Turning your Pawsome Hobby into a viable business

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SWIG Finance has seen a big rise in start-up activity over the last couple of months, as many people take stock of their life plans and put into action ideas they have held for some time. New ventures are very often created out of a personal passion, and that is very much the case with the pet care sector.

As a nation of animal lovers, the UK has an estimated 49% of households owning a pet. Because of this the pet care industry is considerable – with a value of £6.5 billion in 2019 – and as it helps to safeguard the welfare of our nation’s pets, it has continued to trade throughout the Coronavirus pandemic. 

So how do you begin turning your pawsome hobby into a viable business? We speak to three of our animal- loving Start Up Loan clients who have made the transition.

The Business Owners;
Christy Greaves, Clifton Dog Squad
 – a Bristol-based dog walking service business.
Oliver Leavey, ALE Canine Solutions – a Basingstoke-based dog training and training products business
Jason Osborne, Plymouth Paws Furniture – a Plymouth-based bespoke dog furniture business.

What made you take the leap to starting your own business?

[Christy Greaves, Clifton Dog Squad] Our full-time jobs were never 9-5 and our family life was struggling to keep up! I initially thought I’d manage dog-walking alongside working online from home, but quickly realised there was a demand for dog socialising and group walks in our area. My partner Sam joined me two months later, and we were able to offer adventures in some of our favourite walking locations with up to three dogs each.”

[Oliver Leavey, ALE Canine Solutions] “I grew up surrounded by working dogs and my wife had pet dogs throughout her life. Although we both have full-time careers that we enjoy, when an opportunity presented itself for us to create a startup, we jumped at the chance. We initially started the business to distribute products that aide dog training, but as the business developed, we moved into dog training. Our young family are all interested in dogs so the business really brings us together as a family.” 

[Jason Osborne, Plymouth Paws Furniture] We rescued a dog, teddy, from the Irish puppy breading farm through Many Tears charity and wanted to give him the best life from now on. We looked into new accessories for both him and our current dog Alfie, and found that nice beds were a small fortune. As a keen DIYer and knowing I could make a bed as good as the ones we’d seen, I set about making them both a handmade bed. 

Friends saw this and asked for one for their dogs. I was happy to make them for free but they wanted to pay, so I looked at cost price and charged them this. It was then I realised the extreme mark-up people were being charged and I found I could make a small profit whilst providing quality beds for likeminded doggie friends and customers.

We spent 18 months perfecting a design that we could replicate and was cost effective to make, and something that wasn’t available anywhere else. Others could replicate our product, but we wanted to lead.

Working full time in another job it wasn’t about turning mass profit but was about providing quality, handmade and at a good price.”

What is the best bit about being your own boss?

[Christy Greaves, Clifton Dog Squad] Freedom to have a family life, and not have to compromise on those commitments. Choosing to be creative with where we go each week!”

[Oliver Leavey, ALE Canine Solutions] “Apart from being able to do something that I enjoy, the best bit about running my own business is that I can do everything how I want do it; it is important to me that things are done the right way and that we are offering the best possible service to our customers. For us, it’s about doing what is right for our clients and assisting them in achieving their goals.”

[Jason Osborne, Plymouth Paws Furniture] I love the flexibility of being able to make bespoke handmade items and seeing the reaction we get from customers when we hand deliver the products. We used 100% recycled packaging, no plastic whatsoever and our wood comes from a local lumber yard using sustainably grown trees.”

What challenges have you had to overcome?

[Christy Greaves, Clifton Dog Squad] It’s a family effort over the holidays to manage childcare! People always ask what we do when it rains, actually the hardest part of our job is maintaining routine during hot weather – usually we’ve done all we can by 10am. Our ‘meet, greet and treat’ introduction gives us an opportunity to manage any dogs with special needs or risks to the squad before they become a challenge on walks. “

[Oliver Leavey, ALE Canine Solutions] The biggest challenge we are facing is simply keeping up with customer demand! We incorporated the business at the end of April this year and since then, our offering has expanded exponentially. Since incorporating, our business has gone from distributing training products, to providing dog training which takes place in our own dog training centre.

[Jason Osborne, Plymouth Paws Furniture] Being a startup we brought supplies in small quantities to start off with, limiting the profit to almost nothing for the first few beds. All the profit was then plowed back to buy bigger quantities saving on costs and increasing our profits. 

We also built our website on a budget and did it all ourselves so trying to juggle the time to have a POS arena, make products and working full time was an issue to start with. My wife was delighted to be the customer liaison and deal with all contact, emails and shipping arrangements. My son looked after the website and social media side, whilst my father a retired engineer, make templates and jig so we could replicate base designs. My job was to build them and whilst I could build them in 2-3 days part time, our lead time was advertised as 2 weeks so I could make sure everyone was built to the highest quality with every bit of care and attention I could. The feedback on our quality is what has got us where we are now.”

What are your top three tips for someone just starting out in your industry?

[Christy Greaves, Clifton Dog Squad]

1.       Be proactive! Word of mouth is our most successful marketing tool and it’s completely free to talk to other people on walks. Get your best shots on Instagram and don’t worry about a website.

2.       Risk assess every pick-up, route and dog. Working with animals is always going to have its hazards so know the risks and stay within your limits.

3.       Dog walking is a bit like parenting, in that you’re never ‘ready’. We are definitely more knowledgeable and valuable than we were two years ago, but we wouldn’t change the experience we had getting here.

[Oliver Leavey, ALE Canine Solutions]

  1. Research your sector, understand the current trends, focus on where you can add value and become unique
  2. Social Media!!! Get yourself out there, find people of influence to help promote your business
  3. Prepare yourself for long but rewarding hours, it’s tough juggling life with setting up a new business but when your finally out there doing it, it’s so rewarding.

[Jason Osborne, Plymouth Paws Furniture]

  1. Under promise and over deliver. Never rush or ship something that you aren’t 100% excited and proud about .
  2. Quality, quality, quality! Quality sells and you get a sense of pride in achieving 5/5 on all social media, Google and our website is something we strive to maintain. It is definitely quality not quantity.
  3. Offer something unique that isn’t out there already. Don’t be afraid to follow your dreams and believe in yourself – be patient and start small. We now offer over 35 different style dog beds, 14 cat bed variations, cat wall furniture and climbing aids, lead holders, feeding stations, engraving, and many more small accessories.

If you’re planning to start a pet care business, and need some finance to get going, we’d be very happy to discuss your needs.

SWIG Finance is part of a network of official Start Up Loans delivery partners across the UK, we work with entrepreneurs and early stage businesses in the South West.

We are here to guide you through the application process, including advice on creating a business plan and cashflow forecast. If you receive a loan we will then support you through your journey, providing you with a business mentor.

Remember, there are no fees charged for obtaining a Start Up Loan or any of the services associated with it.

If you would like to discuss your options with our friendly and professional investment team, please do get in touch 01827 227 932 / [email protected]

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