Entrepreneur “Doggedly” Pursues Growth

6.25.2024 Alumni News, Article, Entrepreneurship, Undergraduate Business
Photo of people in the article

Craig Koch (’93), CEO and founder of WAG-A-LOT in Atlanta, Georgia, shares his entrepreneurial spirit, the importance of pursuing the right idea at the right time and his “life enthusiast” commitment toward a purpose-driven life.

Caroline: You are the CEO and founder of WAG-A-LOT, a dog daycare and boarding business in Atlanta that you built and grew to three locations. What inspired you to start your own business?

Craig: I questioned convention and the purpose of life a lot when I was a kid and knew from an early age that having a standard 9 to 5 job at a large corporation was probably not going to be my cup of tea. I wanted to create, experience life fully and somehow leave this earth a better place than when I found it. All that to be said, entrepreneurship has always been in my blood. I just needed the big idea and a sense of purpose to see it through.

In 1998, I had my epiphany: dogs need a safe, fun place to burn off their energy during the day while their owners are at work so they can embrace their pack mentality, live healthy lives and then reconnect with their parents at the end of the day in a calm state where everyone can enjoy quality time together. This was definitely NOT happening in my house, and dog day care and quality boarding as we know it today did not exist.

Not only would such a service have an obvious initial purpose of making the lives of pet owners easier and more pleasant, but it would also improve the quality of dogs’ lives, allow more people to actually consider being a pet parent and experience the endless benefits of this magical connection plus provide an outlet for fellow animal lovers to connect. This was all overwhelmingly gratifying but in retrospect only the beginning of the purpose-driven company I was creating.

Caroline: How difficult was it to start a business from scratch, and how difficult is it to maintain a competitive advantage as the marketplace has become more crowded with competition?

Craig: Starting a business from scratch is not easy on so many levels. I worked every day for the first couple years, including that first Christmas when we were lucky enough to be booked solid for the first time with holiday boarding. However, I believed wholeheartedly in what we were doing and knew I could eventually build a team of like-minded dog lovers that would passionately manage stores in my absence.

The booming pet care industry has become more and more competitive in recent years as investors have zeroed in on the strong ROIs in this recession proof business. WAG-A-LOT has always been focused on innovation, so we have been able to maintain a strong position in the marketplace by continuously updating our facilities, keeping up with the needs of a changing work force and capitalizing on technology when applicable.

Caroline: What are the most humbling – and rewarding – lessons you have learned along the way as an entrepreneur?

Craig: I have certainly made some missteps over the last 25 years… but always with the best of intentions, lol! Like the time I sold an entire location in order to fund a franchise system only to realize that growth strategy didn’t suit me six months in. Or when I bought trucks to start a brand extension called WAG-A-LOT at Home only to figure out the financials didn’t pan out or make the most efficient use of our existing 70 plus person team. Even though both of these examples were significant financial setbacks, I am glad that I have always had the guts to doggedly pursue growth. I am a firm believer that if you are not growing, you are slowly dying … so innovation is always on my mind.

Caroline: Your business has cared for over one million dogs, sharing your expertise on CNN, HGTV and ABC (just to name a few); plus, you have started your own consulting venture to help other entrepreneurs follow their passion for dog care. Did you envision this kind of reach when you opened the doors in 1999? What are you most proud of?

Craig: I knew that I wanted a big life and certainly wasn’t afraid to put myself out there. I feel very fortunate that I had the right idea at the right time and was able to be a pioneer in the dog care industry, which happened to simultaneously make me an expert people turned to. I take a lot of pride in that, but what has been by far the most rewarding part of this journey is the opportunity to give back to a community that has been so good to me primarily through a 20 plus year relationship with the largest animal welfare organization in the southeast, Lifeline Animal Project.

Caroline: How did having an undergraduate degree in business benefit you as a budding entrepreneur?

Craig: I’m a dreamer with lots of ideas … which can be a blessing and a curse. Luckily, I learned early on at Wake Forest as a business major that ideas don’t convert to anything viable or profitable unless you have a solid foundation and understanding of business and accountancy so you can properly build, analyze and test the legitimacy of a plan. To this day, I don’t let a business idea get too far in front of me without putting together a realistic budget to see if the concept can produce a cash flow that will make the effort worthwhile. When I graduated from Wake Forest, there was only an inkling of an entrepreneurship program. I found much of my inspiration through some formative business analysis classes that I really enjoyed. But to Wake’s credit, when I pushed for something that would help fuel my passion, they said yes to allowing me to be the first student from WFU to participate in a semester at Walt Disney University in Orlando, Florida, where I not only proudly earned my Ducktorate but walked away with a road map of how I would build my future business. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would one day – more or less – build a Disney for dogs!

Caroline: Any words of wisdom for current Wake Forest business students or alumni who are hopeful entrepreneurs?

Craig: Successful entrepreneurs understand that they don’t have all the answers and that is okay. Take that leap of faith and thoughtfully figure it out as you go along. Otherwise, you will be stuck and paralyzed and regret that you never just went for it.

Caroline: What is your favorite quote or motto? What is your personal mantra?

Craig: Live a purpose-driven life that is meaningful and rewarding. Give more than you take. Can you imagine if we all did this one thing what a utopia we would live in!

Caroline: Your Instagram says you are a “life enthusiast”; what does this mean to you and how does it drive your everyday life.

Craig: I am a self-proclaimed “life enthusiast” which for me means that I am not a passive spectator. I am a creator, explorer, family man and friend who’s making the most out of our short time here on earth, determined to leave behind a better place.

Caroline: What’s next?

Craig: While I am very nostalgic and reflective this year as WAG-A-LOT celebrates its 25th-year anniversary, I still feel young, healthy and full of more great ideas that I would like to manifest. Plus, I still have two human children (aged 13 & 14) and seven adopted dogs to care for and look after – not the time to check out! So, I am actively looking at ways to go grow the brand but also trying to create some space where I can follow some unrelated passions which include writing fiction and nonfiction books and collaborating with my husband, Vern Yip of TLC Trading Spaces and HGTV Design Star fame, on a host of projects that capitalize on our strengths and experiences.