Wag! The Uber of Dog-Walking

A California-based startup is making it easier to balance work with the responsibilities of dog ownership.

Dog Ownership and Workplace ObligationsWe Americans have a problem.  We are a nation of dog lovers: we collectively own approximately 70 million tail-waggers.[1]  But we are also a nation of workaholics.  Twenty-five million Americans report working at least 49 hours per week; eleven million report working at least 59 hours.[2]  Being away at work for eight, twelve, or fourteen hours every day can be brutal on our dogs, which helps explain why professional dog-walking has grown into a $900 million industry.[3]  But while traditional dog-walking services are great for pre-planned mid-day breaks, they don’t offer much help when the unexpected happens.  Late nights at the office and after-work drinks are next to impossible for the responsible dog owner.

Fortunately for us and our furry friends, a young startup is trying to harness digital technology to remedy the problem.  Wag!—the “Uber of Dog-Walking”—is an app-based service that offers on-demand dog-walking services.[4]  Like Uber, the service is effectively a digital platform that connects two sets of customers: walkers and dog owners.  Walkers retain full control over their hours while dog owners get instant access to a network of walkers willing and able to provide their pets relief on short notice.

Wag! Route Map
Wag! Route Map
Wag! Pup Report
Wag! Pup Report

The company claims to fulfill most requests within 30 minutes during peak hours.[5]  Owners can choose between 10-, 30-, and 60-minute walks. Prices are market-based, but average between $20-25 for 30-minute walks.  Wag! takes a 40% cut of the fee, while the remainder goes to the dog walker.  At the end of each walk, owners receive a “Pup Report” with a mapped route of the dog’s walk and (no joke) GPS markings for locations where your dog conducts his or her business.

When owners register for the service, they receive a lockbox for storing their house key.  The code for the lockbox is shared with walkers only when a walk is scheduled.  Wag! walkers must pass the company’s screening process and a background investigation and are all insured and bonded.

While on-demand dog walks are the company’s feature offering, Wag! also allows dog owners to schedule regular walks and find pet-sitters for out of town travel.

Although Wag! and Uber share much in common, there are a few major differences between the two companies.  Unlike Uber, requesting customers (dog owners) generally don’t interact directly with service providers (dog walkers), and Wag! walkers have direct access to dog owners’ vacant homes.  Wag! attempts to remedy this issue by insuring owners’ homes for $1 million during bookings, but the model still depends on a high degree of social trust.

Another vulnerability is, of course, the dog itself.  Last year a Wag! walker lost control of a Brooklyn couple’s dog, a rescue with a strong flight instinct.  The couple, with help from neighbors, embarked on a search that would ultimately last seven days.  Joining their search party was Wag! co-founder Jason Meltzer and several Wag! employees, who had flown in from Los Angeles in order to assist.  That the company’s leadership flew cross country in order to assist personally in the search highlights the importance of social trust to the company and serves as a stark reminder that a company that promises to take care of customers’ pets is extraordinary sensitive to bad publicity.[6]

This vulnerability to bad press poses a huge challenge for Wag!  Even if the company maintains its high standards for selecting walkers and succeeds in finding enough quality dog walkers to meet the needs of owners, it is unlikely to completely avoid tragedy.  A lost dog or a ransacked house is likely to draw a lot of bad press, and the company may not be able to recover from one or two high-profile incidents.  Still, the company could try to build on its existing platform in order to help protect its reputation.  For example, Wag! could attempt to partner with a company that specializes in GPS tracking of pets, and use its existing platform to track a dog’s location at any time of day.  If Wag! could successfully convince pet owners to invest in the technology, it would almost certainly reduce the risk of a lost dog becoming a PR nightmare.

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[1] http://www.aspca.org/animal-homelessness/shelter-intake-and-surrender/pet-statistics

[2] http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=93364&page=1

[3] http://www.ibisworld.com/industry/dog-walking-services.html

[4] http://iheartdogs.com/the-uber-of-dog-walking-is-here/

[5] https://wagwalking.com/faq

[6] http://abc7ny.com/pets/brooklyn-women-blame-wag-app-for-the-death-of-their-dog-duckie/1106715/


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Student comments on Wag! The Uber of Dog-Walking

  1. Really interesting post – i have never heard of Wag! and absolutely loved learning about it. While I definitely understand the need for on-demand dog walkers, I am very dubious of this business model. A few reasons this makes me nervous:

    1) In our Uber case the other day, we discussed as a class how scary it is the drivers (and possibly other passengers in uberPool) can see exactly where you are getting dropped off (which may very well be your house, your office, etc.). This is scary because as a customer, you are sharing more about yourself than you might choose to with a random driver. From Uber’s perspective they are opening themselves up to a lot of potential responsibility – what if the fellow passenger from my uberpool breaks into my apartment? Would Uber be responsible? Wag! brings this risk to an all new level, as you mentioned, because the dog walker must enter the house. The dog walker can easily steal from you when inside.
    2) If a Wag! dog walker is given a code to the use the lockbox for someone’s home, what is stopping that dog walker from going back at a later time, using that code, and breaking into the house when Wag! no longer has the $1M coverage? What if that dog walker is “fired” (i.e. removed as a potential dog walker) due to issues that popped up, and now the disgruntled former contractor goes and breaks into the customers house – is that Wag!’s fault?
    3) The people who tend to have enough disposable income to request a dog walker at last minute, tend to be very well off. For folks that have jewelry at home, live in larger homes, etc. – they may have over $1M worth of valuables stolen and could likely sue for even more. I am worried Wag! is not protected enough.
    4) As we saw in Uber, it is really easy for an app to start slipping on doing background checks on their contractors. What guarantee do dog owner’s have that their dogs are in capable hands?
    5) How can Wag! possibly test if a dog walker is a good dog walker, and an incident like the one you described where the dog ran away will not repeatedly happen? Dogs are part of the family (as you mentioned we are a nation of dog lovers) – I think the customer base will become really dubious really quickly of the service if even one or two more issues pop up that are publicized.

    I am really curious to see if Wag! can make it despite my concerns. They definitely have their work cut out for them moving forward!

  2. Interesting Tom. As a fellow father of a furry creature, and as someone who pays a dog walker nearly every weekday, this one hits home. My main concern is the inconsistency of the dog walkers themselves. One of the biggest value-adds of a dog walker in my experience, is that they know my dog, my apartment, my neighborhood, etc. and I personally wouldn’t be willing to re-train a new dog walker every time I wanted a dog walk on-demand.

    A similar startup from HBS, called Baroo (headquartered out of the Harvard Innovation Lab) is a more traditionally-structured, high-end dog walking service that I used to subscribe too. One of their customer promises was being available within one hour. While they made this promise, it was quite empty and they never delivered on it. So the on-demand aspect of Wag! is something that I really love, but for me they would need to do something to address the “stranger” factor and the fact that they don’t know my dog. Full disclosure, I’m also a wacko dog parent – but I think most of us are.

    I’m also not 100% on board with letting a stranger into my house, no matter how much Wag! claims to insure my belongings. Airbnb does this too, but if you have ever spoken with anybody that has had a theft as a result of renting their place, you’ll understand that the policy is far from ideal. In fact it’s a nightmare. And for whatever reason, I trust a Wag! dog walker that has $20 to make a lot less than somebody who pays several hundred dollars to stay in my apartment. All the best of luck to them though!

  3. Tom, this is the first time I hear about WAG and I’m surprised that someone came up with the dog-walking idea. I’m not sure if I view WAG as a company that is trying to solve a problem or as another company that is trying to create an app just for the sake of going online. The mobile apps should be making our lives easier but because there are so many out there I feel that they are adding to the complexity of our lives.

    First, WAG is definitely a though provoking idea. I don’t have a pet exactly for the reason you described above. I’m rarely at home and I couldn’t give my dog the attention that it needs. However,I can’t imagine leaving my keys in a mail box and trusting a stranger to enter my apartment. I I just can’t believe people are ( will be) comfortable with that.

    Another issue I see with WAG’s business model is the pricing. I think $20 for a 30 minute walk is reasonable charge for the dog owner. If I were comfortable with letting strangers entering my place I would be willing to pay this price any time. But I don’t see an incentive for the person who will walk my dog. After 40% commission that WAG keeps the walker receives receives around $12. Let’s imagine a neighbor who was going for a walk anyway. The cost for this person might be $0 so he/she is gaining $12. But if there is no neighbor using the app, the walker needs to travel to pick up the dog. The time of pick up and drop off will add to the initial 30minutes. What happens if the weather is bad? Uber is managing the issue of low supply by increasing the prices to 2x-5x. Will WAG apply the same strategy to get more walkers into the streets?

    Finally, the loss of the dog can be prevented by a small GPS device that will be attached on the dog. Your post suggests the investment should come from the dog owner. I think WAG could support this by providing the device compatible with their app and charging the dog owners $5 more for the first x walks. This would be similar to Uber renting an iphone to its drivers. So I’m not concerned about the dog running away. I’m more concerned about the dog attacking someone. Who should be liable in that situation?

    It will be interesting to watch what happens with WAG in the future.

  4. Nice post Tom – had always wondered about the economics of WAG as I saw their walkers all over San Francisco. I do not own a dog myself, but it was always because I felt I would not have enough time or stability to walk them enough. Seeing this service gave me a bit of hope though as it would allow me to take care of my furry friend when last minute business came up.

    Where I got nervous though was whether their business model was sustainable, and the numbers (as Viktoria pointed out) seem to show that it isn’t. Given commute time to the location, it looks like it would be hard to keep a consistent large pool of high quality walkers for <$12 a walk and without a large or high quality pool you have neither the timeliness or security you need. I would suspect that WAG is doing similar things as many bay area companies of subsidizing their walkers right now. In the long run, I suspect they would need to raise rates, which would decrease the pool of consumers. Who knows though, maybe after they are addicted to WAG as we are currently addicted to UBER, customers will be less sensitive to price.

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