Hi, Tell us your name, what you do, and about your business.
I am the hands-on owner of my dream job which is working with dogs and pets of all kinds. My name is Sandra Blakley and I own Dog Kidz Country Daycare & Boarding in Vero Beach, Florida.
I bought a run-down kennel back in 2006 which was located on a good 5-acre parcel – which was also run down.
It took a lot of sweat and 80 plus hour weeks but I turned it into what I believe is the premier pet boarding and dog daycare facility of the greater area. I converted the residence on the property to the daycare and added cameras both indoors and out so that customers could see their dogs and know they were happy and safe.
I took some concepts that have either not been done or rarely done and combined them to offer the best experience for the dogs. The dogs can go in and out from the air-conditioned playrooms to the play yards at will and jump in the pools and run around the yard and then come inside to beds and toys.
The dogs are separated by size and by temperament and kept in small groups which results in the best behavior.
In the boarding house, I innovated as well by adding huge runs to the pens. The runs, lined in K-9 grass are 26 feet long, giving the dogs plenty of space to run up and down. With roomy pens and large runs, the dogs get the best experience here as well.
Many dogs can board and participate in daycare but not all of them. With the long runs, every dog has an opportunity to stretch his or her legs and have a good experience while boarding.
A couple of years ago, I converted a cottage on the property to more pens as we are always short on pens. And this year, I renovated our cat rooms and we now have the best cat boarding as well. The rooms have natural climbers in wood and tree as well as cat houses.
The business can be seasonal as summer vacations and holidays are the most popular times to board but on the whole, we now stay busy most of the year. Generally, I gross just under 30k a month.
What’s your own background. Were you always proficient in this business, or did it just strike your mind one fine day?
My interest in dogs was largely personal. I was the kid who begged for a dog at a young age and the family dogs were always more “mine” than anyone else’s! I can’t remember a time, other than my freshman year of college when dorm life was mandatory, that I didn’t have at least one dog.
Dogs have always been a great interest and hobby of mine. Over the years, I studied and learned just for the pleasure of knowing. In 2006 when the company I worked for was sold and restructured, I took the opportunity to finally move forward on my dream.
What went into designing the initial product? Can you take us through the actual process?
Having had to board my dogs when vacationing in the past, I knew exactly what I wanted. I wanted a place where dogs could have as much freedom as was safely possible. I didn’t want my dogs to have to depend on someone to come and walk them a couple of times a day but to be able to go in and out as they needed or pleased.
Thus, I created huge runs. Mostly I wanted to know they were safe and happy and having cams throughout allows the clients to do just that. My research showed that dogs did best when they were in smaller groups and with dogs of a similar size and temperament so I structured the daycare to allow that to happen instead of all the dogs in one big room.
All these things work together to keep the dogs happy which in turn, keeps their people happy.
My favorite thing is hearing time and time again from clients about how excited their dogs are to come back. During their second or later visit, they often comment in wonder about how excited their dog was in the car once he or she realized where they were going. It doesn’t get any better than that!
Talk us through the process of the launch of your business
Initially, I was just interested in doggie daycare. I searched throughout the area for a suitable property to rent but I could find nothing. I realized quickly that renting was not going to work as trying to find a suitable interior space with the right fencing (no digging under!) was not the least bit likely.
I gave up on renting and tried to find a place to buy but I soon found I would be facing long processes with the county or the city to get permits and follow the codes. The most likely property I found had an estimated year-long wait for the county to approve everything, with an attached possibility that they wouldn’t approve and I would be stuck with a useless property.
Finally, I found this place which was a private residence and a kennel but largely deteriorated but the permits were in place already. It still took eight long months to purchase the property and go through all the red tape.
Regretfully, the previous owner really didn’t run it as a proper business so I wasn’t buying much more than the run-down property. During that long wait, I did a lot of work – lining up the contractors needed to fence and repair the property including bulldozing old broken down fencing and sheds.
For ten years after, as the yards were turned up by the dogs, we found all kinds of bits of trash on a daily basis. It was 5 acres but 5 overgrown acres infested with critters and weeds that towered 7 to 8 feet high. I didn’t even know that weeds could grow that tall!
I’ll never forget that on my first visit to the property, I opened a side door only to discover that the weeds were blocking the doorway and extended above the door frame! It took real machinery to clean it all up as well as thousands of dollars and a lot of labor – both mine and others.
The fencing alone, to surround the property and create the play areas and runs, came to over $100,000. After the contractors cleared out, there was still a huge amount of work to do – both in the yards and the buildings.
We were repairing and painting as well as planting grass and clearing up around trees and plots. The amount of physical work to get the property ready was a bit overwhelming. But I was so excited to be finally moving forward that I truly did not mind the long hours and the work.
I had also worked on the business end during that eight months including setting up my website. I did hire a professional on that as these days, the primary marketing is online and the website is critical. I chose my colors (egg yolk yellow and plum purple) and worked on the logo and the slogan.
I designed and set up my information packages and gave the go-ahead to print as soon as the deal was signed. It was November when the property was finally mine but I had so much work to do before I could do a grand opening. I actually missed the holiday promotion for Thanksgiving and Christmas but even without advertising, we stayed fairly busy that first couple of months.
Finally, by February, I was ready to do a real launch and get Dog Kidz going. I advertised in the papers and on radio and even did a weekly show on the radio talking about dog behavior. Dog Kidz was finally underway.
The pure excitement and thrill of it all carried me easily through all the exhausting days.
How is your repeat customer rate like? Can you take us through how you attract and retain customers?
It’s all about repeat customers. I tell new employees that they will know all the dogs’ names in short order as most of our customers are repeats and once you know them, it is just a matter of learning the new ones.
On any given day, 90% of the customers for that day are repeated. Of course, we must always reach out to new ones. People move, pets pass, and we need to replace and grow a bit all the time. There is a limit to our growth without physically expanding though.
I rely heavily on the website and word of mouth to bring new customers.
It keeps us very busy. Retaining customers is all about a relationship. Not only do we work to build a relationship of trust – which is the single greatest concern of folks leaving their pet in someone else’s hands; but we work on getting to know the people a small bit as well.
This allows us to keep that small-town feeling of having your pet stay with someone you know and trust.
And we work hard to keep that trust. Keeping the dogs safe and making sure that food and meds are done correctly and that each dog is looked upon carefully to make sure he or she is thriving is very important.
It is critical each dog or other pets be returned safe and happy and well cared for. The larger the facility, the more difficult this is to do – to be aware of each pet as an individual and make sure they are doing well.
With shift changes and new employees, it isn’t always easy to make sure that is the case but we have safeguards in place and I follow behind to make sure that all the directions are being followed.
We aren’t perfect but every time we fail a little bit, I follow up to see what we could do better.
What is the current situation? How do you see yourself in the next 12 months?
The first ten years were incredibly hard. If you have a lot of money or if you have a kitchen table business that doesn’t require a lot of overhead, then you may face considerably less stress. And I’d certainly recommend either of those!
When trying to juggle to pay the mortgage and payroll and the bills, it can be very difficult just to survive. It becomes very clear as to how 80% of businesses fail within the first 18 months. Forbes quoting Bloomberg
You have to have the grit and determination to succeed and the less support you have, the more you need every ounce of determination and mental strength to make it through.
The last few years for me have finally eased up to where I feel I’m running a business and not just trying to survive. Not only am I making enough money to survive but also making enough to continuously put money back in the property and the business for improvements and beyond that, making a profit.
As a woman founder, do you see this as only financially uplifting? Or otherwise too? If yes, then how?
I’ve read a number of stories of small businesses taking off and earning millions of dollars in a matter of a few years. God bless them! For me, it has probably been more typical which is a slow climb to a place where the business supports a handful of people.
I won’t become a millionaire, I’m afraid and that is okay. I’m doing what I love and working with a small staff of people I enjoy and I’m happy to be here every day. The most uplifting part is that I love the idea that I own my own business and I made it happen on my own.
That pride in my place is the cornerstone of my being and owning my own business that I created is still thrilling to me after all these years. Hardly a day passes without a customer making a comment about how great my place is and that brings a pride of ownership and success that is central to who I am.
What are your key challenges today? How are you planning to tackle those?
Employees are a constant issue. I have a couple who have been with me for years and I depend upon them very much. However, I have a staff of four full time and two part-time and those other positions have been more transitory.
In any business, you depend upon your employees to present the face you want to the clients and also to make the correct decisions. With a small staff, each person wears several hats and must make the correct decisions on the care of the pets and the interaction with customers.
And, of course, that doesn’t always work right. A larger staff means more specialized jobs that you can hire more specifically for. A customer service person would just do that and not sweep and mop. A person working with dogs wouldn’t have to worry about entering a reservation in the computer.
I worked over 80 hours a week for the first six years. Then 70 hours per week for a few years and then 60 hours per week in the last few years. Another highly dependable person would be welcome. While I want to be here most days, we are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily and I would prefer a few less 12-hour shifts.
There are a few major improvement projects I would like to do. Currently, our three play yards are basically grass and dirt and it would be a great benefit to cover them in artificial grass.
The dirt in the playrooms and pools and even on the dogs would be greatly reduced! The cost is prohibitive but it is the big dream for improvement.
I’m not really willing to grow any larger in terms of handling a significant number more of dogs and other pets. The larger a boarding facility is, the more difficult it is to hold on that relationship with both the people and the pets.
I want to be able to know the names of each of the pets here as they change on a daily basis and be aware of each of them as they play and eat and sleep under my charge. This is what keeps the people trusting me with their loved dogs and cats and birds and rabbits and guinea pigs and more.
Which are some resources, books, articles or podcasts that have been useful to you, and would share with your readers
I read many books and articles that related directly to my business, boarding and dog daycare. Oddly, I found it difficult to find much information on the legal and tax side of the business.
It took more research than it should have along with piecemeal results to find the information I needed about taxes and government forms that were required. I was always concerned that I was not filing something on time.
Hiring a service for this is fine but when you have only a few employees and money is tight, it should be an unnecessary expense. The forms aren’t hard, it’s just difficult to know that you are doing everything you are supposed to. There are local, state and federal regulations to be followed.
Many times, women feel that businesses are for only for men. What’s your take?
Really? Does any real percentage of women honestly feel that? I hope not.
I’ve been a feminist all my life and my worries about starting a business weren’t gender-related just the normal concerns of such a large undertaking and frankly, the knowledge that my family support was weak.
Starting a business is scary and for good reason — you are taking a large risk. The risk is individual and can be greater or lesser depending upon the particular business and the support – both financial and family – that you have.
If you leave the workforce and have no other income, as I did, the risk is high. If you have other financial support and are just risking the money you put in the business and not the food and the mortgage or rent, then it is a lot less scary.
I suppose it could be said that men are more likely to take risks – especially if they aren’t the sole provider for a family. Women may be more likely to seek security. I have no idea if this is learned behavior or otherwise but it does appear to be true.
So if it is a high risk, I can see where men are more likely to jump in. What are the other factors of starting a business? After risk, it would be being the boss and making all the decisions and being the one responsible for everything.
That’s just exhausting and women are used to multitasking and being exhausted. But yes, the responsibility is heavy and you have to be willing to carry that load. Women are managers and bosses everywhere these days and while there is a difference if you are boss for someone else’s company or your own, it is mostly the same.
The gut-level responsibility is a little more intense when it is your own business.
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