Do not waste your time working jobs that you do not enjoy and that you do not find fulfilling. Figure out what makes you happy and what you are good at and find a way to make a career out of it.
Michael Polakoff is the founder of Pet Central DFW, a pet sitting and dog walking business in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Michael studied psychology at New Mexico Tech where he earned his bachelor’s degree. He studied animal behavior at the University of California, Davis, where he earned his Ph.D. The world of academia did not appeal to Michael, so he left for an office job. His passion for animals still gnawed at him, though, and he realized that office work was not going to be his future. An independent thinker, Michael definitely did not want to work for anyone else again, so he decided to be an entrepreneur.
In 2013, Pet Central DFW was born. Pet sitting and dog walking appealed to Michael Polakoff. He could return to working with animals and be his own boss. His background in animal behavior and psychology served him well and he was able to deal with dogs that others in his profession were not able to handle.
Michael Polakoff of Irving, Texas, prides himself on being able to win over difficult animals and on being able to work with them and train them using positive reinforcement techniques. Not coming from a business background, Michael had to learn quite a lot on the job in order to expand. Evaluating clients based on their cost effectiveness and learning to hire responsible employees and delegating tasks to them were critical in being able to grow his business. As word of mouth spread, Pet Central DFW was able to expand and now serves clients in 10 cities in the metroplex.
Where did the idea for your company come from?
I had been working a boring office job for quite some time and realized that I needed to do something more meaningful with my life, but I didn’t know what direction I wanted to take. I read through the job listings in the newspaper every week hoping to find something that would resonate with me. One week, the job section ran an article about pet sitting and dog walking. Everyone knew that I loved animals and was reliable and I enjoyed taking care of other people’s pets. But I had never considered this for a career. I didn’t know that it was even possible to make a good living as a pet sitter or dog walker. The article I read suggested that this was a viable job option where you could make a decent income. After reading the article, I realized that this was absolutely the career for me.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
My typical day starts early. When dog owners are out of town, dogs must be taken out to the bathroom early in order to avoid accidents. After the walking the dogs, dogs are fed, given fresh water, and any needed medications are administered. Many dogs require playtime as well. Households with just cats are usually a little more flexible and often don’t require early morning visits unless the cats need morning medications. In addition to early visits, dogs with owners out of town get midday and night visits as well. I try not to make the dogs go too long between bathroom breaks. Pets with owners on vacation make up part of my day. I also have my regulars. Clients who work long hours want their dogs taken out in the middle of the day for exercise and for a chance to do their business. When I’m done for the day with my animals, there’s always administrative work at home to occupy my time. I must enter payments in my computer, type up invoices and schedule upcoming client vacations. Coordinating with my employees takes some time during the day as well. It makes for a rather long and productive day.
How do you bring ideas to life?
When I have new ideas for Pet Central DFW, I usually bounce them off my friends and employees to get their feedback. I have a few friends that have taken an active interest in my business and are always happy to hear my ideas and workshop them. I also know other professional dog walkers that I run into on a regular basis. Rather than being rivals, we tend to help each other out.
What’s one trend that excites you?
The use of a clicker when training dogs has become very popular. I have always used positive reinforcement when training, never punishment. When a dog does what you want, you praise the dog and reward it with a treat. I saw that PetSmart trainers used clickers, and I wondered how that would speed up the training process, so I researched it, and tried it out with a lab puppy that I was working with. I was amazed at how much faster I could train when I started using the clicker. Once the dog learns that each click means that a reward will follow, training is a breeze. The click is an immediate and unchanging cue to the dog that he has done something worth rewarding. As soon as the dog sits or puts his paw out or lies down or whatever you are trying to get him to do, click the clicker and immediately the dog knows that a reward will follow. I will never try to train without a clicker again.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I am a double checker. So many careless mistakes could be avoided if people double checked their work. It drives me crazy that this habit is not more widespread. This is something I’ve always done because I hate making mistakes. A few moments spent double checking one’s work, saves so much time and trouble later. When I’m typing up invoices or adding up numbers for tax purposes, I always double check to make sure everything has been entered properly and all calculations are correct. Before I leave any client’s home, I double check to make sure that everything is as it should be: all animals are present and accounted for, food and fresh water are available, medications have been given, lights are turned off, litter boxes are scooped, doors are locked, etc. I keep checklists for each client so that I can be sure that everything has been done that needs to be done. I never want a client to be disappointed that I’ve forgotten to do something they asked me to do. Careless mistakes are a sure way to lose a client.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Do not waste your time working jobs that you do not enjoy and that you do not find fulfilling. Figure out what makes you happy and what you are good at and find a way to make a career out of it. Also, you know that you don’t want to work for anyone, so be your own boss.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
In this line of work, spending money on advertising is unnecessary. If you are reliable and work well with animals, people will refer you to their friends and neighbors because good, reliable help is hard to find. Word of mouth is the best advertising you can get. I tried spending money on ads when I first started out, and I discovered that every dollar I spent was a dollar wasted.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I document everything and keep detailed notes. For every visit to each client, I keep track of what time I arrived, when I left, how long a dog walk I took, and anything of interest that happened that a client might ask me about later. When a client asks me a question about a visit, I want to have the answers. I also leave notes for the client so that they’ll know how the visit went. This is the one thing I do at Pet Central DFW that gets me more positive feedback than anything else. People like to get home and read about how their dog did on their walk and if they made any new friends while on their walk, etc. I train some of the dogs I work with, and I always leave detailed notes about how much progress we made that day, and I detail the training techniques so that they can continue the training themselves if they wish. Documenting the visit for myself and for my clients takes some time, but it is time well spent.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
I always try to do more than what the client is expecting. If I do just the bare minimum, I can be easily replaced by another dog walker/pet sitter or by a friend or relative who offers to look in on a pet while the owner is on vacation. But when I go the extra mile, the owners realize that they’ll only get this next level service at Pet Central DFW. My clients know that it’s worth continuing to spend their money on me rather than trying to find a cheaper alternative. For example, someone might hire me to take care of their puppy while they are away. They may only be expecting me to feed the puppy and take him out for potty breaks, but when they get back home and read in my notes that I taught their dog to sit, stay and roll over, they are usually very impressed.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
When I started Pet Central DFW, I was so eager to get business that I agreed to terms that I never should have agreed to. For example, I allowed clients to haggle to the point that I wasn’t making much of a profit. I realized that there are quite a lot of people out there who are more than happy to take advantage of someone that lets them do so. I eventually figured out that I have to stand firm. My rates are my rates. If they want cheaper rates, they can look elsewhere.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
I always thought it would be a good idea to have a dog park that contracts with vendors that provide goods and services for dogs. So people can come to the park to let their dog run and play. Then they can walk over to the mobile dog groomer before leaving the park. Other services could include training and dog massage (yes, it’s a real thing). Vendors could sell items like dog toys, organic dog biscuits, etc.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I bought a SpotBot, a small, lightweight carpet cleaner. I keep it in my trunk and use it when one of my client’s pets has an accident on the carpet. You can set the SpotBot on the stain, hit start, and it does all the work. It’ll be cleaning the stain while I’m out walking the dog. Clients are very appreciative not to have to come home to a mess and the SpotBot has become an integral tool in a client’s satisfaction with Pet Central DFW.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
I use the ColorNote app on my phone to organize my day. I use it to keep track of my daily schedule, as well as everything else I need to keep track of. As I receive texts and calls from clients scheduling upcoming vacations over the course of the day, I note them in ColorNote. I also keep track of payments received during the day and payments owed. Every evening when I get home, I look at ColorNote and write the upcoming vacations in my daily planner and record payments in my computer.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Six-Figure Pet Sitting by Kristin Morrison is a great guide for anyone considering a career as a pet sitter and/or dog walker. This book gives great tips on how to start your business and how to make it successful. Another pet sitter recommended the book to me, and I am grateful. At one point I needed to drop a client who was a huge source of stress and was just much more trouble than she was worth. I wanted to do it delicately, though, because I did not want her to tell people not to use me. I looked through my book to see how to handle the situation, and the book does indeed address this situation. It had a great suggestion on how to word the letter to the client, in order to make it not seem personal. It worked great, and the former client did not try to make my life difficult.
What is your favorite quote?
“All animals, except man, know that the principal business of life is to enjoy it.” –Samuel Butler (from his book The Way of All Flesh)
For too long I toiled away in jobs that I did not enjoy. It’s very easy to get stuck in a rut. This quote reminds me that life should not be like that. Life is short and you should attempt to enjoy what time you have. Starting Pet Central DFW was the best step I’ve ever taken toward the goal of enjoying life.
• In this business, reliability is key. Pet owners must now that they can count on you to be there when you need them. A pet sitter who forgets appointments or cannot be relied upon to do what the client asks will not last long.
• Pay attention to detail. Pet sitters and dog walkers need to be meticulous because every client and every pet has different needs. One must carefully document such things as food and water requirements, medications, potty schedule, things that the pets are and are not allowed to do, etc.
• Love the work you do. Too many people hate their jobs, and I was once in this boat. We spend too much of our lives working to hate what we do.
Carlyn runs the day-to-day publishing operation here at ideamensch and interacts with our awesome customers and entrepreneurs. She is likely editing this with a cat on her lap.