Wharton Startup Challenge Winner Connects Pets & Vets
Since she was a child, Felicity Johnson has had a scar on the side of her leg. It’s a reminder of her lifelong love for animals.
As a 7-year-old in Sydney, Australia, Johnson saw a feral cat eating out of a garbage bin. She brought the cat food and it was so excited, it ran up her leg, scratching her.
“Animals, loving animals, and having animals as my passion has always been a part of my life,” Johnson, now 28 and a full-time MBA student at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, tells Poets&Quants.
That passion has led Johnson to launch an app called My Virtual Veterinarian, which brings tele-medicine to pet owners by connecting them with veterinarians. The app recently won Wharton’s fourth annual Startup Challenge, netting about $45,000 in capital and services to help Johnson accelerate the venture she has been working on over the past two years while at Wharton.
A LOVE OF ANIMALS AND CODING
Johnson’s love of animals grew during high school when she started volunteering at a no-kill animal shelter in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where her family landed following her father’s job. As an undergrad at Villanova University in Philadelphia, Johnson continued her volunteer work at the same shelter.
After she graduated in three years with degrees in French and history, Johnson went to work as an analyst at Bank of America in New York City. Her plan was to work for about 10 years, make a bunch of money, get to know a lot of people with a bunch of money, and then open up and fund her own no-kill animal shelter, which she knew was an expensive prospect.
But then Johnson learned she loved to code. At the beginning of her second year at Bank of America, she began teaching herself Swift, the language for iOS development. “I thought it would be fun and cool to learn how to make an app. But I became obsessed with it,” she says. Johnson started waking up and coding at 5 a.m. before work. “I would come home and code at night and spend my weekends coding,” she adds. “It wasn’t because I felt like I needed to. It was just because I was genuinely obsessed.” One of her first projects was developing an app that would allow Johnson to share book recommendations with her friends.
Johnson then had an epiphany. “Why am I working coding around my job when I could be coding for my job?” she recalls asking herself. So Johnson quit Bank of America and enrolled in the Flatiron School’s three-month coding bootcamp. After honing her coding chops at the bootcamp, Johnson landed a job as an iOS developer at Harvard Business School-founded Rent the Runway.
“That experience at Rent the Runway is really what inspired me to become an entrepreneur,” she says. “Jen Hyman, the CEO of Rent the Runway, is incredibly empowering and motivating. And I was so struck by the culture that she created that really empowered people to care about the customer experience.”
The experience led Johnson down a new path. “I got the itch that I wanted to create a company that was so inspiring and enjoyable to work for. And once I got that itch, it kind of went from there.”
APPLYING TO WHARTON TO LAUNCH A COMPANY AT THE INTERSECTION OF TECHNOLOGY AND ANIMAL WELFARE
With no formal business training, Johnson considered business school. As an undergrad at Villanova, Johnson worked for Cheswold Lane Asset Management, a private investment management firm outside of Philadelphia. Cheswold Lane’s three founders were all Wharton grads, something Johnson noticed. Around the time Johnson was looking at applying to an MBA program she also learned from friends and friends of friends that Wharton was really investing in entrepreneurship to break away from its reputation of being a finance school. Launching a company at the intersection of technology and animal welfare was the focus of Johnson’s admissions essay to Wharton.
Once Johnson was accepted, she began interviewing veterinarians immediately. Johnson also recalled a time when she was working at Rent the Runway in New York and her cat, Tiffany, had cancer. Seeking veterinarian care in the middle of the day was no problem because Johnson was able to work from home. But if she wasn’t able to work from home, finding a time to take Tiffany to the veterinarian’s office would’ve been a struggle. “I fully recognized that it was a luxury that if I hadn’t been working at Rent the Runway, I wouldn’t have been able to have done,” Johnson says.
Johnson also noticed something else. Going into the office was a pain. It also wasn’t always totally necessary. “If I could have had a virtual appointment to look at her and tell me whether or not to bring her in, that would’ve been very helpful,” Johnson says. She knew other pet owners felt the same way. Calling, texting, and emailing veterinarians was a common occurrence for pet owners. And it wasn’t something veterinarians always enjoyed. “Pet parents call them and text them and email them to ask for advice that isn’t paid for or scheduled,” Johnson says. “Both sides don’t like not having tele-health as an option.”
MASSIVE GROWTH SINCE THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC
With the help of John Hurst, the only MBA and veterinarian student at the University of Pennsylvania in Johnson’s class, and Mariano Martes, who Johnson met while working at Rent the Runway, My Virtual Veterinarian launched as an iOS app in January 2019. Once users download the app and enter some basic information about themselves and their pets, they can begin to schedule virtual veterinarian visits either via video or online chat. Users pick a veterinarian, enter some information about what they think is currently wrong with their pet, and send three potential time slots that would work for them.
On the other end, the vets receive an email with the info and times. They can then either accept the appointment or suggest other times that fit their schedule. Both the veterinarian and pet owner receive push notifications to remind them of the appointment. Johnson says the chat function is “very similar to iMessage” and the video is similar to FaceTime. Both parties can rate each other after the appointment is over.
While Johnson was already seeing interest in the app, the recent spread of the coronavirus has accelerated its growth. Johnson says users of the app grew by 305% in March. April brought another 200% growth in users.
“To be totally honest, I feel that we got totally lucky,” Johnson says. “It feels terrible to say that because of how horrible Covid has been to so many people in so many ways. But before Covid, this was a need that pet parents really wanted and veterinarians were not so sure about.”
My Virtual Veterinarian currently has three practices using the app full-time and two using it on a contract basis. The practices using the app full-time are mainly on the East Coast, but location obviously doesn’t matter besides timezones. Johnson says she’s had users register and use the app all the way to California. Currently, My Virtual Veterinarian is just Johnson and a few contract workers. Johnson is looking to hire her first full-time employee to help with marketing and growth. Akin to the healthcare system for humans, the global pandemic is changing the industry. And for Johnson and My Virtual Veterinarian, that’s a bonus.
“COVID has presented an opportunity for veterinarians to shift the way pet parents are expected to interact with veterinarians,” Johnson says. “Because now, tele-health is everywhere.”