Greg Liberman has made it his life's work to foster happy families. After spending more than a decade at Spark Networks, the parent company of digital dating giants JDate and Christian Mingle, he moved on to run PuppySpot, a site that connects prospective puppy owners with responsible breeders.
He brought his trustworthy executive team to PuppySpot in 2015 and together they re-branded and completely rebuilt the business. Their extreme vetting process only accepts 10 percent of breeders who apply to be featured with the company, ensuring the best possible experience for customers.
Liberman spoke with Crain's about how he got into the somewhat sparse online puppy business and what the future marketplace will look like.
Q: What led you to Spark Networks and beyond into PuppySpot?
A: I started my first business when I was 15; it was a baseball card business. It was a great business because my parents funded the entire thing and I got to keep all the revenues. I’ve been looking to replicate that business [model] ever since. I practiced law for a little bit after graduating [from law school at the University of Chicago]. I was practicing as a lawyer during the dotcom boom, and I can vividly remember one day sitting in my office and talking to a client who was the founder of a startup. ... I think it was during that conversation when I decided that I would rather be the person on the other end of the phone talking to me than me sitting in my office at a law firm.
So I went in-house. I worked at some telecoms and internet infrastructure businesses. Then I went to an executive program called Program for Management Development at Harvard Business School. It was great because it provided some foundation, and coming out of there I did a number of different things.
Ultimately, I landed at Spark in 2004. I joined the company responsible for JDate just six weeks after I got married. It was my first foray into consumer businesses. It was early in the online dating world and we were creating families. It feels a lot like what we’re doing now.
I left JDate after a decade. We were publicly traded and some active shareholders took over the business. We didn’t see eye-to-eye, and that culture piece is really critical. They didn’t share my view of culture. So I ended up leaving and joining PuppySpot, which had been around for a long time. The technology and platform were there, but we rebranded, rebuilt it and created this entirely new business.
The business we’re in today feels a lot like what online dating did 15 years ago—the technology and platform are there but people don’t know that there is an opportunity to find a puppy online. The best way to find a puppy is through us because we screen, vet and qualify the breeders.
One of the really exciting things about this business is that a lot of my team here are people that I’ve worked with in the past. We’re building families one puppy at a time versus building communities one family at a time as we did with JDate and Christian Mingle. It’s exciting to be here at a mission-driven business like this where a lot of what we’ve all done in the past translates really well to this business. At PuppySpot, our culture is built on trust, transparency and accountability. What we like to say is that we don’t ask for trust, but we seek to earn it through transparency and action.
Q: You had a corporate journey to PuppySpot, but I’m sure you have to be a dog-lover as well to helm such a canine-centric business.
A: Yes and it’s funny, my 8-year-old daughter at the time [I joined PuppySpot] really wanted a puppy. I grew up with dogs, but I realized later on that I am allergic. It’s an interesting conversation that I should have with my parents about whether they either didn’t know or didn’t care. I’m not sure which answer I’d prefer.
So we found our current puppy on PuppySpot. When I [took the job] we started looking for a puppy, but my daughter is also allergic. So we wanted to get an allergy-friendly breed. My daughter wanted a dog named Lucy, and whenever a breeder posts a dog on our site, they already have a name. People can change the name (later), but my daughter went on looking for dogs named Lucy and she found a little red poodle. And Lucy became a part of our family.
It was fun to experience it firsthand and to really see what we do come to life. As excited as I was about the business and about finding happy homes for great puppies, when I went and spent time with our breeder and saw just how much they care for all of the dogs and puppies, it was pretty amazing.
Q: Is there a competitive market for online puppy shopping like there is for online dating? Will competition grow in the future?
A: It’s very different. This is not just about throwing up a website and putting puppies on it. We have a very complex system that we built over a number of years. It’s not an easy thing to do. For people who are looking for a puppy, they’re not doing it every day. They don’t know a lot about breeders or what makes a good shelter or a bad shelter. So what we’ve done is remove all the X factors associated with finding responsible breeders, which ensures that people get to make a choice about where they’re finding their puppies. But there’s nothing else like us out there right now, because to get to this scale takes a lot. I’m not sure how many people are willing to invest to do it.
Q: What was the hardest part of the rebranding? How did you get it off the ground and get the word out?
A: For us, it’s getting the messaging out in a world where there’s a lot of noise about finding puppies. There are some activist groups out there who try to paint all breeders with a negative brush. But responsible breeders are the best possible place you can find a puppy. So really the educational piece has been something we’ve focused on.
When I joined the business, one of the very first things that I tried to do was look for data and facts. What I saw was a lot of the dialogue with lots of emotion and hyperbole and not a lot of fact. So educating people about who we are and what we do has been not challenging [exactly], but getting that message out there is something we’re very focused on. We exist and we are not in any way anti-shelter or anti-rescue. We’re pro-dog. We want people to be educated and be able to make a choice based on facts.
Q: Did you learn any valuable lessons at Spark that you have used at PuppySpot?
A: The most important one I learned from JDate and Christian Mingle is how important it is, if you’re building a brand, to be genuine and authentic and to be committed to what you’re doing. When you’re trying to build a brand, being authentic and transparent, that’s how you earn trust and that’s how you scale over the long term.