Life with a lead!
As professional dog walkers we often get messages and calls from people who are looking to work for us as a dog walker or start their own business with animals by walking dogs and caring for people’s pets. Over the years we have seen many other dog walking companies come and go because they have not really looked into exactly what the job entails or thought about all the elements involved. It’s not all running through fields with loyal dogs playing – although, that is the best bit!
Starting your own business is an exciting but daunting task, in many instances you have to give up the security of your current income for the unknown whilst you build up your new venture and client base. Dog walking can seem like a good option because of the relatively low start-up costs, and the lack of qualifications or formal training needed to get started. These alone are not a good reason to start a pet care business, without a genuine love of animals, particularly dogs you will soon fail. The first time you end up being wee’d on or treading in poo and you’ll want to throw the towel in!
If you are certain a career walking dogs is for you then please read on. There are a few options available to you; you could work for an established dog walking business, although please be aware many only pay minimum wage, you could start your own business from scratch or you could buy a dog walking franchise – which we’ll cover off below.
The approach you take has to be right for you and your circumstances, background and business goals; there are pros and cons for each. The franchise model also differs greatly from one franchise offering to the next, we like to think ours is a fair model but it won’t suit everyone so we urge you to research in detail all your options before deciding who to go with.
The franchise approach
Here we have tried cover to off some of the key aspects of running a dog walking franchise in relevant sections to offer helpful advice for success in the pet care market and to help you make a decision on whether the franchise route is right for you.
We hope you find it useful and it helps you achieve success in your business. As with any business, starting and managing a franchise takes commitment, motivation, desire, talent and most importantly in this sector - a love of animals. It also takes research and planning. Success in a franchise starts with well researched decisions. Regardless of your initial financial investment, the planning phase is the most important in establishing a solid foundation to allow your business to function and grow.
Typically, your business will concentrate on one location or area, usually referred to in franchise terms as your “territory”. Depending on the franchise model you buy into your initial investment can vary from £995 up to £28,000 for your unique territory. Our approach was to adopt a model that we believe creates opportunity without unrealistic start-up costs. However, other dog walking franchises have a different approach, please research well and find out what works best for you.
Your dedication and drive is very important if you are to be a successful franchisee, you’re more likely to achieve this if your vision and values match those of the franchise you’re buying into.
Setting up your business
Let’s start with the slightly less interesting but extremely important element of establishing your business entity, or in plain English, structuring your business in a legal sense.
A business entity is “an individual, limited company, partnership or organisation that engages in economic activities”. A structured business entity allows franchisees to separate personal and business finances.
One or more people may own a business through a few different structures; these include (1) Sole Trader (2) Partnership (3) Limited Company (4) Limited Liability Partnership or LLP.
There are many benefits to each of these structures from liabilities to tax and accounting. We are not legal experts but all started out as sole traders to make the accounting process and tax returns easier to digest. You can always register as a limited company at a later date should you wish to.
This guide on setting up a business may help you make your decision.
Write a business plan
To ensure your business is a success we would suggest you start by pulling together a business plan. This should cover off your business and personal goals up-front. The process of developing a business plan will expose important issues that you may not have considered such as marketing, finance, insurance or local regulations.
Your business plan will become a valuable tool if you need to raise money to buy the franchise or expand at a later date and it is also a good guide to ensure you are on track.
Business Plan Outline
There are lots of templates online to help you pull together a good business plan so we won’t attempt that here. Instead, the following is a brief outline of a typical business plan that will serve as a guide on what points you should be thinking about.
As with any template solution, we strongly suggest you adapt it to your specific business and territory needs as one dog walking franchise can differ from another just based on the location, for example, your pricing would follow a different model if you were working in London.
The key elements you need to consider are:
• Description of the business and your goals, values and mission.
• Marketing – how are you going to promote your business, what makes you different, what are your competitors doing?
• Finances – initial setup costs, ongoing costs like insurance
• Management – day to day running, adding to your team, invoicing your customers
What equipment will you need?
Dog walking is a relatively low cost start-up which is why it is so popular with those wishing to start out on their own. The list of things needed varies drastically from one franchise to the next, some require you to have a sign written van and work wear in addition to the cost of buying the franchise, others throw in the work wear and lease you the vehicle at an additional cost or some allow you to use your current vehicle as long as it is suitable for safely transporting animals. It’s important that you look at all of these elements before you make your decision.
In general you’ll need:
• A vehicle suitable for carrying dogs safely and securely, this means you’ll be able to fit crates in suitable for all dogs to travel comfortably and separately if needed.
• You’ll also need a computer or laptop with access to the Internet and Microsoft Office, Google Docs or similar for spreadsheets and email.
• A printer, ink cartridges and a steady supply of paper.
• A mobile phone.
• Poop bags, lots and lots of poop bags!
The Legal Aspects
Believe it or not there are many legal aspects to consider when dog walking. For example there are 24 Acts of Parliament relating solely to dogs and a further 11 relating to animals in general.
To add to this there are 15 statutory orders and regulations that relate to animals. Each and every one is currently in force in the UK. Many local councils also have rules and regulations relating to animals so you’ll need to be sure you are aware of these before you start, these include licences to board pets and rules on the number of dogs that can be walked together.
It’s important you avoid the temptation to ignore regulatory details and ensure you have adequate insurance to cover all aspects of your business; this includes but is not limited to dog walking insurance and where appropriate employer’s liability insurance. It will be your responsibility to ensure you and your team abide by the law and insurance clauses in line with the franchise agreement you sign.
It differs depending on which franchise you choose but in our opinion it’s good practice to specify that any person employed by or working in the capacity as a sub-contractor to have an up to date Basic Disclosure Check or CRB check before they start working with you. It’s also best practice to ensure you have a legal contract in place with them to iron out responsibilities.
You will need to have control over day-to-day cash activities from day one. The first step is to open a separate bank account to manage all your incoming money from clients and outgoing money for purchases like treats and poo bags! (there’s a theme!)
This should be a separate account from any personal or other business accounts. In the early stages of the business it is not necessary to pay for a business bank account, as a sole trader a separate personal account is fine. As you grow you may want to revisit this and look at the advantages of a business account.
It is advisable to put initial funds into your account to pay for the set up costs of the business, such as purchasing the franchise, a vehicle and marketing materials.
Being self employed
As a franchisee you will be responsible for your own tax and national insurance. It is therefore important you keep accurate records of your incomings and outgoings plus additional costs to ensure you submit your tax return accurately and in a timely manner.
To do this you need to inform HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) you are a sole trader by registering as a new business. You'll need to register for self-assessment tax returns and Class 2 National Insurance at the same time.
You'll then be able to report your self-employment income through a tax return after the end of each tax year. Further information can be found on the HRMC website.
You will need adequate insurance to cover you against all liabilities while you are working with your clients pets, this will cover you for things like public liability, liability to animals in your care, loss of keys and employers liability.
The admin side of things
All franchisor brand owners have their own ways of working by following a model that initially worked for them; this is usually piloted and then rolled out. However that may not always be the same way you want to run your individual franchise. There will be some elements you have to adhere to in line with you legal franchise contract; however, most franchisees are allowed some flexibility in the running of the business due to variations in location and territory.
As a basic rule you’ll need:
• A database of all your clients and the details of their pets, you’ll need to be able to access this or a copy of it whilst you’re on the move in case there is an emergency.
• A secure way to keep clients keys, it sounds obvious but client addresses and keys should never be kept together, so a system needs to be in place, your franchise brand may specify the way this should be.
• You’ll need a billing structure, invoice templates and processes in place to suit you and your customers. This will also have to align with your agreement with the franchise brand owner. If you have to pay your royalty fee on a monthly basis it makes more sense to have the same agreement with your customers. You’ll need to keep details records of all billing accounts for both HMRC and the franchise brand owner. Your accounting system will be expected be up to date at all times.
• Regardless of the franchise you choose you will be expected to produce monthly management reports for them, this is to enable them to track your progress and help you with your business growth. You’ll probably be asked to supply a breakdown of client’s bookings and income generated.
Expanding your business
Once your business has grown to a reasonable size, usually with 6 – 12 months you may want to look for additional resource to help your manage your clients and their pets. This can be as an employee or sub-contractor.
Employee relations can be the most difficult part of the dog walking job. Unlike pets, services or systems, people can be inconsistent or unpredictable. Many personnel problems begin with an employee’s lack of understanding about the job and their responsibilities or a lack of genuine care for animals; it is paramount to get this area of your business right.
Your team are the public face of your business and the franchise brand - how they treat people and their pets, directly affects your bottom line and more importantly can affect the welfare and happiness of the animals in your care.
It is important when you start to take on a team that you are aware of the current Employment Law legislations from the initial recruitment process through to employing or using sub-contractors and their ongoing rights. You will be responsible for ensuring your team has a legal right to work in the UK. Please seek qualified legal advice if you are unsure.
Paying your team
The payment structure you adopt to pay your team is an operational decision for each individual franchise. There are a few options available, you can pay an hourly rate to an employee (you will need to make sure you are up to date on the minimum wage legislation for this route). You can also sub-contract to a self-employed pet care team who earn a percentage of the overall cost charged to your client. There are pros and cons to each approach and it is very much an individual choice based on your business goals.
Who should be in your team?
The number of people who would like an opportunity to work with animals is huge. This gives you a great talent pool to choose from. It’s important to know from the outset what you are looking for in your team members, without doubt they should love animals, and they should be able to demonstrate this, if not in their previous employment history (which is unlikely) then through volunteering or the care of their own pets.
In our opinion they should be compassionate, caring, intelligent, energetic, and enthusiastic. They will also need to be a good communicator and well presented to deal with clients and give confidence that their pets will be in safe hands.
One of the top tips from one of our franchisees which we have now adopted is a trial day or two with all potential new team members; this gives you the opportunity to see how they are with the dogs, can they handle the boisterous dogs, can they act on their own intuitive and most importantly can they read basic canine body language.
It’s always wise to ask for references and in our opinion a Basic Disclosure Check is a must before anyone starts working with the animals and has access to the client’s properties.
Promoting your dog walking franchise
The marketing and promotion of your business is going to be paramount to your success. There are many channels available to you, from digital tools like your website and social media to more traditional methods such as leaflet dropping and advertising.
The best piece of advice we were given when we started out was to deliver 100 leaflets door to door per day until you have enough customers – it works! It’s also wise to leaflet drop and speak to local vet practices, pet shops, groomers, dog trainers and behaviourists and anyone else you can think of with a pet based business.
The importance of word-of-mouth cannot be over stated as your business and reputation grows. A glowing customer review is worth more than any advert. Genuine and quality customer testimonials help to create excitement and trust about in your business and team. It is advised that you encourage clients to post reviews about your franchise on social media and recommend you to their friends and neighbours.
The most important thing is to enjoy yourself, enjoy your job and love being with the dogs. If you have this sorted a dog walking franchise may be for you!