Global Empire vs Small Business
Running your own dog walking or pet-sitting business requires effort. You may have followed your dream, but there is plenty of competition, not least from the growing dog walking and pet sitting companies Wag! and Rover. However, even with a smaller marketing budget, there are ways for smaller local businesses to thrive in the face of global competitions.
For those who may not be familiar with them, the companies Wag! and Rover are essentially the Uber of the dog walking and pet sitting world. They offer the convenience of getting a dog walker or pet sitter at very short notice. In the current “shared economy,” of the post-2008 economic crash, both of these companies have been extremely successful. They have satisfied clients and have hired some extremely competent walkers and sitters who love animals.
Rover was founded in 2011, and as of 2016, Inc.com reported their net worth to be $300 Million. Available in 10,000 US cities, their walkers charge roughly $25 per thirty-minute walk, rates comparable to other businesses. Wag! began in 2014 and boasts a similar worth of $300 million, according to recode.net.
These two companies have clearly discovered a need among pet owners, and have dominated the market. Their sudden growth has turned them into more than household names – they are becoming the name of the service they provide (think Kleenex or Xerox). Furthermore, each company has declared its intentions to grow even bigger and find more niches within the pet industry in which to compete.
Competing Against Household Names:
What Wag! and Rover Do Well
The important fact to note about Wag! and Rover is that they are tech companies. Their top offices are headed by people more familiar with writing code than putting on a dog harness. Their apps provide the ability for pet owners to connect with walkers and sitters, but that is where the pet element stops. The software has been strong, not their personal, hands-on dog and cat experience. There is nothing wrong with taking advantage of business opportunities. Both companies did exactly this in noting the growth of the pet industry, which in the United States alone currently stands at $70 billion per year. But their knowledge of animal care and handling is solely limited to the independent contractors who use their app to connect to pet owners. They are not veterinarians, dog trainers, or animal handlers. There is no requirement to have a well-documented professional history working with animals.
Why Wag! and Rover Aren’t So Hot.
There has been varying information regarding the vetting of Wag! and Rover dog walkers and pet sitters. There are online quizzes for applicants to take, but there is no in-person witnessing by representatives from either company to assess animal handling ability and skill. Customers select dog walkers and pet sitters in a manner similar to how one chooses an Uber or Lyft driver: looking at starred ratings and availability. A meet-and-greet of the animals with someone who already knows them is not standard procedure (but they can schedule them). In any case, there is the possibility that strangers are coming into your home. The potential for an attack or a frightened animal that runs away remains high, and in fact has actually happened to walkers for each company.
Walkers for both Wag! and Rover have lost dogs. (SFGate and Bloomberg News). Both companies have downplayed their responsibility and have hired attorneys to mitigate any damage to their brands. Wag! has even served one owner whose dog was lost with a cease and desist letter after she publically complained about the company’s handling of the situation on social media.
Local dog walking businesses have enormous advantages over these global powers. Greater steps can be taken to ensure that the dogs and the walkers are all safe. Stress your employees’ experience and training. A small business can schedule a time to meet a new client and dog together. Talking to someone from the business before scheduling an appointment can stop some issues from even arising: Does the dog need to be crated? Will the dog bolt out the front door as soon as it is opened? Can the dog be let out in a backyard? Will the cat be too terrified to emerge from under a bed if a stranger is in the house? Knowing that animal behavior varies from pet to pet will help offset potential problems that have plagued the bigger companies.
Steps You Can Take to Compete
- Build your reputation: Name-recognition might be on the side of Wag! and Rover, but strong customer-relations as well as putting faces to names still goes very far. As a responsible company with well-vetted walkers with appropriate animal handling backgrounds, you can earn testimonials from community members. Even in the world of global expansion, your community still matters. We all need services from people we can trust. In this era of people throwing around the term “fake news” either legitimately or not, we rely on friends’ and associates’ recommendations more than on-line recommendations. Sometimes convenience trumps all else, but for regular, day-in and day-out dog walking where someone is in your house and taking care of your pet whom you regard as family, then reputation and reliability matters. But word-of-mouth will not be enough to carry the business.
- Engage on Social Media: Develop a strong social media presence with regular posts. Many specialized service areas, like the pet industry, have Facebook pages for local groups (example: Denver Pet Industry Professionals). There are online groups for small businesses that allow for the kind of networking that a large company cannot do. These groups are free and can create followers quickly. Offer advice blogs and use pictures of your walkers/sitters and pets (with pet owner permission, of course). Support local pet rescue charities – if they can write about you on their blog, as a means of saying thanks, then that is free publicity along with solid goodwill.
- Show Off Your Knowledge: In the event of lost dogs or behavioral, a business owner can contact local trainers or pet supply stores for help managing the situation. Capitalizing on one’s knowledge of local resources is a much better solution than distancing oneself from the issue and paying millions in attorney fees to make it all go away. Customers will know that you are in business out of a genuine concern for helping others with their pets rather than a get-rich-quick scheme.
- Develop Your Team: Being local and having a team of walkers as your employees can provide additional advantages. Your team can sub for one another if someone is ill. Putting them in communication with one another allows them to offer advice to one another on matters such as which sidewalks have been salted in winter, or routes that have new construction projects in summer. Falling on the ice is not a joke and being late due to traffic issues can become a massive headache over time.
- Choose Your Customer: Finally, being a local business means that you can generally determine who you will serve. You have the discretion to choose which sections of a city will be covered by your business as well as determine the hours of the day you offer walks. You can also determine if a dog behaves too aggressively to allow an employee to be alone with him. Setting parameters for what your business will tend to is healthy. If you find that the animal is not in an area that is safe for the walkers, or has not been trained to appropriately handle new people, then you are not under any obligation to provide services. On the other hand, if you feel that a pet behavior issue can be resolved with some minor adjustments and a potential client is willing to listen to some advice, then your knowledge has generated some new business!
Wag! and Rover are not specifically out to harm anybody. But their tech focus and enormity limit their ability to serve clients in the same way that a local business is able to do. By emphasizing your dedication to the community, your knowledge of the area, and your employees’ animal handling skills, you can compete and market yourself as a strong force to be reckoned with.
What have your experiences as a small business owner been like? Leave your comments below along with the name of your business.