Dee Runkle was destined to be a dog lover. An only child who adored her family’s four-legged friends, Runkle soon branched out to helping take care of friends’ and neighbors’ pets. When she and fiancé, Mark Rappa, moved to Florida in 2005, she turned that hobby into a business, Dee’s Dogs.
Now Dee’s Dogs offers pet sitting, vacation pet care, daily dog walking and house sitting to a client list of 400 families. They offer emergency pet care to families who need a sitter on short notice, as well as in-home pet visits for routine feeding and care and house-sitting for traveling clients. Rappa joined the business full-time in 2008, and the Coral Springs couple also have one full-time and two part-time contract workers.
“We learned early on to answer the phone and return calls quickly, and to make appointments at our customers’ convenience, not ours,” Rappa said. “And we’re reliable. We pride ourselves on it.”
While Dee’s Dogs has earned a loyal clientele over the years, it also has brought them an exhausting schedule. Runkle walks dogs and visits pets from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., with each pet allotted a half-hour timeframe. Rappa takes over at 3 p.m. and handles pet-care duties until about 9 p.m.
They charge $20 for a half-hour of pet care on weekdays, and $25 on weeknights and weekends. The business grossed about $75,000 in 2012, and the couple would like to expand its scope. They contacted The Miami Herald for a Small Business Makeover, which brought in the South Broward Chapter of SCORE, a nonprofit organization of volunteer business mentors and counselors who provide free assistance to the small business community.
Clifton Vaughn, vice-chairman of the SCORE chapter, led the team of experts. A certified public accountant, Vaughn is a financial services advisor with LINQ Financial Group. He previously worked as an internal auditor for Eastern Airlines and as an assistant finance director for the city of Miami. Vaughn specializes in strategic planning and focusing.
Certified public accountant Alvaro Diaz, a consultant, previously worked with PricewaterhouseCoopers, and had several Fortune 500 companies as clients. He directed financial operations and internal audit for an IT distributor, and specializes in optimizing business processes for efficiency and pinpointing strengths in businesses wanting to expand. Amikam Yalovetzky, owner of Business to Web, a digital marketing firm in Weston, also lent expertise. With previous experience in international marketing, sales and business development, Yalovetzky specializes in Web development, online presence and mobile apps.
“There is no business too small,” Vaughn said. “Our mission is to help everyone who comes through that door…to fan those flames and create jobs.”
Runkle and Rappa say they would like to hire more contract workers and expand their service area, but have had trouble finding people with their same work ethic. The couple would like to move more into a management role, and outsource more of the pet care.
“We have no life. This is our life,” Runkle said. “We’d like a little breathing room.”
Now that they have created a brand, Runkle and Rappa must protect it, Vaughn said. “You need to police the services and the people operating under your brand,” he said, and develop systems that maintains its function, attracts new customers and reinforces the brand.
“Think about what else you can do to generate a new revenue stream, because at the end of the day, a viable business is one that produces revenue,” Vaughn said.
Diaz recommended that they do a business plan. “You need to do some strategic planning, to find qualified people and get more time off for yourselves. You need a business plan: What do you want to happen in six months? In five years? You have to apply that plan to a small business in order to become a medium business.”
Rappa said they will seek SCORE’s help in developing a plan.
Review the business model
Rappa and Runkle said they are trying to grow their business by offering contractors equity positions. They give each contractor half of the pet sitting fee. If the contractor grows the business and hires a sub-contractor, then each gets a cut. The SCORE team recommended they review the business model for profitability.
“If you are charging one fee, then paying a portion to each contractor as you go down the line, you’re not making any money,” Diaz said. “It is diminishing returns.”
Vaughn said if they change to an employee system, they could set up standards of customer service to preserve the brand and pay using a different model.
Rappa and Runkle said they will look at the different options for growing their business, and decide what makes the most sense for them.
Find a reliable workforce
“Your first priority should be to expand your staff,” Diaz said. “The customers are there. You need to increase your capacity to serve them.”
Runkle and Rappa had initially hired younger workers because they thought that demographic had the energy for the job.
But they found the younger workers they tried weren’t reliable. “They don’t respond to phone calls, or they don’t show up,” Runkle said.
The SCORE team recommended looking for workers in an older, more stable demographic, and to those who have flexible schedules and a better work ethic. They also suggested contacting vet schools to find students who already want to work with animals.
After the initial meeting with SCORE, Dee’s Dogs took on two more full-time contract workers, a college student who loves dogs, and a middle-aged woman who had previously owned her own business.
“They have a good work ethic,” Rappa said. “We always thought ‘No one can do it as well as we can,’ but now we’re seeing that they can.”
The couple needs to assume more of a management role as their company grows, the SCORE team advised.
“The business is growing, and it’s taking up all of your time,” Diaz said. “But you have to deal with sales and operations, you have to act like a CFO and CEO.”
The couple needs to create a plan for financial operations and marketing “and look at things more objectively,” Diaz said. “You have to evolve from this stage to the entrepreneurial stage.”
The couple also should outsource more of the day-to-day duties, and decide what roles they want to take on personally, Vaughn said. “As we learn to delegate, we learn to let go,” he said.
Runkle said it’s difficult because there is a constant flow of work. “We have people who need us to walk their dog every day,” Runkle said. “We have people who leave on vacation every week.”
Rappa and Runkle said they have started to delegate duties to contract workers, rather than automatically taking every job themselves.
The couple makes themselves available for emergency and last-minute sitting jobs, but do not charge a premium.
“You have to set limits. Who works 24/7?” Vaughn said. “You have to change your focus. Right now your focus is on serving clients, but you have to change your focus to building your business.”
Vaughn suggested an up-charge for emergency or last-minute calls.
Runkle said if she gets a last-minute call she feels like she has to go, because if not, the customer will go to a competitor.
“And if we try to charge a premium, it doesn’t work, because my competition will jump on that” and steal the customer, Rappa said.
Digital marketing expert Yalovetzky suggested they add an interactive calendar on their website so that customers can see availability and reserve time slots online, relieving the couple of a last-minute scramble of phone calls and texts.
Create a new revenue stream
Develop strategic alliances with complementary businesses, such as vets or groomers, who can refer new clients to you, Vaughn said. Then Dee’s Dogs can make use of their client base to cross sell pet products, the SCORE team advised.
“You’ve got a group of customers, now go fishing and try to sell them things to create more revenue,” Vaughn said. He suggested adding eCommerce capabilities to accept credit cards on the site.
After the first counseling session, the couple became affiliated with two pet product companies, Puppy Bumper and Easy Dog, and began offering products on their site for a commission.
Organize marketing efforts
The couple puts out an email blast monthly to current customers, but has not been active in social media. They have created a website, T-shirts, car magnets and printed materials with a variety of images.
“You want to build a brand identity. You need a consistency of images on your shirts and magnets,” Vaughn said.
The couple also has tried leaving fliers on doors, but do not know if it’s effective. Vaughn suggested they put a discount code on promotional material, so they can track where leads come in.
Rappa and Runkle said they would start tracking promotions to gauge their effectiveness, and evaluate outsourcing social media.
Make the website more user-friendly
A website should showcase products, improve processes such as scheduling or paying, and automate processes so that it works while you sleep, Yalovetzky said. Each service should have its own page, he said, so that customers can quickly find what they’re looking for.
Yalovetzky used Google Analytics to show the site’s bounce rate, or times someone clicked on the site and hit the back button, and the site’s traffic sources. Yalovetzky told the couple that a banner on the site advertising jobs had never been clicked on. The banner could be sold as advertising, and a jobs page could be set up, he said.
Putting a small “contact us” box on every page helps cultivate a list of potential customers, Yalovetzky said. Redeveloping the site using newer technology will allow them to add eCommerce options, be accessible by any search engine or device, and give them the ability to update content as needed.
Rappa and Runkle said they will seek outside expertise to redevelop the site, revamp content and learn how to add and change content themselves.
“When we started, it wasn’t about the money, it was about the animals, and the money came,” Rappa said. “Now it’s about growing the business.”