4 Years, 14 Lessons

Once upon a time there was a girl who ran a dog walking and training business, and in her spare time she would blog, sharing valuable information about how to raise a happy, healthy dog. And then one day she became way too busy with her business, leaving her with absolutely no time to write.

Yup, you guessed it, that was me!

But I’m back, not because business is any slower, but because I finally have some help in place that will allow me the time to blog once again. For those of you who have never read my blog before, or have forgotten about me (common, it hasn’t been that long has it?) I’m Kimberly Palermo, proud owner of BlueDog (and now BlueDog Academy!) For those of you who remember, hello again!

Since my last blog I’ve learned an incredible amount about dogs. That’s the beauty of our relationship with them – we’re always learning and they’re always learning. I also took a certification course at Gail Fisher’s All Dogs Academy, discovering a tremendous amount about training dogs. I can’t wait to share what I’ve learned with you!

However, before I indulge in the wonderful world of dogs, I wanted to begin with an announcement that I am so incredibly proud of. On February 2nd, 2012, BlueDog turned four years old! It seems like it was just yesterday when I began with a handful of business cards, a newspaper ad, and a dream. Now my dream is a reality! I absolutely enjoyed every moment of the journey and I learned many lessons along the way. Lessons that, in my opinion, should be shared with others.

So for my first back-to-blogging blog, I’d like to share some of those lessons with you. Some are dog related, some are business related, and some are life related. Hopefully some will pertain to you.

1. Dogs rock! (Ok, I knew that before I began my business. But either way it’s totally true.) No explanation needed.

2. Marry a rich spouse. Or at least a passionate, supportive one. I chose the second, though I couldn’t complain about my husband’s income either. But having a partner to support me through the past four years as a business owner was the best thing I could’ve asked for. Because starting and running a business isn’t always easy – just as life isn’t always easy. There are ups and downs and quite frankly, at times there are lows. Having my husband by my side supporting my business is what brought me to where I am today.

3. Grow because you want to, not because you have to. I learned the hard way not to hire hastily. Two years ago, as calls came pouring in for walks, I desperately searched for a new employee, hired quickly, and then got burned. I was stuck with too many clients and not enough walkers. I don’t like to turn new clients away, but now I will if I don’t have enough help. I’m also always looking for the right person to join our team now, whether I need to hire or not. That way I’m patient about who I pick, and it’s the right choice for my business.

4. Sweat the small stuff. But then learn from it and do something about it. I know this goes against what everyone else says. The thing is, the small stuff – the little details – they really do matter. After each dog walk, my walkers and I have always leave notes at my clients’ houses, filling them in on the details of their pup’s adventures with us. But last year I began noticing that my walkers were taking a really long time writing out notes, and they’d use any kind of paper they could find, including scraps of paper. It didn’t seem very professional to me, and was quite time consuming. But really, how important are the notes? Well to me, they were important. So I worked with a graphic designer and printer and created journals (or BlueDog DogLogs as we call them!) to leave at each client’s home. In it my walkers can check off what the pup did, leave a short note, and even include a sticker when a pup is extra good! Sure, it costs more than using scraps of paper, but the feedback was phenomenal; my clients absolutely love their journals and my walkers appreciate the time saver. It was just a minor part of our business, but I learned a valuable lesson about the importance of details because of it.

5. Never put your phone number in a help wanted ad. Talk about learning the hard way! 62 voicemails in one weekend. Stick to your email addresses.

6. There’s always tomorrow. Yes, I just quoted Annie. But it’s totally true. Recently I had a walker break her leg, another have her tonsils remove, then a third get sick with the flu. All within days of my certification program during which I would be unavailable for five days. I honestly thought I wouldn’t make it through the week. But guess what? I did. I took what I’ve learned in the past during tough times, I improvised a bit, and I got through it – and not a single dog missed a walk!

7. It’s OK to talk out loud to your dog. My neighbors must think I’m crazy. Actually, probably anyone who sees me walking a dog does. Because I talk to them, a lot. And I do it because dogs love it (OK, it’s also because I have no one else to talk to.) But if you want your dog’s attention on a walk, tell him how wonderful he is, be silly, and act like a dork. Your dog will totally love you for it; just ask any dog that I walk.

8. Stay humble, but be proud. It’s my husband who has to remind me of this one time and time again. When I get frustrated by the everyday of running a business, it’s easy to forget why I’m doing it and how far I’ve come. I just dwell on the little issues and forget about the big picture. It takes him reminding me of what I’ve accomplished to bring me back to a positive outlook. Even the little accomplishments mean a lot – a new client, a training success story, a nice compliment on one of my walkers. Be proud of what you do, it’ll help you continue to be successful.

9. Trust people. I was reminded of this lesson when I met with my accountant this week. After talking about my business’s growth over the past couple of years, we began laughing about the first time I came into her office. It was about 8 months into the start of my business and my husband and I were just about to get married. All I had to document my sales was a mess of Excel spreadsheets and I was totally freaking out about leaving the business while we went on our honeymoon. My plan was to have my sister and mom run the business for me while we were away. Why I was afraid that something would happen in the hands of my family was beyond me, but I was scared out of my mind! Fast forward four years and on our last vacation, I had a dog walker staying at my house with my own dogs, another taking care of all phone calls and emails for the business, and a third managing my employees. If I couldn’t trust others, not only would I not be able to grow my business, but I certainly would never go on another vacation again!

10. Give yourself some me time. This one is a challenge as a business owner, especially for someone who works from home. It’s way too easy to work from 6am to 9pm at night, and still feel guilty about not getting enough work done. I’ve learned to allow myself some time to get away. This means literally getting out of the house to do something. Of course, for me that usually means a walk with my two Collies. But a date night with my husband is nice as well. Of a Friday afternoon lunch with my mom and sisters. Whatever it is, I need it at times, we all do.

11. Surround yourself with positive, supportive people. I’m sure you’ve heard this one before, but it’s important enough to be repeated. When I held our open house for our new training facility, I was literally astounded by how many people showed up to support our business. Friends, family, clients, business associates, even people who I had never met before. Everyone was so excited for our next step, and if I didn’t have the support of those people, I don’t know if I would have had the confidence to open a dog training facility. You need those people, and you don’t need someone who doesn’t support you. They will only bring you down.

12. Check for holes in bags. All you dog owners out there know what I’m talking about. Never let your guard down before you pick up dog poop. There could be a hole in that bag.

13. Take risks. With a down economy and people unable to find jobs, it’s hard to see the reality in taking risks. But it’s also hard to live out your dreams if you don’t take them, which is why I quit my straight-out-of-college sales job to start my own business in 2008. And as my business grows I continue to take risks all the time. Most recently my husband and I took the greatest risk of all – he quit his full time, stable job to work for BlueDog. Talk about scary stuff! It was a discussion with my in-laws that really convinced us that it was the right move to make. My father-in-law had taken numerous risks, both successful and unsuccessful, as an entrepreneur throughout his entire life. But the biggest one he took was when he was in his late forties; he sold his stable dental lab business and went back to school to become a licensed denturist and open his own practice in Maine. They told us it wasn’t an easy decision, but they wouldn’t be where they are today – proud owners of a thriving denture practice (shout out to Denture Solutions!) if they hadn’t had the guts to take that risk.

14. And if you’re stressed out, go walk a dog. One of the greatest lessons I learned was from my younger brother. One day I was ranting on and on to him about how the business was stressing me out. Finally, he looked me in the eye and calmly said “Kim, what do you do when you’re stressed out? You go for a walk or you play with your dog. You walk dogs all day long. Get over it.” And he’s totally right. So if you’re stressed out, go find a dog to take for a walk, I know plenty who would be more than happy to join you!