Holidays for dogs

Tina Young, winner of this year's Microbusiness Franchisee of the Year award at the bfa HSBC Franchisee of the Year Awards talks to about running her business which provides holidays for dogs.

When you go on holiday what do you do with your pets? Why not send them on their own holiday? Tina Young is a franchisee at Barking Mad which matches dogs up with host families who can provide an alternative to kennels for holidaying humans.

Not only has she built up her business from home, but she has just scooped the Microbusiness Franchisee of the Year award at the prestigious British Franchise Association HSBC Franchisee of the Year Awards 2014. “It was the best business night of my life,” says Tina.

She came upon Barking Mad after working for years in senior management in call centres. “I had one of those moments. I felt like a square peg in a round hole. I felt I was in the wrong job,” she says. She went backpacking with her husband in the Far East and bought a book about starting your own business. She was inspired, but didn’t know what kind of business she could run. When she got back to the UK she took her badly behaved dog called Elvis to dog classes and did some voluntary work with an animal charity. “I was walking dogs a lot and I wondered if someone was trying to tell me something,” she says.

A friend of a friend told her about Barking Mad. They had set up in 2000, but had no-one in Northumberland where Tina is based. She spoke to the franchisor and visited the Barking Mad office. Once she had made her decision she did a week’s training course and launched her franchise the next week.

“It all made sense,” she says. “I was mad about dogs. I didn’t think at the time that I could have children, but I needed to be a mummy so I got Elvis. I read lots of books and read up on dog behaviour. I became immersed in the psychology of dogs. When I took the franchise it felt really natural. I felt I could be myself. At the call centre I felt I wasn't being me.”

She felt the franchise framework provided a safety net, allowing her to start her business with a tried and tested formula. Tina says the biggest challenge for her in the early years was marketing, which was a surprise. She had thought that with her sales and service background she would find it easy. She received quite a bit of press in the first year, but she didn’t build on that in the second year.

“The business grew, but not as it should have. I realised marketing had to be ongoing. Dogs die, people move house circumstances change and people cannot afford holidays. If the business was not to be just a hobby I needed to continually grow it,” she says. “In the early days I got a lot of support and I rang the franchisor weekly. But then I realised I still had an employee mindset. I saw the franchisor as my boss and I needed to see it as my own business.”

Growing business

The need to keep the business growing became even more apparent when Tina took on staff whose jobs she felt responsible for. She decided to expand after she adopted first her daughter and then her son two years later. The adoption process was lengthy and she had to convince social services that she had everything in place. She was neither an employee who was able to take time out for adoption leave nor a stay at home mum. She had to show she had the back-up to be able to be the primary carer of her baby.

In the end she took a month off and then worked flexibly around her daughter’s and then her son's sleep patterns. “I took a step back,” she says. Her husband also works from home and put his business on hold for a while. Between them they were able to work and look after their children. When her daughter was one she started doing a few hours at nursery, which gradually increased as she got older. Her children are now six and four and she has been able to step up her work on the business as they have grown.

Tina admits she felt a bit scared about taking on staff. She felt no-one else could care about the business as much as she did and offer the same customer service. However, she believes the hiring process meant she got the right kind of people and she now employs three members of staff who she says make a great team.

In addition to a back-up team, Barking Mad also offers a service which means her phone calls can be answered virtually. “It was a lifeline to me,” she says. “When I was changing a nappy I didn’t have to answer the phone. Instead I got an email and could talk to clients at my convenience and manage their expectations.”

Tina’s work involves liaising with clients to find out their dog’s character so she can match them up with the right holiday host. For instance, if the dog likes lots of walks, she will match them up with a host who likes exercise. She then collects the dog when the owner goes on holiday and delivers it to the host. Two of her members of staff help with this as it was impossible for her to do it when her children were very small. The third member of staff helps out with paperwork. Having employees means she can go on holiday herself since periods like the summer holidays are the busiest time for Barking Mad.

Tina, who gives motivational talks to other Barking Mad franchisees, says the fact that she built up a team in what was originally meant to be a one-man business was one of the main reasons she won the Microbusiness Franchisee of the Year award.  “The judges liked that I had adapted the business to fit my lifestyle changes,” she says.

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