Seymour, a 2-year-old Soft-coated Wheaten Terrier, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., is crouched on all fours on the floor, watching King Charles Spaniel puppies frolic alongside a baby. It’s a cute and cuddly scene, all right, and one worth a dog’s time, Seymour might tell you, if he had something to say about the matter.
But it turns out those puppies aren’t frolicking in real time. They’re in a video, streaming on a computer screen. And Seymour is watching that video. Yes, he’s a dog, and he’s watching a video on demand.
Welcome — if you’re not yet acquainted — to DogTV, a subscription cable channel created specifically for canines, and one whose origin story reflects the highs and lows of any entrepreneur who ever had a crazy idea and wouldn’t give it up.
In fact, the $4.99-a-month subscription channel’s beginnings, says co-founder and chief of content Ron Levi, were hardly auspicious. “They said the idea was crazy, that dogs don’t watch TV,’” says the entrepreneur, remembering how the first investors he approached beat a hasty retreat.
Chances are, those money-makers are now eating their no’s: Two weeks ago, DogTV announced a deal with Xfinity on Demand, a division of the global telecomm and internet access provider, Comcast. Xfinity’s decision to distribute DogTV more than doubled the dog channel’s reach.
“Before, we were on one major operator [DirecTV], which has 20 or 21 million households, which was amazing to us,” Levi says during an interview from his Sunnydale, Calif., headquarters. “This [Comcast deal] takes us to 40 or 45 million households around the U.S., and 48 percent of their households have dogs.
“It brings us to a point where we’re very comfortable with the numbers we’re starting to have in the U.S. because it’s the most important market for us, in a market that is $60 billion a year — the whole pet market.”
Today, DogTV is a global presence — it’s now in 14 countries — and a far cry from the company’s humble startup days, when Levi was just a guy with a crazy idea. Born in Fresh Meadows, N.Y., Levi grew up in Israel, where he became a veteran television broadcaster, but one with zero experience in the pet industry.
Still, he did have a cat named Charlie who gave him the idea for DogTV. That’s right: A cat was DogTV’s inspiration.
“He just gave me the saddest eyes one day,” Levi says of the beloved pet he would leave alone for hours in a Tel Aviv apartment. Those cat eyes sent the guilt-stricken pet owner to the internet to download videos about birds, squirrels, fish and other objects of feline fascination.
It worked: Charlie dug the footage. “I thought, ‘There’s a startup here!’” Levi says. That was 2006. Eventually, he found a seed investor, Jasmine Group, which gave him $200,000, plus the services of its CEO, Gilad Neumann — DogTV’s co-founder and now its full-time CEO.
“We only spent it on research,” Levi says of the first investment. “We didn’t come from the world of pets, so we didn’t know what was the right thing to do. We needed to do it right; people could treat this as a gimmick, a joke, and we didn’t want that. We wanted to do something serious that could really help dogs feel more comfortable in their home.”
Any pet parent can tell you how dogs left for hours can become lonely, stressed and prone to aggressive behavior — targeting the family couch, for instance,
But Levi’s review of 86 existing studies, and DogTV’s own research with Tufts University, helped confirm that dogs actually do respond to screen content (though there remain naysayers). Those four-legged test subjects, Levi says, actively watched TV 16 percent of the time. As to what they watched, the channel’s researchers developed custom canine content, including specially colored videos, since dogs can’t see reds and greens and have far poorer vision than humans. Also created were “psychoacoustic” sound frequencies dogs like.
“After finishing three years [of research], we felt confident that we knew what dogs need, what they like, that we could create content,” Levi says. DogTV was launched in January 2010.
What that content has grown into is a 24/7 schedule of offerings in easily digestible, three- and four-minute videos. The dog day was divided into zones. The first zone aims to relax dogs stressed from separation anxiety, with classical music and positive affirmations — lots of kids exclaiming, “Good dog!”
Next comes “stimulation” time, with dog running scenes and happy, playful pooches. Finally, there’s “exposure” time, designed to desensitize dog viewers to frightening factors such as fireworks and thunderstorms. Human subscribers can program constantly changing material for up to 12 hours a day, upload videos of their own dogs and watch videos made for humans.
When that initial $200,000 seed grant ran out, Levi says, Neumann went out to beat the bushes, eventually bringing in more than $10 million (Levi won’t be specific) in startup funding. But still, the co-founders were growing the project slowly, cautiously, hiring just a handful of tech employees and creative types. Then came 2012 and their first big break.
That year, Cox Communications picked up the channel locally in San Diego, a city Levi and Neumann considered a test market only. “We tried to keep it as a local secret,” Levi says. Fat chance: “The day after [it debuted], it was already on Good Morning America, David Letterman and Conan and Ellen and Leno.”
That opened the floodgates, leading to those deals with DirecTV, Roku, AmazonFireTV and other providers. And now … there’s Comcast.
Reflecting back this Small Business Week on his entrepreneurial adventures, Levi talks about the highs and lows, calling these past seven years “a rollercoaster.”
“Every time you raise more money, and the future is not secure, that’s kind of a low,” he says. “You’re not sure you’re going to make it. Or, every time you hear a ‘no,’ and people are laughing about this idea: That’s a low too.
“All around the world, there are so many platforms, and we’re hoping to launch on all of them, but platforms say no all the time and that’s a bummer. It’s all about patience, and it’s all about relationships. The Xfinity launch didn’t happen overnight, trust me; we’ve been around for years, spending all this time and money to make these things happen. When they do happen, that’s a high.”
And, finally, the obvious question: When to expect CatTV? Levi reveals there’s a baby on the way in his family, so time is limited. But CatTV is not out of the question. “The whole channel was inspired by my cat,” Levi points out. “I can’t wait to do it.”