Melissa Halliburton is only half joking when she says she does everything online.
It’s where she met her husband. It’s what led her to move to Greenville, and it’s where she started BringFido.com, a website that lists and books pet-friendly lodgings across the U.S. and internationally.
“The Internet has dictated my life,” Halliburton, 37, says recently.
She’s sitting in her office off Airport Road, in a squat brick building that serves as BringFido’s corporate headquarters, surrounded by the two things she loves most: dogs and travel.
Halliburton’s own dogs, Ace, a Labrador-greyhound, and Roxy, a pug-Chihuahua, snooze in the sun by her feet. Travel books cram the bookshelves — the bookends are fire hydrants — and photographs of pooches hang in every corner.
A self-professed travel junkie, Halliburton’s own frustrations as a dog owner was what inspired her to create a resource for travelers with pets in tow.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology business graduate was living in Boston in 2004 when she adopted Rocco, a Jack-Russell-Chihuahua mix.
Rocco was her first dog as an adult, and Halliburton's first real experience with dogs and hotels.
She had grown up in Southern California with a Rottweiler, tortoise and two cats that always traveled with the family in their motor home, so traveling had never been a hassle.
Halliburton and Rocco became inseparable. They even went to Starbucks together, so it wasn't long before Halliburton became frustrated by the difficulty of finding pet-friendly lodgings online.
“Over 25 percent of the time, it was wrong, and they wouldn’t actually allow pets, or there might be a $200 fee that was undisclosed," Halliburton says.
The tipping point came when she was asked to be a bridesmaid at a friend’s wedding in Cape Cod. Halliburton wanted to bring Rocco, but the hotel where the reception was being held wasn’t dog friendly, so she thought she could stay somewhere nearby.
She called all the hotels in town and kept widening the radius until she finally found one about an hour away.
Then, on the morning of the wedding, her car broke down. Halliburton ended up convincing the tow truck driver to take her and Rocco to the wedding — Halliburton in her bridesmaid dress and Rocco in a miniature tux.
They arrived just in time.
“I’m there at the wedding with all my MIT friends and just had this wild frustrating experience where I almost missed my friend’s wedding,” Halliburton recalls. “So I told them about this idea I had been kicking around.”
'Nothing to lose'
By then, Halliburton had already worked at several tech start-ups and spent two years at Lycos Inc., a pre-Google search engine and web portal.
She had graduated college in three years and started her first successful business, Monkey Bargains, a coupon website similar to Groupon.
But it wasn’t a passion for her.
“There are hundreds and hundreds of coupon sites, so I didn’t really feel like I was providing a value to people,” Halliburton says.
She began laying the groundwork for BringFido in 2005. It was easy to take the plunge, because "I had nothing to lose."
She was single and lived rent-free at a fraternity house as a fraternity mom. She had no funding, so she was forced to be resourceful.
Halliburton enlisted a dozen of her sorority sisters to call thousands of hotels across the country and quiz front desk workers on their pet policies.
She used her brother's programming expertise to build the website, and she used Travelocity, a company she had previously worked with at a tech start-up, to power the booking engine.
BringFido launched a year later. Halliburton knew from the start that it would be more than a side project.
“On the first day we got bookings from people I didn’t know,” she says. “It was obviously a frustration for me, and it was a frustration for other dog owners.”
The website quickly took off.
Within a couple of years, BringFido had gone global with a directory that had expanded to include hotels, vacation rentals, campgrounds, bed and breakfasts, restaurants, beaches, dog parks, festivals and more.
Halliburton was still the only official employee. She confirmed bookings, edited user-submitted content, answered every call for customer service.
Then several life-changing events happened at once. Halliburton became pregnant, was put on bed rest and diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Around the same time, BringFido was transitioning from being a one-person company to opening a customer call center with 10 employees.
Her husband, Jason, stepped in while she underwent treatment. But radiation didn’t keep Halliburton from working almost every day, even if it meant supervising the call center from her sick bed.
“This is like my baby, so there was never a point where I was going to let it go to the wayside,” Halliburton says.
She has done the exact opposite.
Today, BringFdo.com features more than 100,000 pet-friendly destinations in 14,000 cities, and Halliburton wants to double that number over the next two years.
The company also has its own mobile app and is preparing to launch a completely redesigned website next month that will be far more mobile responsive.
The current design is dated, Halliburton says, and wasn’t built for mobile customers. Nearly 70 percent of BringFido’s traffic currently comes from mobile users.
It's a big step for a company that has grown organically and spends no money on marketing, but Halliburton remains driven by her passion.
"If you asked me what my hobbies were, I'd say, dogs and travel, so this is like my dream job,” she says.
The interview is interrupted when the doorbell rings, and Halliburton's dog, Ace, races to the foyer. Every dog in the office is barking, whining and skittering across the hardwood floors.
Must be the UPS man, Halliburton quips.
In the pandemonium, she gets up to answer the door. The door mat beneath her feet reads: "Welcome to the doghouse."