Today, we’re starting another new feature here at AWG: Business Mondays. We get a lot of questions about starting an animal health business, marketing difficulties, legal issues, etc., and I also know first hand how challenging it is to run a small business, where you are often the sole employee and have to deal with everything from design to marketing to bookkeeping, so I am very excited about this and I think we will all learn a lot.
In this new series, we will feature interviews, tips, how to articles, and also answer your business-related questions. So let us know what it is you are struggling with in your animal health business – are you overwhelmed by the mere thought of getting started; unsure of which legal form you should choose (sole proprietor? LLC? Incorporate?); stuck with your business plan; grappling with social media, or need someone who can design a logo? Get in touch with any question you have.
First out in this series is an interview with Veronica Boutelle, MA Ed., CTC, former Director of Behavior & Training at the San Francisco SPCA, and the founder and owner of dog*tec, a business and marketing support organization for dog-related businesses.
Veronica is the author of How to Run a Dog Business and the co-author of Minding Your Dog Business, writes business columns for APDT’s Chronicle of the Dog and the Canadian APDT’s Forum, and is a sought-after speaker at conferences and dog training schools across the country, and even internationally—in fact, Veronica will be speaking at the New Zealand and Australian APDT conferences this year.
Cattie: First of all, thank you Veronica for taking the time to do this interview!
Veronica: It’s my pleasure—thank you!
Cattie: Most people who choose a career in alternative animal health end up starting their own businesses, but the mere thought of that can be overwhelming. Where do you start? What are the most important things you can do immediately to get your animal health business off the ground?
Veronica: Get educated, first and foremost. Many areas of the animal industry—dog training, walking, sitting, running a daycare or boarding facility, for example—are unregulated. There are no education requirements, no formal career entry points or agreed upon standards for dog knowledge and care. But there are plenty of great educational options for dog pros, and taking advantage of these means not only giving yourself a marketing edge but also makes your job easier. You can avoid costly and even tragic mistakes, and know you’re providing the best possible care to the dogs—which for every dog pro I know is the number one priority. In short, don’t mistake a love of dogs—or even a lifetime living with them—for professional knowledge.
Then learn about how to run a business. Most dog pros come from more of an altruistic mindset than an entrepreneurial one. At dog*tec we believe that the needs of the dogs come first, always. But we also know our clients won’t be able to keep taking care of dogs for the long haul if they aren’t able to make a living doing it. Of course I’m biased about this, but I recommend hiring a business consultant who’s knowledgeable in your industry. Having a coach can help move things along much more quickly, keep you motivated, and help you avoid common pitfalls.
Cattie: What, in your opinion, are the biggest business mistakes people make?
Veronica: The number one mistake people make in our industry is not working on their businesses. Dog pros are hard workers. They put in plenty of hours and lots of effort, but it tends to be focused IN the business—taking care of the dogs and clients. But to be successful you have to work just as hard ON the business—marketing, admin work, planning, etc.
Marketing is the other key area fraught with mistakes. Dog pros tend to do nowhere near enough marketing and, often, engage the time and money they do spend on the wrong kinds of marketing for our industry. Another marketing mistake is to take a do-it-yourself approach to branding and marketing materials and website development—a big no-no if you’re looking to build a successful dog business these days.
Cattie: How important is a business plan? If you’re not looking for funding, do you really need one?
Veronica: That’s a great question. No, if you’re not looking for funding you don’t need a formal business plan. In fact, we rarely utter those words to our clients unless they’re seeking funding, as they tend to induce a bit of panic. But though a formal business plan isn’t necessary, you do want to go through the process of making deliberate decisions and plans for your business—deciding on the details of your services and who they’re for, your pricing and policies, running numbers to make sure your goals are viable, and putting together a comprehensive marketing plan.
Cattie: You hear the term “branding” everywhere these days, but what does it really mean? And is it that important?
Veronica: Branding is one of those words that can be used in many ways, but for our purposes in the dog world we’re talking essentially about choosing a business name, having a logo professionally designed, and then building all marketing materials—from business cards to the website and anything in between—around a consistent look and feel fueled by the logo. It’s about putting a professional foot—or paw—forward. It’s about the marketing messages you focus your business around, and whom you direct those messages to. What makes your animal health business stand out? What are you about? What can you do for your clients to make their lives with dogs a bit easier?
Cattie: For any business, having an online presence is a must these days. But how do you decide on where to put your time and money? Is a professionally designed website better than a blog?
Veronica: We recommend that all dog pros have a website. It’s really a must these days; there’s no getting around it. But for our clients who are good writers, we love to see a blog incorporated into their site to make the site work harder for them, and to more effectively show potential clients their professionalism, expertise, and personality.
Cattie: We all know what a big impact social media can have – but it is also time consuming to keep up with all that in addition to running your business. Where should you focus your efforts? Do you have to be on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest AND YouTube, or can one or two be enough?
Veronica: You should only use what you enjoy and will keep up on consistently. Facebook is still the clear winner, at least for now, if you’re going to choose just one social media channel.
But social media only works if you put time into it—you’re right to point out that it’s very time consuming. And there’s no point doing it without a plan. You have to view your social media efforts as part of a larger marketing strategy, and you should have a clear concept of your audience, the kinds of content you’ll share, and a schedule.
Nothing is more detrimental to a business than a poorly run FB page that leaves compliments or questions hanging for a response or a blog that’s not been updated in weeks or months. And remember what the social media marketing gurus say: Social media is not a replacement for solid on-the-ground community marketing. It’s an adjunct. I’m afraid you can’t get away with it by itself. If you’re pressed for time, community marketing should win out for that time, particularly in the early stages of your business. Remember, a FB page or blog isn’t going to lead to clients quickly—it takes a while for people to start listening in. You have to engage in other marketing efforts first to help build your audience.
Veronica, thank you for sharing all this great information! Also check out my second interview with Veronica where we talk about finding your target market and how to reach your ideal customer.