This post is an interview with Hireology client Cara Armour, founder of Boston-based Active Paws. Cara has 13+ years of pet sitting experience, winning Pet Sitter of the Year in 2009. Below, Cara shares her experiences with business technology tools, finding top employees, and starting a pet sitting business from scratch.
To kick things off, let’s talk about Active Paws. What were you doing before and how did you get your start?
I started Active Paws in 2003. At the time, I was a retail manager running a sporting goods store. The company and my location were doing incredibly well, and while I wanted to advance, there were 16 people ahead of me for the district manager role. I also had a puppy during this time and, one day, I met a dog walker at a park. We got to talking and I learned the walker was able to live very comfortably in Boston by owning a small dog walking business. This conversation planted the seed that I might be able to start my own viable pet business.
What kind of research did you do before ultimately deciding to start working for yourself?
One of the first things I did was pick up a copy of Pet Sitting For Profit by Patty Maran of Pet Sitters International (PSI). The book was a great introduction to the industry and running the day-to-day business. It also introduced PSI as a community of business owners. With this as a start, I became familiar with educational resources and conferences and began to learn the ins and outs of pet sitting.
It was an interesting time for me. I still needed my full time job to support myself, but after advertising on Craigslist, it didn’t take long for me to land my first three clients – who ended up working with me for many years. I continued to work on my business and at its peak, I had 14 employees servicing 400+ clients. I’ve ramped down a bit in recent years to focus on another exciting venture – pet first aid training and certification – but it’s something I’m incredibly happy doing.
As someone who’s been in the industry for 13+ years, how have you seen the pet industry evolve since you first started Active Paws?
Active Paws has been through economic booms and busts and has seen attitudes regarding petcare needs change thanks to millennial pet owners. It’s no surprise that people who have a dog or cat today are incredibly connected to them- they really are a member of the family. Economically, we recently crossed a threshold where the pet industry has become bigger than the music industry – it says a lot about our priorities and society.
Millennials have interestingly became a key segment of pet owners. Many of these younger owners need several jobs to survive in today’s economy. These same individuals want to share their relationships with dogs and cats to feel happy in life. Moments with pets make us all feel so great!
What professionals in the pet space provide is a peace of mind: that your dog walker will take care of your pet and make them feel comfortable during the day so you don’t feel guilty about working so much to support yourself and your pet.
For a lot of industries today, technology is really leveling the playing field for people to start businesses without all the overhead of even 5 years ago. Have you used any tools or services to help you run Active Paws?
There are so many great tools today that make it possible for anyone passionate about the pet industry to get started with very little capital. A great example of this is Rover: the Uber for dog walking. It’s an easy way to get introduced in the industry, and it’s easy to move from the platform to establishing your business in the market and then hiring your first batch of walkers.
This is where I also see Hireology providing great value. The pet industry has upwards of 125% turnover. Pet sitter entrepreneurs also likely have not had to hire anyone before. Having a system to centralize the process, screen and interview candidates, and automate much of the work is such a time saver. And time is one of the most valuable things for entrepreneurs in the pet industry. Getting everything into one spot keeps me organized and saves hours of time while helping identify great pet sitting hires.
Speaking of hires, I’m sure you’ve made your fair share: are there any traits you look for? Are there any surprises in the traits that make someone a successful hire?
A challenge when looking for great, dependable people is that a lot of animal lovers are also introverts. They might be great at working with dogs, but they lack the right skills for client interaction to represent my company well. Other times, people have tough interviews, but end up being a great fit for both my customers and their pets. It takes experience to see the balance between being a people person and a pet person.
Beyond personality, one of the biggest needs I have is flexibility. Dealing with weather changes, different pet behaviors, animal wellness, and interacting with the public - there are so many different things dog walkers and sitters need to be able to react to during their shifts. I’ve found that artists, teachers, and (not surprisingly!) zoo keepers have all done really well in this respect.
One thing I’d recommend against is requiring previous dog walking experience for new hires. At Active Paws, I require previous pet experience - having a pet now or previously. Some of my best employees have never walked before and these individuals tend to bring a lot of new ideas to the table. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by requiring someone to have walked dogs previously: you might be shutting out a lot of otherwise interested and great employees.
We talked a little about technologies that make it easy to get started in the industry. What are you using as an owner or across your team to stay connected?
As an owner, I live and breathe by my CRM. This started as an excel doc, Quickbooks, and Google Calendar. As the data my team captures grew to include birthdays, home entry details, animal health issues and other personal touches for my clients, I invested in a CRM service. The one I love is $10/employee/month and saves me about 20 hours of work a week. For my team, it’s a critical part of my business and something I’d recommend to even a solo sitter. There are many pet-specific vendors in the space now. They all are very affordable and provide a ton of value.
A tool we recently incorporated that is working incredibly well is Slack for mobile communication. Our team can communicate on just about everything - both for business and to build camaraderie since most of my walkers spend much of their days servicing clients. For a mostly remote team, it brings us together and gets us on the same page. And the great mobile app means we’re constantly connected no matter where everyone is.
What are the two biggest pieces of advice you would share for someone thinking about starting their own pet sitting business today?
Networking and education are the two best things you can do for yourself in the pet industry. I learn so much from other pet sitters. Even after being around for 13 years, I’m still learning and seeing new, great ideas. From handling staff to new business tools, it’s a really collaborative industry that’s continuing to grow and support one another. For everyone in the space, there is such a varied amount of backgrounds - and everyone brings a really fresh perspective.
For education, there are a ton of free resources and some paid. In my experience, the paid resources are always 100% worth it. One of the best paid resources is FetchFind: for a monthly cost, you get so much information on starting your business: how to handle dogs, recognize different behavior types, tools and leashes. It’s a one stop shop for everything related to the pet industry and I’ve learned so much here.
As someone who is incredibly passionate about pets and pet wellness, how else are you involved in the industry?
In 2011, while running Active Paws with my husband, I also started a pet CPR company to provide hands-on training for pet wellness. While we were successful, I knew there was more we could do with the educational component. In 2016, I left my company to join ProPet Hero: the leading experts in pet first aid and CPR certifications.
It’s a great concept because you can join with zero existing medical knowledge and get foundational knowledge for helping pets in an emergency and potentially saving a life. They have an accredited-veterinarian on staff to provide support, and are incredibly advanced in the services they provide.
I’ve actually turned over the reigns to Active Paws to my husband so I can focus as a full-time contributor to ProPetHero, working to connect them and spread the great work they’re doing to other leaders across the pet industry.
See how Hireology can help save time and money with your professional pet sitting business.
Note: Hireology is a preferred PSI vendor and is partnered with FetchFind, both mentioned in this post.