ND Founders Profile #23: When His First Startup Tanked, this Notre Dame Alum Pivoted to Pets – and Scored!

Author: Melanie Lux

Facebook Web Nd Founders Aaron Bannister Aaron Bannister (information systems management, class of 2002) co-founded Petdesk in 2014


Company Founded: Petdesk Year Graduated: 2002
Title: Co-Founder and Chief Customer Success Engineer Degree: B.B.A, Information Systems Management
Location: San Diego, CA Residence Hall: Fisher

Aaron Bannister has got to be a dog person. His voice over the phone radiates warmth and exuberance.

Dog, definitely dog.

But no, the co-founder of Petdesk, America’s number one pet app and veterinarian communications platform, is all cat. Just look at his profile on the Petdesk website. There he is. Cat. And his co-founders, Taylor Cavanah and Ken Tsui, are dogs. What gives?

Bannister explains that his likeness is that of his cat Louis, a favorite feline that recently passed away. Immortalizing him on the Petdesk website seemed a fitting way to honor Louis and have fun with Bannister’s role as chief customer success engineer of Petdesk. Since founding Petdesk in 2014, the startup has attracted 1.5 million pet parents of its app and 2,100 veterinary practices across the country.

Success didn’t come overnight, but Bannister certainly laid a solid foundation in technology and computer science, first as a high school student and later at the University of Notre Dame. Born in Chicago and raised in Dallas, Bannister attended a month-long engineering summer camp at Notre Dame between his junior and senior years in high school. He fell in love with the university, applied and was accepted.

While pursuing a degree in information systems management, Bannister made the most of Notre Dame football weekends. He and some friends launched a student dance group, First Class Steppers, performing at campus functions. His reason was simple, “We all liked to dance and it was a great way to share our culture and give others a look at what we like to do.”

After graduating, Bannister hightailed it back to Dallas to escape the Midwest’s brisk winters. After several years of working in corporate IT jobs, he and two friends founded a company called Locai, a location-based communications app similar to Foursquare. The startup failed "miserably." Undeterred, Bannister, Cavanah and Tsui began looking for another opportunity.

“Taylor’s (Cavanah) wife’s uncle suggested we look into the veterinary medicine industry so he went to a conference to see what kind of technology and software was available. Within ten minutes of walking onto the vendor floor, he called Ken and I said this is it,” Bannister says.

“So we pivoted to pets.”

Transforming what they’d built for Locai into a software-as-a-service (SaaS) communications platform for busy veterinarian practices was not a stretch. They took their existing back end, repurposed it, and added automated features such as appointment reminders and confirmation, appointment requests and client messaging. Knowing how tech-averse veterinarians and their staffs can be, they made the software super easy to use and compatible with existing practice management systems. The goal is to streamline communications with clients to free up staff time to focus on pet health.

At the same time, they launched the Petdesk mobile app, a convenience and loyalty builder for pet parents and yet another communications vehicle for veterinarians. Today, Petdesk is the number one pet app and is an easy way for pet parents to keep track of their pets’ health history and appointments with the vet, groomer, boarding kennel, and dog walker—whatever is needed to keep one’s pets happy and healthy. The app has earned an enviable 4.8 star rating out of five based on 200,000 reviews from Android and Apple users.

In just six short years, Petdesk has acquired 2,100 veterinary clinics as customer. Bannister attributes this success to a product offering that solves a very real pain point and is very easy for a tech-averse industry to adopt and use. 

“Our platform is very intuitive, but it’s also supported by an amazing onboarding and setup team so customers can immediately take advantage of it. We also have a customer success team that does preventive check-ins to make sure customers are using the software correctly. We hang our hats on providing a high level of support,” Bannister says.

The biggest challenge Bannister has faced is Petdesk’s rapid growth. “Scaling and growing a company is hard. What you did at the beginning when it was just three guys and several employees is very different when you grow to more than 70 people. When you start a company, you wear multiple hats. As you grow, you delegate those hats. That’s hard, too.” 

Fortunately, the company has been mentored and funded by Peakspan, which partners with growth stage software entrepreneurs looking to sensibly scale their business.

Like many of today’s startups, Petdesk has been impacted by the coronavirus flatten the curve shutdown. But Bannister and his colleagues have proven remarkably nimble even as they’ve worked remotely and made do with Zoom meetings.

“We immediately came together as a team and re-prioritized our projects. In addition to updating our communications platform to accommodate longer emails, we added new protocols for COVID-19, two-way text messaging and messages to support curbside check-in, we also accelerated our telehealth initiative. On May 19, we launched video appointments to enable remote consults and initial emergency visits. Patients can even do the consult on the app,” Bannister explains.

To ease the stress on frontline pet care workers as they struggled to see patients and owners in the safest way possible, Petdesk also offered free two-way text messaging for two months and free video appointment capabilities for three months.

Response to the two-way text messaging and video consults has been overwhelmingly positive. Bannister smiles and humbly attributes his company’s agility to having a great team and enjoying a challenge. “It is definitely not simple. When things don’t work out, we figure out why and are willing to change. The reward is there.”

Bannister’s advice to future entrepreneurs is to take a chance. “You won’t know if it will or won’t work unless you do it. Your startup is your baby. You want to see it succeed. Just don’t be afraid to pivot.”