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Jason Meltzer

Wag's Onboarding Process Created the "Ivy League" of Dog Walkers

Special Guest

Jason Meltzer

Co-Founder of Wag!

Episode 1

April 30, 2019

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Wag's Onboarding Process Created the "Ivy League" of Dog Walkers

90 percent of the population thinks of their pets as family members. So how do you convince that audience to trust your marketplace to connect you with the right caretaker for your furbaby?

Jason Meltzer and his team at Wag! convinced millions of people to trust a “stranger” with their dogs. Learn how he went from being a passionate dog walker to an all-star Platform Player by developing a unique onboarding process.


Announcer: You’re listening to Platform Players. A new podcast for the marketplace revolution.

How do you become the “Uber of” your industry? Learn how Wag’s co-founder, Jason Meltzer, cornered the multi-billion-dollar pet market by building and scaling trust.

This is your Platform Player FLASHBACK!

Narrators: “Focus on being productive instead of busy.”

Jason Meltzer closed his well-worn copy of Tim Ferriss’ The Four-Hour Work Week– a game-changing book that was quickly influencing the way he felt about work – and well, his entire life for that matter.

“Productive instead of busy” was not a popular concept in the dizzying world of media – where Jason worked as an account executive. After his 90-minute commute and three cups of coffee, he’d spend the next ten hours of his life juggling dozens of accounts, putting out hundreds of fires, cranking out countless press releases, and pouring over analytics that would make his head spin.

But at 7:00 o’clock, he’d get home, put his dog Cosmo on a leash and magically, the day melted away.

Time with his dog was his favorite thing in the world and always relaxed him. Some people get their best ideas in the shower or on a bike ride, but for Jason? It was always on these long walks Cosmo that he would reflect on Tim Ferriss’ words and irresistible notions start popping into his head.

“The question you should be asking isn’t, “What do I want?” or “What are my goals?” but “What would excite me?” – the book had said.

Jason knew exactly what that would be. Walking dogs on the Venice board walk, of course.

Could he make that a business? Well, why not? he supposed.

But if he was really going to do it, he was going to do it right. So, he got started by setting up a website called “SurfDogLA.com” and spent the next Saturday pounding the pavement at the Santa Monica pier…

“That’s a good-looking Shepherd! My name’s Jason - I run SurfDogLA, in case you ever need a dog walker, here’s my card. Give us a call.”

“You don’t look like a dog walker.”

“Why is that?”

“I don’t know. You’re not the lazy, bohemian stereotype, I guess. You look all professional. You have business cards, a laptop – and a website…”

It was true. And Jason’s professionalism got noticed. And by the end of the day, he had customers. And by the end of the week, he had more customers. And by the end of the month, he had so many customers, he couldn’t walk all the dogs by himself!

So, he called a few trusted friends.

“Hey, do you want to be a dog walker?”

And they called their trusted friends…

“I can get you a gig as a dog walker – it pays really well and you get to hang out with dogs.

Hey, are you working right now?

Want a little side hustle?

My friend’s company pays you to walk dogs.

Eight hours north of Jason, in Silicon Valley, another dog lover was missing his childhood dog, Brittany.

Joshua Viner thought about Brittany quite often, longing to get another dog, but he and his brother, John, had just been too busy developing video games for Facebook and working long hours. Their latest, ChirpMe, had recently been acquired and it wouldn’t be long before they found their next project.

But Josh just couldn’t get it out of his head. He really wanted a dog – but how could he give it the care it needed all the time, when he had such a crazy schedule?

“Wait,” he thought. “Is there an Uber for dog walking?”

He Googled. But he couldn’t find anything. Then the lightbulb went on: if he and his brother were to create such a platform, he – and numerous other busy people – could have a dog!

It was clear what their next big project was. So, the Viner brothers did what any good entrepreneurs would: they searched for a subject matter expert with a built-in audience.

Meanwhile, down in Santa Monica, SurfDogLA was blowing up; so much so that Jason could take six-weeks of vacations and let the other walkers take the leash. Not only that, his website was getting so much traffic, he was ranking really high on the Google search…

Number one, in fact, when the Viner brothers typed “dog walking business” in their search bar.

“Jason, this is Josh Viner. How would you like to create the Uber of dog walking with us? We’ll call it ‘Wag!’”

Announcer: FLASH FORWARD TO PRESENT DAY! To date, Wag has received $300 Million in investment capital, launched in most major US cities, connected millions of dog owners with trusted dog walkers and became the media darling that took the marketplace world by storm.

Let’s get down to the NITTY GRITTY. Here’s your host, Kurt Bilafer.

Kurt: How do you become the “Uber-of” your industry? Wag’s co-founder, Jason Meltzer, will tell you it’s all about building and scaling trust.

Let's get down to the nitty-gritty. Here's your host, Kurt Bilafer.

Kurt: How do you become the Uber of your industry? Wag!'s co-founder, Jason Meltzer, will tell you it's all about creating a community built on trust. Before they were lauded by the medias, the Uber of dog walking, Wag! had to convince the general public to let strangers into their houses to take care of their dogs. Today, we're going to find out just how they did it. Today, I'm so happy to welcome a true platform player to our very first show. Wag!'s co-founder and dog-walking legend, Jason Meltzer.

Jason: Thank you for having me by the way. It's great to be here.

Kurt: Really excited to have you here and to really help people understand the challenges of marketplaces, all different types. What I find fascinating about Wag! is this thriving community you've built, and we want to know how you did it. So, think back to when you started. How did you differentiate yourself?

Jason: You know, I think there's a lot of things that differentiate us. Me, being a dog walker and starting this company, that gave us a huge advantage. I recommend to people listening if you're considering a marketplace, go and find that experience to give you some expertise in the service or product that you're trying to improve upon, or bring in some sort of expert in that space. I think that, for us, has been a big game-changer.

There's this crazy dog passion at Wag! We've always been built on passion, and the culture there is just all about the dogs. I think that's helped differentiate us. I think we have the best walkers on the platform. They're all so incredible. They're all so talented in so many different avenues, and they make such great experiences for people every day.

Wag! did a lot to create that culture early on with just allowing like the social media aspect, and sharing on Facebook, and building that into the app. We've seen some very creative dog walkers with beautiful picture art that they do for customers' dogs, like poems, and stories, and amazing UGCs that we didn't anticipate. There's a lot of stuff, I think, that just makes Wag! a different experience.

Kurt: How are you engaging the walkers? What's the draw for them to come and be on the Wag! marketplace?

Jason: So many things. We have people who join just for the health benefits. We have people who join because they just love being around pets. We've had people who are independently very, very wealthy want to join the platform to do that. I just don't think you're going to see that on other marketplaces. You're not going to see like the Beverly Hills Housewives on Instacart or Postmates, but you'll see them on Wag!

Kurt: That's awesome. So, I've heard to become a dog walker is one of the most difficult jobs to get because there are so many background checks and investigations that happen. Take me through that experience.

Jason: Yeah. It was really important for me in the early days to have the best vetting process in the business. We were really, really fortunate in the early days. We had so many people, like you said, who were like true dog-loving fanatics. That was what built this initial community of dog lovers.

As we've scaled and expanded, a lot of those original core first thousand dog walkers are still on the platform, and they tell their friends. That's really great for us, but what we've done since day one is, we've always had a very hands-on approach, multiple applications, screening, you are speaking with real people.

Real people were looking at your application making sure that you can handle the rigors of this job, and you knew enough about pets that we could be confident that our customers would get the best service possible.

Kurt: That makes sense. So, for any marketplace, success boils down to building trust. Right? The dog walkers you bring on your platform have to trust that they're going to get work and that they're going to get paid for it. But the owners, the stakes are high. You're letting a stranger into your home to take care of, basically, one of your family members. How do you build trust on your platform?

Jason: That was probably our biggest early hurdle. I knew people trusted me to walk dogs, but would they trust a service with my name on it. I knew we could find great dog walkers. Everybody wants to walk dogs, but then it was how do we get people to "trust strangers" with their pet? We just focused on quality. It was quality, quality, quality.

You want to really curate a nice initial group in a marketplace. You have to have true passionate believers on the supply side of a marketplace. That's just what's going to band out as you expand it.

Kurt: So, have you thought about licensing your technology to the college application process because clearly, there's something broken in that vetting process?

Jason: Yeah. Well, we're definitely not taking any bribes.

Kurt: Yeah. That's good. That's good.

Jason: But, I think it's actually funny you mentioned that because we have so many applications for Wag!, and we can only accept so many people in a market that have the skills. Like, we had a lower conversion than Harvard.

Kurt: Well, that's got to be comforting for the dog owners, for sure. So, let's take a step back for a second. How did you raise your brand awareness?

Jason: For dog walking, in particular, what's great about it is it's a huge word-of-mouth business. That holds true for Wag! We have an amazing just organic word-of-mouth reach.

Kurt: Yep.

Jason: And I think it's because when you see someone out with the Wag! gear, out on the streets walking your dog, walking by the dog park, they're instantly like, "What's Wag!? What is this? I've seen it around." Just generate a lot of buzz with gear on the walkers.

Kurt: Nice. Just to give our listeners an idea of the sheer number of people transacting in your platform, can you give us an idea of what that looks like?

Jason: I think we're really excited that we're seeing a very healthy, active community booking dog walks, and boardings, and sittings daily. One thing I'm really proud of I think is we donate ten cents of every dog walk to the Greater Good Foundation. They're a great foundation that—they do lots of great things. One of the things that we're partnering with them is feeding dogs in shelters. Through those ten cents of every walk, we've fed already over eight million dogs in shelters.

Kurt: Wow!

Jason: So, a huge impact. Really important to me from the early days that we have something to give back to the community.

Kurt: It sounds really fulfilling. What's the one thing you wish you knew going into this that maybe you underestimated or didn't know that could help you get here faster?

Jason: Yeah, that's a really interesting question. Honestly, we in the early days, everybody laughed us out of the room. They just thought this is not a project that is going to work, is going to make sense. There are too many unknowns, and we were able to prove it really quickly. The selfish answers like, "I wish we had done it faster and sooner." Right?

Kurt: Yep.

Jason: But I think a more maybe complex answer to that is I don't think we were totally prepared for the sum amount of communication that needs to transpire between the walkers and us, and our users and us, and the customers and the walkers.

There are just so many touch points and conversation points, and threads happening. I wish we could have done a little bit more on structuring that out early-on to prevent having so many customer-service touchpoints. It was great in the early days because you got so much great feedback.

In the early days, you want to have as many touchpoints as possible. So, you get all this great feedback. But then, as we started to learn, I wish we could have iterated a little bit faster to make a better service for our customers and our walkers.

Kurt: So, once you learned that lesson, how did you start solving for a better customer experience?

Jason: Yeah. We've absolutely done focus groups in the past, and those are always super interesting, and really valuable to us. We've always had a section in the app where you can just provide feedback. We use other email campaigns that are generated to pull our walkers and our customers on what they liked about the service, what they didn't like about the service.

We've always had a rating system for the walkers that the users can do to rate how that walker is. So, we're constantly monitoring that and making sure that people provide a good service. Now there are ways to do it from the walker to the user side because it's a double-sided marketplace. Like you can't have bad actors on either side.

Kurt: I do think the social contract of holding both parties accountable certainly reduces the friction that the marketplace has to introduce. You're not constantly playing the traffic cop and making sure the right behavior is happening. There's this pure level alignment. I'm sure the walkers and the quest for the best possible rating as is the customer. So, they'll work together to resolve the issues, I think.

So, I do think as you have these multi-sided marketplaces, it holds both parties accountable, one. Two, it establishes this social norm on how we're supposed to behave. What I also find very interesting in the marketplace like Wag! is the data. You have these subject matter experts and people who value their opinion. That's the great thing about a dog walker is they get to see all sorts of different dogs and the temperaments of these different dogs.

People talk about data being the new oil. The reality is there is some great information in there that I'm sure you are using, and you'll continue to use, but before it to add value-added services.

Jason: Yeah. We use this data also to reward a lot of our walkers. We wrote out this year walker badges which just like they know the different types of breeds they've walked, and how many walks they've done in a month, and how many miles they've reached. So, we love being able to repackage or restructure that data and showcase it to our community.

We have a lot of exciting things that we're working on that I'd love to see. I think there's still a lot of ground to cover in terms of just making the dog walking more enjoyable for both our users and our walkers.

Kurt: Yeah. So, you've created this economy by bringing together dog walkers and dog owners. Are you ever concerned that commerce or that the commerce that you're enabling on the platform is actually transit-acting offline and that you're not able to monetize it and facilitate it?

Not necessarily because you feel the need to own it, but because there's value in protecting both parties by providing it. How do you feel about that? How are you guys addressing that?

Jason: That's a really tough problem, and all marketplaces face that same issue. You just have to really work on continuing to build trust with your users and trust with your supply side as well, making it a better experience like I mentioned. If we can integrate better tools where walking that same dog without the app becomes more work and more effort.

There's a lot of stuff that we handle on the backend to make life easier for both the dog walker and for the owner. So, I think you just want to continue to shine a light on those items and communicate directly with both sides to find out what they want. We're a technology company, so we can iterate and test and build features that someone on their own, or smaller businesses couldn't necessarily source.

Kurt: How do you determine where you're going to go next?

Jason: I think there are a lot of factors that go into it. We launched L.A. because that's just the market that we all knew. In terms of the second market, we opened up San Francisco, and yes, we did our research. We knew that was a dog-crazy city. We knew that all of these marketplaces do well there. There are a lot of early adopters.

For those who have early marketplaces who want to raise money, we have a lot better shot of getting emails returned if you're a success in San Francisco because they see the ads, they see the traction. There's some proof in the pudding for them to do that. So, I definitely highly recommend launching S.F. as a secondary market.

Announcement: Platform Players is brought to you by Yapstone, the Premier Payments Provider for the platform economy.

And this is TICK TOCK! Where Kurt gets up close and personal with our player…but he only has 90 seconds. Gentlemen, your time starts now. Tick tock!

Kurt: What’s your favorite book?

Jason: I tell you the book that probably changed my life the most was Tim Ferriss' The 4-Hour Workweek.

Kurt: What podcast are you listening to now, or do you have a couple of favorites?

Jason: Oh, yeah. Joe Rogan. I love when he has interesting guests. I'm not a huge MMA fan, but I love when he has unique people on. The Daily is like part of my routine, I think. The New York Times, The Daily is like part of my coffee.

Kurt: So, what's the most productive time of the day for you?

Jason: When I first get in the office, I'm like raring. I think between 9:00 and lunch.

Kurt: Do you have a favorite smell or sound?

Jason: Whoa!

Kurt: That's a real random one.

Jason: Yeah. I know. My favorite smell is my daughter. I just love to smell her hair and smell her head. She's so sweet. My favorite sound is, I love that sound of running water.

Kurt: So, if you weren't doing this, if you hadn't co-founded Wag!, and leading the charge of Chief Dog Walker I think is the title you have.

Jason: Chief Dog Officer. Yeah.

Kurt: Dog Officer. I'm sorry. Yes, Dog Officer. If you weren't doing that, what would you be doing?

Jason: Man, you have some interesting questions here. All right. It's like I never think about that stuff. What would be doing next, or differently? I don't know. I might just be doing dog walking again.

To be honest, I really enjoyed that pace of being on the street, and doing something, and outside, and networking, and talking to people, and having responsibility, and getting home, and being both physically and mentally tired. Like there's just so much joy in it, and I really encourage everybody to really appreciate what you're doing in that moment.

Kurt: Well, listen, Jason. I really, really appreciate it and enjoyed this conversation. Hopefully, we can get you to come back on Platform Players again in the future and take us to the next chapter in the evolution of Wag! This is really enjoyable, and I think for me, one of the things I like the most, and you're going to give me some things to think about over the weekend is just how important it is to have that emotional connection; that sense of purpose and impact to what you do which, obviously, for a while you were enabling for many, many people both on the walkers' side and most of the dog owners. I think that's super cool.

Jason: Thank you, Kurt. It's been a pleasure to be on. Happy to come back, and yeah. Everybody, just live in that moment whether you're dog walking or trading stocks. Just be super present and excited to be doing what you're doing because you had to work really hard to get there.

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