Forever Pet Services
By Rebecca K. O’Connor
Awarded NAPPS 2014
Business of the Year
Heather Branch moved from the East Coast to California to chase her acting dreams. She soon became a familiar voice in Los Angeles. For six years she worked as a traffic reporter, delivering early morning and late afternoon radio reports on the state of the rush time commute. Then she realized that she wanted something different.
It was a hectic life, and although her early dreams had been focused on the acting industry, she found herself asking what really made her happy. She says, “When I came home from work every day, my dog Izzy was so excited to see me. I thought I wanted more of this in my life.” So she enrolled at Animal Behavior College to become certified as a dog obedience trainer and as a vet assistant. She quickly became certain this was the right course for her life.
Heather mentored with a dog trainer and interned at a vet office, but she was mainly interested in pet sitting. A pet sitter she found through NAPPS for her own animals was absolutely wonderful and Heather wanted to emulate her. Worried about stepping on toes, she called Debra Turk of All 4 Your Paws and asked about the business. Debra offered to let Heather work for her to get her feet wet and see if it was the right fit for her. Heather says, “She had been pet sitting for ten years and was wonderful. Having her teach me was amazing!”
The Beginnings of Best Friends Forever
There was no doubt that Heather loved the work and she knew the right thing for her was to start her own business. After two years of working for All 4 Your Paws, Debra suggested that Heather buy her business and they merge. This would allow Debra to focus on some other things in her life while still caring for some longtime clients. Heather jumped at the chance.
In January 2011, Heather set up her own LLC for Best Friends Forever Pet Services focusing on the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, California. It was a gradual year-long process to transition the company. At first the change was minimal, with Heather focusing on the business end and very little changing for clients.
After the transition was complete, Best Friends Forever had a grand opening party to rebrand the business. She rented a room at the local animal shelter and had a raffle to benefit the shelter. It was also a celebration. There is no doubt the merging was a success. The business grew 130% between 2011 and 2013.
Heather feels her success is due to that fact that she laid the foundation for her work. Rather than jumping fully in, she took the time to learn. She spent two years learning with Debra as well as putting in the work for her college certifications and for NAPPS certifications. She felt it was important to understand as much as possible about all the aspects of the job. Even though some of her schooling may not be exactly what she offers as a pet sitter, all of the information makes her a better sitter. For example, “I knew I wasn’t going to be training dogs, but I wanted to know what to do,” she explains.
She also feels that her success has a tremendous amount to do with her support system. “I knew I couldn’t do it alone and I didn’t want to do it alone,” says Heather. Having Debra made it all possible, but she has other help as well. Her husband, Scott Burt, is co-owner of Best Friends Forever while also working as an airborne traffic reporter. It isn’t unusual for Heather to hear the rush hour run down from her husband on the radio, but having a full-time job doesn’t get him out of helping. He loves pet sitting as well and often helps. “Sometimes we do jobs together, and that’s our date night,” Heather says, laughing.
Best Friends Forever has other staff as well, though, and Heather says that she is always on the lookout for potential staff, which has made building a team much easier. “The largest challenge is finding good reliable help,” says Heather. “The clients are resistant to meeting new people. They do not want to have to deal with a revolving door.”
One of Heather’s staff members was a fellow classmate she tracked down who was working as a dog trainer for Petco. After talking her into having lunch, Heather was able to convince her to work with her company as it grew. A second member of her staff is a client who became a friend, and when Heather saw potential in her as a pet sitter, she started working for Heather. Heather even has a member of her staff who was a fellow traffic reporter. When she heard Heather was getting into the pet sitting business, she asked if she and her husband could work with Heather part-time, and that has worked out really well. “Everything has gone slowly, but carefully and with observations,” says Heather. “I’m really happy to be providing jobs. We are always looking.”
Defining Your Goals
Best Friends Forever has priorities of “integrity, a spirit of service, cleanliness, continuing education, and charity.” These priorities, in addition to the business’s mission statement, help Heather stay on track. “If you are spiraling out of control you can look at your mission statement and get back to the basics,” says Heather. “If you have it in front of you and can look at it, it puts you back to why you are doing this in the first place and you can figure out where to go from there.”
NAPPS is an important component of meeting Best Friends Forever’s priorities as well. Heather says, “To me NAPPS equaled quality.” She signed up for NAPPS as soon as she started her business and utilized NAPPS resources immediately. “I learned so much even in the first tele-mentoring conference,” says Heather. “They are a must. Using NAPPS formatted paperwork and adjusting it to my needs has been incredibly helpful as well.”
Heather has also found chatting with peers incredibly helpful, whether on NAPPS Chat or in person. “You learn so much just from people chatting,” she says. “Even at the conference, I learned about dog running and lock boxes. Learning about new things coming up is important.”
Advice for New Pet Sitters
Even though Heather got into the business slowly and carefully, there are still some things she would do differently if she did it over again. “I would look into the pet sitting scheduling software. I’m still working those kinks out,” she says. “I would have started with Quickbooks as well. Now I really see the value of it.” Doing scheduling and monthly statements by hand can be incredibly time consuming and she can still find herself up until midnight working on paperwork.
From what she has learned so far, she advises those who are just getting started to lay the foundation and take their time. “Have all the paperwork ready before you open your doors,” she says. “And of course, NAPPS will help you with the paperwork and much more.” She also recommends being licensed, bonded, and insured. “Don’t do pet sitting at any price without insurance,” she says. “Make sure the insurance covers all animals. If you start taking money, you have to be insured.”
Looking at the Future
Right now Best Friends Forever has primarily suburban and city clients who often travel for work. The business caters to the upscale community in the hills as well. Clients include doctors, lawyers and a mix of other professionals. The majority of the services requested are daily dog walks, but Best Friends Forever also provides a lot of overnight sits.
Most of Heather’s clients have dogs and cats, but there are a few unusual city animals in the mix as well. “We’ve even cared for chickens,” says Heather, noting that letting them out in the morning is easy, but putting them back in at night is a little more challenging. “I have video of me herding chickens. It’s pretty funny,” she says.
Her plans are for the business to remain the same at its core, but to keep growing. However, she admits that she and Scott need to take a harder look at their work/life balance. “We need to evolve into having more of a personal life,” she says. “That is a goal of mine in the next year and that will happen by finding more good reliable help.”
For now, though, Heather couldn’t be happier to have moved out of the entertainment business and into the pet sitting business. “I know I’m doing something good because of the love I get from the animals every day. Nothing beats that,” she says. “They don’t care if you’re wearing business attire or makeup. They are just happy to see you.”