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Give a dog a carrot stick: Meet the startup developing a weight loss app for chubby pups

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien /

WAGSTA

WAGSTA founder Charlotte Williamson with Maxo, a graduate of the WAGSTA MVP weight loss program. Source: Supplied.

Chubby chihuahuas to pot-bellied pugs and dumpy dachshunds, this Cairns startup is out to combat canine obesity through doggy fitness programs focused on educating owners with overweight dogs.

Founder of WAGSTA Charlotte Williamson, a veterinarian for 20 years, calls the app “a cross between Strava and Weight Watchers for dogs”.

In August last year, the founder received $100,000 from the Queensland Government’s Advance Queensland Ignite Ideas fund towards developing the app. Now, it’s on track to go live in about a month’s time, Williamson says.

A free version is designed to motivate dog owners to maintain a healthy lifestyle with their pups, providing dog-walk mapping and tracking, and discovery tools for new dog-friendly routes.

It also provides wellness checks and a dog weight tracker for identifying your dog’s ideal weight and helping them reach it. If they find their dog is overweight, they can opt to pay for a WAGSTA Wellness plan.

The plans themselves focus on the human element of the doggo diet  that is, managing lifestyle, feeding and the effect the owners’ own emotions may have on the pet.

WAGSTA was born out of Williamson’s own frustrations as a vet. She was treating dogs brought into the clinic not because of their weight, but for issues associated with it, such as ruptured cruciate ligaments or arthritis.

Certain breeds labradors, pugs, beagles, golden retrievers and dachshunds are particularly predisposed to weight gain, and therefore these kinds of illnesses.

“They have extra appetite drives,” Williamson explains. “You never see a small beagle or labrador.”

The consultation would focus on the illness, she says, and while she would mention that it was caused by the dog’s weight, “you don’t have enough time to provide in-depth guidance on how to manage that”.

Williamson was frustrated that she couldn’t follow through on these cases, or give owners the support they needed to change their pet’s lifestyle.

“Weight management plans have been available for humans for decades — why can’t we do the same for dogs? That’s where people are educated,” Williamson says.

“If we can get people more aware of their dog’s general wellness in terms of their weight, then that has a huge impact on helping people manage dog welfare.”

Fifty million fat dogs

Williamson initially developed an MVP for the product a couple of years ago: a 12-week online program tested with customers in Australia and the US.

“We had some great results,” she says.

“But what we found is it’s quite difficult to market to owners of overweight dogs. Not everyone is aware their dog is overweight so they’re not necessarily looking for a solution.”

In the past couple of years however, the founder has seen increased awareness of dog obesity among owners.

“The macro trend of health and wellness is really taking off with pets as well as humans,” she says.

Partly, she puts this down to a generational shift in the owners themselves, opening up a market to attract WAGSTA’s ideal clients.

“Millennials are very focused on preventive pet healthcare,” she observes.

There’s also an increasing humanisation of pets, with owners treating them like part of the family.

“People are really distraught when their dog is suffering and in pain, especially when it’s caused from that lack of awareness,” Williamson explains.

“I’m coming in from the animal welfare angle of trying to prevent this, and prevent the family heartache that’s associated with it.”

Specifically, the founder recalls one story of a ten-year-old labrador who weighed twice what she should have and was suffering from “crippling” arthritis that ultimately resulted in her being euthanised.

“That’s the end progression of what happens when a dog’s weight is not managed throughout its life,” Williamson says.

“When I say I’m doing an app for fat dogs, people think it’s funny, and I get that,” she adds.

“But at the same time when you’ve been in the veterinary industry for 20 years, you can see it’s a growing issue.”

In fact, according to Williamson, in the US some 56% of dogs are overweight.

“That’s 50 million fat dogs,” she says. “It’s a huge issue.”

“I would have got there eventually”

For Williamson, securing the $100,000 in funding from the Queensland government last year has made a huge difference to the startup.

“I would have got there eventually but it sped things up for us,” she says.

However, she says the more she has worked on developing the app, the more she is leaning towards raising VC funding in the future.

“I’m realising how expensive it is, especially from a tech development point of view,” she says.

“That’s probably been our biggest challenge — the speed of tech development.”

In Cairns, in particular, it can be tricky to find the best talent in terms of development.

“To attract the right people and build that team, and to do it at a pace that’s going to keep up with the market, I think I definitely will be looking for future funding,” Williamson says.

Ultimately, the founder has dreams of being known internationally as the Weight Watchers of the dog world. But, initially, she’s focusing on rolling out the app in Australia and the UK, as well as putting significant efforts into the US,

“That’s where the market is,” she says.

“That’s our primary focus.”

The tech challenge

Having leapt into the startup journey after 20 years as a veterinarian, Williamson is “not really tech skilled at all”, she admits.

“I can barely function my own phone.”

However, she maintains that for non-technical founders, this can be overcome “as long as you’ve got a clear business plan … and can articulate that”.

While those who can code have an obvious advantage in that they avoid the cost of getting developers in, those who don’t have those skills shouldn’t let the fact hold them back.

In fact, the upfront cost can be viewed as “a real test”, Williamson says.

“Do you want to try it out? If you overcome that hurdle and can bring someone on board, then that’s a good start,” she advises.

“Not having a tech background should not be a major disadvantage. It can be overcome.”

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Stephanie Palmer-Derrien

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien is the editor at StartupSmart. You can contact her at [email protected].

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