Sunday, October 26, 2008

Putting family first

In October 2007, I wasn’t very busy with pet sitting. I only had one visit a day coming up for a two-week period, but I decided to stay home and hoped more people would fill in my schedule with appointments. I needed the money, and October was usually busy. But my schedule stayed slow. 

One morning I was lying in bed, thinking about my Dad, who at 86, was in a nursing home in South Dakota. When I had last seen him in June he was in poor shape, rapidly losing weight and his memory due to congestive heart failure. On my last morning there, he hadn’t known who I was.

My eyes filled with tears as I remembered, and I was overwhelmed with a sudden feeling of loss. I got up and called the nursing home, and then my brother Dan in Huntington Beach. “I’m going to see Dad this weekend,” I said, “do you want to join me?”  He said yes, and I made arrangements for a friend to cover my pet sitting visits for three days. We left the next day. I felt terribly guilty leaving my client’s cat, Sabrina, in the care of my friend, even though I knew she would do an excellent job. But I had to see my daddy.

We made it to Yankton, South Dakota by 8:30 pm on Sunday night. Dad’s room was dim as he lied in bed, a small lamp lighting his tired face. “My God,” he said when he recognized us, ”I never thought I’d see you guys again.” 

That night, while we slept, a wildfire burned through Poway and Rancho Bernardo back home, destroying almost 200 homes, including my clients’. I woke the next morning and watched the report on CNN. By the time we returned to California I knew the worst. My clients’ elderly cat, Sabrina, had perished in the fire. It didn’t matter whether I was there or not. The home burned before my substitute even knew there was a fire. The bad photo at left is the last one taken of Sabrina, with a cell phone the night before the fire.

We spent two days with Dad, visiting, holding his hand, and just sitting by his side. I told Dan that if we’d turned around and left that Sunday evening, only staying for an hour, it would have been worth the trip, just to see the happiness in his eyes.

Ten days later, my father passed away in his sleep.    

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Plumbing for pet sitters

New Year’s Morning…

While the rest of the world slept off its collective hangover, I was out visiting pets, letting dogs out of crates, scooping litterboxes, and feeding birds. My last stop was to visit a dog, two cats and some bunnies. Hannah the border collie mix needed to go out for the day.

As I walked in the front door, Hannah greeted me frantically. I quickly realized that water was pouring down the stairs into the entry hall. The pipe under the sink in the upstairs bathroom had broken during the night. I had no idea how to shut off the water. I briefly looked in the family room, which is directly below the upstairs bathroom. The hardwood floors were soaked and buckled. Water continued to pour.

After (finally) shutting off the water under the sink, I looked for the main shut-off for the house. Usually it is by the front door, but not this time. It was located behind a utility shelf in the garage, where I never would have found it if not for some helpful neighbors who knew the quirks of the homes in this tract.

I called the owner, who would be flying in from New York that night, and she had me call a friend who took over, calling in a flood repair company to start cleaning up. If you live in an area that freezes in winter, be prepared for broken water lines.

Now, I ask my clients where their water shut-off is, and some even leave me a full notebook of instructions for the electrical panel, water, gas, and other mishaps that just wait until the owners leave to pop up and ruin my day. I’ve learned about sprinkler lines and septic tanks, gas meters and generators.

Septic rules, heat, electric gates

If your client is on a septic system, DON”T flush kitty litter or Kleenex. The best rule is to not flush anything down the toilet unless your client specifically tells you to. A septic system will back up into the tubs, sinks, toilets, and out of the ground up into the yard.

One Christmas, a client’s heating system went out. It was 19 degrees in the house, and the cats were huddled in a basket together, trying to keep warm. I called the owners and got the system repaired before they returned from their trip.

Another time, I accidentally knocked an electric gate off the track. My pet sitting insurance covered the repair. Another time, an electric gate closed on my car and pinned me with no way to escape. My car suffered more than the gate on that one...

The moral of the story: ask your client where the water shut-off is. Learn how to turn off water, gas and electricity, and ask what the client wants you to do when things go wrong!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Pet sitting in a slow economy

What is a self-employed small-business owner to do when the economy comes to a standstill? Pet sitters certainly fall into that category. We are lucky that the holidays, traditionally our busiest season of the year, are going to keep us busy through December, but then what? 

I am taking action to maximize my holiday income. I have set up my yard so I can board more dogs than usual. I don't have kennels, but now I can separate dogs into separate sections of the yard during the day so I am not overwhelmed in the house and everyone stays a little calmer. Everyone sleeps inside at night, preferably in the house, so I have baby gates set up and crates so I can separate them without isolating them. Then the midnight play parties will be minimized! 

The problem with boarding at my home is that I am essentially working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It's a grind, so I treasure my breaks when I get them. My maximum is usually 6 dogs. This Christmas it will be 10, and I am fully booked already. Plus my own four, so the house will be full.

On top of that, of course, are pet sitting visits. I have not taken in very many new clients for visits the past two years, preferring to concentrate on boarding. This year I will market my pet sitting to kennels and veterinarians so they have someone to refer their clients to when they are fully booked. This has been more successful for me than advertising in the past. 

I am sending out a letter to all of my existing clients to announce that I now accept credit cards. I am a member of the NASE (National Association for the Self Employed), and process my payments through their Bank of America merchant program. There are no monthly minimum fees to pay, which is important when you only have a few transactions per month. 

I am also announcing to my clients that I will NOT be raising my rates until at least 2010, over a year away. And I offer a 10% discount to any boarding or pet sitting assignments that are over 10 days in length. I want to thank my existing clients for sticking with me, many for 10 years or more, and give new clients a financial reason to choose me.

Word of mouth is the best advertising of all. Recommendations from existing clients are rewarded with a free visit or free day of boarding. 

I am a member of Petsitters International, and have gotten several new clients from their referral service. Other online referral services I use are through,  and Petsitters Associates LLC. Try Craigslist and Angie's list in your areas for extra exposure. 

Once the holidays are over, business may slow down substantially. I hope that my holiday income will hold me over for January and February. I have some savings put away for slow times. I keep close track of school holidays in my area, like Martin Luther King Day and President's Day-- these busy weekends will help me through the winter. 

January and February are months for a short vacation, even if it's in my own backyard. I will try not to sweat the slow season, continue marketing my business and take exceptional care of my customers. I will paint some pictures, ride my horse, enjoy my own dogs, and thank God I have been so fortunate to have this wonderful job and lifestyle.