A Dog Walking Business - It's All About You
Starting your own Dog Walking Business is much like starting up any other small business, you will have to think about the many benefits and drawbacks involved no matter how simple the concept seems from the outside. The no. 1 prerequisite for starting a dog walking company, is, of course, a love of dogs. There are very few other requirements and for this reason people tend to think it is an easy business to set up, after all it is only walking peoples’ dogs – how difficult can that be?
In the following we look at what to consider when putting together your business.
What type of work do you enjoy?
As we said earlier, you must like animals (and particularly dogs), and you must also be a lover of Mother Nature in all her various moods (as you are sure to spend the majority of your days out in the weather, come rain or shine!). On the flip side, if you are the sort of person who prefers the comforts of an air-conditioned office and hates the rain then you need to consider if this sort of business is for you.
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Boning Up on the Competition
Before you can set up your business you will need to do market research, at a bare minimum this will include researching your competition in your local area (this is easy, since most dog walking companies will have a website of some description, and you should be able to find out where they are located via Google maps/Google + page). What are your competitors charging per walk, how long are their walks, are they doing group or solo walks, what other services do they offer (Doggy Day Care, puppy obedience sessions etc.)? Also take the time to discuss your ideas with friends and relatives who have dogs to spark off ideas for your services (what would they need from a dog walking service), in the course of your chats you may turn up the odd potential customer to get you started. Another idea is to volunteer at a local dog shelter as a walker or ask to walk your friends dogs for free, so you can get an idea of how different breeds behave and what situations you may encounter while you are out and about - this will build your confidence in advance of doing it for a business. While you are still in the research phase, it is a good idea to approach your local vets and pets shops, let them know what you are planning to do, ask their advice about how you might best serve their client base and at the same time this may give you an idea if other dog walkers are speaking to them - this is all invaluable information.
Research Action Plan:
- Check out the local competition on Google (services, prices, location)
- Discuss ideas with friends and relatives to get a feel for the potential
- Get some dog walking experience, either with a local dog shelter or friends' dogs
- Start building relationships with local pet professionals
Even at the planning stage you need to get your pricing strategy in place. Don’t be tempted to undercut your competition, remember you still need to make a living and getting into a price war with your competition is not a good idea for any business. Getting your prices right from the start is very important because if you set your prices too low at first it might be very difficult to put them up in the early stages of your business without upsetting your new customers - if you set them too high you may price yourself out of the market before you get any customers (but at least you will have the option to drop them a little or offer discounts, as it is much easier to drop prices than to raise them). My advice would be to price your services around the same as the top end of the prices your competitors are charging - there will always be services that are cheaper, but you can justify your prices by being more professional, more reliable, offer more services, being more flexible etc.
When you are working out your pricing, it is also worth thinking about offering discounted rates, this can be useful for gaining new customers and keeping the ones you have. Here are a few ideas: You could offer an initial discount on the 1st five walks a customer books (say 20%, which if the customer books 5 walks during the week actually works out at 1 free walk and keeps the maths easy). Another discount could be for half price walks for another dog(s) from the same household, after all if you are picking up one dog at full price and the client wants you to walk their other dog it is easy for you to do and saves on fuel costs. Don't forget to check out what discounts the competition is offering.
What services to offer
Along with deciding on your pricing before you start your business, you will also need to decide what services you will offer, these could include: puppy visits, other pet visits, pet taxi or dog/pet sitting in the owners home to name a few - keep in mind that you may need a licence if you are considering boarding dogs at your own home, so check this with your local council/authorities. Also check out what the competition are doing and especially look for 'gaps' in the market; for example if dog obesity seems to be a concern amongst your potential clients why not offer 'doggy fitness classes' - especially if your competition don't offer anything like this.
Pricing and Services Action Plan:
- Check out the competitions' pricing and the services they offer
- Set you prices in advance near the 'top end' of the range in comparison to the competition
- Work out what discounts you can offer to 1) Get new customers and 2) Keep your customers loyal
- Work out what services you are going to offer (based on your research)
- Look for any service 'gaps' your competition do not offer and offer it yourself
- Check with local authorities the regulations regarding boarding dogs at your own home
As with all small businesses the core of what you do needs to revolve around your clients, this is no different for a dog walking business, after all if you don’t look after your clients, you soon won’t have any, and shortly after that you won’t have any business at all. A dog walking business is built on trust – your prospective clients will be entrusting their precious dogs to your care and in all likelihood, allowing you access to their homes to pick them up – they will need to trust you implicitly for this – being professional in manner at all times, being punctual, having good references and being fully insured will go a long way to building up trust with your clients.
One of the key ways of building up the trust factor with your potential customers is with testimonials. A testimonial is simply a third party reference from someone who you have walked dogs for and they are pleased by your service and are willing to write a short paragraph detailing how you have helped them. A third party reference or testimonial goes a long way to building up trust with potential new clients.
A good testimonial needs to be specific with an example of how you have helped the customer. Here is an example of a good testimonial:
“I have been using XYZ Dog Walking Service for a few months now and I am really happy with the service. It means my Yorkshire Terrier, Bobby isn’t left alone all day when I am at work and I know that he enjoys his extra walks. I have sometimes had friends’ or families’ dogs to stay and they have gone along with Bobby. The service is reliable, flexible and accommodating and I have no hesitation in recommending it to other dog owners. I have complete confidence in the service provided by XYZ Dog Walking Service.” - Mrs D. Whittle
Your testimonials will form a crucial part of your marketing plan, so make sure that they are used prominently within your website, and also use a shortened versions of the great ones on any literature that you use (ie flyers, business cards, invoices etc.) like this:
'... reliable, flexible and accommodating...' - Mrs D. Whittle
Clients Action Plan:
- Be punctual in your initial meeting with clients and when you pick their dogs up
- Make sure you are covered by the relevant insurance
- Obtain testimonials and use on all marketing materials and website
A Dog Walking Business Plan in Less Than 5 Minutes
Barking About Your Business
Marketing your business
As with any business, your dog walking enterprise needs to make sure that any potential clients know about you. It is not enough to put an advert in the local paper and wait for customers to bang your door down – that is unlikely to happen. In advance of any advertising you need to work out your pricing, what services you are going to offer and how you will stand out from the crowd. Then you need to work out the best ways to reach your potential clients – these two things will form the foundations of your marking plan.
An obvious and essential way to advertise your business is with a website; the way most potential customers will be trying to find you is likely to be via the Web, so a good, clean website that is optimized for search engines is key – whether you put one together yourself or buy an off-the-shelf package. Make sure you take a good look at your competitors websites; if they have been established in business a long while then their website might be looking a bit old and jaded - giving you an opportunity to shine with your new website - the key areas of your website should be: What services you offer, your prices, your terms and conditions, testimonials, contact details and who you are (your background and experience will be very important to potential customers so make sure that you tell them about yourself and your company). Ensure that anyone visiting your website is shown a great first impression and that they can easily find the information they need.
The way you contact potential customers should not, however, rely on a website alone, you might also consider flyers, business cards, participating on pet forums and forming alliances with your locals vets. Good quality business flyers and business cards can be obtained pretty cheaply from online print services such as Vistaprint - the more marketing materials you distribute in your locally area will help you land your first customers, places where you might leave flyers and cards are local libraries, pet shops, vets, local notice boards, and anywhere you are likely to find people walking their dogs - some dog walkers put flyers under windscreen wipers of the cars in the park, and although this might target the right people, I think this method has the potential to annoy people too much so I personally would not recommend it. However you initially advertise your business, it is vitally important that you track what is working and what isn’t – and do more of what is working and less of what isn’t – there is a lot of free or low cost advertising that can be done to promote a dog walking business, so don’t spend a fortune on advertising unless you are certain you are going to get back enough business to make it worthwhile.
Marketing Action Plan:
- Ensure your pricing and services are in place before you start your marketing
- Set up a good, clean and smart website to act as a 'shop window' for your business
- Ensure your website includes all the information your customers might be looking for
- Price up flyers/business cards with a print on demand service such as Vistaprint
- Distribute your marketing materials to Vets, pet shops, etc.
- participate on online forums and build relationships with local dog professionals
- Monitor what types of marketing is working and winning you business