Going Pro

going proDo you dream about working with dogs full time, but can’t see how to get there? Do you struggle with a part-time dog business, telling yourself you’ll keep the other job just until the business takes off? It’s a common refrain. In our work we’ve seen every kind of dog business model and every type of dog business owner, from wildly successful full-timers to weekend hobbyists.

Years of experience supporting dog professionals have taught us the key differences between dog pros who make it as full-time entrepreneurs and those who don’t. Read on to see if you have the temperament, skill set, and drive necessary to go full-time dog pro. If so, you absolutely can bring a new or current part-time business into the full-time realm and make a living doing what you love.

How comfortable are you with taking risk? Starting a dog business generally takes far less capital than most enterprises, but you still run the risk of losing money. And any small business person faces the possibility of failure. It takes tenacity and perspective to face such prospects and still work hard and enthusiastically. We’ve seen many dog pros quit or go back to part-time work long before their businesses could reasonably be expected to succeed, thus depriving themselves and the dogs in their community.

Tip: Know thyself
Are you comfortable taking risk for something you’re passionate about? Do you enjoy solving problems? Do you stick with your plans over time? Could you see yourself doing this in five years? Do you enjoy a variety of tasks? Are you willing to engage support when needed to keep yourself in the game? If you can answer yes to these questions, you’ve got a leg up right out of the gate. (Please forgive us that pun!)

Running a small business requires wearing many hats. You may be an excellent dog trainer or dog walker, but are you ready to be a bookkeeper, accountant, marketing manager, and office manager? A key to successful full-time business ownership is recognizing weaknesses and contracting out tasks that confound you, take up too much time, or require expertise you don’t possess.

Tip: Assess your skills
List the skills required to run your business. Then ask yourself: What are you good at? Where do your interests lie? Which tasks can you readily do? Which will stress you, weaken the business, or possibly be left undone? For those, be ready and willing to seek help.

Know where you’re going–and how you’ll get there
Most dog professionals love dogs far more than business development. When dog trainers, walkers, etc. decide to set up shop, they generally do the bare minimum: think up a name, file for a business license and other paperwork, have business cards and maybe a brochure printed, and post a few fliers around town. And then wait eagerly for the phone to ring. Which would work well in an ideal world with endless demand for our services and next-to-zero competition. But the reality is that setting up and marketing a new business, let alone building a profitable one, requires sustained focus, attention, and action. Simply hanging out a shingle rarely does the job, especially if there are other dog pros offering similar services in your area. It’s critical to develop a marketing plan, including actively build relationships with other dog service providers (vets, supply stores, groomers, etc.).

Tip: Hatch a plan
Trainers often plan to work part time until the business takes off. Sound familiar? The problem with this strategy is that it doesn’t provide a framework for making anything happen. For that, you need a comprehensive business plan. It doesn’t have to be fancy or formal as long as it helps you assess viability and provides guidance as you move forward. Your plan should include goals for the business, a numbers assessment, a marketing plan—your niche and message, image, services, materials, and how you will get the word out—and an overall checklist of tasks and due dates. If you’re moving from part to full time or leaving a current career a transition plan is critical,  including a clear set of success indicators (number of clients per month, amount of income, etc.) to help you determine when it’s time to leave your other job–and the steps you’ll take to get there.

Tip: Get organized
Scribbling notes on the backs of envelopes doesn’t often inspire confidence. Worse, it hinders the organization that distinguishes a professional business. As soon as you have more than a few clients you need to keep solid records, notes, and training plans. Consider purchasing a ready-made set of tools (client contracts, intake interview forms, etc.) to save start-up time and effort, and choose software that helps you organize client information and scheduling.

Tip: Establish a schedule and routine
One pitfall of self-employment is the lack of a routine. If a flexible schedule without a boss and specific deadlines makes you feel rudderless, working for yourself can be a challenge. It’s easy to do too little when you have unlimited time. We’ve seen dog pro clients struggle for months to do what could have been done in weeks or even days, pushing back their ultimate goal of becoming a full-time dog pro. For others, it’s easy to work far too much, not taking the downtime necessary to avoid burnout. To keep yourself working toward your goals with balanced focus, make a realistic schedule and commit to deadlines. Structure your workdays strategically to make the most of your work time and your down time. What days will you see clients? When will you work on training plans? When will you take care of administrative tasks? When will you spend time growing your business? When will you enjoy time to rest, play, and recharge?

Cultivate a professional image
A person hunting for a dog pro might look at the cards pinned up on her vet’s bulletin board or at the local dog park. She might do a web search. But how does she choose? As mentioned, a business that specializes in filling a particular need or speaking to a preference is an obvious route. Another vital decision-making factor is the professionalism (or lack thereof) of your marketing materials. Given a choice, clients will pick the business card or web site that looks professional and established rather than homemade. The adage ‘it takes money to make money’ applies here. Investing in the development of a professional business image—logo, message, website, and marketing materials—goes a long way toward building a broader client base.

Tip: Dazzle them
Spend some start-up capital on a professional look. This includes your name and logo design, website, marketing materials, and any materials you leave with clients—contracts, homework sheets, client instructions, etc.

Nurture relationships
One hallmark of most successful dog pro businesses is prioritizing, cultivating, and maintaining relationships. This includes relationships with clients (past and present), fellow dog pros, and referral sources. Relationship is a key component of marketing a small local business. Many dog pros find this aspect of running their businesses stressful, but it doesn’t have to be. Building and maintaining relationships isn’t about selling yourself. It’s simply about being there for others, and using your skills and expertise in their service.

Tip: Invest time in people
Follow up with former clients. Take an interest in the progress of their pooch beyond your own involvement. Cultivate relationships with fellow dog pros in your area—how might you be mutually supportive? What do you each do differently, and might you trade referrals? Take the time to find creative ways to offer referral sources your support and expertise, and your gratitude when referrals begin to flow your way.

Perhaps the most important ingredient in dog pro business success is passion. Loving dogs is the easy part. Wanting to serve them comes naturally. Being so passionate about doing so that you push through the fear, doubt, and challenges that arise when starting and growing a business takes real commitment. Some people are naturally driven and confident. Others must dig deep to cultivate a mindset of determination and belief. Do that, and you’re halfway there.

A parting thought: It absolutely is possible to start a successful dog training business, dog walking business, or other dog business of your choice. In our work supporting dog professionals we’ve had the pleasure of watching thousands do so. You can, too.

Find out more about Starting Your R+ Dog Training Business with our services and toolkits.