How We Navigated COVID & Grew Our Pet Care Business

Benny DiFranco
Founder, Hands N Paws
$8K
revenue/mo
1
Founders
4
Employees
Hands N Paws
from Columbus, OH, USA
started May 2018
$8,000
revenue/mo
1
Founders
4
Employees
3.6M
alexa rank
661
followers
7
subs
market size
$223B
avg revenue (monthly)
$129K
starting costs
$20.6K
gross margin
40%
time to build
360 days
average product price
$900
growth channels
Advertising on social media
business model
Consulting
best tools
Google Drive, Canva, YouTube
time investment
Side project
pros & cons
35 Pros & Cons
tips
4 Tips
Discover what tools Benny reccommends to grow your business!
Discover what books Benny reccommends to grow your business!
Want more updates on Hands N Paws? Check out these stories:
Start A Pet Care Business

Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.

Hi readers! My name is Benny DiFranco and I am the founder of Hands N Paws. Hands N Paws (HNP) is an in-home pet care business that specializes in pet sitting and dog walking services. Over the years, we’ve come to pride ourselves on the end result of delivering our services, that is, the peace of mind we provide busy pet parents.

Every pet parent knows the struggle of trying to balance a busy life while also having a pet at home. Eventually, they begin to feel a sense of guilt (or even shame) for leaving their pets home alone so much. Between the hustle and bustle with work, social events, taking care of the kids, school, vacations, and so much more, they start to think: It’s unbearable anymore to see those sad puppy-dog eyes watching me put on my shoes every time I head out the door…

HNP provides services to pets so that pet parents can gain peace of mind in knowing that their pets are being cared for in the parents’ absence from home. Additionally, it goes without saying that today, people see their pets as their children. They can be very particular about who they let into their homes to care for their pets. Likewise, all aspects of HNP– from the way team members communicate with pet parents after completing services to the attention to detail with each pet’s care routine– are aligned with the very goal of delivering peace of mind. In fact, we like to say that delivering peace of mind is our North Star– it determines every course of action we take in our work.

We have two typical customer profiles: a 9-5 worker and a vacationer. For the 9-5 worker, we usually are asked to come in the middle of a busy workday and provide care for the pups (exercise, food/water, playtime, etc). For the vacationer, we usually are asked to come 3-4 times a day to provide meals, potty breaks, walks, and some house-sitting duties (mail collection, watering plants, etc).

As you can see, the needs of both customer types are slightly different. However, the delivery (end result) is the same: Giving peace of mind to the pet parent.

Tell us about what you’ve been up to! Has the business been growing?

In the last 3.5 years since we’ve been in business, I have had a boatload of scary/sweaty-palm moments, lots of rumbles with vulnerability, and countless times when I was face-down in the arena covered in dust and sweat and blood. Likewise, I’ve also experienced many amazing high tides. Bottom line: I’ve stayed committed and willing, even when the going got really tough. If I could accredit one thing to my steadfastness, it’d be my deeply-rooted belief in myself and my work– my sense of agency that says “I can do this!”

One of my truest markers of progress is my willingness to rumble with vulnerability.

I know, I know… just reading the word “vulnerability” can make some people squeamish.

It’s because vulnerability is scary, man! Vulnerability lives in all the upset-stomach/sweaty-palm moments where we feel emotionally naked and exposed to the world.

One of my favorite authors and researchers, Dr. Brené Brown, has studied vulnerability for decades. Her work has verifiably put so much language to my life experiences and the emotions that live in and/or result from those experiences. I like to call Brené my “a-ha verifier”.

In any case, Brené argues that our willingness to rumble with vulnerability– to lean into the sharpness– is a testament to our level of courage. Essentially, she believes that vulnerability is one’s greatest measure of courage. And I think she hits the nail right on the head!

For me, vulnerability has been a part of my journey from the very moment I opened for business. Every single setback and challenge I’ve faced along the way has been a test of my willingness to rumble with vulnerability. At worst, those setbacks could’ve kept me from not wanting to take any more risks or move forward, for the vulnerability of it would’ve been too uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking. At best, however, those setbacks were viewed as opportunities for growth and lesson-learning.

Nonetheless, I will always attribute my success in owning a business to being able to lean into the vulnerabilities that come with it.

hands-n-paws

As of lately, I’ve been busy working on my leadership skills. I’m always reading and absorbing new knowledge. Having a team of employees has taught me a lot. First off, I genuinely believe that good leadership relies on our understanding of the rules of human biology. Bringing out the best in people (making people “tick”) isn’t as difficult to do as I always imagined. The way people behave is a function of the consequences they receive. If we want to bring out the best in people at work, then we need to have a good, solid, actionable system for giving feedback and positive reinforcement.

Bottom line: People want to be recognized for good performance. Likewise, when they mess up, they don’t want to be blamed, shamed, or pointed fingers at. Instead, they want to be taught how to do things the right way and then recognized when they improve in those areas.

When I started pouring my time into learning better leadership skills (and applying those to our workplace), it seemed that growth was the natural result!

Since I last checked in with Starter Story, the business has grown in not-so-obvious ways. I say “not-so-obvious” because to anyone looking from the outside in, it would appear that we’ve stayed pretty much the same. A lot of growth has happened very internally.

In mid-2021, I started to restructure the business so as to put “people over profits” (“people” meaning my team members). The three big changes that came out of this were:

  1. I increased everyone’s pay!
  2. I decreased our 1-hour service to 45 minutes in length (for the sake of giving the team more flexibility in their overall schedule)!
  3. We often have clients who submit same-day or same-week requests for services. I’ve decided to make those requests OPTIONAL for team members to accept. To give some context: Before this, all service requests (regardless of when they were submitted) were accepted and confirmed. Thus, team members always had to be on-call and prepared to take on services, even if last-minute.

By putting the team first with each of these major changes, I’ve been able to really solidify the foundation for the business, upon which we can continue to be way more successful in moving forward.

One of the obvious positives that has come of these changes is the decrease in employee turnover. Our team feels very valued and cared for, so they stick around. :) As I stated above, good workplace leadership is a matter of understanding the inner-workings of human biology: If certain human systems are properly and fully met, we can without a doubt bring out the best in people as a result.

I’m very hopeful that this change of putting people first will help everything else fall into place accordingly. I do believe we’ll become more recognized and profitable in our service areas and that our team will grow in size as well.

In March of 2022, we had to make the tough decision to close our Cleveland/Akron, Ohio service location. We were very understaffed and didn’t have the resources to stay open. This may or may not be a permanent close, but the advantage is that we can now focus all our efforts on dominating the Columbus, Ohio location. It was super bittersweet saying goodbye to our NE Ohio pets and pet parents, but we are hopeful that it will lead to more success elsewhere.

EMPLOYEE ADDITIONS

Our biggest employee addition in the last month is Natalie, our first ever Administrative Assistant. She has been with us for a couple years now as a pet care tech (dog walker and pet sitter). She was recently promoted to the new position because of her dedication and professionalism, and because I truly believe in her ability to take our business to new heights. I am always humbled and proud to have someone like Natalie on our team; and really look forward to cooking up some great things with her for the future of Hands N Paws.

MARKETING TACTICS

We’ve tried many new marketing techniques since the last time we spoke. Some have worked great! The one that we spent a lot of time on researching and developing a system for is our collaboration proposal, in which we reach out to local businesses and ask if they would like to essentially cross-promote each other’s services/products. This worked in the short-term with some businesses; however, it proved to be quite a bit of work to maintain these relationships long-term. So, we decided to take a different (and much easier) approach and connect with businesses (and people) who specialize in exactly what we offer and simply let them know that we would love to help take on any new clients should they be booked and unable to themselves. We just started this approach, so we’re looking forward to seeing where it takes things over time.

Email, social media, and blog marketing have all been super helpful for us lately as well, especially in our efforts to establish a deeper connection with our audience and customers. We like to share lots of knowledge and tips and tricks about our work and pet care in general. We believe that by positioning ourselves as experts in our field in this way, people have more trust in us and thus are more likely to purchase from us should they need our services. Needless to say, our brand awareness has greatly increased through all these various efforts.

What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?

I’ve mentioned some of the big lessons I’ve learned this year in the bits above. To reiterate, I’ve learned the power of putting “people over profits”. A lot of business owners today take the opposite approach, having a laser-focus on profits alone. This leaves them with teams that are totally disengaged at work. A lack of workplace engagement is underpinned by teams who feel like they are simply just resources to be exploited rather than actual human beings who deserve to be recognized and valued. It’s all just messy and unproductive. It’s also one of the biggest elephants in the room in work cultures today, yet not many organizations are addressing it. It’s become an exception that teams feel happy, valued, and fulfilled in modern work environments… and I’m happy to be working towards making my company that exception.

Out of my decision to prioritize the team came one of our biggest core values today– our circle of safety. Rather, we profess that our employees should always work to “reinforce our circle of safety”.

The term “circle of safety” comes from one of my favorite authors and business influencers, Simon Sinek. In his book, “Leaders Eat Last”, Simon talks about how humans seek comfort in groups. The groups that offer us the most kind of comfort are the groups we last in long-term.

For example, many high school kids try to fit in with their peers for reasons of status and popularity. After high school, these connections weaken because the motives behind us joining such groups in the first place were very extrinsic– status and popularity.

Simon says that we tend to stick around in groups where we naturally feel like we belong by being who we are (intrinsic) versus having to hustle to fit in and match our environment (extrinsic). When this happens, we feel completely safe opening up, being vulnerable, sharing truths, cooperating, and giving our trust, among other things. Hence, he coined it the “circle of safety”.

At Hands N Paws, we believe that because of our circle of safety, our team feels that they can come to us and openly discuss hard things; they can navigate challenges; they can lean into the joyful wins in their work and have no shame in saying “wow, look at me go!” We all support each other, which has helped us use our energy wisely.

Many workplaces today foresee their teams wearing lots of armor to protect themselves from one another. This is what happens when you have leaders at the top of an organization who “don’t do vulnerability” and have the “just-get-here-and-get-your-shit-done” attitude. It works against our human needs for safety and comfort. And because such teams are so deep in self-preservation mode, they can’t possibly have any energy left to put towards the things that actually matter and advance their organization.

I call this a culture of finger-pointing, blaming, and shaming; and if ya ask me, it’s one of the quickest paths to organizational destruction.

What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?

I’m not a huge future planner when it comes to the business. I guess I can say the same for my personal life as well. A great quote from Tibet goes something like “Take care of the minutes and the years will take care of themselves”. So for me, I’m big on daily to-dos and developing good systems in the short-term that lead me to the next step. I am always writing SOPs for my business because I believe that we will forever fall to the level of our systems as opposed to rise to the level of our goals.

What changed everything for me was the moment I decided to stop all the bullshit. I stopped putting 1,000 things on my daily to-do list. I stopped comparing myself to other business owners on social media.

This is especially true for leadership development amongst our team members. When shit hits the fan, I can’t just reliably count on good leaders to clean up the mess. What I can count on, though, is good leadership systems that team members can access and use as maps to navigate murky waters. As you can tell, I’m a systems guy all the way! Similarly, workplaces don’t require good leaders to lead them towards success; instead, they beg for good leadership systems– that ordinary human beings can use– to lead the way. Again, we don’t rise to the level of our goals; we fall to the level of our systems.

Currently, I am working on building up leadership systems with lots of if-then action plans. I’ve been looking closely at the daily convos that occur between me and my team members and am taking note of how I handle challenges, recognition, feedback, and more. This way, as I continue passing the torch (delegating tasks), I never have to be concerned about our flame burning out. These systems can allow us to maintain the level of leadership that currently exists.

Additionally, I am always looking to cross mundane tasks off my list, which I’ve been able to do a lot in this past year. Especially due to hiring an office manager. I have this list on my desk that I’ve been working on for a while now, that’s split up into three columns: tasks I should be doing, tasks others should be doing, and tasks I don’t really know how to do.

In the first column would be something like developing our workplace leadership. In the second column would be client support. In the third column would be SEO and website work.

I spend most of my days working on writing SOPs and delegating so that I can cross items off the second column (for sure). This requires that I have the best and fullest understanding of the items listed (how they are done, etc.), so that way I can write the best kind of systems in order to delegate them with confidence.

As for the third column, I am always looking at hiring VAs (virtual assistants) and companies who specialize in those items. This does not require that I myself have a thorough understanding of the items listed, just that I have the right financial means to be able to hire the experts.

In summary, I guess you could say that my unstated goal is to build a business that lasts, even when I step down or away from it for just a day. I think we have a pretty good foundation so far that allows me to do that– now to just keep tackling systemizing the whole.

Have you read any good books in the last year?

I have read SO many good books in the past year! I’ve been geeking about most of them throughout this interview. In fact, a lot of what I iterate is just all the knowledge I’ve gained from reading. I’ve learned that the greatest aim with educating myself is not to simply expand my knowledge- it’s to increase action! So, here are my top reads (in no particular order) and even more things I’ve learned from them:

  • “Leaders Eat Last” by Simon Sinek
  • “Bringing Out The Best In People” by Aubrey C. Daniels
  • “Atomic Habits” by James Clear
  • “Daring Greatly” by Brené Brown

The last two on the list aren’t technically business books, but can definitely be applied to building up better workplaces.

I talk about “Atomic Habits” in the 5-Year Plan section above. For me, the big learning that came from this book is the idea that lasting habits form on the basis of tiny changes. We don’t have to revere intensity, nor do we even have to set goals. Instead, the author says that we must learn to create and follow better systems with consistency.

He believes that habits are best formed when they’re identity-based. So often, we focus on the outcome of what we want to achieve and forget that outcomes are usually too intangible and abstract. Plus, we can only form certain habits on the basis that they truly align with the people we see ourselves as/want to become.

He says that four things should occur in order to form a good habit:

  1. The habit must be obvious.
  2. The habit must be attractive.
  3. The habit must be easy.
  4. The habit must be satisfying.

I’ve made my good habits obvious by first realizing I’m the architect of my environment. I can only muster up so much willpower to perform habits until I fall short because my environment is designed to work against me. When I put my laptop on my ottoman every evening, that’s my obvious cue to open up my laptop and write before going to bed.

I really encourage you to check out “Atomic Habits” (if you haven’t already) to learn more about the other three techniques to forming good habits.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?

I definitely know what it’s like to be on the struggle bus as an entrepreneur. I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs, high moments and low moments. The biggest thing for me in all of that is still making attempts to cultivate my self-worth and enoughness, no matter the circumstances. Which, lemme just say– operating from a place of enoughness in a scarcity-focused culture is INCREDIBLY tough.

Everyone glamorizes entrepreneurship. I sometimes still feel funny (and almost impostors) saying that I am one. It’s because entrepreneurs don’t really respond with “I’m an entrepreneur” when other people ask them what they do for a living. At least I always felt like I had to beat around the bush or prove myself in some other way when people would ask me that question.

The glamorizing is also a result of the way our world upholds entrepreneurship. When we think of entrepreneurs, we think of the Jeff Bezos and Elon Musks of the world (nothing against these guys, by the way). Having such a narrow focus causes us to be fixated on the intense, shininess… which, for most of us, is unrealistic.

I will always believe that comparison to others is the biggest thief of my joy, creativity, worthiness, enoughness, and focus. When I first started my business in 2018, I was very hit-the-ground-running, look-at-me-go, smarter-better-faster in my approach. The hustle was real. It did get me places pretty quickly, but it was all at the expense of feeling drained, exhausted, rigged of a social life, and STILL not feeling good enough when I’d reached my goals.

What changed everything for me was the moment I decided to stop all the bullshit. I stopped putting 1,000 things on my daily to-do list. I stopped comparing myself to other business owners on social media. I stopped declining incoming phone calls from loved ones at 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 at night because I was “still busy working”. I stopped feeling shame when I’d take days off. I stopped being productive just for the sake of feeling worthy.

Today, I’ve realized that self-worth is something I’m sure a lot of entrepreneurs are lacking, and thus need to focus more on.

When we believe that we are fully and truly worthy, it gives us the space to accept our journey. It also gives us the space to accept that we are enough as we are, and that all parts of us– even the most sloppy, awkward, and vulnerable parts– are loved and lovable.

Cultivating worthiness is a practice. At the start of each workday, I tell myself “no matter what gets done today, or what’s left undone, I am enough”.

In a culture that uses acquisitions and achievements to assess worth, I've been the one happily holding out the measuring stick for WAY too long. Over this past year, I’ve worked to take back my worth and know that outside of what I achieve, I am still worthy of love, belonging, joy, and all good things in life.

I know this audience is FULL of hustlers and high-achievers, so with that my hope for each of you is that you dare to put down the tempting measuring sticks that you proudly hold and know that you're enough as you are. Your worth is not measurable– it’s infinite.

My daily worthiness practice looks like this:

  • Wake up
  • Get ready for the day
  • Head to the gym
  • Start work
  • Stop if/when feeling overwhelmed and either practice non-doing or go recharge with a hobby (reading, walking, writing)
  • Repeat last two steps
  • Lunch break (NO work distractions allowed)
  • Work some more
  • Stop if/when feeling overwhelmed and either practice non-doing or go recharge with a hobby (reading, walking, writing)
  • End work
  • Pour into myself with hobbies and interests
  • Settle down and get ready for bed

And by giving myself the ability to be human, I’ve never felt more alive and present in all areas of my life. Even in business. I can now pour into my business because I come from a place of “I am doing the best I can” and “there’s nothing to prove to anybody”.

As I emphasized above, however, this is all still a practice for me. Some days are better than others. It’s VERY easy and tempting (especially when things are piling up at work) to slip back into the work-harder-to feel-better approach. But as long as I stay mindful and respect my boundaries, I can eventually rewire my default thoughts and old approach.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

We are definitely looking to hire virtual assistants (or anyone/companies) who specialize in digital marketing and all things branding. For specifics, please email me at [email protected] and I’d be happy to share the job expectations and some SOPs with you to see if you’d be a good match.

In short, we are seeking experts! We need email and social media marketers to help promote our brand and engage with our target audience/current customers. SEO and website peeps can step right up to the front as well; we are all ears for anyone who thinks they can help us to rank on the first page of Google for our current service areas! (This is something we still struggle with achieving and we are now almost 4 years into being in business!)

Some platforms they’d have to know how to utilize:

  • Flodesk.com - CRM and email marketing platform
  • Any social media scheduler platforms (we’ve used Later.com in the past!)

No formal job descriptions are available at the moment.

Where can we go to learn more?

Thanks so much for having me again, Starter Story & readers! To learn more about Hands N Paws, please check out our website at www.myhandsnpaws.com and also, come follow us on social media by clicking the links below!

We’re actively writing blogs as well, in which we share all our expert knowledge on pet care! Check it out at www.myhandsnpaws.com/blog.

Last– I am crazy about sharing the things I learn on my social media accounts. Follow along on my Instagram @bennyandthe.pets and come learn with me! I’d love to connect with other like-minded, fellow entrepreneurs anyway– follow for follow? Drop into the DMs anytime!

Wishing you all continued, brave journeys!

XO,

Benny

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

-Theodore Roosevelt

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Benny DiFranco, Founder of Hands N Paws
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story
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