The first full week of June is Pet Appreciation Week. To celebrate, we spoke with Jean Brillman, the owner of Angel Pet Sitting, a thriving dog-walking and pet-sitting business in Pennsylvania. The company helps busy pet owners care for their furry friends when they’re at work or on vacation. Brillman and her husband bought the business in 2009 and tripled its size within three years. Now, she is able to stay home with her two small children, handling hiring and the website while a manager takes care of day-to-day operations.
A Business Grown from a Persistent Passion for Animals
I have an odd, varied background. I went to school for communications – I was a television/radio major with a video production concentration. Before I went to school for that, I was very involved with horse training throughout my whole life. I always had tons of animals at my house. We lived on 10 acres and had 6-8 dogs at a time, rabbits, every kind of animal you could imagine. I really wanted to be a horse trainer, but my parents were like, “If you ever get injured, you’re not going to have anything to fall back on, so you have to go to school.”
When I got out of school, I still really wanted to be a horse trainer, so I did that full time. I loved it, but it is a hard life. I went back to school and got my Master’s degree in education and became a teacher. I love to teach and worked in a program in really tough schools, sort of like Teach for America.
I did teaching for five years and then I just felt like I really wanted to have my own thing, my own business. I’m very motivated and a work-a-holic. My husband and I were looking for business opportunities, and Angel Pet Sitting came up. I know everything about animals and it seemed like a great opportunity. So, we thought, “Let’s get me out of my teaching job, and I’ll run Angel Pet Sitting full-time.”
My husband (fiancé at the time) had a home equity line of credit that he used to buy the business. We worked on paying that down. We’ve been able to pretty much work it out without taking any loans, though we’ve definitely had some times where we’re like, “Crap! We need to pay payroll – We have to move some money around from our personal account and dip into our savings.” We just recently got a line of credit in the name of the business, which is nice, because it gives us a little bit of padding that we can use to keep improving the business.
Basically, for cash flow management, we look at our QuickBooks reports. In the first three years of the business, it tripled. We really haven’t ever gone down. When we bought the business, we looked at the finances to see if it could replace what I was making at the time or do better. It did, so when we bought it, there was nowhere to go but up. Since it was able to sustain on a third of what it is now, we’ve not had too many problems where we’ve had to sit down and say, “Uh-oh! We’re running into problems with cash flow!”
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Business Challenges and Rewards
Our most challenging thing is hiring. I just recently became a coach for other people who are looking to start a pet-sitting or dog-walking business or to improve or grow their existing business. Hiring seems to be a theme between all of them. It’s really difficult, because it’s a very unique position. You have to sort of have open availability but not have to make a set income. You have to love dogs and cats and be willing to drive and travel. I like to hire more mature, responsible people, like someone who is retired. They’re sort of unicorns. This is just not a typical 9-5 where you know how much money you’re going to make and you have a set schedule. We like to try to have as little turnover as possible because people tend to love their pet-sitters and the pets love their caretakers, but it’s a challenge to be able to do that.
It’s wonderful to be able to provide people with amazing care and customer service. People are so happy because their pets are so happy and their homes are well cared for. It feels good to be able to give people a really good quality service, especially because I love pets so much and I love the industry.
It’s also really nice that I’ve been able to take something and grow it as an entrepreneur to a place where I’m able to be home with my kids. We figured out that if I was going to be a teacher, I would be paying two-thirds or three-quarters of my salary towards daycare. I would be making a little bit of money, but giving up so much more for it. It’s really important to me that I’m able to be home with my kids and still grow personally and have my own thing.
Business Lessons Learned
You really don’t know what you don’t know in the beginning. Now, I have my coaching business, Pet Sit Success. My husband is like, “I wish we had a Pet Sit Success when we were starting out!”
I think in the beginning, I didn’t value myself and my service enough. I would make myself miserable in the process of making everybody else happy. Once I changed my thinking around and decided that my time and my expertise are valuable and deserve to be treated like that, it sort of turned my whole business around. I set it up how I wanted it to be and finally did a really good job of communicating our policies and expectations to clients and pet-sitters. That really helped me to be able to run the business how I wanted to run it and go have a life and sanity. I realized that I could have a successful business without running myself into the ground.
When we started this business, we had looked for pet-sitters for our own pets. Of everyone we called, nobody would call us back. What I think was really important in growing this business was that every single person got called or emailed back within 24 business hours. I am very particular on customer service and I think we give an amazing customer service experience.
Advice for New Entrepreneurs
In any small business, I think it’s really important to know that you’re going to bust your butt in the beginning. Know that you’re going to do that but also try to separate yourself a little bit. There are some weeks that I’ll take a week off mentally from it where I do the bare minimum and give myself a little break at night. When I didn’t have a manager and had two kids – a newborn and an 18-month-old – I was running the business and made myself crazy trying to do every little thing. Delegating is huge if you can afford it, whether it’s to your husband, a nanny, a mommy’s helper, or an employee.
Really love what you’re going to do. If I didn’t love animals, I don’t think I would be as successful, because I wouldn’t have that driving passion to grow it as much.
What’s Next for Angel Pet Sitting
I recently started our coaching business, Pet Sit Success. I’m working on creating some courses for that right now. We’re also completely revamping our website. And my husband and I are trying to retire him from the corporate world by starting or buying a doggy daycare boarding facility that will maybe do training and also have a holistic vet care piece as well. We want to always keep the business progressive and thinking forward!
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