Barking Mad - the company providing dog owners a viable alternative to kennels
00:00 25 February 2016
One woman’s quest for someone to look after her dog has turned into a nationwide business, writes Mike Glover
DOGS are not only man’s best friends, they are also the source of a business opportunity which threatens to sweep the world.
Barking Mad came about because of one woman’s love for her pet Dalmatian puppy, Bronte, and the difficulty she had finding someone to look after him when she went on holiday.
‘I almost cancelled the trip. I tried to find a suitable alternative to kennels or house-sitting but there simply wasn’t one,’ said founder and managing director Lee Dancy.
She eventually got to Florida but when she returned, Lee, who has a background in sales and marketing, researched the need for an alternative to kennels.
The result was Barking Mad, her own business started initially in the kitchen of her home in Hutton Roof before moving to Tunstall, near Lancaster. The idea was to offer areas to franchisees who set up networks of trusted dog-sitters - often people who love dogs but can’t commit to having one full-time.
She was promoting the idea at Crufts when she met husband and business partner-to-be Richard, who was educated at Blackburn Queen Elizabeth Grammar School. They got talking, discovered they shared a passion for marketing and dogs and decided to get together. They set up home and moved the burgeoning business to a converted barn in Barbon, where it grew steadily for ten years.
When it needed to grow again, it moved in 2015 to a purpose-built office suite just outside Kirkby Lonsdale.
Taking pride of place in the company’s spanking new offices is a framed scrap of paper on which Lee scribbled ideas for the company’s name. Circled is Barking Mad.
‘It is memorable and communicates the friendly positioning of the brand,’ said Richard, who looks after the franchising and marketing. Originally Lee ran the business alongside her consultancy work but Barking Mad quickly took over.
Her website created interest from customers, host families and partners across the UK, so she decided to expand nationally through the franchise route.
Lancashire was an early happy hunting ground with franchises covering Lancaster, South Lakes, Blackpool and Preston and Bolton. It now covers 70 per cent of the UK. Further afield, the company operates in Cyprus, has sold the idea to an American outfit and regularly gets approached from all over the world about setting up similar businesses.
There are two secrets to their success - one is the franchise model and the other is the attention to detail. Franchising is starting to be recognised as the hidden gem of the UK’s economy. It helps people become self-employed and it suits flexible life-styles and diversification, especially in rural areas.
The week Lancashire Life called the staff were preparing to welcome six new franchisees, each with a pack of material to help them understand the demands. They stay at the firm’s headquarters for a week to learn accounting, marketing, human resources and other essentials of modern business practice.
Part of their job is to ensure hosts are carefully vetted with home visits and scrutiny of all aspects of their suitability to care for other people’s dogs. Customers are told that they can be confident their dogs are going to have as good a time as they are on holiday. Barking Mad looks after all the paperwork and even has a call centre to handle orders for the franchisees.
All new customers are visited at home so they can explain day-to-day routines. They’ll chat about likes (usually a lot), dislikes (usually the postman) and any healthcare requirements.
‘By the second chocolate digestive we’ve started to understand your dog’s individual needs and lifestyle. By the end of our meeting, which usually takes around an hour, we’ll all be getting along famously,’ says the website.
The service includes door-to-door, chauffeur driven transport for the dog. Being collected from home is far less stressful and helps overcome the anxiety caused to dogs when left behind by their owners.
Visiting dogs settle more quickly with their home comforts around them including bed, food, toys and treats, arranged as they would be at home. Hosts are at home during the day to ensure round-the-clock care is always provided.
Wherever possible, the company uses the same family each time for each dog. There are no minimum or maximum time limits.
But why do people volunteer to become hosts when they are not paid?
‘All of our hosts, without exception, are absolutely dotty about dogs. Some are active, retired people who’ve had dogs all of their lives but now enjoy the freedom and flexibility of caring for dogs on holiday.
‘Others are younger, often with a family at home, where the addition of a visiting dog is great fun for all. We can’t begin to tell you about those hosts who have resident dogs and the adventures they all get up to,’ said Lee.
One unusual service is to bring dogs on cue to weddings for the photographs and then take them away again so the owners don’t have to worry about them during the reception. They have also recently launched a mobile professional dog-grooming business.
Lee is often asked to speak at conferences and is held up as an example of the rise of the female entrepreneur.
Of the half million new companies formed each year, around half are started by women of all ages and backgrounds who are spotting gaps in the market and taking a passion, hobby or skill and turning it into a living.
‘The best businesses are often borne out of a market need and Barking Mad is no exception,’ said Lee. ‘I put our success down to the strength of our brand, the simplicity of the business model and our determination to become a household name.’
Bronte passed away a couple of years ago, but the couple have another Dalmatian called Lotti. They also have a six-year-old daughter, Elsie May.
So far, Barking Mad has 65 franchisees but is always on the look-out for more. It also has 13 full-time employees at HQ, nearly all of whom have pet dogs. It is not compulsory to be barking mad to work for the company. But it helps.