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Success Story: Three Star Pet Sitting Services

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to combine your passion and a part-time business idea to create a stable source of income? Lee Ellis, owner of Three Star Pet Sitting Services in Scarborough, Ontario, has done just that — using her love of and knowledge about animals to open a dog-walking business and pet-sitting service. Three Star has been her sole occupation since she opened her doors in 2002.

A career change: From insurance to pet-care

Lee didn’t start out as working with animals. Instead, she spent her early career working in the group health and dental insurance field. Although the work was steady, she says it still felt like … work.

In her off hours, Lee was spending her time caring for a pet cat. After she saw great results from switching her pet to a raw food diet, she started a Yahoo discussion group to provide information and support to other pet owners.

“I don’t remember when the lightbulb went off. At some point, I was doing so much stuff related to cats, I thought — why not make this my job, instead of group health insurance?” Her online support group had more than 3,000 active members and Lee could see the business need for competent animal care when pet owners need additional help.

The preparation behind a successful pet-sitting business

Before she hung out her pet-sitting shingle, Lee says she spent about six months preparing and building a business plan. In particular, she found a different online discussion group — one for dog-walkers and pet-sitters — and, “Read every message, including everything in the archives, and asked the members a ton of questions.” In evaluating the decision to become a pet-sitter, she wanted as much information as possible to make sure this new career would work for her.

“I wanted to get it right, because if I made the transition,” she says. “I knew it would be my last job, ever.” For example, she asked other pet-sitters whether she should ever consider offering discounts or specials on her services. The answer that came back: no, because the discounted price often becomes your “new” price, making it very difficult to charge your full rates; and because discounts tend to attract clients who are bargain-seekers, versus clients who appreciate — and will pay for — value.

Learning from other established business-owners helped her avoid challenges in establishing and building her business. This included reducing travel time and costs by keeping her service area small, developing relationships with local veterinarians in case an animal in her care needs medical attention, and having a professionally-designed website.

Once she felt ready to become self-employed, she set herself up with necessary small business insurance, such as liability insurance, registered a business, and opened her doors.

A day in the life of a pet sitter

These days, Lee’s on the go from morning to night, seven days a week. A typical day might start off with a few cat visits, and then the first of three or four group dog walks by 9:30 a.m. Midday, she might come home to check on her own cat — and then it’s back out the door for a final set of dog walks and usually a few evening pet visits as well.

“It’s a completely different lifestyle than what I had before,” she says. “There was this feeling I used to get when it was Sunday night, like, ‘Oh no, the weekend’s almost over.’ But now that stress level just isn’t there — I don’t dread Mondays anymore.”

Lee says one reason the “Monday blues” have disappeared from her life is that all the days blend together. It’s in the nature of her work that her workdays are often long — as much as 16 hours a day — and she’s never really off the clock. “I’m always doing something, even if it’s not directly with pets — whether it’s responding to email, preparing invoices, or the other behind-the-scenes tasks it takes to keep a business running.”

But for Lee, the trade-off between setting her own hours, spending lots of time outside, and developing lasting relationships with animals is worth it. “I never thought I’d have my own business,” Lee says. “And in some ways it still doesn’t feel like I do — because my days aren’t divided up between ‘work’ and ‘home’ in the way that they used to be. Having a business doesn’t feel like a separate thing from just living my life now, spending time with animals and supporting their owners in providing good care.”

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