Internet of Pets: 5 Questions With Whistle Labs CMO Heather Wajer


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You’ve heard of connected cars, appliances, and homes—but what about connected pets? Whistle Labs created the first activity monitor for dogs back in 2013, but their devices have come a long way. The original Whistle Activity Monitor was more of a “Fitbit for dogs”, tracking your dog’s exercise and activity patterns. Later models included a GPS pet tracker is for finding lost pets and can produce an alert if they’re sleeping less or acting lethargic. The Whistle 3 is more than half the size of the initial model, is both GPS and Wi-Fi enabled, and syncs directly with your phone and even other devices. Whistles are even used for scientific study: in 2014 the Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania used data from Whistle devices for their research on chronic pain conditions in dogs, and researchers at the College of Veterinary Medicine at North Carolina State University have used it to study epilepsy in dogs. In April 2016 Mars Petcare acquired Whistle, further expanding the brand’s growth potential.

TFW all eyes are on you and you know you look so good. #petslovewhistle #bulldogs #sf

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brandchannel had the opportunity to speak with Heather Wajer, Chief Marketing Officer at Whistle Labs, and learn how the pet-care brand is creating a better, safer world for pets and their pet parents.

Heather Wajer

What are the new features of the latest version of Whistle? What did you learn from user feedback as the product has evolved?

Let me just start by saying that Whistle really takes user feedback into consideration with all our product launches. Even going back to when we launched our first product, which was an activity monitor-only product, we heard from consumers that, although they love the activity, their really big need was around knowing where their pet was, and that was brought into the second generation, the Whistle GPS Pet Tracker.

Now with this third generation product, Whistle 3, we’re really excited because it combines the best of the location tracking and activity monitoring features. One of the things that customers were asking for was a smaller device. It’s a pretty incredible piece of technology when you think about everything that’s happening inside. It’s communicating with GPS satellites and cellular networks and back to your phone. To do all of that requires technology and batteries and antennas, so getting a small form factor is really challenging.

We’re excited about the size of the device, which is 60 percent smaller than our last device. It’s also light, weighing less than an ounce, which is fantastic because we have, at our office for example, a six-pound dog that can wear the device really comfortably. I have a 150-pound dog that can also wear the device, and it looks great on both of them. Size is an important feature because consumers want something unobtrusive. They don’t want something big and getting in the way.

This version also uses Wi-Fi, which allows for better location tracking and lets you easily set up custom base places. If you set up a custom base place around your home, for example, you get a notification when your pet leaves that base place so you can track them on a map, find them and bring them home.

Using Wi-Fi, it’s really easy to set up multiple base places. A lot of people, especially this next generation of pet parents, are bringing their pets with them—bringing their pets to work or on vacation with them. With this new product, you can set up multiple base places so you can easily bring your pet with you wherever you go and still have all the core features of the product.

The last thing that I’ll mention is faster location tracking. Obviously, when you have a pet that’s missing, speed is really important so you can find them quickly. We worked really hard to make location tracking faster.

What are Whistle’s big moments of delight? How are people using the product, and what are the things that they point to and say, ‘I love this about Whistle?’

One out of three pets goes missing at some point in their lifetime, which is a pretty shocking statistic. A lot those pets, unfortunately, don’t make it home. Microchips are important, but they are a reactive solution. The GPS location-tracking component of Whistle 3 is a proactive pet loss solution. It allows you to know when your pet leaves home so you can find them quickly. They get the device for its GPS feature, but then the activity feature keeps them engaged over the long-term. The more personalized information you can provide a pet parent, the better they can take care of their pet.

The activity piece is interesting as well. I have three dogs, and two of them are Bullmastiffs and one is a Ridgeback. The Bullmastiffs want to sit around and be lazy, and the Ridgeback would like to go out and run half a marathon every day. But a lot of people don’t know that. People know how much activity they should be getting because there are articles saying people need to get at least 30 minutes of activity a day. That information isn’t as widely available for pets, and people don’t know how much activity their pets should be getting.

So with Whistle 3, when you’re activating the device, it asks you what breed and your pet is and it gives you a custom activity recommendation. That really helps parents be more proactive about the care of their pets.

What is the effect of activity on pet health, and how does that influence human activity as well?

We know that activity is a really big component of health and wellness both for humans and for pets. Veterinarians are always talking to their pet parents about getting their pet out there and more active. Yet pet parents struggle with it because they don’t know how much activity. How much is enough? It’s something the veterinarian community is thinking a lot about. Pet obesity is becoming as big of a problem as human obesity, and one of the biggest ways to combat that is through activity. The activity component is incredibly important.

We’ve had some really interesting stories from users who, for example, noticed that their pet’s activity was changing over time. So their activity level was getting lower, and it was enough that they noticed it. We let users know whether their pets have been getting more (or less) activity than usual so they can keep an eye on it. And we’ve had owners bring their pets to the vet and find out that there actually was a problem or a health-related issue. It’s great to know that we can provide that personalized information to pet parents to help them be smarter about how they care for their pets.

So obviously the data that you as an owner get from your pet is important. You can track your dog’s health and on a very 1-to-1 basis. How are you as a company using that data, and compiling data from across your user groups, to inform research and development? Are there ways in which you see Whistle forming a broader arena of pet help?

Absolutely, this is a really interesting topic and something that we all think about all the time. From the time we started as a company, our mission has been about helping pet parents with the information they need to take better care of their pets. We also know that we can transform care in many ways, and so we have been doing a variety of different types of studies, whether with universities or with different organizations. Things like studies around obesity and the impact of activity on weight loss in pets is something that we’ve been working on. Understanding the impact of activity on longevity is another thing that we’ve been working on with some partners where we’re really coming to understand how important is activity to a pet’s long-term health and happiness. That’s obviously really important to us because that’s our mission. We want pets to live a longer, healthier life. So being involved in this type of research and being able to provide this data, this anonymized activity-related data, to be able to inform studies around pet obesity and epilepsy. There’s just an enormous amount of research that’s been done and we really do look forward to the opportunity to partner with organizations that are studying these things.

Now that Whistle is owned by Mars Petcare, what do you see as the growth outlook for the company, and for the connected pet space in general?

Mars’s mission is to create a better world for pets, and we really we can create a better world for them by creating a smarter world for pets. So in that regard, there is amazing synergy between what they’re trying to accomplish and what we’re trying to accomplish.

From a product perspective, I think that we are very focused on our core product right now while thinking about partnering with others to do research that might inform future product development. So we want to make sure that we are always developing products that serve a real consumer need. The reality is that there still needs to be a lot more research done around some of those areas. Around health, for example. We would love to be able to give pet parents an early warning about their pet’s health, and so we feel like the product could go in that direction at some point in the future. But again, we want to make sure that we are leveraging partners and doing research in order to get there. And in terms of overall growth, there are 77 million dogs in this country alone, and so while we’ve sold several hundred thousand devices over the course of our company’s history, it’s really just scratching the surface. So we are definitely really focused on the United States, both cat and dog owners, but we are thinking about our international strategy. So we want to be thoughtful about it, because the way that people think about their pets in different countries is different. It’s not necessarily exactly the same in the U.S. as in other countries, so we want to take those things into consideration as well.

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