Branding Your Small Business Doesn’t Have to Be “Ruff”

by Martin Lieberman, Staples®

It’s hard to find the right place to care for your dog, whether it’s for the day while you’re at work or for the week while you’re on vacation — it’s like dropping off a member of the family. Ryan Kowalski at WOOF Day Care & Boarding in Mantua, NJ, understands this and hopes pet owners will be comfortable leaving their dogs with him. Ryan’s business offers cage-free day care and overnight care with both indoor and outdoor play areas, providing a safe, fun environment.

Of course, with so many options for doggie day care, it is critical for Ryan to successfully brand his business, setting it apart from the competition. We recently caught up with Ryan to learn how he does this as well as overcome other small business challenges.

Where does your passion for pets come from? Why did you decide to open this kind of business?

Ever since I was a child, I’ve loved animals — especially dogs! I’ve always been the guy with all the dogs following him. I just reached a point in my life where I decided: Do what you love and love what you do. So I decided to open up WOOF.

What makes WOOF different from other doggie day care businesses?

At WOOF, the dogs aren’t caged during the day. They are either inside in one of our playrooms when the weather isn’t cooperating, or outside in one of our four large outdoor play areas getting fresh air and sunshine. We thought it was important that the dogs get to be outside. After all, they’re dogs and should be enjoying the outdoors. Many facilities do not offer outdoor play areas or they are small and filled with gravel. WOOF is also all-inclusive, so there are no hidden charges.

What’s the best thing about owning your own business?

People think it’s great to have your own business. No boss to boss you around, you get the credit for your hard work, etc., but it’s an enormous responsibility, especially when caring for someone’s beloved pet/family member. The best thing is that it is what you make it — it’s an extension of who you are.

What are your favorite marketing channels for spreading the word about your business?

Social media has been terrific for us, and it’s free! Then on smaller levels, reaching out to area veterinarians, groomers and participating at community events. We’re pleased that area veterinarians not only recommend WOOF but also use our services for their own dogs, which we take as a huge compliment.

Also, we use Staples Promotional Products® for all our branded items. I can find everything I could need and some things I didn’t think I needed that now I just can’t do without. We get all the gear for our staff: T-shirts, sweatshirts and hats. We get the backpack cinch bags, which are big hits with clients. The bags have our logo, which is a dog with a collar, and we write the dog's name on the collar and give them away to all boarders and at different events. The customers think they’re super cute.

The production staff is terrific; they check in with me from time to time to make sure the orders I’ve placed are right — that’s a nice touch. Everything is consistent so that's very helpful.

Why is branding so important for a business like WOOF?

Just because you’re small, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t project a bigger and bolder image. From our work with Staples Promotional Products, we’ve been able to project a consistent message that rings of professionalism.

The old saying “You only have one shot at making a first impression” is extremely true for us. WOOF offers a great and innovative service, and people get that right away when they come in for a tour. All my collateral materials and branding need to look professional and impressive, otherwise we’ve dropped the ball with our follow-through. That first impression is just so critical; it sets the tone for all that follows.

After branding, what challenges you most and how do you handle it?

Staffing, operational challenges and competition are critical issues to any business. Finding the right staff and keeping them is an ongoing challenge. It’s not always about money but how you treat people and how you make them feel about themselves. Leading by example is my policy.

Don’t bash your competition, but make sure you point out your differences. For example, PetSmart does a great job at what they do; however we offer WOOF cams so you can watch your dog from anywhere in the world. And we offer an outdoor experience, which they do not. Never bash, always compliment, but know you are better and make sure you tell customers why.

How do you define success? How will you know when you’ve achieved it?

To me, being proud of what you’ve accomplished, whether it be big or small, if you’ve set your mind to something and accomplished it, you have success! We have a page of testimonials that we’re getting ready to put up on our Web site. Sales don’t lie, but everything needs to be nurtured and grown, and it takes time. We’re getting there — I know this by all the feedback and the increases in all our numbers.

Where do you see WOOF five to ten years from now? Will anything have changed?

We hope to open a WOOF 2 and 3 by then, or potentially be looking at franchising possibilities. I’m hopeful that things won’t change much, but I also hope that we will continue to learn and grow from our experience. Change is inevitable and a good thing sometimes. You just have to learn to embrace it since you can’t always change it.

Do you have a great small business success story? Let us know in the comments section below, and we might feature you in a future article!

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