Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My New Year's Resolution: technology & expansion

Time to get organized. After 15 years of pet sitting, I still have a 3 ring binder with handwritten pages for each client's information. My accounting method is a single folder labeled "expenses." My cell phone is capable of way more than I know how to use; it's time to at least learn to text. In fact my phone is not working well, so maybe it is time for an iPhone or Blackberry.

I am not a tech novice. I build websites, I use the Adobe Creative Suite in my graphics business. I know how to use Microsoft Office, including Excel. For the next few posts I will report on the various options I am looking at and the decisions I make.

Here are the areas I am exploring (Writing this for you is helping me organize my thoughts):

• Managing Client Information: I need contact, vet, daily care and emergency info all at my fingertips. Do I create separate databases for contact and care info or can I combine them into one? Is Excel a good choice? I can do a sheet for each client in one file. I can do mail merge and other functions. Or should I try a software program like ACT! or Microsoft Outlook? Outlook didn't come with my home version of Office, so I would have to buy it. I use a Mac, so is Outlook even available?

One friend told me that using ACT! for what I need is like using the space shuttle to drive to work: overkill. I'll have to decide if he's right.

Accounting: Should I get Quickbooks or use Quicken? Is Excel enough to do what I need? What do I need? I want to be able to look over each client's history in terms of income and scheduling. I want to keep my tax records organized throughout the year instead of waiting until January to even file my receipts.

The phone: I'm not a big fan of cell phones. They are a necessity but not something I like to spend a bunch of time dealing with. As long as I need a new phone, I'm thinking an iphone is more likely to make my phone a partner in the business rather than an evil thing that only rings when I am driving. So I need to figure out what a phone can do for me, and at what cost?

Which brings up another issue: do I need to set up my car so I can talk hands-free? Or can most calls wait?

Scheduling: Will iCal on the Mac do what I need? Or Google Calendar? Free is a magic word here; these services cost me nothing. Do I need to allow my customers to schedule on-line, or just email me with their requests? If I hire independent contractors, do they need access to the calendar?

Payment: I currently accept cash, checks, PayPal and Visa or Mastercard. Do I need secure online payment processing? Beyond PayPal, I don't think it is necessary at this time. Ah...one decision made.

Expanding my pet sitting business: And now you know where all this planning is heading. My goal is to hire independent contractors to board dogs in their home under my business name and also provide pet sitting visits. I'd like to expand and offer mid-day walks, which I only offer on an occasional basis at this point.

How do I do that? Do I have employees or independent contractors? Should I incorporate? Should I change the business name? Do I need to put together a formal business plan? What will it cost me to expand? How much money can I expect to make? Should I get a small business loan? Do I want to spend my time running a business instead of (or in addition to) taking care of animals?

Lots of questions. I am starting my quest with an appointment on Monday with a SCORE advisor here in Poway to answer my questions about incorporating and operating a more formalized business. Retired business executives from SCORE offer free advice to start-up businesses. Again, Free is again the magic word. I will take advantage of all the free advice and software I can get before I spend a dime!

Step 2 is an appointment at the Apple store next Friday to get training on some of the free apps that came with my new iMac computer. I may not need to buy anything. Which is just how a smart businessperson should be thinking.

I'll keep you posted.
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© 2009 Terry Albert. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Ho Ho OMG it's cold!

At 6 am it was cold, dark and WAY before I like to get up in the morning. But it is Christmas week, and I have dogs to walk! They've been in all night and I need to get them out early. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself until I realized I wasn't alone.

As I drove to my first pet sit, I saw a black German Shepherd mix with his bundled-up owner walking down the main road. Two Vizslas with a young couple frolicked along the edge of the park as I passed. My elderly neighbor with her Belgian Malinois went for their morning walk, something they do every day–not just at Christmas.

As I left my first house, a Lab and his escort trudged up the hill, frosty breath preceding them. The morning light revealed a crystal clear day, and I felt better knowing that all these dogs were enjoying an early morning outing.

I wonder how many of those people were pet sitters?

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© 2009 Terry Albert. All Rights Reserved. Above is a painting of a golden retriever by Terry Albert

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

MyDogWalks.com launches service-focused business in NYC

A recent conversation on our San Diego Pet Net discussion list revolved around how hard it must be to walk multiple dogs together. We’ve all seen the photos of dog walkers in New York City being dragged down the street behind a herd of dogs of all shapes and sizes. It's not just hard on the dog walker, but it's stressful and sometimes downright dangerous for the dogs.

At my end of the country it’s unusual to even allow dogs to live in apartments. In New York City, it is the norm. And indoor dogs all need a midday break while their owners are at work. Hence an opportunity ...

Ada Nieves, “New York Pet Social Queen,” and Jill Richardson, a New Jersey veterinarian, feel there is a need for a more customer service-oriented dog walking business in their area, and they have just launched MyDogWalks.com. Both women are experienced pet professionals. Nieves is the founder of the New York City Chihuahua Meetup group (now with over 800 members), renowned pet fashion designer, gourmet treat baker and successful pawty planner. Richardson is an accomplished writer and veterinarian and writes the "Ask the Vet" column for Fido Friendly magazine. Both have columns on examiner.com, and Nieves has a show, "Vida Doggies" on Pet Life Radio online.

Private Dog Walks

MyDogWalks hopes to carve out its own niche, where dog-lovers like themselves cater to the needs of pet owners. This is what makes their business different: they envision professional, polished and uniformed walkers giving private dog walks, unlike the massive groups you often see in the city. By providing a service that they would want to use, MyDogWalks wants clients to RAVE to their families and friends about how truly special their service is.

In visiting with Jill and Ada about their new venture, many issues came up that I had never thought about. Although we provide the same services, it is a different type of business in a major city. Large apartment complexes have a doorman that keeps the keys so you can just pick them up from him on each visit. You can also limit the geographical area you work in by serving just a few major apartment complexes. This will save you a lot of time that would otherwise be spent commuting.

Safety and convenience are primary concerns for MyDogWalks.com. By providing private walks, the dog gets individual attention and is much less stressed at the end of his outing. Clients can also schedule and pay for walks online, a real advantage for busy New Yorkers.

MyDogWalks.com’s main service is daily walks but they also cater to their clients’ pet sitting needs. They are members of NAPPS.

LINKS: Ada Nieves Examiner column

Jill Richardson’s Examiner column

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© 2009 Terry Albert. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Pet sitters gear up for the next big storm




Californians are total weather wusses. We panic at the threat of rain. As I say this I have sandbagged my driveway and dug a ditch alongside the house to route overflow water away from my patio and garage. Last weekend I was under water, and with 12 visiting dogs, I didn't appreciate having a wet patio, wet garage, and wet laundry room. All of the guest dogs had to be in the house... soggy wet dogs...


So as pet sitters gear up around the country for heavy schedules and heavier weather, take a few minutes to be prepared:
• Check your tires.
• Carry chains and sand (or kitty litter) if you are in a snow area.
• Carry clients' emergency phone numbers in your car.
• Be sure someone knows your schedule in case you get stuck somewhere.
• Carry an extra blanket in the car, maybe even a space blanket, some candles and matches to keep you warm if you get stranded.
• Get a neighbor's phone number in case you can't get to your client's home. I once had my husband go with me and cut apart a fallen tree so we could get to a house to get a client's cats. If you can't get in, maybe a neighbor can. Suggest your client give them an extra key.
• Buy a heavy duty spotlight.

Remember the Girl Scout motto: Be Prepared. I will add "Be safe, not sorry."
Photos: My dogs Tank, Sherman and Emma, Shorty (a foster dog) play in the snow in Seattle. My Collie Emma, with snow on her nose.

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© 2009 Terry Albert. All Rights Reserved.