A dog day afternoon

Leanne Coste has turned her love for ‘fur babies’ and strong work ethic into an award-winning doggy day care and wellness centre, and learned some valuable lessons in the process.

By Glenn Baker

When NZBusiness dropped into Urban Dogs in the heart of Albany’s commercial district on Auckland’s North Shore, it was 2.30 on a typical afternoon and relatively quiet. Just a few dogs returning from walks, arriving back from a field trip in the ‘Doggy School Bus’, and the occasional dog owner collecting their precious pup.

It was an ideal time of day to sit down with Urban Dogs owner Leanne Coste to learn why her business has been so successful in such a relatively new industry.

Leanne’s background has been a big factor. Born and raised in West Auckland, the 36-year-old spent seven years in London working in office management roles before returning to Auckland in 2008 to put a deposit on a house.

Then came a top job at Vodafone – first as executive assistant to the technology director, later as executive assistant to the CEO. But Leanne had always yearned for her own business, “to do my own thing”.

“I was working long hours for somebody else, I thought why not work for myself, doing something I’m really passionate about?”

Growing up, Leanne always had a love for dogs – both the fluffy toy and real variety. From an early age she borrowed the neighbours’ dog to practise her training skills, before her mother let her get one of her own.

In August 2012, along with partner Corey, whom she’d met in London, Leanne launched Urban Dogs – but not before conducting an exhausting three-year planning and research process.

Leanne remembers checking out traditional boarding kennels, then working at the Animal Welfare Centre in Waitakere to gain more knowledge of working with animals.

But when they saw a US doggy day care profiled on TV’s Animal Planet channel, they knew it was the way of the future.

Leanne proceeded to check out more than 30 doggy day care centres in Australia, working temporarily at a centre in Brisbane. They conducted a mountain of research with both business owners and dog owners.

“I don’t do things quickly, I do things thoroughly,” admits Leanne. “Even our bank manager said that our business plan was the most thorough business plan he’d ever seen!”

After spending a year searching for the right building, Urban Dogs kicked off with just Leanne, a dog behaviourist, and zero clients.

“We invited our friends’ dogs in to make us look busy,” Leanne remembers.

Now they are at 90 percent capacity – her qualified staff have more than 40 years combined experience – including two dog behaviourists, two dog trainers, four with animal bachelors and a vet nurse.

The first year wasn’t quite up to expectations, primarily because Leanne was still heavily involved in the daily operations. If she had that time over again she says she would’ve borrowed more funds up front to have an extra staff member cover for her from day one, freeing her up to do more marketing and business development.

Eighteen months after opening, and in response to client feedback, Leanne began field trips and swimming lessons. Today they’re two of their most popular services. More recently they’ve added a doggy cinema – a New Zealand first. I know – too cute!

And in case you’re wondering, yes, the dogs do need to wear seat-belts in the Doggy School Bus!

Marketing focus
Marketing is a business discipline Leanne is proficient at, with Urban Dogs earning a Highly Commended in the 2015 David Awards, taking out the Excellence in Marketing category at the 2015 Westpac Auckland Business Awards (North), and winning the Small/Single-Store category at the Retail NZ 2015 Upper North Island Top Shop Awards. 

But she says the primary focus of her marketing is educating people on the benefits of utilising the services of a qualified, well-run doggy day care rather than always leaving their pets at home. “The major benefit [for the dogs] is socialisation, and for the owners, coming home to a tired, happy dog” says Leanne. “The dogs know how to behave around other dogs and how to mind their doggy manners at the park!

 “It’s just like sending your children to school,” she explains. “So it’s best to start when they’re young.”

Socialisation benefits the dogs, humans and the community, she adds.

Successful marketing comes down to identifying, through regular client surveys, the key messages you want to communicate, says Leanne. If she lacked knowledge in any particular aspect of marketing she quickly schooled herself up, consulted a business mentor, or attended relevant seminars.

Her marketing approach is thorough to say the least. “It’s about listening to clients and to the market,” she says, “and letting the business grow through a combination of marketing efforts and word of mouth.

“As a small business with a small marketing budget our marketing is aimed at cost effective, results driven marketing.”

The whole on-boarding process is important too. From the moment clients first walk through the door, communication is key, she adds. And this is where automated systems and technology play an important role – something she picked up from her Vodafone days.

For example, Urban Dogs has a photo sharing site, currently with more than 50,000 images, which clients can access through a smartphone app. Facebook is another prime platform for spreading the message, and Leanne says they base that activity around their social media year planner that is in line with their marketing plan. Plus there are other technology-driven services such as online booking and account viewing for clients, and a log-in app that allows staff to track dogs when away from the centre.

Running a doggy day care has its unique challenges – not least of which is its labour and time intensive demands. “I’ve made a conscious decision to step back and work more ‘on’ the business,” says Leanne. “Luckily I’ve got a great team I can rely on for the operational aspects of the business.”

She’s grateful for the support of Corey, who kept his nine-to-five sales manager job but works on the Urban Dogs finances in his spare time; her friends and family – especially her dad (“who put the work ethic in me”) and her mum (“who instilled my love for animals”); her staff (who now number 11); as well as local vets and clients. It’s not surprising then that 54 percent of business comes through referrals.

Today, with almost 300 dogs cared for every week, Urban Dogs is going from strength to strength. Customer feedback, along with the awards they won in 2015, is recognition and validation that they’re doing things right, Leanne believes. “It’s also good for staff morale.”

And while the nature of a doggy day care means there are plenty of fun moments – discussing clients’ sleeping arrangements with their dogs, for example – she says they take their responsibility for looking after the dogs very seriously. 

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