Tails are wagging for this doggy SME
With a whopping 52% of all UK adults owning a pet, it's safe to say that our furry friends are a huge part of our lives. So, Bionic spoke to Jessie Stacey who has been running The Animal Days, her dog walking and pet care business, since 2018. We found out what gets her customer’s tails wagging and how she’s become a staple in her local community.
“So, we are The Animal Days - a dog walking and pet care company” Jessie says when we ask her to introduce her business “Originally, I started off as a pet sitter. When I got back from travelling Australia, I knew I needed to get a full-time job but I wanted to do something with animals on the side because I've always loved them.” She tells us before going on:
“So, I started pet-sitting for a few people and it snowballed from there! That was back in 2018. 2019 was about progressing and I started doing a lot of dog behaviour work.” She explains: “I've always naturally been very good with dogs, so I took an online course and then I started giving behavioural advice to my clients.”
And how did an ad-hoc dog walking gig transform into a fully-fledged business? Jessie said it was all organic and luckily there was more demand for her niche than she first thought.
“It kind of just grew from there but I remember sitting down and thinking, ‘Okay, let's try and turn this into some sort of business’ and then The Animal Days was born from that. We do a bit of everything; dog walking, pet-sitting, behaviour work and other general care requirements.”
Jessie, who offers her dog expertise to Waterlooville and the surrounding areas of Portsmouth, is proud of how quickly her business developed. We asked if the majority of her customers are regulars and if she’s managed to build up a special bond with them.
“Yes! On average, we care for around 35-40 dogs a week at the moment. We have lots of reoccurring customers which we walk/care for once or twice a week, some dogs four times a week, it depends on the diary. But we'll also have ad hoc requests for walks and daycare too.”
Taking care of 35-40 dogs every week is a huge responsibility in itself, but we wanted to know what Jessie's proudest moment has been so far and how these highs spur her on. She considers the questions before answering.
“My proudest moment was probably when I took on my first official dog walker.” She decides “Because that was kind of like, ‘Oh right. Okay, I’m managing this business now I'm managing the diary and paying somebody else.” She laughs before adding: “That was a big achievement, and I was so nervous about it as well but it feels good because you’re helping somebody else do something they love and you’re putting money in their pockets so they can do nice things with their money.”
And what about SME owner struggles? What obstacles has Jessie had to overcome in this dog-eat-dog world and are they pet niche problems?
“My biggest struggle has been my vehicle situation.” She tells us “At the start, I was trying to plan for a future I didn’t really know about yet, I had ideas and a business plan but so many things changed along the way.”
She continues: “But if you look at other dogwalkers, the majority of them- if they're established dog walking businesses- have vans to transport the dogs around in. I started off just using my car.” She goes on “But then I was getting busy, working at full capacity and I needed something bigger. I had a family friend who said they’d help me out if I wanted some money towards getting a van, so I didn't have to put such a big bill on the business.”
She continues: “I've had the van since October 2022 but at the beginning of September this year it got picked up by the scrap people because the engine has completely gone.” She laughs “So, my biggest struggle has been trying to decide if it's the right decision to spend money on another van or just stick with my car.” Jessie says.
Making big business decisions can be tough. Knowing when to make changes to your company in order to move with the needs of your customer base can be even harder. Jessie said that it can feel like a minefield at times.
“It’s a real struggle to work out what the right thing to do is at the right time, and I’ve probably not made all right choices. But you know, we're still going.”
Halfway through the interview, just to reiterate the fact that The Animal Days are still very much alive and kicking, a tail swishes behind Jessie and she grins.
“Sorry, by the way, I keep looking down. I've got a I've got a puppy in the office at the moment.” She smiles “She's an Australian shepherd dog called Nora. She's a lovely girl, but she's just come in and she was putting her head on my lap and trying to get under the desk.”
It’s clear to see the dogs are the main crux of the business and each one is so individually cared for as if they were Jessie’s own. But, obviously, Bionic was eager to find out who Jessie’s favourite furry friend has been over the years.
“It's hard because some dogs definitely have a special place in your heart and they're just so easy.” She ponders “But I really do just enjoy my time with all of them and likewise, some of the clients I've had have been exceptional. They’ve gone above and beyond to help me be successful with what I'm doing.” She tells us.
That success is something Jessie enjoys as a business owner; she loves seeing her hard work finally pay off. But if she could pick just one thing, what would her favourite part about being an SME owner be?
“That I love what I do.” She says automatically “I didn't do business at uni. I did criminology and psychology, so, something completely different but I never wanted to do anything to do with that in my career. And nobody in my family has ever done anything like what I'm doing now. So, I love figuring it out myself, how to work everything, the social media side of things and figuring out which platforms to use.”
She says another favourite aspect is positive feedback from clients as it motivates her to keep her business thriving. Their kind words pick her up on bad days and make good ones even more special.
“I think what means the most to me is when I get a random text from a client.” She says “I got one the other day, and it wasn’t even a day I’d been with the lady's dogs, but she just wanted to thank me and my other walker Grace for looking after her dogs and for everything we do for them. She said they're just so happy when they're with us.” She smiles “When I hear things like that it makes me feel very quietly proud.”
And how does Jessie keep her staff motivated? She said treating employees with respect ensures positive working relationships and keeps everyone happy because they feel valued.
“I mean, obviously, you've got to pay people a fair amount so that’s motivation in itself, but it just comes down to not micromanaging people. I give my staff little bonuses for Easter or Christmas or something like that. She adds: “I just try and keep them motivated by having an open chatty relationship, I try and pay what I think is a fair wage for them. And I say ‘there are your dogs, you sort out what you want to do, but I'm here if you need me’.”
“I think that’s important in this business. The dogs need people that can think on their feet and don't need to be micromanaged.” She says.
Onward and upwards
The Animal Days has jumped from strength to strength since 2018 but Jessie has big dreams for the future. She said she’d love to get premises so she could expand parts of her business, like doggy daycare.
“When I started, I overconfidently was like ‘I want to own the biggest dog walking and pet care business in the UK’” She recalls “I think we're doing really well right now, but, you know, if something went really wrong and I had to let the business go I would be devastated but I’d be prepared to do that. But if all goes to plan then yes, I'd like to expand. I'd like to have a few more dog walkers too.”
She continues: “I'd like to look at having a unit with outdoor space for the dogs to use. Then we could have that as doggy day care, rather than running it from my home. I'd like to become a one-stop shop for dog owners, with a dog blog and information so owners can read about saving money tips and tools that will help them.”
The dog blog is a really interesting idea, Jessie thinks that creating a community is key to being a successful small business owner. But how does she spread the word about her business? Is social media a huge tool for her and does she find it useful when creating a marketing plan for The Animal Days?
“Most of our business will come from a Google search.” She tells us “We'll pop up when someone searches and our reviews tend to sway people to get in touch, there’s a huge chunk of our business which comes from word of mouth as well. Because we’re a dog business, people talk to each other in the park and recommend us.”
What about the more traditional approach, flyering and giving out business cards, does The Animals Days find that useful?
“We don't really flyer or anything like that.” Says Jessie “I do give out cards and stuff and we do have a social media presence, which is small, but you know, I'm hoping to grow that as well."
And does Jessie have any pet peeves she has to contend with? Do others have misconceptions about her business and think working with dogs is easier than it is? She says mixed messages in business advice have been an annoyance to her.
“I think there’s a lot of conflicting advice out there. You’ll tell people you’re starting a business and they’ll go ‘Are you sure you want to? Are you sure you want to go self-employed?’” She goes on “And then they'll give you advice and say ‘just put that through on your expenses.’”
“It can be overwhelming, especially if you're just starting out. These aren’t really the things that you need to be hearing, they're giving you mixed advice. “I know people mean well but it can be confusing. The government has its own section on their website and they tell you what you can and can't do but again, it's just not written clearly enough.”
“I was probably a bit too willy-nilly with my expenses at the start. Everybody was telling me to put this or that on expenses, and it ended up drastically changing the profit at the end of the year. And although we were up anyway on the gross, I should have seen more of an increase in the profit and actually it was a minimal increase only.”
An extra special touch
But despite having to figure it out on her own, Jessie thinks this is what makes her business special. And she finds inspiration in SMEs that power through and make it work regardless of struggles.
“I think when I come across businesses and they're doing what they love and making it work. That really inspires me to keep going!”
And what about the cost-of-living crisis, has that affected how Jessie runs The Animal Days?
“Yeah, it has definitely. Even from a personal point of view, we've cancelled a few subscriptions. We’re becoming more conscious of electrics. Then from the business point of view, obviously doing the tax return from last year and realising we might have been a bit too fruity with spending." Jessie tells us "I've cut down on a few paid platforms and things that I might have been using and paying for. I'm just trying to use free versions or find another avenue. It’s definitely affected things, but at the moment it’s manageable as we don’t have many overheads.”
Bionic was interested in finding out if Jessie would do anything differently if she could have her business start-up journey time again. She thinks hard before she answers, before citing she wishes she had been more prepared financially.
“I’d say if you want to do it, do it. Because I think you should always give these things a go. But get yourself more prepared for the financial challenges you're going to have.” She says.
“I was told to stay in my full-time job and drag that out as long as possible while working my part-time. Then you can bank up as much money from your full-time job to put it into growing your business. I didn't actually end up doing it like that. I did drag it out for as long as I could but didn’t really bank up as much as I needed to.” She remembers.
Jessie goes on to say that adapting is so important as a small business owner, you have to be willing to bend your business to keep up with customer needs.
“You have to adapt, and you’ve got to be flexible. You've also got to be open-minded. You've just gotta go with wherever the business is going.” She muses.
And why does Jessie think it’s important to shop small now more than ever?
“We just need to help the small businesses, I admit I don't always do it, but if I can buy something from a smaller company rather than a big company then I will, especially my hair products for example." She says "Caribbean hair products aren’t really prevalent in a lot of bigger shops but there are a lot of smaller brands that are coming out because of Instagram and TikTok. They’re actually creating these amazing products that really work properly.”
She goes on: “And okay, you might have to pay a little bit more but they've gone through so much to get that marketing and that design right and to create this product. So, you know, just supporting them makes the world a bit better.”
Does Jessie think that personalising a service makes a big impact on the customer? She says handwritten notes from SME owners are a nice touch and she'd like to incorporate this kind of thing in the future.
“In the beginning, I did sell dog leads and things like that, I’d create little cards and put them into customer orders. Again, that was a good idea, but it just wasn't the right time for it. So, I’ve parked that and will come back to it later.”
You can watch our chat with Jessie in full below or on the Bionic YouTube channel.