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Working With Dogs Full-Time: How to Turn Pro

Do you want to work with dogs full-time, but can't see how? Do you struggle part-time, telling yourself you'll keep the other job just until the training really takes off? It's a common refrain. Coaching and supporting dog businesses for a living, I've seen every kind of business model and every type of owner, from wildly successful full-timers to weekend hobbyists. Mostly, though, dog pros work part or full-time at other jobs, and run a dog business on the side, hoping it will one day support them.

Years of experience have taught me the key differences between pros that make it as full-time entrepreneurs and those that don't. Read on to see if you have the temperament, skill set, and drive necessary to pull it off. If so, you absolutely can bring a new or part-time business into the full-time realm and make a living doing what you love.

The magic of niches

Most successful dog businesses have one simple concept in common: specialization. This is particularly important if a lot of competitors operate in your geographical area. When a potential client opens the phone book or scans the bulletin board at the local vet office, what will make you stand out? A walker who emphasizes a particular breed will draw owners of that breed. A day care specializing in small dogs will no doubt be more attractive to a Yorkie guardian. Trainers who focus on one type of training or behavioral issue set themselves apart and give clients a reason to call them.

If, for example, an owner has a dog with separation anxiety and he sees that a particular trainer specializes in that problem, he is much more likely to call that trainer than the fifteen who advertise generic obedience training. This doesn't mean, however, that the trainer in question will do nothing but home alone training for the rest of her career. On the contrary. Satisfied clients refer their friends, who again refer their friends, and only a few of those new clients are likely to be sep anx cases. The trick is to get those initial calls so you can begin building the all-important word of mouth.

Tip: Find a niche

Think about what you are particularly good at. Working with small dogs? Unruly adolescents? Dog-baby intros? Family training? Look at what other professionals in your area offer. Is there a gap in the market you can fill? Whatever you decide, make sure it is something you enjoy.

Know where you're going

Most of us are dog professionals because we love dogs, not business development. When we decide to set up shop, we do the bare minimum necessary: think up a name, file for a business license and other paperwork, have stationery and maybe a brochure printed, and post a few fliers around town. And then we wait eagerly for the phone to ring. Which would work well in an ideal world with endless demand for our product and next-to-zero competition.

But the reality is that setting up and marketing a new business, let alone building a profitable one, requires sustained focus, attention, and action. Simply hanging out a shingle rarely does the job, especially if there are other trainers and services available in your area. It is critical to develop a business plan and actively build relationships with other dog service providers (vets, supply stores, groomers, etc.).

Tip: Hatch a plan

Trainers often plan to work part-time until the business takes off. Sound familiar? The problem with this strategy is that it doesn't provide a framework for making anything happen. For that, you need a comprehensive business plan. It doesn't have to be fancy or formal as long as it helps you assess viability and provides guidance as you move forward.

Your plan should include goals for the business, a numbers assessment, a marketing plan-your niche and message, image, services, materials, and how you will get the word out-and an overall checklist of tasks and due dates. If you're moving from part to full-time, decide on a clear set of success indicators (number of clients per month, amount of income, etc.) to help you determine when it's time to leave your other job.

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