Doug, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
Before we were married, Jen and I adopted a rescue dog named Ben while living in Woodstock, NY. We were in our twenties at the time and I was working as a recording engineer. When I burned out on the music business, we moved to Jen’s hometown of Newburyport, where it was almost impossible to rent an apartment with a dog. There also weren’t any good leash-free parks in the area back then, and only a couple of dog daycares. Jen worked for a local vet and I was commuting to a cubicle job in Newton every day, when we found the perfect building for sale with a big yard. We decided to make the leap and quit our jobs to work for our dog.
Ben was a very special pit/lab mix who loved having a party in his back yard every day. In many ways, we built a life around him. We read a lot about dog behavior and learned from experience. It’s been a lot of work establishing a mom-and-pop business while living above the shop, but it’s also been fun. And it’s been good to us. Sixteen years later, we’re still going strong, and I try not to take it for granted that my commute is a flight of stairs.
We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Most of the challenges for us have to do with running a small business downstairs from where we live with our child and our own pets. I also write novels on the side, so there are very few boundaries between work and home life. And with a small staff, the office work and landscaping often ends up happening on the weekends.
Also, it can be hard to find employees who are cut out for the job. Everyone thinks playing with dogs will be all fun and games, but it can also be a stressful and dirty job. When we find someone with the right demeanor, they become almost a member of our family.
We’ve been very fortunate to have had such great customers over the years. Many have become friends, and their dogs have stayed with us from puppyhood to old age. The flipside is that it can be bitter sweet to have done this job for the span of a dog’s life. You do get attached, and that first generation of dogs we served has now passed away.
Tell us more about the business. What sets Paws 4 Play apart?
I can’t speak to what works for other daycares because we’ve stayed focused on what works for us. And this may sound counter-intuitive from a business standpoint, but what Jen and I take pride in that I’ve heard sets us apart is that we’ve intentionally kept it small, even though we have a big enough facility and yard to probably double our intake of dogs. Instead, we limit the pack to a maximum of 20 dogs per day and only offer overnight boarding to dogs who attend daycare. We screen every new dog and get them on a regular schedule to acclimate them to a familiar pack. All of that is to put safety first. We want dogs to have the freedom to be dogs at our place. So aside from the occasional timeout to reset an overstimulated dog, there’s no mandatory crate time. We want our dogs to get a lot of socialization and exercise with real dirt and grass in a big open space. Keeping it safe means keeping it small. Our guiding principle has always been to favor lower stress (for the people and the dogs) over higher profit.
And did I mention we have a 16-foot long, filtered, bone-shaped swimming pool?
Has luck played a meaningful role in your life and business?
I think it’s true that location and timing go a long way for the success of a business.
So maybe we were lucky in that we were young and naive enough to try our idea in what turned out to be the right time and place for it.
Massachusetts has a strong economy compared to a lot of places in the country where I don’t think a “luxury” service like dog daycare could thrive. In the Boston area, I find that most people treat their dogs like children and are very conscientious about providing the best care and lifestyle they can. Paws 4 Play is on Route 1, which also gives us good visibility. We’ve weathered two recessions on the strength of word-of-mouth with basically no advertising. Maybe the Tibetan prayer flags we hang over the yard have brought some good fortune our way.