Strange Success

How moving diabetic ferrets to Egypt turned into a $50 million business

Just when Kevin and Angie O'Brien think they've seen it all, something new surprises them. Like the order to move a pond's worth of koi fish around the world.

"A lot of times a fish can only go as long as they have air in their bags," said Kevin O'Brien, CEO of PetRelocation.com. "We've also shipped diabetic ferrets to Egypt, where we had to stop them three or four times just for insulin shots."

The O'Briens have organized moves for thousands of pets since 2003, including a "therapy turkey" and a "pleasure pig." Their YouTube channel shows the joyful reunions with owners who consider pets part of the family, not to be left behind.

Employees at PetRelocation.com's headquarters in Austin, Texas, don't leave their pets behind even when they come to work. Dogs have the run of the place. There's a gong that someone hits every time there's a new sale, and Kevin O'Brien has separated teams by geographical region to compete for prizes. It's all very Austin.

However, the company had a heartbreaking beginning. "It's not a story that we tell very often, but 16 years ago we went on vacation, and one of our dogs was shot and killed," said Angie O'Brien. The couple started thinking about creating a safe and loving doggie day care.

Not long after, Kevin needed to relocate to Austin to work for Hotjobs. The two packed up the truck and moved from California with a dog and cat. "About halfway, we were in Las Vegas, we decided we wanted to ship the cat back," he laughed. "It was so loud, and she was screaming." That's when they got the idea of a pet relocation business, something no one was doing in 2001.

Leveraging real estate

Kevin and Angie O’Brien founded PetRelocation in 2003 out of their home
Jeniece Pettitt | CNBC
Kevin and Angie O’Brien founded PetRelocation in 2003 out of their home

First, however, came the doggie day care, which required a loan for about $100,000 to purchase a house. "To qualify for the bank loan I had to remain at my Hotjobs employment," he said. "I literally quit Hotjobs the day we signed on that house."

The O'Briens needed to rezone the house from residential to commercial, and they worked with Austin officials to do just that. Rezoning immediately made the property more valuable, so they sold the building and used the profits to find a second location and fund the business. Leveraging real estate to grow the business is a pattern they've repeated five times.

In 2003, they started focusing on pet relocation, with Angie working out of their bedroom. Neither of them knew the first thing about the logistics of moving live animals around the world. "I think in the beginning when you don't have anything to lose, you're not worried about business plans, you're just diving right in and just doing it," she said. That's not to say there weren't moments when it looked like they might fail. Angie said they received an eviction notice a few weeks before they were able to turn the business around. She didn't tell her husband about it. "I thought it's not going to help him if he knows."

She also grew worried when one of their first relocation jobs was to Thailand, before they were incorporated. "I was thinking, 'Oh my gosh, if something goes wrong with this, we could lose everything," she said. "Not that we had that much to lose."


PetRelocation’s headquarters in Austin, Texas.
Jeniece Pettitt | CNBC
PetRelocation’s headquarters in Austin, Texas.

One thing they also learned was the importance of branding. At first, the company was called O'Brien Animal Transportation, and Kevin was cold-calling companies as the owner.

"There were big corporations in the world that needed our help." But he wasn't getting much of a response, so he changed the name to PetRelocation.com to give it "a more corporate feel."

Then, Kevin stopped calling himself the owner, and instead became the "head of sales." The response was dramatically better. "We started realizing that it was something the world needed, it was what we loved to do, it was what we were good at," he said, "and people started to pay us for it."

Zebras, naked mole rats, poisonous dart frogs

PetRelocation has moved thousands of pets since 2003, including hamsters, turkeys, pigs and ferrets.
Jeniece Pettitt | CNBC
PetRelocation has moved thousands of pets since 2003, including hamsters, turkeys, pigs and ferrets.

The O'Briens have never taken any outside money, and they didn't take a salary until 2009. Companies like Facebook, Pepsi, and Chevron now utilize their services to help move employees. They've also moved pets for military service members, and in 2005 they worked with T. Boone Pickens to relocate 1,000 animals from shelters after Hurricane Katrina. Over the years, they've moved zebras, naked mole rats and poisonous dart frogs, often using professionals who are experts in those breeds.

"What we do is hard," said Kevin. It carries a lot of risk. "There are other countries and cultures that don't accept the household pet like we do, and will euthanize on sight if all of the documents are not correct," he said, adding such cases are very rare.

The O’Briens' pug comes to work with them everyday.
Jeniece Pettitt | CNBC
The O’Briens' pug comes to work with them everyday.

The O'Briens now want to expand the business to create a self-service platform online connecting customers with vendors. Angie looks back and said starting a business "takes twice as long as you think and twice as much money as you think." Both credit each other with making the business a success. "I think it was dumb luck," said Kevin. "I don't think we ever started off to build a business. We wanted to do something for pets and for ourselves."