We Americans have a problem. We are a nation of dog lovers: we collectively own approximately 70 million tail-waggers. 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. 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. 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. 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.
The company claims to fulfill most requests within 30 minutes during peak hours. 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.
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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