As many of my Facebook and Twitter followers will know, on the 1st of December ForPaws was a year old! And what a year it’s been! We had a lovely celebration in December, a group dog walk around Witley Common, followed by a drink (or several!) at the White Hart Pub in Witley. A very fitting celebration for my first year in full time business.
I am now proud to say that I have 22 customers on my books, who between them own 18 cats and 24 dogs that I walk, visit or feed! My first year has been a steep learning curve. One of the best things about being a small business run by one person is that you can make decisions quickly to change things if they aren’t working. So I thought I’d write a blog about some of the decisions, learnings and challenges of my first year, which might help anyone else thinking about starting up their own pet care business.
First Doses of Reality
Throughout 2012, I was very lucky to take on customers who lived nearby to me. From a customer’s point of view, the fee they pay is for their dog’s 1 hour walk, but from yours, this fee also covers your fuel and time driving to and from their home and the walk and time spent loading and unloading the dogs. This may not sound like much at first, but this quickly adds up. If it takes you 5 minutes to park up, go into a customer’s home, collect the dog and load it into your car and another 5 minutes to return the dog to its home, that’s 10 minutes per dog, if you walk 8 dogs a day, that’s 1 hour and 20 minutes just spent collecting and dropping them off! Even if you are lucky enough to have dogs all 5 minutes from each other or your home, that means 10 minutes in total per dog for driving to and from their homes. Another 1 hour and 20 minutes, longer if they are further apart. So that is at least 2 hours 40 minutes before you start to walk. You can quickly see how a day can fill up and why I made quite a large mistake when I first started in 2011…
Initially the area I was planning to cover was Guildford through to Hindhead, a wide catchment area. I quickly picked up my first dog walking customer in Hindhead through a recommendation and had a thoroughly wonderful first month walking two lovely dogs around beautiful walks close to the Punch Bowl. Sadly, reality began to kick in…
As I lived in Guildford at the time, the journey to that customer was taking me 30 minutes, then 15 minutes to load the dogs into the car and get to the walk, 1 hour walk, 15 minutes to drop them off and 30 minutes back home. This meant that for a single walk for two dogs in the same home, it was 2.5 hours a day, plus at least a tank of fuel each week. Being new to the business I had agreed to do the walk for a lower price than I should have done, ultimately meaning that by the time I had paid for the fuel, I was earning £10 for the 12.5 hours I was working each week, or £0.80 an hour. Of course, I had hoped I would take on additional dogs for that same walk, but I realised that this would increase the time spent on driving and collecting to around 3.5 hours and even further increase my fuel consumption – not to mention that in order to offer 2 lunchtime walks, which was my original plan, I would have to start fairly early and some dogs could end up spending almost 2 hours in the car being driven around, just for a single hours walk. Many customers are understandably not happy with this idea! So I made the decision to only cover Guildford and Godalming!
The lessons I learned in that first month were:
- Cover a reasonable sized area, too large and you will lose too much money and time in the travel – conversely too small an area and you will not get much business!
- Set reasonable prices that take your time and your costs into account. You have to make sure you are competitive, but you also need to cover your costs and pay yourself!
- Do not underestimate the time a dog walk takes, it is not just the 1 hour walk!
I have lots more to write about the things I learned in my first year, so I shall be posting some more soon!