Paulina Tomlinson owed nearly $20,000 in medical bills after her 2-year-old rescue Pitbull, Chico, was hit by a car in October. Chico could barely move without extreme pain and needed special surgery to repair his fractured vertebrae.
Tomlinson and her sister, Alma Smith, maxed out their credit cards, created a GoFundMe campaign and spread the word on social media to help pay for Chico's surgery and other medical bills. They were able to raise a few thousand dollars, but it wasn't enough.
Then they reached out to We Rate Dogs founder Matt Nelson. One post and 30 minutes later, and Chico's campaign had raised $18,840.
Nelson's popular social media account We Rate Dogs is known for its adorable pictures of dogs, witty captions and dog ratings that always exceed a perfect 10 (of course). But We Rate Dogs has also shared over 170 fundraisers for dogs in need with its nearly 12 million followers across social media platforms.
In fact, in 2020, We Rate Dogs helped raise $1.3 million, Nelson tells CNBC Make It.
Nelson initially started the account on Twitter just to make people laugh. But he gained thousands of followers overnight, a number that grew to about 9 million followers over the next several years, and he was able to turn the account into a business, selling merchandise and posting branded content, which he says generates six figures in revenue per year.
Now, in addition to continuing to grow his millions-strong social media following, Nelson is also focused on raising money for dogs in need, posting links to GoFundMe campaigns each Friday.
Nelson, 24, started a personal Twitter account in 2014. His output mostly consisted of jokes, and he managed to attract several thousand followers thanks to retweets by more popular accounts.
"[I] got addicted to trying to make people laugh in that constrained character space," he says. (At that time, a tweet could contain 140 characters.)
As Nelson tweeted, he noticed that "every time I would post a picture of my dog or any content that had to do with dogs, it would do much better than my other content ... That signaled that the internet loves dogs just as much as I did," says Nelson, who recently adopted a 10-year-old German Shepherd named Doug.
So Nelson launched We Rate Dogs on Twitter in November 2015, when he was a college freshman at Campbell University in North Carolina. He made the account's first post from a local Applebee's, featuring the dog of the friend he was having dinner with.
By that night, Nelson received "hundreds" of messages from dog owners asking for their pups to be featured. He promoted We Rate Dogs from his personal Twitter account, which had about 10,000 followers at the time.
"By the end of that week, I passed myself in followers," he says.
In 2015, We Rate Dogs' Twitter account had not yet reached 100,000 followers and Nelson had done a few successful merch drops. But he was already beginning to get offers from people looking to buy the handle, some for "tens of thousands of dollars," he says.
Nelson had become overwhelmed juggling college, a job at a golf course and his social media side hustle, but instead of selling, he decided to drop out of college before his junior year and moved in with his parents in West Virginia to focus on We Rate Dogs full-time.
Fortunately for Nelson, his parents and close friends were very supportive of this decision and believed he could continue growing the We Rate Dogs account. Nelson's father, an executive director of a law firm in Charleston, even helped Nelson manage the business' growth once he started making significant revenue.
According to Nelson, We Rate Dogs now generates six figures in annual revenue, which is typically split "50-50 [from] merch and partnerships" or branded content, he says.
As the account grew, Nelson hired a few part-time animators, designers, photographers and videographers, who work on the We Rate Dogs merch site on an ongoing basis, he says. He also brought on a few full-time employees, including a business manager, to help sort through the hundreds of dog photo submissions each day, handle merchandise sales through his website and work with Nelson to secure the brand partnerships that have helped his business remain sustainable.
We Rate Dogs has deals for branded content with notable companies like Disney, which worked with Nelson to create "Lady and the Tramp"-themed posts on We Rate Dogs' social media accounts, as well as Netflix and Budweiser, to name a few.
The amount We Rate Dogs makes from each branded post or deal varies between different campaigns, Nelson says, often depending on stipulations like "how many times we post, which platforms we post on ... et cetera." He declined to comment further on rates.
Eventually, Nelson expanded his reach to other platforms, including a We Rate Dogs Instagram account that has nearly 2 million followers, and a Facebook account with over half a million followers and a TikTok account with over 130,000 followers. He also started a second Twitter account, called Thoughts of Dog, where Nelson parodies "dog feelings." Nelson sells branded merch for Thoughts of Dog, which has 3.5 million followers, and he wrote a book called "Thoughts of Dog" that published in October 2020.
But even accounts about adorable dogs aren't immune from controversy.
In 2017, Nelson upset some followers after trying to sell merch emblazoned with "Covfefe AF," a take on Donald Trump's memorable tweet, and upset others by backing down from his promise to donate those proceeds to Planned Parenthood, according to Slate. Ultimately, Nelson decided to donate to Planned Parenthood, he said.
In 2018, Nelson faced criticism when he was accused of "white-washing" a dog's name by changing it from Kanan, which is of Arabic origin, to George in his post on the pup. In response, Nelson tweeted that the dog's name "plays a massive role in how well the post does," as well as tweeting (in all caps with a profanity) that he would no longer rename dogs.
Months later, in October, Nelson acknowledged the incident again: "I don't think I did the best job of addressing it initially," he wrote. "I didn't really know what 'whitewashing' meant, let alone the impact of participating in it. After taking more time to read the replies on the post calling me out and educating myself, [the] post was deleted and we haven't changed a dog's name since," Nelson said via Twitter in October. "I am sorry to those hurt by this."
Nelson declined to comment further.
Now, Nelson hopes to use his platform for more positive things — to raise more funds for dogs in need and for owners to cover medical expenses, he says.
In addition to encouraging his millions of social media followers to contribute to dogs in need, Nelson also "regularly" donates to campaigns as well, he says.
"Since we only post one or two per week to the audience, but are sent hundreds of others, we typically pick another one, in which either I will personally donate or We Rate Dogs will donate as an organization," Nelson says.
Posting a GoFundMe campaign for a dog in need has become a Friday tradition, Nelson says, which started in 2016 after he realized a dog he featured needed a wheelchair. The dog's owner asked for about $500, but after sharing the fundraiser, $700 was raised in just 45 minutes.
"It was very clear that my audience was looking for a way to give back," he says. In fact, each campaign has been fully funded within an hour of being posted.
Nelson hopes to continue to share these campaigns to his audience and raise larger amounts of money, he said, as he found many pet owners struggle to cover medical expenses, especially as most do not have pet insurance.
"Part of the reason it's been so successful is because our audience trusts us with the curation of these stories, and now, our audience trusts me," he says. "So, that consistency of posting every Friday and getting our audience used to it has really helped it become what it is like now."
As for Chico's mom, Tomlinson, "I can't thank people enough," she says. "I was maxing out my credit cards. If we wouldn't have had the help that we got, I don't know if we would have been able to do the surgery for Chico."
This story has been updated with additional comment from Matt Nelson.