January 11, 2018

Welcoming Angel + a little something about this in-home dog boarding business


This morning we welcomed Angel, a chihuahua mix, to our crew today. Angel has been here before but that was already two years ago. Back then Angel was a little plump and was on a diet. I was so surprised to see her today because she has lost her weight! She looks so good and her face and happy tail wags are as exactly as I remember. 

This year marks our 5th year in running Piri's Place. And I have enjoyed every moment, every dog and every person who came through our doors (except one woman who was a nightmare and accused me of not wanting to care for her dogs and said I was using Piri's cancer as an excuse and she littered on my driveway before going home - I don't think I can ever find it in my heart to forgive her).

I started Piri's Place about a year after quitting my job. I took that full year off to just recharge. I was so incredibly burnt out from a decade of just working my tail off in a field that didn't pay much but required a lot of your time and, well frankly, your heart as well. While the endless work never stressed me out (it was hard and there was stress, but it was never a stress I couldn't handle) it was the people that got to me in the end. And I left and never looked back. 

I took that time to do things I never got to enjoy when I was working (working at the office, working out in the field, working at home, working in my sleep). I picked up on knitting and crocheting and began to do crafts. I found joy in thrifting and went vintage shop hopping. I spent more time with Piri, I read, watched TV and ventured around the DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia) area.

The most noticeable change happened right away when I was on break. I laughed a lot. And I spent my time with Yangkyu and Piri doing meaningful things and having wonderful conversations, and not wasting that time venting and crying and stressing over people. I thought, "This was what I want my life to be." And it's been that way since.

One of the biggest challenges at the time was having our income slashed in half. We were dependent only Yangkyu's full time salary but that was ok. I wasn't into buying things and we were ok to tighten our belts here and there. I grew up not having to worry about money, but this reconfiguring of our budget never made me sad or feel trapped. I didn't need to buy things to make me happy. My happiness was right at home with Yangkyu and Piri, and all the things I was doing and making.

About a half a year into our break, Yangkyu sent me a link to DogVacay - a network of dog caregivers offering in-home pet boarding and daycare service. I have definitely heard of DogVacay before but never felt that it would be convenient to do because we were living in a condo at the time. Yangkyu sent the link my way not to pressure me to make money but to consider it if I wanted to ever put my photo taking skills to use while caring for dogs. I thought that was a good idea and after a month into moving to our corner lot townhouse - the home we live in now - , I opened Piri's Place to our very first guest. 

This may sound weird or may sound like a lie, but I didn't start this business to make a lot of money. 

We began humbly - charging only $30 a night (which DogVacay - and Rover now takes 15% of) for overnight stays and $20 for daycare. Following our very first guest, we started to get a string of guests. While it is encouraged that hosts ask clients for good reviews, I never asked them. But they miraculously came in and in a blink of an eye I had racked up a good 40-50 reviews. And not one of them was solicited. I was beyond thankful. 

I have since increased my fees to $45 a night for overnight stays and $25 for daycare, which is still low compared to commercial boarding facilities. I increased my price to stay even with other hosts in my area, but also to make sure I was also making enough to put back into Piri's Place.

We provide all dog beds, blankets, poop bags, toys, treats (if they want) and we are big on cleaning. And cleaning doesn't come cheap. All our clients never minded the price increases and actually tell me they think I don't charge enough (one client once told me she paid more for someone else because I wasn't available one time and the care was not satisfactory - that I am worth so much more - that made me feel good). Some express their gratitude by gifting us things from their travels or give us a tip.

Of course they don't have to and it is never expected. I actually feel bad for taking any extra money in the form of a tip and so we started a little tradition where we kept the tip money until the end of the year and donated half of it to a local rescue organization. But I always appreciate clients' thoughtful remarks, their appreciation in words and in the form of tips. 

There were (and perhaps still) a few misconceptions people had about how I run Piri's Place. If you glance through our profile, the pictures we share are all from my DSLR. I take photos of dogs from my good camera and share them with my clients during their daily updates (I use the phone often as well). People would comment that it was a good visual marketing strategy and I kind of tilted my head and thought, huh?? 

I may be running a business, and I am very proud of it, but all the things that I do for dogs and clients are not driven to increase my popularity or to make Piri's Place look good to attract a bigger customer base.

I love pictures and I value them a lot. Not everyone may be the same, but pictures hold a deep sentimental value for me. I wanted clients to have nice photos of their dogs because I thought maybe one day they would be happy to have something, a moment captured on camera, that they can remember  forever.

I also save all the photos in large resolution format and also in smaller resolution (to send via email). I do this not because I have time on my hands all day, every day, but because we make photobooks for clients whose dogs crossed the rainbow bridge. I use the higher resolution files to make them so that the quality would be good. I don't charge for these books. I just send it to them because I want to. Because I want to help soothe their broken hearts any way that I can. 

Sometimes I feel like I think differently than the rest of the world, hence these misconceptions on motives on how and what I do with Piri's Place. And when they assume I do something for a particular reason, I am baffled.

The first year we opened, I did something that 99% of the world would think is the dumbest idea. I gave one free night to clients who booked with us for the month of December.

Why? (I'm curious to know why you think I did that)

It was simple, really. 

Because it was the holidays.

That's it. In the holiday spirit, I wanted to gift a client of one free night.

It drove me nuts that people thought I was doing this to get clients because I was the new host on the block. It wasn't that at all. And when I saw that every other host was actually increasing their prices because it was the holidays, here I was, the newbie, giving away free nights, just so she can get more customers. I stopped doing this the following year.

My mentality back when I first started was that I was spending so much money caring for Piri. He was diagnosed with kidney disease and he needed to have blood work done constantly and needed sub-q fluids injected and medications refilled and the whole nine yards. It was a lot of money. I had stopped boarding him at facilities because he was sick and I just stop traveling altogether. And so my mindset was - 1. people shouldn't have to worry about boarding their dogs, especially if they are old and sick; and 2. boarding care for dogs shouldn't break people's wallets, especially if they are caring for sick senior dogs. They are already spending so much on vet bills. Boarding their dogs and hoping they are getting good care should be the last of their worries.

Ok.

Maybe this thought was dumb.

I quickly came to realize that not many people thought this deep. And a handful took advantage of my low prices.

Unlike most hosts, I don't charge for walks during their stay with me (although my walks are limited as I don't leave dogs home alone), I don't charge an extra daycare fee if their pick up time is in the evening, I don't charge for baths (although not everyone gets it but we do a complimentary bath for long-term stays). Most people will say I don't have a mindset of a business person. Perhaps I don't. But doing things my way have earned me a great client base who respect the work I do and who appreciate so so much every email and pictures I send them. 

Another misconception people also have is that I have it so easy. I get to play with dogs all day! Yay! Fun! 

I do have a lot of fun with the dogs and there are definitely perks that come with doing an in-home dog sitting service, but there are also a lot of things that aren't exactly cake walk. 

For one - we offer a 24 hour supervision policy. That means, unless you have a husband or another family member who can watch the dogs for you while you want to go out, you are stuck home caring for dogs for as little as one night to possibly 30 nights straight. Of course not all hosts offer 24 hour supervision policy. But we do. And for me, I'm an extreme homebody so this works in my favor for most of the time, but even for someone who enjoys being home, his can get tough. Mentally and physically you have to be ok with doing this.

Two - There are a lot of dogs going in and out of our house and they are welcome everywhere. On the sofa, on the bed. That means I clean a lot. I am constantly wiping, cleaning, washing doggy paws and wiping their private areas after bathroom breaks. When we have as many as 8 dogs at a time (which is rare), that's a lot of paws and butts to wipe. When it rains. Oh boy.

Three - The entire day, I take pictures and videos of dogs. And not half assed pictures but candid moments, posed moments, play time moments. And they are edited, saved, emailed with a full detailed update that happens right around dinner time. DogVacay and Rover does make it easy for hosts to just snap a few pictures and send it via their app but I don't like doing it that way. It's just not in me as someone who takes joy in taking good pictures. 

Four - While your normal work day may be 8 hours, mine starts at 6 am and ends at 10:30 pm and perhaps waking up a few times during the night if I'm caring for older and sick dogs. There are days when I do need a nap and take it in the afternoon, but my work hour is literally 24 hours.

Other people, while thinking I have it so easy, also don't really consider this a "real" job. And they always comment on how what they do is so hard and so important while I'm just playing with dogs. Ok - you enjoy your mid-day fancy coffee and your happy hour while I am probably either giving an injection shot to a diabetic dog and writing my daily updates at 7 pm, while still waiting to eat my dinner.

They also think I can hang out and leave the house and go shopping and or talk on the phone all day. Um. No. While this may not seem like a traditional job to most folks, I take pride in what I do. And that means, I don't slack off or do "fun things" when I have guest dogs at home. 

It's ok to think that I have a lot of fun on my job. I do. But when people start saying how I have it so easy and how what I do isn't really a job, then it's rude and inconsiderate. To me, most of the people who say those things to me won't last a day doing a dog boarding service the way I run it. You just have to have a certain physical and emotional mindset to plow through day in and day out.

I guess the point I want to drive the most is that I don't do things half baked around here. As with my previous job and responsibilties, everything I do, I do my best and more. It's just not in me to do the bare minimum, get paid and then go on vacation somewhere with that money. And it's nice when it's recognized. When people leave reviews and say I go above and beyond, I know I've done my job.

Good and honest work pays off in different ways. Through Piri's Place and the way I operated it, an opportunity opened up for me to be a freelance writer for the DogVacay blog, taking my own photos, and although I haven't taken these offers up, I have been asked by my clients if I would be willing to do a few professional family photo shoots with their dog included (I didn't take these offers because, sure, good photos come about with a good eye, but I also feel that it comes with good guidance from the photographer to the subjects, and I'm not sure if I would be good at that - with people subjects that is).

Finally, while making money on the side, and either helping pay the mortgage, putting it in savings or supporting our monthly budget, I also don't ever plan to operate Piri's Place like a money making machine. Some people think I don't get enough clients and that it's always the same dogs over and over again. That's not because I don't have people inquiring and sending booking requests, it's because I chose it to be that way. I decline requests often. 

Most of the spots fill up quickly by repeat guests who know that they have to book early or request their spots be saved because spots at Piri's Place get filled months ahead (currently we are booked all the way to March with a few weeks in the summer and fall filled up as well).

I also only take in two dogs at a time. I used to take in three but lowered the number when caring for Piri became more hands on and I wanted to make sure I gave each dog in my care my individual attention. The only times I take in more dogs than my limit is when a repeat client inquires about boarding on booked days. If all the dogs' temperaments fit then we open our doors for more guest friends. 99% of the time, I don't accept new clients when I am completely booked for overnight and daycare stays.

It would be a wonderful thing to find a job that is so simple and wonderful and easy, wouldn't it? I've learned that nothing is easy, especially if you want to take pride in what you do. And plus, if everything was so easy, where would be the joy in tackling challenges?

3 comments

  1. You definitely put your heart into your work Jane, your clients are super lucky to have someone who is so kind and thoughtful in all your approaches!

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  2. Thank you for sharing this, Jane. I do think that for all you do, you charge such an amazing price. I remember when we had dogs (before kids) and when we went away for trips, the place we went to charged around the same price as you did but did half as much. And seriously....people in general baffle me as a whole. I would always ask my husband...."why would do they think/do that?" and my hubby would just say that we can't control other people, which is really too bad:P

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  3. Being an attentive caretaker is never an easy task but you get through it with a smile. Thanks for giving us some insight into what you do on a daily basis

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