When should I take on staff?

Almost everyone that I have spoken to, who does this kind of work, has started out running their pet sitting business alone. It seems to be what we do, unless our chosen model is – by definition – one that requires staff. To be honest, when I first conceived the idea of earning a living wage from providing pet care, the thought of finding co-workers never entered my head. Since then I have worked alone, used casual workers, had employees and engaged independent contractors to support my business and now, five years later, I wish I had taken a different approach from the beginning. So, let’s look at the question “When should I take on staff?” I use the term staff to mean co-workers, not just employees.

Do I really need co-workers?
should I take on staff
Together or alone?

In order to decide whether you need co-workers, I would suggest that you determine what you want your business to be and how you want it to progress. Try answering yes or no to the following questions:

  • A. Do I want to continue to work alone for the lifespan of my business?
  • B. Do I see myself working in the business with a team in the future?
  • A. Is my vision to build a client base for my own income and then stop expanding the business?
  • B. Do I want to grow the business as much as I am able to?
  • A. Am I happy with the prospect of a modest, reliable income from doing my own pet care work, but have no expectation of financial growth beyond that?
  • B. Would I like to receive an income from the business that I don’t have to earn myself?
  • A: Am I willing to focus down on offering either home based services, or out of the house services, but not the whole package?
  • B: Would I prefer to provide for all of my clients needs, by offering a full package of pet care services?

Depending on your current vision for your business, you will have answered “Yes” to mainly A’s or mainly B’s. Both are viable ways to earn a living, but let’s look at them in more depth.

should I take on staff
Should I take on staff?
The ‘A’ business – should I take on staff ? Probably not!

Your business falls into this category if:

  • you want to keep things small and under your full control.
  • you want to do your own work and get paid for it.
  • you don’t want to worry about growing the business beyond what you can do yourself.

If you envisage running an A-type business, I would advise you to consider setting up a home based business providing day care and home boarding for dogs. With this model, it is possible to earn up to about £100 a day (minus costs), looking after 4 dogs in the average house. Obviously you will have quiet days and take holidays, so your actual income will more likely be around £400 per week (averaged out overall). It’s hard to achieve that kind of income doing dog walking on your own, and you’ll have the extra cost of buying, fitting, maintaing and running a fit-for-purpose vehicle.

should I take on staff
Working alone

Another possibility is house-sitting, where you offer to stay in other people’s houses to care for their animals, however this service is difficult to ‘sell’ unless you already know your clients well. The American model of pet-sitting offers a greater return because people leave their dogs ‘home-alone’ while they go on holiday, and pay for 3 or 4 visits to the house a day. This service is not palatable to the UK pet-owning population, who favour the home boarding approach. I have been asked once or twice over the years to provide home visits for home-alone dogs, but have politely refused, as I have not felt comfortable with what was being requested, from a welfare perspective. People in the UK are expecting to pay around £20 per day for their dog’s holiday care, and the number of visits/amount of care needed to make visiting a home-alone dog ethically viable, would be prohibitively expensive in comparison.

Potential problems of working alone

The difficulties you will have to overcome to succeed with this model include:

  • Covering your work when you are ill or on holiday.
  • Coping with lean periods when your income will fall.
  • Planning for time off when your income will be zero.
  • Balancing the unrelenting nature of this work with having a personal and social life.
  • Finding a level that will give you longevity as a business, without you burning out.
The ‘B’ business- should I take on staff ? Probably now!

Your business falls into this category if:

  • you want your business to grow in terms of workers, clients and income.
  • you want to offer more services than you can provide yourself.

The rest of this article is aimed at those who want B-type businesses.

If you are reading this before you have even started the foundational work of getting your business up and running, that’s great. If you are already running a fledgling business, this might help you to progress more quickly towards your goals. If you have been flying solo for a while and are worn out and stressed most of the time, please know that I have been there too, and there is a way out without letting your business fold.

Should I take on staff *before* I get oversubscribed myself? An unequivocal, resounding “Yes!”

Even if you are just setting up, but you want to work towards a team approach, then *now* is the time to begin finding your first worker. I remember well, how daunting it was to first take on a co-worker. I had been in business a year, and so far had only paid my young adult offspring – and one or two of their friends – to cover the odd walk for me, or to babysit the dogs who were on holiday in our home. I was busiest on the home boarding front and a long-term friend of mine, who had three dogs of her own, offered to home board some dogs herself. She got herself licensed and I upgraded my insurance (as she didn’t plan to source clients herself), worked out a contract and off we went. She could only take single dogs because of her own little gang, but even this was an immediate help, which in turn allowed me to realise that being able to tap into other boarding homes was something I wanted for the future.

should I take on staff
Sharing the load.

Next came a neighbour, who I didn’t already know, but who contacted me to see if she could work with me. She came along just as the walking side of the business was getting overwhelming, and I knew that I would have get help with that too. We met up for a trial run, one very snowy day in early 2013, and we did 7 ‘one to one’ walks together, on the trot. Rather that be put off, she has become my right hand woman – totally dependable and trustworthy – and she remains one of our team today. She is self employed and contracts her services to me, tried home boarding and decided it wasn’t for her, so now contracts her walking services only.

Since then I have employed a number of walkers through advertising – some great, some damaging – most were temporary; in-between jobs or at university. I also have a working relationship with one of my adult kids, one of my clients – both of whom are dog walkers – and two wonderful women who board our clients’ dogs in their homes. I am currently on a sabbatical year, living in my motorhome, running the business in a less hands-on way, but still doing some house-sits for longstanding clients. A year ago, I wouldnt have thought this degree of freedom remotely possble.

I wish I’d had the advice – or the vision – to engage co-workers from the outset. Also to hone my own contribution, and that of those who worked with me, to be either in or out of the home. I dont think any one person can do home based services and a full programme of out of the house walks, and do it all excellently. House dogs will be left alone while walking, and most councils stipulate that this is for 3 hours only. If you use your away from the house time walking dogs, when do you get to do anything else? This was my dilemma for a couple of years, because I began by offering multiple services with no co-workers. Years 3 and 4 found me home-based, doing day care and home boarding, while others walked my walking cients’ dogs. This was a far preferable arrangement.

should I take on staff
Building together

If you wait until the extra work is available, before finding co-workers, your expansion is likely to be slow or traumatic. You can easily get over-stressed and that’s when it becomes more likely that you will make mistakes. Get the structure of your business in place (in terms of who will provide which services) and the clients will follow, because you’ll be able to easilysay “yes”. Take on people who are either willing for their work to increase gradually over time, or are working their own business and contracting to you for extra work. This will ensure that not having a full client-load to give them straight away, isn’t an issue.

Who is your ideal client?

I am fairly certain that one of the keys to running a successful pet care business is focus – zooming in on the detail of what you want to do, how you want to do it and who you want to do it for. This post looks at the WHO. Who is your ideal client?

Before you say anyone and everyone, let me remind you why that’s not true. It’s so easy, especially at the beginning, to get caught up in trying to be all things to all prospective clients, for fear of having no actual clients. Being unfocussed is the perfect route to doing nothing with flourish and getting overwhelmed and burned out by your business. You can’t do it all, for everyone, and I hope that this post will help you to find out who your ideal client is, so that you can focus on doing it beautifully for them. Once you do, you’re one step closer to that ideal client finding you, because you can market yourself and your business more effectively.

So, who is your ideal client?

Take a few moments to answer these questions in as much detail as you can:

  • Where would my ideal client live?
  • Which service would they want me to provide?
  • What species would they need care for?
  • What gender would they be?
  • What kind of job would they do?

    Who is your ideal client
    Ideal client?
  • How old would they be?
  • Would they use the internet? A mobile phone?
  • What would they be most motivated by? [Price? Flexibility? Experience? Personality?]
  • What would the client’s animal(s) be like?

In my early days, I would have responded to these questions vaguely, truly believing that we could cater for almost anyone who enquired about our services. Over the years this has shown itself to be patently untrue, and my own answers to the question “who is your ideal client?” are now clear and defined. It makes screening clients so much easier, and screen them, we all must!

I am now essentially the admin hub for 7 independent contractors, one of whom is me. My answers are to a degree defined by what my ICs will do, and because of this they do get refined over time. This is how I would answer in April of 2016:

  • Within a 15 minute drive through daytime traffic from the business address. [Makes sense for walking clients, boarding clients come from as far away as they are willing to travel but long distances may cause them to go with someone more local in the future, and I am always looking for client longevity.]
  • Dog walking, home boarding. [We also provide house sitting and day care, but I would only take on new clients for those services if they met very tight criteria.]
  • Dogs [We no longer provide services for any other species.]
  • Female [Although we have male clients, almost all of my fully engaged clients – those who I anticipate lifetime service use from, are female.]
  • Teacher, nurse, shift worker. [Our ideal client wants our unique selling point – flexibility]
  • 25 to 55 [Again, most of my fully engaged clients fall into this age range, but I have some clients of all ages].
  • Yes and Yes [Because I use Pet Software I do need clients to have an active email address, and a mobile phone for things to run seamlessly. This also means that they can access our info-site and e-newsletter, offers, diary dates etc.]
  • Flexibility and experience [These are our unique selling points and we know that we will be a better fit with these clients because we will be able to give them exactly what they need.]
  • A cheerful, dog-friendly, doesn’t pull on the lead dog, or two!
Who is your deal client pet sitting business
Ideal client?

Now, just because my ideal client is this person, that doesn’t mean I don’t accommodate any clients who fall outside of these parameters.

However, knowing these criteria, helps me to spot a client who would present me with a number of difficulties, and I am usually happy for these clients to go elsewhere.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to focus on what you really want (and are able) to provide, and then focus on finding the clients who genuinely want what you are offering. We’ll look at marketing to find your ideal client in a future post.