...Put your ego aside and be your own PR machine.
Linda Descano, CFA®, President and CEO,
Working as a paralegal, dog lover and single mom Eileen Fleming continually felt guilty about leaving her pet dog alone at home. She was waking up early, juggling her schedule, and coming home during her lunch hour from her nearby job to walk her dog. She realized that there were probably other pet owners who felt the same way she did—and gave her the idea of starting a day care service for dogs, today known as Buddy’s Barking Lot.
Not only do Eileen’s canine companions enjoy a crate-free environment, their days are structured and planned, with time for play, rest, walks and even field trips based on their size, age and personality. Her keen insight: "A good dog is a tired dog."
On a recent morning, not only did Eileen and I swap stories about the canines and felines in our lives, but she also shared her insights from her seven-year entrepreneurial journey. And, to be transparent, you should know that Eileen is a client of Citibank.
Eileen shared three keen insights. First is to have a plan before you open the door. "When I got the idea to open Buddy’s, the first thing I did was to start saving money. I also put together a plan. Then, I searched for a rental property that would be large enough and willing to rent to dogs. I also set up a website before I officially opened to help get the word out, " she shared.
Second, research whom your customers really are and how to reach them. Eileen explained, "As I was planning to open Buddy’s, I thought of my customers simply as “pet owners,” and figured the best way to reach them was by advertising in pet magazines and related pet trades. So, I committed to a year-long advertising deal. Within two months, I realized that this wasn’t going to generate any meaningful business."
She continued, "I decided to take a step back and think more critically about who my customer really was. That’s when it hit me: my customers are pet owners who work outside the home. They are super busy, often juggling their work, their kids and their canine companions. I re-oriented my advertising approach to be more grass roots. I bought a used white van, had a promotional sign painted on it, and drove around during peak traffic periods to promote my business. I even dressed up in a dog costume and walked around neighborhoods to shake hands with people and take pictures with kids, followed by a friend carrying a sign. This helped generate calls to us. My activities also caught the eye of a newspaper reporter who wrote a profile about me, which -- in turn -- generated even more calls."
...Put your ego aside and be your own PR machine.
Think outside the box is Eileen’s third insight. She elaborated, " Many of my most loyal customers are middle class teachers, policemen, and so on, half of whom have children. They consider their pets as a necessary expense. When the recession hit, I was concerned about demand for our services, but also about how my customers were going to fare for their families. I decided to lower my prices by $5/day thinking that it would help me stay flat. What I found was that my loyal customers sent their dogs in more often so I more than made up for the lower prices with higher volumes."
In Eileen’s view, success as an entrepreneur hinges on passion. "You absolutely have to be passionate about what you are doing, down to your core. You also have to be prepared to work 18 hour days while you are building your business -- and live modestly until you are on firm financial ground," Eileen remarked.
Not surprising given her insights above, Eileen also views the ability to think creatively as a key success trait. "You have to think creatively in how to get the word out and not rely on traditional channels. Most entrepreneurs, especially when starting out, operate on a shoestring budget, so you want to explore every avenue you can to make your own noise -- no matter how absurd it is, such as dressing up in a dog costume! You need to put your ego aside and be willing to be your own PR machine," she emphasized.
To Eileen, that one word is "necessity." She explained, "What came to mind when you asked that question was saving for my daughter’s college education, paying bills, paying for health care and all the other things that it takes to be healthy, physically and financially."
"I grew up in a family of modest means and, like many others, my parents struggled at times, especially with seven children to provide for. I was the youngest and saw how my older siblings worked and saved for things they wanted. When I turned 14, I started to baby sit and even would help clean houses to earn money, which I used for clothes and other things. It taught me responsibility and to rely on myself."
Eileen’s husband also grew up in a large family of modest means, so they both approach money similarly: you work hard, spend smart and save for what you want. She credits their financial harmony to three things: shared financial values; frequent and open conversations about their finances; and clear expectations about who’s responsible for what when it comes to money.
"Don’t let yourself be stuck," Eileen said, "but think back to what lit you up as a kid and then go after that." She added, "I also believe that with love, comes success. If you don’t love what you do, you won’t be truly successful."
Eileen doesn’t miss a beat in answering this: "Watching TV in bed surrounded by my nine lovable dogs."