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In the emails Linda Ward gets from people looking for work, everyone claims to love dogs – to stop the car and get out if they see a dog. But, as she points out, a passion for people is far more important to success. After almost twenty years in the industry, I caught up with her to find out how someone who “never, ever” wanted to be self-employed ended up founding a four employee-strong dog walking business.
In 2006, I took a six-month career break. My son was diagnosed with high functioning autism and I couldn’t work for nearly two years. I’m a person who always likes to be doing something, so I did a few different bits of voluntary work.
I started fostering dogs for rescue and ended up adopting one of the dogs. Eventually, I’d been working with dogs for a number of years and someone said, why don’t you do that professionally?
Being self-employed was something I absolutely never, ever wanted to do. My dad had run businesses and made a right hash out of them, but I somehow ended up running a business with four members of staff.
I grew the business by specialising in puppy care. I don’t have much competition there. Because I target puppy owners and make sure I always have space for puppies, the business will always grow. You naturally lose dogs through old age, or families move away, so by working hard to get puppies, I can keep expanding.
When I first started up, there were two or three other dog walkers nearby. About a year and a half ago, I stopped keeping an eye on the competition and watching websites and Facebook pages of other dog walkers. I just gave up: there were so many.
I work alone, but I have an online network of people. I set up a Facebook group for other people in the business, so there’s always someone I can have a bit of a whinge to, who will understand. I try not to whinge too much of course because I’m supposed to be leading the group; they’re people I’m trying to inspire.
Most of the other dog walkers are cheaper than I am, and they walk more dogs than I do. But I always think, there are lots of Fords on the road and people still buy Lamborghinis. That’s how I try to look at it.
I think I was in my second year of business when I put the prices up: before, I’d been charging £10 an hour. But because I had staff, I had more to offer. Customers didn’t have to be inconvenienced by my holiday or a sick day. There was always someone to walk their dog. When I cut down my staff, some of my prices went down because I could no longer offer that service.
Before you start hiring, you need to put your prices up. You need to be turning people away from a high priced service. It might be different for other industries, but if you’re charging the same as everybody else and you’re turning work away, you need to make your prices higher.
People worry that they’re going to lose customers if they raise prices. I try and put my dog walking prices up every two years: I look at what I need to charge and I look at the value I’m adding – over what my competitors are adding – and then I charge appropriately. By the end of the two years, everyone else has caught up and think that if I’m charging that, they should charge the same.
You can be a budget, average or high quality service. You have to realise that if you’re a budget service, you shouldn’t be adding things in for free or offering a high quality service. That’s where people don’t make a success of their business: they’re charging low prices but they haven’t cut their expenses down.
A lot of people will think, “I’ll work with dogs because I don’t really like people”. You should like people. You have to like people. Dogs don’t open their purses and pay you; dogs don’t phone up and complain about mud or make last minute bookings. If you don’t want to deal with people, you’re probably not going to make a massive success of your business.
Although it’s just walking a dog and it’s not rocket science, if you’re interested in this kind of work then you should learn more about dogs. Do a little bit of canine behaviour and body language, to make it easier to handle the dogs, so you don’t get bitten and so the dogs don’t attack each other.
Treating my customers well and my staff well is what, I think, has kept us going. It’s the relationship that keeps people with me. If I have a lapse or a bad time or I’m a bit crap as a leader, people will start leaving.
Staying positive is the hardest part. I don’t need to be motivated to go out and walk the dogs every day. But staying positive all the time – that’s what I need motivation for.
I can’t work on the business and in the business at the same time. In 2013 and 2014 I got a bit burnt out because it was so busy. So I started to do four hours of admin and a couple of hours of walking and then I’d have the rest of the day off. It was a choice – maybe not a conscious choice – that I was more interested in time off than carrying on working more hours and getting more money. That suited me.
I’m still trying to decide what to do with the business. My current staff member is retiring in December, and the dog I started it up for is already twelve and he doesn’t need me to be self-employed anymore.
I might move on to puppies and cats and that kind of thing. I’ve finally got some time to sit down and work the figures out. Because it’s a physical job and it’s tiring, you go out at nine and finish around three, and you can sit down on the sofa and think “Oh, I never want to get up again”. Or that might just be me.
When you imagine your dream job, you think it’ll be fabulous. And then if you get it, it’s almost a surprise to find, oh, I’ve got all the crappy bits as well. You have to learn to deal with the crap – literally, in this case.
Interested in becoming a professional dog walker? Visit the Busters Dog Walking Services website here.