Episode 1: Jessica Schleder – Adoptimize

Jessica Schleder

Jessica Schleder

Most animal shelters lack the tools and resources to produce good pet photos and as a result, many homeless pets get overlooked on adoption sites and social media and end up getting euthanized.

This discovery motivated Jessica Schleder to innovate a solution in the form of Adoptimize: a software that automatically transforms shelter photos from invisible to irresistible in just 15 seconds!

Listen in to learn more about Adoptimize from Jessica Schleder, the founder and CEO of Adoptimize, herself!

 

Learn more about Adoptimize

Adoptimize website: Adoptimize.co

Adoptimize for fosters: Foster.Adoptimize.co

Follow Adoptimize on Social Media

Facebook: facebook.com/adoptimize.co

Instagram: @adoptimize

LinkedIn: adoptimizeforpets


Jessica:

Hi, I’m Jessica Schleder, and you’re tuned in to the Animal Innovations Show.

 

Narrator:

You’ve tuned in to the Animal Innovations Show, where we feature people, products, services, and ideas that are helping animals and the people who care for them, live better lives.

If it’s innovative, and it helps animals, you can find it here first.  So, get ready, here comes this week’s newest innovation for animals.

 

Chris:

All right, Jessica. So, tell us who you are and how you’re innovating to help animals.

 

Jessica:

My name is Jessica Schleder, and I run an animal shelter software that automates great pet photos to increase adoption rates and reduce operating costs in animal shelters.

It’s really hard to take a good photo of a stressed-out pet at intake. I don’t have to tell you that. Try a cat. So, what we do is, our software takes the shelter out of shelter photos in just 15 seconds. That’s really fast now. (laughs)

 

Chris:

Yeah, it’s gonna say. When you originally started doing this, it took you a little bit longer, didn’t it?

 

Jessica:

It certainly did. (laughs) We’ll talk about that later. But you just upload a photo of your pet dog or cat, and we automatically take the shelter out.

We remove the background, pop up your pet to look great and Instagram-able, and you get a result, which you can then just download to your camera or email over to your chameleon if you have a chameleon number set up. And there you have it.

It’s really simple because you don’t need to be doing more at intake, so it’s super simple. But what is really impressive is what these photos do.

So, here’s just some of the recent results we’ve had. In the last few weeks, we’ve processed over 10,000 animals in shelters across the country.

 

Chris:

Wow!

 

Jessica:

Yeah, I know. It’s a lot. It’s a lot more than I thought for our first year like it’s been good. Palm Valley Animal Society in McAllen, Texas—last month, their adoption rates were 90% higher for dogs who had our images compared to dogs that didn’t.

 

Chris:

90%?

 

Jessica:

Yes, and that’s actually like, that’s not even like the best numbers that they’ve had. A lot of our shelters see this.

Basically, people are stopping and looking at these pets more online. We did a study with Palm Valley Animal Society and Adopt-a-Pet last year that showed… We measured online engagement, and not only did time on page double for the pets with the Adoptimize images, but they saw 33% more unique visitors, which should basically proxy for adopters. And so, more people were even looking at those pets. So, there is that.

What we’re really seeing, though, what I’ve been really excited about is the RTO rates. So, the RTO rate is colloquial for Return-to-Owner. It’s the number of pets that get reunited with their owners at the shelter. It’s the best possible outcome you can have in a shelter for a couple of reasons.

One, you have a happy family. You have a happy dog or cat, and it is the shortest length of stay of any track that an animal could be on. So, it’s ideal.

And what we’ve seen last month in El Paso, return-to-owner rates were actually up 243%. So

 

Chris:

Wow.

 

Jessica:

People… (laughs) Yeah, people. These were on dogs. We just launched cats this month, so we’ll have cats, the cats’ data probably next week. And we’ve seen this over and over again in all the shelters.

That’s just one example from last month, but people are recognizing their pets more online. So, that’s what’s really exciting.

And, as a result, El Paso ended up saving, I think, it was like over $50 per pet that went through Adoptimize as a result of that.

 

Chris:

Wow. So this has really taken off. This is really exciting.

 

Jessica:

Yeah, the impact is really, really, really clear.

 

Chris:

So, is this… What’s going into this? Is this AI? Machine logic? And it’s got of all the buzzwords, right? And it’s new technology. It’s very innovative. It’s very cool.

 

Jessica:

Yeah. (laughs) You know, when I started out, it is AI-based. We have an algorithm that finds your pet and uses computer vision to find the pet in the photo and edit out anything that’s not the pet, including humans.

But what we found is that nobody cares that it’s AI. They just wanted to help that pain point that they have in the shelter, and it’s getting a good photo of a pet, and getting those good photos online fast so that the pets move out of the shelter faster and have positive outcomes.

 

Chris:

So now, does this work with any smartphone? Do you have to have a special camera? I mean, what kind of equipment is needed to actually take the photo in the first place?

 

Jessica:

So, we started out with using a webcam, and actually, it was an entire video software in the beginning. The hypothesis was that, well, it’s so hard to take a good photo of a stressed-out pet at intake. Let’s just not even take a photo. Let’s take a video and then find the best shot of the animal in that.

And so, we launched it across the country, and we found out, it was animal care tax, and animal control officers actually hacked our system to be able to upload regular photos. That’s what they preferred 90% of the time. So, you know

 

Chris:

They got smarter.

 

Jessica:

Yeah. Yeah. So, it made so much more sense, though, like basically, I don’t want to say it like this, but we over-engineered the problem.

The problem was 10% of the time, a video works really well, but really, people have these amazing phones that they know how to take good photos. They might already have good photos on their phones. And when you upload a photo, it takes a lot less time than uploading a video, so everyone’s a lot happier now.

And we actually just launched a kind of a photo-first workflow in our software, but we still have the video workflow if you want to use it. But, what we’re seeing is just mostly, it’s photos because people know how to do it really well.

 

Chris:

Very cool. So now, obviously, you’re using this at intake and shelters, you said. But where else are you using them? Are there other people that can use this as well?

 

Jessica:

Yeah, so we launched back in June. Best Friends Animal Society and Amazon Web services sponsored Adoptimize to launch a version of our software for fosters, and it’s free. You can find it at foster dot Adoptimize dot co https://foster.adoptimize.co/.

It’s basically a Web app that you can use in your home without having to sign up for any sort of software.

We use emails instead of accounts because I hate accounts, and it’s really simple. You get five options there, and you can share with fosters, and they can send you great photos.

 

Chris:

Very cool. So, how new is the foster side of this? Is this pretty new? Or is this something that’s been out a while, too?

 

Jessica:

About four months.

 

Chris:

Okay. And so, are you seeing the traction on that side as well?

 

Jessica:

Yeah, we saw, like 3,000 people use it in the first month. It’s kind of died off since then, I think because intake’s gone down a lot. And, you know, there’s the fostering frenzy, and there’s still a lot of fostering going on.

But, you know, shelters have really kind of gotten the hang of it. So, what I think I’ve discovered is like, well, it’s really useful to get good photos of a pet in somebody’s home.

It is a little bit more useful in a shelter setting, where you don’t have the time to sit with one pet and do a photo shoot.

 

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Chris:

Yeah, true. And you get different backdrops. And, you know, it’s a different environment when the pet’s out of the shelter.

 

Jessica:

Right. Exactly. Exactly.

 

Chris:

Yeah, they don’t have as many, you know, nice places. I mean, unfortunately, sometimes, they get just a concrete wall or, you know, a desk or whatever in intake versus… get a picture of the foster animal up on the couch.

 

Jessica:

Right. Or there’s like, a turd in the background, and we don’t want that. (laughs)

 

Chris:

Exactly, exactly. (laughs) So, now, you said it used to only do dogs, right? But you said now, it does cats as well.

 

Jessica:

Hmm. (makes meow sounds)

 

Chris:

Nice. I’m a cat lover, you know it, dude!

 

Jessica:

I know, I know, and I’m so excited about that because it doubles the number of animals we can have an impact for. And, arguably, cats need it more than dogs. It’s harder to take good photos of cats.

So, we launched cats. We’ve been running that for about three weeks. I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of cats coming through the software. They’re actually looking pretty good, which I’m really excited about.

So, we’re gonna have the numbers next week, probably, to know how this is increasing the positive outcomes.

I will say I took a sneak peek at some numbers today for a shelter in Texas, and it looks like the cats have a 90% higher adoption rate.

 

Chris:

That’s outstanding!

 

Jessica:

You know, it’s that kind of fear that’s it’s the same exact number, as I just said earlier, but it’s like, it said 90 today, so… (laughs)

 

Chris:

Congratulations! That’s outstanding.

 

Jessica:

I’m really excited. I’m really excited.

I think my biggest issue is like, shelters don’t know about it yet, and it’s been kind of hard this year to launch a real product.

I really only started selling this officially in June, and it’s COVID, and so, I have a lot of conferences and, you know, like we had a really active booth at the Humane Society Expo. But, you know, it’s so much more fun to actually go to conferences and actually get to interact with people and people from animal shelters.

 

Chris:

Yeah, yeah, to get the word out and let them know about it.

So, what’s next? Are you gonna be putting in Snapchat-type filters and sunglasses and hair bows and all that kind of stuff?

 

Jessica:

So, I guess… You know, what’s kind of funny is that the documents looked completely different when it started out.

It was completely different, it was matching people to pets online based on people’s online behaviour. So, it’s kind of like Upward for pets.

Like, for example, if you were signed up for a marathon on Facebook, you might be a good fit for an active dog here, and then we would feed you an ad of the Husky in the local shelter.

And so, three years ago, that didn’t work because the photos coming out of the shelter were so bad that you couldn’t reasonably match a person to a pet that’s best for them because it wasn’t reasonable. No one would say yes to that pet.

But now that we have better photos coming out of the shelters, we are starting to be able to guarantee that we have ad-quality photos, that we can use an ad.

So, what I’m actually exploring right now is applying Adoptimize to paid ads. And what I’m exploring is actually having a business model where we have pet care brand sponsors pay for Adoptimize at the in-shelters so that shelters can have it for free because they need the most to help survive release rates.

But, you know, pet care brands also really want to connect with shelters because they want to do the good work, too, they want to support it. They just don’t have, really, a meaningful way to reach adopters on a mass scale right now outside of Petfinder and Adopt-a-Pet.

 

Chris:

Very cool. I like your thinking on that. I mean, hearing that up with pet retail brands and things like that to really, you know, take the burden off the shelters. But it has a win-win for everybody.

 

Jessica:

Yeah, yeah, it really does. And that’s what I’m really excited about. That’s something that we’re going to start next year.

Oh, you know, the other thing about it is that right now, since animal shelters can’t afford paid ads, they’re missing out on the first part of the adoption process, which is the awareness and consideration phase.

And so, if they had the ability to kind of get in their Facebook, just like every other thing out there that gets advertised to us, we’re not seeing the shelter pets at the time that we’re just starting to think about, “Oh, I would like to get a dog.”

And so, shelters would be able to influence people at the first part of their journey, where they’re making the decision between shelter or purchase from a breeder. And by connecting shelters with people outside of their immediate vicinity, we’ll actually be able to draw more diverse and qualified people to the shelters.

And I know that we’ve had a really bad race problem, forever, in animal sheltering, and I think that by exposing shelters to more diverse adopters, we can start to close that gap.

 

Chris:

It sounds like you’ve got a really big vision.

 

Jessica:

Yeah. (laughs)

 

Chris:

That’s awesome. So, I got to know. I mean, take us back to the point where you had this idea, right, for Adoptimize. I know you said originally, it was kind of matching, but then you got into this idea that I’m gonna use machine learning and AI, and I’m going to take better photos. I mean, was this just like, you’re in the shower one day, and you thought of this? I mean, how did this come about?

 

Jessica:

Before animal sheltering, they had an eight-year, career-building digital products and marketing campaigns for Nestle in 20th Century Fox. And I had this, one day, where I was sitting in my cubicle, working on a Butterfinger campaign.

This is just the one thing I remember. I don’t remember actually coming up with Adoptimize, but I remember this moment. I was like, “Wow, I’m working on this Butterfinger campaign. Really cool, it’s a lot of money, and oh, my God. My impact on the world can literally be measured in the number of candy bars I’m selling the children right now.”

And, you know, like, so, for some people, that’s totally fine. And that works for them. But for me, it wasn’t enough.

So, I started volunteering at the local animal shelters. And I was pretty horrified by the lack of data and technology that really impeded their ability to serve the community and the way that they really want to.

And part of that is the images. The tools that they have at their disposal to take good pictures weren’t good enough or didn’t fit the process well enough. And so, the photos that were coming out of the shelters were so dingy and dark and blurry that I feel like it really did a disservice to sheltering in general and made shelters seem like a really depressing place when they could be places of complete joy.

So, I went through the process of starting to think through building the matching software, matching the people, the pets online, and I realized, “Okay, well, I can’t do this without better photos, so let’s tackle the better photos.”

And when we tackled the better photos, I just thought, “Oh, hey, this is going to increase adoption rates, and it’s called Adoptimizeadoption optimization together.”

I forget what it’s called when you put it together. It’s called like a Sir Kensington or something?

 

Chris:

Oh. I didn’t even know there was a phrase.

 

Jessica:

(laughs) There’s a name for it. I love doing that. It’s not that, though, so don’t quote me on that one.

 

Chris:

Okay.

 

Jessica:

It’s some sort of British person, so I thought it would just affect adoption rates. But we piloted it with the city of Amarillo, Texas, which, that’s an interesting story. I could tell you about that after this.

And it turns out that, not only did it increase adoption rates, but it really increased the transfer-out rates for basically rescues pulling from the shelter because they were seeing these photos online and obviously pulling the dogs that they knew could be adoptable. These dogs look more adoptable.

And then, obviously, as a downhill effect, it reduced euthanasia by 56% in that first pilot. So, after testing it out, with those numbers, that was kind of the minimum viable product that having to say, “Okay, well, this works, let’s do it on scale.”

 

Chris:

So, now, how long ago was that that you kind of started down this journey?

 

Jessica:

We incorporated in 2018, so it’s almost three years.

 

Chris:

Wow, three years. And, as you said, when you started this, you were doing video, and you were trying to write in the algorithm. And I remember you telling me what you found when you first started doing this, right? The software is really smart. It found what you told it to find, didn’t it?

 

Jessica:

(laughs) Yeah.

 

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Jessica:

It was a student project in the beginning. I did this in my MBA program at USC, and I had one, some grant money and, oh, let’s back up because this is actually fun for people in animal sheltering.

I had never been to an animal sheltering conference before, and I went to the Best Friends Animal Society Conference in Los Angeles, which is where I’m based. And I was at the happy hour. I didn’t know anybody, and I went up to this guy, and we started talking, and we didn’t introduce ourselves at all.

And he asked me about what I was doing. I was talking about what Adoptimize could potentially be. And he said, “So, what’s holding you back?”

And I said, “I don’t have a shelter,” and he goes, “You do now. Richard Havens, Amarillo, Texas.”

 

Chris:

Nice.

 

Jessica:

That he took a chance on me was so amazing, and obviously pivotal to me building an entire company. So, thank you, Richard, if you’re out there.

So, this is building for Amarillo. Once we got the MoU signed, which was, I had to have this done for a final report by December. So, we got the MOU signed in September. We built the software in October, and we tested in November for the preliminary finding.

Yeah, it was crazy. So, we really… Because we had such a short timeline, we only had time to really figure out one criterion for finding the best shot of a dog from a video. So, what we landed on: “Is the dog looking at the camera?” Okay? Pretty basic. (laughs)

 

Chris:

How magical. Right?

 

Jessica:

Yeah. And we scoured the internet for open-source, dog-facial recognition, and open source means free to use. It doesn’t exist. No one had built it, or no, it’s not open source yet. I know that there are a couple of algorithms out there that do use it.

 

Chris:

Sure.

 

Jessica:

So, we landed on open-source human eye detection, because eyes are eyes, right? And we taught the algorithm to maximize the number of eyes it found. So, two eyes is better than one eye, which would be a profile of you attention-wise.

 

Chris:

So, we get the animal looking right at the camera, right?

 

Jessica:

Yeah, so we’re, like, maximize the eyes. And it worked great with my dog here who’s an American Staffordshire. Worked great with the guy who built it, he had a dog whom he tested it with. And then we got to Amarillo.

And the first thing that happened was, I’d never been to Texas before, and I didn’t know that the dogs in Amarillo shelter look a lot different from the ones in Los Angeles (we’ve got Chihuahuas and pit bulls).

But in Amarillo, it’s really the second largest meat-packing town in the country. And so, it had all these cattle dogs in it, and cattle dogs are super spotty.

And so, the first thing that happens is, we pull the cattle dogs in front of the camera, and the algorithm gets the video, translates, and it finally comes back and says, 85 eyes.

I’ve never found so many eyes in my life.

 

Chris:

Wow. Oh my God.

 

Jessica:

(laughs) Yeah, what a dog. And I realized, “Oh God, it’s detecting spots.”

So, this is not a good finding, but, you know, maybe salvageable in that not all dogs have spots. But really, the only thing that this algorithm did really well was when the dog’s behind was to the camera, and the tail was up, it would say, “One eye.”

It found one eye! And that’s because it was detecting the butthole. And then, I was standing there, I was like, “Oh, my God, I built a butthole detector for more or less like this.”

 

Chris:

(laughs) Bet you were feeling really proud of that moment.

 

Jessica:

Yeah, my heart sank. I can only tell that story because it was rectified quickly. What we did was we just took the human eye detection off. And we pumped up a couple of other aspects of our algorithm to make these photos better, but yeah. So, now, we built dogs’ facial recognition.

 

Chris:

Yeah, it’s much, much better for adoption photos, I would think.

 

Jessica:

It is. It is.

 

Chris:

Very cool. Well, it sounds like you’ve involved in things. You’ve learned a lot of things along the way. Any one particular lesson that comes to mind that you want to share?

 

Jessica:

I don’t know about lessons, but, you know, like, I knew I was a strong person before doing this. But starting your own business and being an entrepreneur really helped me get comfortable with failure.

And there is a great example of what I just said. I’m really comfortable with it because as long as you learn from it, and you make your pivots, I mean, well, it wasn’t a great feeling to find out that, wow. Turns out we developed a video technology when really we only needed the photo, or people really only want photo technology.

But, it took building that to get us the insight of what works actually best. And, I really like being the founder and the CEO. You know, the highs are high, and the lows are really low. And you carry it all yourself, so I think that’s made me a stronger person.

 

Chris:

Yeah, it seems like it’s been quite the journey. And I’m really excited to see what you’re gonna do next.

Well, Jessica, thank you so much for coming on and being on the Animal Innovation Show.

And for those people that are listening or watching, if you get an idea for somebody we should interview on this show, just go to innovations.show, and let us know. We’d love to hear about it.

So, thank you again, Jessica. Why don’t you tell everybody how they can learn more about Adoptimize? Maybe how they can get in contact with you as well?

 

Jessica:

Yeah, just go to Adoptimize.co. And so it’s “adopt” and “optimization” together. Or you can email me at [email protected] or [email protected]. I’m always happy to talk.

 

Chris:

It’s gonna say every email comes to you, does it?

 

Jessica:

Yes, it sure does. (laughs)

 

Chris:

Well, Jessica, thank you again. I really appreciate you joining us today.

 

Jessica:

Yeah, of course. Talk to you soon.

 

Narrator:

Thanks for joining us for the Animal Innovations Show!

If you want to volunteer to help animals, check out doobert.com, where you can join tens of thousands of Dooberteers supporting rescues and shelters around the world to help animals.

And if you know of something or someone innovative that’s helping animals, let us know by going to www.innovations.show.

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