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Veteran Retailers Offer Advice for Pet Business Newcomers


When you’re starting a new business, many people will tell you that you’ll learn your best lessons from your own experiences, both good and bad. However, having been a business owner for more than 25 years, I can say with certainty that I would have loved to just bypass some of the mistakes and wrong turns I made and just plowed down the right path from the beginning.

That’s exactly what you can do by taking this great advice from professionals who’ve “been there, done that,” in creating successful, long-term pet businesses. To help you get off to a great start, I turned to two successful business owners who have seen the ups and downs in the industry and are still going strong.

 

An Expert in Business

It’s not enough to just love animals, or be an awesome veterinarian or a skilled groomer. It’s also not enough to be passionate about what you do, although it helps. A successful business requires more to get started and keep going, especially when times are tough. You need to learn how to attract and hire a great team, make great financial decisions, and most importantly, how to learn and persevere through your mistakes.

Kirbay Preuss is the general store manager at Preuss Pets, a Lansing, Michigan, family-owned pet business that’s been going strong for 40 years. She recommends people learn everything they can about running a business before they get started.

“I find too often people go into business because they have a passion for pets, which is great. But they are naive to the fact that a business will sink without business skills,” Preuss said. “Money management, human resource management, getting involved with your local chambers and marketing networks, it’s the foundation to floating your passion. You can’t have one without the other.”

There are many resources available to those who want to start a business. The U.S. Small Business Administration has a plethora of resources on its website. You can learn everything from how to create a business plan to steps for launching, managing, and growing a business. You can also turn to the Small Business Development Center in your community. Start by searching for the closest location on the national website. Another great resource is SCORE, the Service Corp of Retired Executives, where you can get counsel from successful, retired business execs who want to give back.

In addition, there are countless business books available on just about every subject you need to get you on the path to success.

Christine Dawson is the owner of Paleo Pet Goods and Paleo Pet Sitting, which is located outside of Houston, Texas. She’s been in business for more than 14 years and is a big believer in continuous learning. Among her favorite business books are “Profit First” by Mike Michalowitz, “Traction,” by Gino Wickman and Michael E. Gerber’s “The E-Myth Revisited.”

 

Know Your Market

It’s critical before opening a business that you understand your market. Who are your customers? Where do they live and work? What do they buy? What will they buy? However, your research needs to go beyond that. You’ll want to know who your competitors are as well as whether the area is already oversaturated with businesses like yours.

Dawson recommends people really get to know their market before opening a business.

“What you want to sell may not be what your typical customer wants to spend money on,” she said, adding if you don’t get to know your customer base and what they will buy, you’ll quickly find yourself going out of business.

Preuss said their business didn’t focus much on location and demographic in the beginning. However, she said they started conducting zip code analysis 15 years ago.

“We really focused in on where our new location would be for where our customer traffic seemed to be drawing from,” she explained. “We also focused on being centrally located to major highways. It’s made a world of difference.”

Once you’re in business, you can get a lot of information from your POS system. However, before you go into business, you will need to do your homework by gathering information from trade associations, demographic and economic data you can search for through the US Census Bureau. Your local chamber of commerce and other business groups are also great resources of market information for your area.

 

Don’t Go It Alone

One of the biggest pieces of advice most people give is to find a mentor in the business. Someone who can help you navigate the process of setting up your business, hiring and more. However, you don’t want to ask just anyone to be a mentor. It’s best to avoid family and friends because their feelings for you might interfere with their ability to be honest with you when you’re making bad decisions.

“Having a mentor is so important because it gets you out of your own world and out of habits you don’t even realize have been leading to you being stuck and makes you see things through a new perspective,” said Preuss, “It also humbles you. When you get stuck in your own way, you can become your biggest obstacle.”

Dawson recommends people also invest in professional advice.

“I think my number one tip would be to get a business coach before doing anything,” Dawson noted. “It may cost some money upfront, but it’s well worth it because it will shorten your timeframe of becoming profitable.”

If a business coach is out of the question, getting involved in local or regional associations is another opportunity to learn from others with more experience. However, it’s not enough to just go to conferences or professional events. You have to get involved. Once people get to know you and work alongside you, they’re going to be much more willing to help you.

 

Expect Unexpected Expenses

You’ve done your homework, you know the costs of getting started in your business, but what about when things go wrong? Do you have funds set aside to fix that broken dryer, pay for advertising, purchasing business insurance or permits/licenses you didn’t realize you needed, credit card processing fees, shrinkage, the cost of retail space?

“Two of the biggest expenses incurred have been construction and bad employees,” said Preuss. “When we first opened our new location, we didn’t realize they would be shutting the whole street down in front of our store for an entire year for a combined sewer overflow project. It made a huge drop in sales. We needed that income to stay afloat those first few years.”

She adds that an employee with poor performance whom you can’t trust is a huge loss for your business. Hiring right is critical to your success. Therefore, it is very important that you create a great process for finding, interviewing, hiring, and onboarding employees that are a good fit for you, your business, and your customers.

“I can’t think of a more valuable expense than a great employee who truly has your back and understands and respects your business,” concluded Preuss.

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