Travel IndustryBooksSmarter ShoppingSports

The debit card that could help pet parents save big on vet care

September 4, 2022, 12:00 PM UTC
Catherine Dennig, cofounder of Fursure.
Courtesy of Fursure

Veterinary care is expensive, and like almost everything else right now, it’s not immune to inflation. The average cost of emergency care for a pet is between $800 and $1,500, but 97% of pets in the U.S. are not insured.

And, as a friend recently described so succinctly to me, think of it this way: Pet insurance is what health insurance was like for people in the U.S. before the Affordable Care Act. Meaning, there is no pet insurance available for pets with preexisting conditions. So any treatment for pets with preexisting conditions is out-of-pocket—and expensive.

Millennials are the largest segment of pet owners, and they are willing to spend double on their pets than previous generations, but given those insurance rates, not enough pet owners are financially prepared for emergencies.

Catherine Dennig cofounded Fursure after facing an exorbitant (and unaffordable) vet bill and the subsequent loss of her beloved cat. Since launching in 2020, Fursure has signed up more than 60,000 pet parents across all 50 states, supporting over 1,800 checking accounts with the new Fursure Card. Touted to be the first rewards debit card made for pet parents, customers can earn five points for every dollar spent on a pet, which can be redeemed towards any vet bill, essentially serving as a rainy day fund for pet-related emergencies. Customers can also earn exclusive discounts on products from pet retailers like Bark Box, Chewy, and The Farmer’s Dog.

Dennig recently shared more with Fortune about what Fursure does and what it could mean for the future of our pets and the pet insurance industry.

The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Could you share a bit about your professional background before launching Fursure?

Before Fursure I was leading product teams on news feed and ads at Facebook, where I helped build and launch Facebook Ad Credit for SMBs to try advertising, which became a sustainable growth lever for Facebook. I led the News Feed Integrity Content Quality team, a large cross-functional product team building classifiers for problematic content like clickbait, sensationalism, ad farms, and more. I learned a ton in my 3.5 years there and loved my amazing coworkers, many of whom became my first Fursure investors, and always knew I wanted to get back to building something I was deeply passionate about for the next 10-plus years, so I left to start Fursure.

Before Facebook, I graduated in 2015 from Princeton University, where I started my first company, Nofomo. I learned more than a few hard-won lessons, namely to hire for truly mission-aligned teammates and to always iterate on products with customer feedback to ultimately solve real problems for people.

What inspired the launch of Fursure?

It started with my cat named Simba, who was my pride and joy. I call my loved ones (parents, sister, and best friends) Simba, Yimba, and Yimbi as my term of endearment because of him. I had grown up with pets, but Simba was the first for which I was financially responsible. It hit me hard when he was diagnosed with lymphosarcoma, and treatment cost $12,000. I was a college student, I had to decide whether to go into debt to save his life. He passed away a week later, and I carried that with me as I finished college and started working at Facebook and living in the Bay Area.

As I was volunteering at the SFSPCA with my now cofounder Keji Xu, we heard pet owner after pet owner lament over the costs of vet care—with one woman telling us she spent $8,000 for her dog’s ACL surgery. We heard families having to choose between saving their loved one, giving them the medical care they needed, or going into crippling debt. It reminded me of my struggle with Simba.

Pet spend in the U.S. is already approximately $120 billion, soon to be $275 billion by the end of the decade. Pets used to be companions, but now we see them as starter kids. There are 185 million cats and dogs in the U.S., and while the U.S. pet insurance industry is already a $2.8 billion market growing over 30% year over year, it has penetrated just over 3% of owners.

Many pet owners are still unaware of how expensive certain procedures can be, and traditional pet insurance companies do not effectively convey their value until it’s too late. Over a few weeks we had hundreds of conversations with pet parents, vets, insurers, and shelters; we got clarity on the pain points and built up a ton of excitement to contribute to this loving part of many people’s lives. We recognized that we had a huge opportunity to build a trusted company that helps pet parents take care of their loved ones.

Since launching in 2020, Fursure has attracted over 60,000 pet parents in all 50 states, helping with support for more than 1,800 checking accounts with the new Fursure Card.
Courtesy of Fursure

Health insurance for humans is hard enough to figure out, but pet insurance is an entirely different animal (pardon the pun) given the restrictions around preexisting conditions, not to mention how hard it can be to compare plans among different providers. What are some of the biggest pain points with pet insurance right now, and how is Fursure a better option than what is currently on the market?

The entire process of finding the right pet insurance policy sucks. First and foremost, people don’t know what pet insurance covers, and it doesn’t work like human health insurance does, so it’s doubly confusing.

As you said, no policies will cover preexisting conditions, and on top of that, most insurance companies don’t cover routine wellness costs, so preventive care (which comprises the majority of your annual vet care costs) is separate from accidents and illnesses and often not covered unless added on or purchased separately. Secondly, people don’t know who the players are in the pet insurance market. They’ll do a Google search and see names like Trupanion, Pets Best, Figo, and have no idea who to trust with the health and wellness of their loved one.

Lastly, people ultimately just want to know what is best for them and their specific pet, and there is a lot of noise out there in the market.

Our national pet insurance marketplace solves these problems by making pet insurance approachable, with a modern buying process that gives pet parents saved time, money, and confidence in protecting their whole family. With Fursure, there are no hidden fees or surprises when you work with one of our pet insurance gurus. We are an unbiased and free-to-use resource that simplifies the process to be as seamless as possible.

We start by explaining in plain language what’s covered, what’s not, what various terms mean, how providers compare, and what factors are important when buying a plan. We then offer you personalized recommendations and guidance on the best policy for you and your situation. We make sure that from the start you know how much you will be paying your provider for your coverage, help you obtain your policy, and offer an end-to-end solution for policy management and renewals.

Responsible pet owners do a lot for their cats and dogs, and we’re all used to budgeting for food, treats, toys, grooming, and routine trips to the vet for basic checkups and vaccine boosters. And yet pet insurance is probably the one cost most pet owners overlook but should consider the most. How can Fursure get these pet owners sold on pet insurance?

The most important things that we believe are holding pet parents back from opting into pet insurance are transparency, trust, and education. Buying pet insurance shouldn’t be expensive, confusing, or time-consuming, and we try to make it an easy and quick process while also explaining how important pet insurance is.

Pet insurance for accidents and illnesses is almost exactly like car or home insurance…you hope you will never need it, but you will be SO grateful if you have to use it. There have been far too many pet parents who have had to choose between emptying their bank accounts or saying goodbye to their loving pet. Having pet insurance means you can feel confident knowing you will never have to make that gut-wrenching choice.

On the other hand, wellness plans are a little more similar to health insurance and where you will feel more of an impact with that daily value. Wellness plans cover those expenses you will commonly see with healthy pets like vaccines, heartworm prevention, spay/neuter, and even dental cleaning. Almost all insurance policies do not cover these costs, so a best practice would be bundling these two services so you are protecting your pet and yourself at all angles. Our Fursure Card is an alternative for those who don’t have a wellness plan because the points you earn can be used on all veterinary care, so you can offset those costs in a smart and easy way.

Not every pet parent needs pet insurance; given restrictions on preexisting conditions, for pets with many existing medical conditions, it may not make sense to buy an expensive plan that doesn’t cover everything one may want to be covered. The same goes for older pets, and pet parents who can pay tens of thousands out of pocket and can afford to self-insure. But for a lot of people, they could use a hand with pet insurance or a savings account, or a combo of both to protect against the unexpected big costs over the lifetime and give peace of mind. More pet parents are getting insurance when they first get their pet from the shelter or breeder in their checklist of items.

Fursure cardholders can earn exclusive discounts on products from pet brands like Bark Box, Chewy, the Farmer’s Dog and more.
Courtesy of Fursure

How is the company funded? Is it self-funded or have you reached out to investors? What has the financing process been like?

We bootstrapped the company as we conducted research and interviewed hundreds of pet parents, vets, insurers, and shelters, to learn the biggest pain points. We raised a friends and family round as a pre-seed in March 2020, which happened to be the very start of the pandemic with shelter-in-place lockdown restrictions in the Bay Area and investors running around trying to help their portfolio companies, many of whom were seeing their revenue numbers plummet. In hindsight, it was the worst time in many years to be raising for an early-stage company, but I’m grateful for the first checks in Fursure, people who believed in me from working with me at Facebook or seeing me grow up from childhood. After we built a base of customers who loved us and had strong early traction, we raised an oversubscribed seed round in April 2021.

Since then, as we launched the first-of-its-kind rewards debit card that offered supercharged points on pet spend with promising traction and expanded our reach of pet parents; existing and new investors offered to invest in a seed plus round, which we’re wrapping up now. The market is crazy, so fund-raising has not been easy, but the process has helped us find phenomenal investors who believe deeply in us and the problem we’re solving which has been amazing.

Looking forward five years, how do you want to Fursure to grow? What kind of services do you want to add in the future?

We plan to continue iterating upon our foundation as the first financial well-being platform for pet parents. We are always talking to our customers, so I know that we will continue building the best solutions for the pain points they face. We did this with our Fursure Card, after countless conversations where we learned pet parents wanted to be rewarded for their pet spend and have an easy solution for a rainy day fund.

Our marketplace is the just tip of the iceberg of what pet parents everywhere need to feel confident and empowered with pet finances, so we plan on building a solution for that pain point down the line and innovating on behalf of them.

This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.