent of people really digging in their heels, saying telemedicine will never exist for pets. That’s ludicrous, but also surprised me. As a CEO, it’s interesting. There is a Ted Lasso quote that really resonated with me, but essentially, he said he’s been underestimated his whole life, and he realized it has to do with the fact that a lot of people weren’t curious enough about him. I think for me, in many ways, this role has given me a lot more confidence that I don't think I had before. Previously, I would question, 'Could I fundraise?' 'Could I lead a team?' Most of my 20-year career has been as an individual contributor, so with Dutch, I was going from a role player to being the leader of a big company. I think I always thought I had the ability to inspire, but I never had that chance. With Dutch, it’s been great to prove it out.
For more information or to schedule a vet appointment, visit dutch.com.