Entrepreneur and former dog walker Bruce Casalis (above, left) turned his passion for pets into a thriving business. In 2009 he opened Bruce’s Doggy Daycare in Cobham. Rising demand and a long waiting list led to the launch of a second premises in Ripley. He now has over 42 staff members and cares for hundreds of dogs from South West London and Surrey.
What inspired you to work with animals?
“I’ve always loved dogs. My parents had a litter of puppies when I was a toddler. I enjoyed their company growing up and that had a big influence on me. Then, after studying at uni, and working out what to do with my life and where I wanted to get to, I found out I could combine making a living with a love of dogs.”
How did you launch Bruce’s Doggy Daycare?
“When I moved to London, my cousin had told me that you could make a living by walking dogs. It struck me as crazy and too good to be true. I worked as a dog walker and there were hundreds of other people who were doing the same job, but the seed of an idea was planted. It seemed to me there was a much easier, alternative way of doing it. At the time most people were essentially collecting dogs and walking them around in local parks. I had an idea, what if you could have your own place and it was completely up to you what was there and how it worked?
“My family dogs were Labradors, so I imagined a place that had all their needs in mind. So I thought they’d love a huge open space where they could run around. They’d like a pool where they could swim. You’d want a place that was safe so they could explore at their leisure without any risk of them getting lost and interrupting picnics and couples canoodling or all the things you get in a local park.
“After I had the idea, I did some research. I made a survey to ask questions about the areas that I couldn’t find answers to on the internet and started walking around Clapham Common in London, asking people for their thoughts and advice. When you’re not selling anything everyone is happy to help and give free advice. One of the people I spoke to later turned into a customer. After a year as a dog walker I opened what is now Bruce’s Doggy Daycare’s flagship branch at Cobham in Surrey. At the time it was effectively a field with a hut. That was nine years ago and it’s come a long way since then.”
What services do you offer?
“We offer full day and half day day care. Our fleet of vans, which we call doggy busses, drive around and collect people’s dogs from their homes and bring them to the daycare. Dogs spend time under the close, loving supervision of our team, socialising with their friends and their doggy pals then we drop them home in the afternoon. That’s our main service.
“We also have auxiliary services, including grooming, nail clipping, teeth cleaning and canine first aid. We offer boarding which is hugely popular, as dogs come to us during the day and then go home with one of our team members in the evening. A lot of our customers tell us this is hugely attractive.
“As we’ve grown the important thing for me has been to really nail what we do. We want to be the best. I hope we’re on the way to achieving that and now that we’re growing we’ve been able to include other services. We’re very keen to expand but we don’t want to drop the ball with the main thing we do.”
How do you choose your staff members?
“I know that each member of our team needs to be emotionally invested in every single dog. I think that’s what drives our service. Every decision staff makes comes down to an easy principle – what would you do if it was your dog? People have got to have that love for dogs and I’d say a passion for excellence. If you don’t have that you’ll come unstuck pretty quickly. It’s a lovely place to work but we do demand the best and have high expectations.”
Tell us about your recent awards:
“They’re fantastic recognition for us. Last year we won the Pet Services award from the Pet Industry Federation. We were very proud because obviously that’s a national award and it’s from our industry as well, so it’s an endorsement of what we’re doing. Last year we also won Best Customer Service at the SME Surrey Business Awards which we’re also very pleased with because it’s voted for by our customers. We’ve actually won an award every year since 2010 so that’s an achievement I’m very happy with and I hope we can continue.
“One of the key things is to be continually reinvesting in the business, both in our service and our brand, to try and be the best. Pretty much every penny we’ve made I’ve put back in the business to try and improve it over time and build a reputation for continuing to get better and better. Customers then start helping you to promote the business and recommending you to their friends etc.”
How has investing in technology improved the business?
“One of our key developments is software. We’ve invested heavily in our bespoke CRM software and we’ve just released a customer iPhone app as well. We also have an iPad app for our doggy bus drivers which is bespoke to our business. It’s a real innovation for the industry. Our customers receive photos and real time updates on their dog. They get a notification that pings up and says their dog has been collected. They can easily check what they have already booked for their pet and choose extra services, as well as see new invoices and pay them.
“Within four clicks customers can book a service and with two clicks they can either call us or send us a message. We’re making it really easy to connect with us which I think enables us to deliver a better customer experience, which is what we’re all about.
“The feedback on the app is brilliant. Almost half of our customers downloaded it within the first two months. I think that’s a good sign of it being adopted. We’re now working on the android app so it won’t just be iPhone users that can have the experience I’ve described. We’ve put a lot of testing in to ensure that when it goes to customers it’s seamless.
“The app means we can really deliver our services and a fantastic experience to every customer, both the human and the dog – that’s what we need to be aware of.”
What are your plans for the future?
“The headline is that we are planning to expand. Over the years we have really refined our concept, we know we have a service that people love and trust, which is important. It means we get requests and enquiries and we’ve actually got waiting lists in quite a few of the areas that we cover already. So, the first aim and our focus for now is to keep growing.
“The way I look at it, is that it’s a bit like building a house. The way we need to go is putting a really solid foundation in place because if you try and build something a shaky ground it’s going to fall down. We been building the foundation in the last couple of years by investing very heavily in our team.
“We have a senior management team now and training and development for all our staff to make sure we’ve hiring, and keeping, the best people. I have two mentors that I’m working with and we’ve had a lot of investor interest over the last 18 months. Obviously, this a good endorsement and drives a business.
“The foundation is in place and we’re ready to grow but not to compromise our values.”
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of building a business?
“It’s a wonderful industry to work in. I would encourage people to get involved and start a business but I think my key point would be to take it seriously. It’s fun but people imagine dogs skipping in a sunny field and having a good time. On one side that’s true but there’s a lot that goes into making sure that every dog has a safe, responsible and amazing experience at each visit. There’s much more to consider. People shouldn’t imagine that it’s a way to make a quick buck – it’s not.
“The number one thing for someone starting a business in this part of the industry – and it sounds obvious – is actually a genuine passion for dogs. You need to know that on a wet, miserable, rainy day, which is not what most people imagine when they think of dog care, that you’re going to be outside and caring for every single dog as if they’re your own dog.
“We shout about our staff to dog ratios to anyone that will listen because it’s about making sure that there are enough people looking after the dogs. They need to safely and responsibly manage the dogs’ welfare and the family dynamic.
“Our industry only functions if everything happens in a safe, responsible way. It’s the same as child care, you’d never think of taking children’s care lightly and people should think of dog daycare in the same way and have really exacting standards.”
To find out more go to www.brucesdoggydaycare.co.uk.