Starting a professional pet sitting business is relatively easy and inexpensive. A pet sitting business also has low overheads. To be a professional pet sitter, you need a smartphone (an inexpensive prepaid one is fine but one that takes good photos is preferable), a computer (preferably a laptop if you also do overnight stays), a printer, access to the internet and a reliable car (as well as backup transport if your car breaks down). If you already have these things, you can use them for business purposes.
A professional pet sitter also needs a website (there are affordable options for a website) and liability insurance which covers property, the public and pets. This blog post is especially relevant to pet sitters in Australia and New Zealand.
What is Your Vision?
Before you even decide on a business name, you need to clarify your vision. Think big and all kinds of possibilities. What species of animals will you provide care for? Dogs? Cats? Birds? Reptiles? Fish? Horses? Consider your experience and knowledge of behaviour and health as this has implications for safety and liability. I recommend not taking on animals you do not have confidence or experience with.
What home pet care services do you want to offer? Day visits only for feeding and general care (pet sitting)? Private in-home boarding? Overnight stays? Dog walking? Pet taxi? Poop scooping?
Are you wanting to stay small and local? Or do you want to grow large and expand into other areas? Many pet sitters stay solo or have up to 6 employees or independent contractors. Others have companies of 40-100+ people. Some franchise their brand.
Do you want to branch out into other services such as dog training, pet photography, mobile dog washing or grooming?
Choose Your Business Name
Now you can choose your business name to fit your vision. Your business name is one of the most important parts of your branding. You want to avoid having to change it, along with your website domain name.
Don't limit yourself with your name. Using your own personal name can mean less value if you want to sell your business down the track. Adding a town or city in the name can restrict your name if you want to expand to other cities.
Choose something original, easy to remember and translates well to a website domain name. Do searches on Google, trademark registers, business registers and Facebook to see if the name is already taken.
Do a search on a website domain name provider. I recommend using the suffix .au if your business is in Australia and a suffix .nz if your business is in New Zealand for more local presence and for a sense of trust. If you find the domain name that fits your business name, then purchase it straight away and make sure you renew it when it's due, otherwise you may never get it back.
Choose Your Business Structure
The most common legal structures for a pet sitter are a sole trader (which may typically have 0-2 employees or independent contractors) and a company (which can be just one person with no limits on size).
Advantages for a sole trader is that it is very easily and much lower cost. Record keeping is easy, it's easy to learn to keep your own cashbook as a spreadsheet and you may be able to get your tax return done by a tax specialist for just a few hundred dollars each year. You can do your tax return yourself, but you are less likely to be audited if you have a tax specialist/accountant do it for you.
The downside of a sole trader is that you are the same as your business entity ie yourself trading as your business name, so you are personally liable for any losses or if someone tried to sue you. That is why it is critical to have liability insurance to protect yourself if something were to happen eg if a dog were to bite a member of the public while walking it or if you accidentally flooded a client's house.
A company has limited liability so any losses don't extend to your personal assets. However, a company is more complex and expensive to set up and to do accounting for. You will need to be registered for GST in both Australia and New Zealand if you set up as a company (whereas you only need to register for GST if you earn over a threshold as a sole trader). Accounting costs for end of year financial reporting is likely to be over $1200 per year. That's not including record keeping during the year. Plus business insurance is compulsory and more expensive for companies.
Setting Up as a Sole Trader
Being a sole trader in New Zealand is very easy. You just need an IRD number from Inland Revenue for taxes. You should already have an IRD number if you've ever been an employee. You don't need to pay ACC levies in your first year of business. You are required to pay ACC levies in case of accident or injury to you or any employees you hire.
In Australia, you need a Tax File Number (TFN) from the Australian Tax Office (ATO), which you should already have if you've ever been an employee. Then you need to apply for an Australian Business Number (ABN). This is free from the Australian Business Register if you live in Australia and you have a tax file number. You will need an ABN to get a domain name with a .au suffix.
In Australia, you will also need to register your business name (not the same as registering a company) with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC). This is inexpensive - approximately $30 per year.
I recommend trademarking your business name so someone else can't take it and prevent you from using it (registering a business name or registering a company doesn't give you trademark protection). You don't need to do this immediately. Trademarking a name is more important than trademarking a logo.
Design a Logo
You will need a logo for your business. There are various options. If you have design flair and can use computer design software you can design one yourself. Make sure you have a digital file that can print at least 30 cm across in case you want to use the logo for car signage or banners. Use a low resolution small version of your logo for your website. A logo on a white background is best because you will be printing forms on white paper. Some colours such as bright lime green and shocking pink don't reproduce well in print without a more expensive printing process.
If you lack design and basic technical skills, you can have someone design a logo for you. But make sure you check out their other work and don't get duped into paying for something they can't deliver.
Or you can use a stock image as your logo. You will need to purchase a licence to download a stock image to use as an unofficial logo and you will not be able to trademark it. So someone else may use the same image as their logo, which you might not mind.
Many pet sitters don't bother getting liability insurance but I see it as critical as there is risk with being responsible for other people's property and pets. Insurance is more expensive in Australia and New Zealand than in the US. Make sure your insurance covers injury or death of any animal and if you offer in-home boarding, make sure you have a permit with your council and you are covered by insurance for boarding.
There are at least a few options in Australia for liability insurance. One is Premier Pets who have insurance tailored for pet sitters. I've only managed to find one insurer so far in New Zealand who covers pets - Marsh. Policies start from around $350 - $400 per year. You can defer your payment until you get your first clients and you may be able to pay in monthly instalments.
Australia doesn't have ACC, so you will need to consider what will happen if you have a personal accident or are injured. If you have employees, you will need to get WorkCover Insurance for them if they are injured at work. Policies start from around $300 per year. There are various legal implications with using independent contractors vs employees.
Make sure your car insurance policy covers you for work purposes. This is usually not much extra on your premium for just personal use.
Get a Criminal Check
You are going into people's homes as a pet sitter, so get verification that you have a clean criminal history (and also require this of any employees) so you an provide it to any clients who request to see it. In Australia, go to any police station and apply for a Police Certificate. In New Zealand, apply to the Ministry of Justice. Update it annually.
Set Up Your Systems
You will need a way of communicating with your clients and organising your client information so you never miss a visit. This can be done on a shoestring budget. You should also consider what do to in an emergency and develop your policies. I will discuss these aspects in another blog post.
Market Your Business
Marketing your business, including building an effective website can also be done on a shoestring budget. I'll discuss this in another blog post too.
Xanthe founded an award-winning pet sitting business in QLD, Australia in 2011. After selling the business, she returned to Taupo, New Zealand.
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