We met with cat sitting community founders Julie Barnes and Kathrin Burkhardt. The pair established a creative partnership from their time in advertising and decided to combine their tech knowledge and love of cats to start up a business for London’s cat owners. From a few cat owners in east London, Cat In A Flat is leaving its pawprints all over London and has expanded to other regions of the UK in just over a year. We chatted to them about creating a community, and how you can sign up to earn some extra cash as a sitter.
What made you want to start Cat in a Flat?
JB: I have quite a mean cat, he’s quite a grumpy boy, and it was always hard to ask anyone to look after him! I could tell people were a bit scared of him. He’s big too, like a panther! So I felt like I needed an army of cat lovers to help me look after him when I went away, because it was always quite difficult. Then we started our own little cat sitting business, and we could see that the owners wanted to join us and were like “I could come and help” so it started to grow into a little community.
KB: We were working as a creative team in advertising. So, we were familiar with creating something out of nothing with online technology, so that was a given…and then in April last year, we said goodbye to our day jobs and got our first funding, and launched our payment system and got to where we are now.
There are lots of pet sitting and house sitting services in London, what makes Cat in a Flat different?
JB: Our focus is on cats. Obviously we love all animals, but cats definitely win our hearts. Our community is quite unique in that way because we all just love cats and want to talk about cats. I think the owners can see that the people who have signed up (sitters) are true cat lovers.
KB: Cat sitting, or pet sitting as such has always been there but that was also one of the things we said we wanted to do differently. If you look at all the individual sites of sitters, the heart and the passion isn’t quite there. We recruit sitters who are really dedicated, and it’s a great community feeling, they’re all supportive. The community is where you find the trust.
What kind of people sign up to be sitters?
JB: Quite a few of the sitters are freelancers, so they like to carry on working with a cat around, keep the cat company and finish writing a novel or whatever they’re working on.
KB: About 80 percent of our community are creatives, like writers, actors, designers, photographers and mostly women. It’s fascinating, we haven’t asked for it, there is no professional criteria. Maybe it’s the early adopters, or perhaps it’s the brand language.
JB: We get teachers and social workers too. And I think it’s different to dog walking because you’re in the cat’s home, so it’s about settling down and doing some work, or just relaxing and playing.
How does someone become a cat sitter with you?
KB: We have an online form which we ask [potential sitters] to fill out, and then they upload proof of address, and once it’s filled out they ask for approval. We look through all the applicants, and we check that the addresses match, and are recent. So, quite often we have to go back to them to saying either we can’t read it or it’s not recent, or it’s not an official letter. So it’s quite diligent. And then, they can also request a phone call, which we like to do. Once a sitter has filled out their form with a nice description, and the proof of address has been approved we make their profile live immediately. The ones that have requested a phone call, we follow up with a ten-minute call, where we run them through the process, and answer any questions they might have and after that call they get a ‘loved by’ sitter badge and some cat owners ask for that in their search criteria.
JB: You can tell if they’re a genuine cat lover, just by how they write their profile.
KB: It filters out the ones who just browse from the ones who are committed. We encourage that.
Almost like online dating!
KB: People have joked about cat Tinder! But we are quite strict, because we have to have transparency about how they behave through our system. If they don’t respond to requests regularly, we contact them first, and then if they don’t respond, we take them off. Our community is important to us.
JB: It’s our proof of quality and trust.
What are the responsibilities involved with cat sitting?
KB: We give the information on our website, with really strong signposts for what the minimum requirements are, and once you’re logged in you can access more information, and there is an extensive help section. Then we encourage the owner and visitor to meet up two to five days before the owner goes away. In that meeting, the sitter should ask the right questions to collect all the information that they need. For care of the cat, they should spend at least half an hour with the cat, feed it, change the water, cat litter and sometimes the very attentive sitters mention things in their profile like watering plants and tidying the post.
JB: They should send photos of the cat, so the owner gets daily updates to know that everything is fine which is really good for peace of mind. They share the photos with us as well because we like to see them too.
KB: And then once they have done their sitting, the system encourages them to upload their photos of the cat to show their experience.
JB: And all of our sitters are insured.
KB: That was quite a milestone in the industry, I would say. It’s a pay as you go insurance that is totally bespoke to the needs of our industry that protects the cat sitter and the cat in care. And, with payment, the cat sitter doesn’t feel it as much, so whether they have one sitting a month or ten sittings a month a percentage gets taken off.
Do you have to be a cat owner to be a cat sitter?
JB: No, it’s more like the cat owners do the cat sitter the favour by letting them stroke their cat!
KB: We have a lot of sitters who have a partner who is allergic to cats, or they have grown up with cats but they moved into a place where they can’t have one, or their lifestyle isn’t suited. But most of the time they owned a cat as a child, or at some point. But but it’s not compulsory, anybody that loves cats can sign up.
Do they meet in the owner’s home?
KB: Usually they do, but we also suggest they meet in a café or a neutral place if you feel more comfortable.
JB: Some of them Skype each other first.
KB: There is a lot of text messaging through our system before they meet, and we encourage that well to clarify everything.
JB: So far everyone’s been really polite!
What kind of rates can a sitter expect to set?
JB: I would say the average is £8 for one visit per day and then £12-£15 for two visits a day.
KB: So we recently launched the house sitting service as well, so sitters can stay. That works for owners with kittens that might need a bit more attention. The owners never expect the sitter to stay the whole day, they can still follow their daily routine, but it also works for owners with different animals with slightly different feeding times and they prefer that as well or they want it for security reasons so the house sitting is £15 a night.
JB: Most of the time it’s for long weekends, but can be longer over Christmas, like around two weeks of sitting. Some of them have three or four cats, so they do really well over Christmas.
KB: They can earn up to three to four hundred pounds a week. The average booking time is six days per booking. It’s still seasonal, so for example Christmas is an average of eleven days.
What advice would you give to anyone thinking about cat sitting as a supplementary income?
JB: You have to love cats! And you don’t have to need a lot of spare time because most of the time the cat’s routine fits the owner’s routine, so the owner will feed the cat in the morning before work and feed the cat when they get home, so that’s kind of the routine that you follow.
KB: It helps if you’re a people person, because of the community and common interest.
To become a cat sitter, or to get tips on cat ownership, join the community at www.catinaflat.com. And to learn more, read our interview with two badge-holding cat sitters on what it’s like to work with Cat in a Flat.