Need A Job? Pet Sitting, Dog Walking Business Booms!

by Mary Haight on June 30, 2010

Her story could be one of millions out there. It may even remind you of you, or someone you know.  Melissa Freer, owner of Mel’s Pet Pals, a Minneapolis/St Paul area pet sitting, dog walking company, gave me an email interview to talk about the business she started in 2008. Coming from more than a decade in corporate to suddenly unemployed and on to self-employed taught her much about herself and the meaning of success. Freer shares what she learned here.

What happened that made you consider a start up business in the pet industry?

In January 2008, I was laid off from my job as a leadership development consultant and project manager. I had a couple of offers to stay on in another capacity, but after 14 years I decided it was time to leave and explore other options.

I really thought I was going to go back into leadership development or project management but by chance (or fate?) I went to a networking event.  I happened to meet a life coach in town for the day. We started talking and after awhile she said “You know, when you talk about your former career in leadership development you don’t look excited, but when you talk about dogs your whole face lights up. You might want to explore that.”  Huh! I have always loved animals, but I never considered doing anything related because I thought I could never make a living at it.  Her observations changed my life!

Of all the things you could do in this industry, how did you decide what would work for you?

After doing some research, first looking at dog training which I also enjoy, I decided to become a pet sitter and dog walker. Barriers to entry in this business are not as high as  in dog training, although for that reason it is a crowded field. It was slow to begin with, but I had the advantage of having lots of former friends and co-workers, seven years volunteering at my local animal shelter, and eight months of severance. 

Since the launch of Mel’s Pet Pals in September 2008, I have doubled my income and my client base. I get most of my business from client referrals and our local pet sitters association here in Minnesota.

What made you decide on pet sitter and dog walker as a combination?

Pet sitting and dog walking is often a combo in the pet world. The truth is that most businesses can’t create enough revenue offering just one.  I have a business plan that will take the company to the next level and offer options not currently available elsewhere.  I did my own research before moving forward. I interviewed business owners (some not associated with the pet world), researched pet sitters in my area, what services were offered, and researched pricing.

How did you put together enough business to get comfortable with your income? Project management pays pretty well, and trying to replace that would take longer than two years, given the average price point of pet services.

Early on, I decided to market a bit differently than most pet sitters. I have a friend who is a successful children’s book writer, blogger and social media expert (@KakieF). She encouraged me to explore using social media as a way to get people to learn more about me and my business. I use Facebook, Twitter and I have two blogs – 1 about Daisy (my puppy mill rescue) and one that shares more general information about dogs.  I have also put up fliers in vet’s offices, built up friendships at the dog park, many of whom have become my clients,  and attended events like the Pet Expo and the Pride festival in Minneapolis.

I board in my home, and decided to enhance that experience. I create videos of my clients’ stays with me and send it to their family after their stay so they can see what their dog did while on vacation at Casa del Mel.  I use Animoto to create the videos from the pictures I take during their stay. My clients love them!

I also mail out a newsletter every month. Most pet sitters send their newsletters via e-mail, but I think people get so many e-mails that looking at one more thing to read online can be annoying.  People tell me they love to get my newsletter every month. I keep it light and fun. Featured pet of the month, animal quizzes, humorous animal jokes or haiku, fun animal stories and one serious topic (like the dangers of dogs staying in a car on hot days or best interactive toys for cats and dogs, etc.).

Are there any other streams of revenue you’ve been able to include in your business?

Because I have a lot of experience working with difficult dogs at the shelter, I often work with my clients to help them improve their dog’s behavior or to train them. 

I’ve trained several of my puppy clients and have worked  with several fearful dogs to help them be more confident and to walk better on a leash.  I am currently working with one of my doggie clients on a daily basis (training reinforcement) to help him become a therapy dog.

What has surprised you about yourself in your new business?

One of the things I have discovered is that I don’t need as much “stuff” as I thought I did. I’m going to be completely honest here – I spent a lot of money on junk I didn’t need just because I had the money. I look at some of that stuff now and ask “why did I ever buy that?” If you want to be a pet sitter/dog walker, you need to realize that it is not going to get you rich quick. There are always a handful of exceptions, but most of us grow over time.

If there is one thing I’ve learned as a small business owner is that every little flaw or perceived weakness in your personality, skill set and knowledge base will be something you will have to face. I didn’t have a lot of confidence in putting myself out there as a professional at the beginning and it showed. I had to have a talk with myself about what kind of image I wanted to present to people. I still struggle with it from time to time, but I am getting better at it.

What is your advice to those thinking about working as pet sitters and dog walkers?

Do your research – talk to other pet sitters, even consider working for one. Check to see what other pet sitters are doing to make themselves stand out, and be sure that your pricing allows you to make a living. 

Have savings put aside and plan on using it to get started. Know that pet sitting and dog walking is a lot of work. It’s a lot of fun, but along with the fun comes poop pick-up, kitty litter scooping, cleaning up messes and dealing with emergencies – they will happen.

Mel Freer hasn’t forgotten her volunteer work, though new avenues for supporting the animal shelter via her website and newsletter bring more attention and revenue to events, and adoptions.  She volunteers at events, on holidays and has fostered four dogs for MVHS all of whom have found homes (two of them with her!). You can check out her services at Mel’s Pet Pals

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