To adopt a pet in Singapore, the process is usually something like this: the adopter first chooses a pet, provides their particulars to the shelter, visits the pet, undergoes house checks by the shelter staff, and fills in more forms and documents before they’re finally able to adopt the pet.
If the adopter finds a few pets they’re interested in at the same time, this entire process is repeated for every shelter, which can be time-consuming, inefficient and repetitive.
These were the main problems Haley Ong personally faced when she was looking to adopt a cat back in October 2020.
“I was diagnosed with clinical depression and wanted to adopt a cat for company. I reach[ed] out to shelter group[s] but experienced a repetitive, manual screening and non-efficient processes,” she recalls.
Even though she managed to find her lifetime companion, her exasperation with the adoption process pushed her to research more on the pet adoption industry in Southeast Asia, where she realised that no one was making use of digitisation for pet acquisition.
This prompted her to launch Pawtner — a one-stop digital pet adoption platform — in July last year.
It is the first smart platform that automates services required for all aspects of pet ownership, making it an effective and viable solution for shelters, adopters, and the pet community.
We are the first platform that offers a standardised online operation system that involves multiple parties, while also maximising business touch points along all the stages of the user’s pet ownership journey.
– Haley Ong, founder and CEO of Pawtner
The love for pets runs in the family
Haley’s parents are both active animal rescuers and back in her Penang hometown, she would closely work with pets.
They built a garage for street animals to stay, and the family often fed and took care of their health needs. It’s no surprise that Haley grew up loving animals, and is highly supportive of the “adopt, don’t shop” movement, having seen for herself the impact one can make in an animal’s life.
That was why she insisted on adopting a feline companion even though her friends suggested buying from catteries or pet shops to avoid the tiresome and long adoption process. She knew she had to be the change she wanted to see in the industry by improving the adoption process in efforts to encourage adopting a pet.
At 19, Haley left Penang to pursue a Bachelors in Psychology in Singapore and later on in Australia. After graduation, she worked as a breast cancer researcher at the National University of Singapore (NUS) for about two years.
She then obtained a Masters in Public Health in Scotland before entering the medical tech industry in 2019, where she took on an entrepreneurial project aiming to mitigate the side effects of forgetfulness for breast cancer patients through telemedicine.
That was how she first got acquainted with the fellow co-founder of Pawtner, who was an expert in product design. This ex-colleague of hers strongly believed in Haley’s cause and agreed to establishing Pawtner together, and went on to reach out to a Microsoft engineer based in Ireland, who had a deep expertise in product creation, to help build the platform.
Helping to embrace change
In the early stages of product ideation and development, Haley shares that the greatest challenge was cultivating a behaviour change in pet shelters — they were hesitant to come onboard due to doubts and concerns on whether Pawtner would end up micromanaging their operations.
While shelter groups agree that the existing pet adoption process is inefficient, they were reluctant to work together with Pawtner because their staff were already familiar with and used to the current process.
“Some of them might think we are creating more work for them,” she says. However, Haley and her team continued to be patient and neutral, guiding these shelters along the process and assuring them that Pawtner only aims to help improve the process.
To inculcate open-mindedness towards adopting Pawtner’s streamlined process, the Pawtner team had to conduct extensive market research and modify their product in order to gain more support. Haley adds that “learning through the process and being flexible to [their] customers” are key.
Eventually, their final prototype pitch to a few shelters in Singapore such as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) and SOSD Singapore led to an overwhelming positive reception.
“We convince[d] shelters by showcasing the pilot test and they join[ed] after seeing the success cases”, Haley said.
With regards to funding, Pawtner pitched to a few angel investors such as HE Capital during the initial stages, only to have them cease their operations due to the pandemic when Pawtner was almost at the last funding round. Fortunately, the people whom Haley connected with during that journey turned out to be very interested in Pawtner’s initiative and decided to be Pawtner’s angel investor.
Despite their operations starting during the height of the pandemic, Haley highlighted that the pandemic fuelled their drive to push Pawtner’s initiative considering the rise in pet adoption interest levels in Singapore during that period.
According to her, there are over 40 shelters and rescue groups in Singapore, many of which are staffed with volunteers and lack adequate resources. Coupled with the pandemic causing a tenfold increase in adoption and foster rates, the operational capabilities of these shelters were severely stretched.
“Such a reality further evinces the need for a digital solution to streamline the pet adoption process,” stressed Haley.
Addressing pain points of the adoption system
The usual adoption process where details between adopter and shelter are exchanged only after the adopter expresses interest in the pet, can result in futile adoption attempts due to the adopter’s profile not being suitable for the pet.
Haley emphasises that shelters, rescuers, and pet service providers who want their operations to improve “must realise that the pet industry is currently super segmented, presenting a gaping potential to scale one’s operations”. Pawtner solves this issue by connecting adopters, multiple shelters and stakeholders through a single platform.
With Pawtner, shelter staff need to first create an account for themselves, indicating their role (such as shelter manager, operation manager, account manager etc) that determines the functions they can access on the platform. Such functions range from being able to screen adopter profiles to settling adoption fees.
From there, the shelter staff can go on to create profiles to put up the pets for adoption, keying in details like their age, personality, housing requirements, or any medical or dietary requirements, which forms Pawtner’s database.
“We work closely with registered shelters to provide transparent adoption process[es], [and] standardise eligibility criteria in order to prevent illegal breeding and scam cases which some adopters have reported facing if they get their pets on [the Facebook] platform”, Haley says.
For adopters, the required details that shelters require must be indicated when their profiles are being created. Pawtner then automates the eligibility screening for both adopters and shelters through its algorithm that filters and matches suitable adopters to pets, enabling each side to reach the relevant target audience.
The adopter can then run through the pet profiles in a way similar to Tinder, where a swipe to the right indicates their interest in adopting the pet and puts them in the queue system. From there, the shelters are able to collate a list of adopter profiles that are interested in the pet, screen them, and contact them through Pawtner for further details and the scheduling of meet-ups.
Once an adopter is set to adopt the pet, shelters can collect, handle and track adoption fees through Pawtner. With regards to safety, besides conducting verification of the adopter profiles eligibility, Pawtner also tracks the engagement and adoption process from the start to the end, providing a tracking system and record to trace back if any disputes arise.
By consolidating pet profiles across pet shelters and adopter profiles in a single platform, the previously segmented adoption market becomes more integrated, and is also rid of repetitive processes like rounds of manual screening and eligibility checks.
Creating a community among pet lovers
In addition, Pawtner creates and sells personalised food plans, medical plans and more under the “Care Plan” section that cater specifically to the adopted pet’s medical or dietary requirements (if any) on a monthly basis.
This is aimed to ease the burden of new pet owners who would otherwise have to spend a lot of time researching and testing out various pet products to suit their adopted pet.
“So as an adopter, I get my animal and also the package that I need in one day. I don’t need to do the research anymore, it’s like a one-stop information centre”, highlights Haley.
Pawtner also forges a community through its social features that also makes use of the algorithm matching feature. For those who are not ready to adopt or for those who have already adopted and are looking to form their own community, the social features page allows them to indicate what they are looking for, which can range from pet photoshoots to pet cafes.
This way, pet lovers can easily connect with existing owners and businesses for social activities, ultimately creating an online pet community and ecosystem.
Plans to expand in SEA
Within a year of its launch, Pawtner has since expanded to Malaysia, onboarding a total of more than 15 dog and cat shelters from Singapore and Malaysia and digitising about 700 pet profiles.
Notable shelters they are working with include Noah’s Ark Natural Animal Shelter, Forget Me Not, SOSD and Causes for Animals Singapore (CAS).
In June this year, Pawtner also launched “Treats for You” to incentivise pet adopters by working with retailers to support pet adoptions. Essentially, Pawtner works with retailers to provide pet supply discounts to adopters that can be used to purchase items under “Treats for You”.
Haley shares that one such partnership they’ve undertaken sees Shopee offering a S$100 voucher to the pet adopter for every successful adoption made on Pawtner.
However, Haley notes that from a business perspective, communicating with retailers and gaining their support were difficult as some retailers saw Pawtner merely as a ‘Tinder platform for pets’, and thus didn’t take their initiative seriously.
“But after going through the whole deck, they understand that we are creating a connected community rather than just a fun, matching-app,” she adds.
Other efforts they have done to support the pet adoption landscape include the launch of their NFT project in collaboration with Wildpaws NFT to support shelters where the revenue from the sales is donated back to shelters when people purchase a digital twin.
As for Pawtner’s future business plans, Haley plans to expand Pawtner’s reach to the wider Southeast Asia market within the next five to 10 years, leading the formation of a pet ecosystem in efforts to increase the rates of pet adoption and relieve the manpower and resource strain on pet shelters.
Featured Image Credit: Pawtner
Also read: On-demand vet care to medicine delivery: These siblings built a “pawlyclinic” for pets in S’pore
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