Wag, the ‘Uber for Dog-Walking,’ Is Drawing Uber-Like Scrutiny

The pet-care app is being criticized for losing dogs and fighting with customers—spooking potential investors.
Why the 'Uber for Dog-Walking' Is Under Scrutiny

For venture capitalists looking for the next gig economy success story, the dog-walking app Wag seems like a good bet. After all, Americans spend a lot of money on their pets—an estimated $70 billion last year alone—and the three-year-old startup is growing fast and looking to raise at least $100 million to fund its expansion.

Several investors were getting ready to ante up last month, according to three people familiar with the situation, when social media began to surface outrage about Buddy, a Beagle-Labrador mix who went missing while under the care of a Wag contractor. Buddy’s owner, a Long Island retired nurse named MaryEllen Humphrey, accused the company of misrepresenting its rescue efforts and trying to buy her silence with $2,500 and by offering to pay for a planned trip to Disney World when a local news station inquired about the missing pup. 

Source: MaryEllen Humphrey

Wag Labs Inc., the app’s parent company, did something unusual for a tech company: fired off a cease and desist letter to one of its own customers. “If your retraction and apology to Wag! are not publicly posted to each and every social media platform that you have used to libel Wag! within 24 hours of the time of this email, this office has been authorized to use all available means to bring as swift as possible an end to your lies,” company attorney Mark Warren Moody wrote.

Wag disputed Humphrey’s accusation that it offered her money to keep quiet. Company spokeswoman Marcy Simon said that in the case of Buddy, Wag hired a professional dog rescuer, issued a Pet Amber Alert (which texts or emails neighbors that a pet is missing) and set up a $1,000 reward. Simon said the company spent about $1,000 per day searching for Buddy. Humphrey disputes Wag's assertions.

On Saturday, a woman out walking her own dog discovered the Humphreys’ pooch standing near a “Find Buddy” poster. He’d suffered a few cuts and was covered with ticks but was otherwise unharmed. That same day, the family had been out looking for Buddy with professional trackers they’d hired themselves after Wag failed to recover the dog. Despite the positive outcome, the damage to the startup’s reputation was already spooking potential investors, including one who said his venture firm got cold feet after hearing about Wag walkers losing dogs.

Inspired by Uber, pet-care startups want to revolutionize an industry that has long relied on word-of-mouth referrals and lamp-post advertisements. The best known of these are Wag and Rover.com, which offers a broader assortment of services including boarding. But Wag’s experience is a reminder that technological disruption rarely goes smoothly—especially when it involves a four-legged family member. Even as Wag and Rover compete for customers with easy-to-use apps and celebrity endorsements, they’re battling many of the same issues that have bedeviled other gig economy players: regulatory scrutiny, complaints about shoddy service provided by people they don’t directly employ, high marketing costs and heavy losses. 

The Rover app
Source: Rover

Wag, which put one of Uber's most outspoken investors, Shervin Pishevar, on its board, grew quickly after Jason Meltzer, Josh Viner and his brother Jon co-founded the company three years ago. Rover was launched in 2011 by venture capitalist Greg Gottesman, who envisioned an in-home boarding experience after his lab Ruby Tuesday was injured at a Seattle kennel.

Wag and Rover charge about $25 for a half-hour dog walk in San Francisco; about $20 for the same amount of time in New York, Chicago, Austin and Seattle. Wag and Rover take a commission. Rover takes about 20 percent per transaction for its core business, pet-sitting. Both Wag and Rover charge 40 percent commission for on-demand dog walking.

Despite the high commission, Wag is burning about $4 million a month, said three people who recently reviewed the startup’s financials. The older, more established Rover, said it’s also losing money but expects to become profitable next year. Both Wag and Rover, which are privately held, declined to provide specifics of their financials.

Wag's expenses are especially high because the startup relies on celebrity endorsements and costly marketing campaigns, said the three people, who asked not to be identified discussing a private matter. Fashion model Kendall Jenner, singer Mariah Carey and actress Chloe Grace Moretz have praised Wag on their social media accounts. Wag's spokeswoman says, "We have not paid our celebrity fans but we have offered them free walks for life." In June, Jenner disclosed on Instagram that she was compensated to publish a paparazzi-style photograph with her Italian greyhound, Mew.

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Despite the red ink, venture capitalists have poured more than $200 million into Wag and Rover combined. In March, Wag secured about $40 million after previously raising at least $19 million from tech-focused venture firms including General Catalyst and Sherpa Capital, according to two people familiar with Wag's finances. The startup has been pitching investors in recent weeks, hoping to secure $100 million in funding, according to three people familiar with the matter. Rover said it has raised about $156 million, $65 million of which was raised in July, much of it from Spark Capital.

Seattle-based Rover is using some of the money to fight more than a dozen city and state regulators who claim its pet sitters operate as unlicensed kennels and are illegal. "We've hired three new people to work on legislation issues," said John Lapham, the startup’s head of business and legal affairs. Wag is also hiring, said the three would-be investors. As recently as September the startup was seeking a new CEO. Wag's spokeswoman said it’s talking to executives that wish to partner with Viner, not replace him.

One of the greatest challenges for Wag and Rover is persuading owners to entrust pets to people they don’t know. Both say contractors go through a grueling screening process. Rover says about 1 percent of people who apply to be on-demand dog walkers make the cut. Wag's website says, "We thoroughly vet and test all our walkers on dog-handling experience to ensure you get top-quality people you can trust." Both apps feature Uber-style rating systems.

Every time a pet dies or goes missing, however, Wag and Rover take a public-relations hit. The three-week disappearance of Buddy is one of several incidents that have left the companies with explaining to do.

The Wag app
Source: Wag/Facebook

In June, Las Vegas resident Abraham Lazcano said his pet of seven years, a heavy-breathing bulldog named Gus Gus, drowned in a swimming pool while under a Rover sitter's care. "As dog lovers, we are deeply saddened by this tragic accident," Rover said in a statement. "Situations like this are incredibly rare; we take them very seriously."

In 2015, Morgan Stuart of Brooklyn said Wag lost her dog, Duckie, and failed to allocate resources to search for the pug-Chihuahua, who was eventually struck by a car and died. At the time, Stuart told reporters that Wag was difficult to reach and didn’t pay for her to issue a Pet Amber Alert, though the company told reporters it had paid for the service.

Imri Larsen and Seong Park, a couple in Brooklyn, said they faced an eerily similar situation in July when a Wag walker lost Tokki, their beloved Jack Russell terrier mix. Park and Larsen said Wag grew concerned when the couple tried to gather surveillance footage to find out what happened. "They seemed more interested in keeping things quiet than helping us find our dog," Park said. Tokki was eventually struck by a car. Larsen and Park said Wag has sent them a check for $402 to cover the cost of Tokki's cremation.

Simon, Wag's spokeswoman, disputed Larsen’s and Park's claims and said co-founder Meltzer spent 18 hours a day searching for Duckie. Simon said Wag has a dedicated team to handle dog rescues.

Despite the legal threats, Buddy’s owner Humphrey has continued to criticize Wag online and speak to reporters. "Wag has tried to bully me repeatedly," she said in a phone interview after Buddy turned up safe. "I didn’t want to be bullied or bribed. I just wanted them to help me find my dog."

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