Joanne Tomlinson has turned her lifelong passion for animals into entrepreneurial success with We Love Pets
At an age when most kids want to become astronauts, Joanne Tomlinson was already proving herself as an entrepreneur. The first sign her parents had of her enterprising proclivities was an almost Harry Potterish flurry of letters that suddenly started to drop through their letterbox. “My mum had no idea what was going on,” laughs Tomlinson.
What her parents didn’t know was that their ten-year-old daughter had not only founded a pet-care club but been industrious enough to place ads in the paper, resulting in the avalanche of letters containing subscription fees of £5. For this small sum, Tomlinson wrote newsletters to subscribers, packed with pet care tips and quizzes. “You could say that I’ve always had a passion for running my own business,” she says.
Given that decades later, Tomlinson would become the founder and franchise director of We Love Pets, the animal care franchise, this was certainly an auspicious start. With that in mind, it’s surprising to hear that she didn’t originally go to university to pursue an entrepreneurial career. “My goal was to become a solicitor,” she says. This led Tomlinson to enrol for a business degree and a postgraduate law degree at the University of Reading, seemingly setting herself on a path towards a future bursting with legal endeavours.
However, two things convinced her to reassess her plans. The first was the sheer amount of time required to become a solicitor; even after finishing the postgrad qualification, she’d be facing an additional course and years of training at law firms, which was an unappealing prospect. The second thing that inspired the change in her trajectory were the project management jobs she took on at the end of her postgrad. “They made me realise that I wanted to go into business for myself,” she says.
But ambition alone is not enough to launch an enterprise: you also need the spark of a great idea. “The best starting point for anyone launching a business is to look at what you’re passionate about,” says Tomlinson. “For me, that’s always been animals.” Looking to turn her passion into profit, Tomlinson began researching Blighty’s pet market and revealed a sector ripe for the taking, with 58 million pets in the UK. “And that’s excluding the gold fish,” she says.
However, Tomlinson wasn’t the only entrepreneur eyeing the market. “The retail side was packed,” she says. “There were a hell of a lot of pet shops. However, I realised that the service side offered plenty of opportunities.” Having seen that services offering pet sitting and dog walking were underrepresented, Tomlinson came up with the idea of Dog Day Care, the company that would eventually become We Love Pets.
With enthusiasm and an idea in the bag, she set about tackling her next entrepreneurial hurdle: funding. Never one shrink from a challenge, Tomlinson decided to bootstrap her business and save up the money she needed herself. “I had four jobs at one point,” she says. Fortunately, the hard work paid off and in 2007 Tomlinson had enough capital to launch Dog Day Care. “Within a week of the website going live, I was inundated with calls and messages,” she says. “It took a month and then I had to employ someone to help me out.”
From there on, Dog Day Care grew exponentially, expanding from Reading, across Berkshire and into Yorkshire. However, Tomlinson was careful not to grow the business too fast or to accept too many customers at the same time. “We couldn’t overcommit,” she says. While other dog-walkers can be seen walking a whole kennel’s worth of canines, Tomlinson’s businesses have never walked more than three at a time. “You cannot give each dog 100% of your attention if you are walking a big pack of them,” she explains.
Never relinquishing her standards ensured both a steady influx of customers for Dog Day Care and the continuous growth of the company. In 2009, Tomlinson branched out further by moving beyond dogs to caring for everything from cats to reptiles. Reflecting the change, the business was rebranded as We Love Pets and the new strategy proved a hit. “We really took off,” she says.
The company continued to grow exponentially until 2013 when Tomlinson decided to take things to the next stage, settling on franchising as the best method to help bring the business to new audiences. However, she didn’t jump in headfirst and instead decided to test the waters. “I can be quite impulsive,” continues Tomlinson. “So I took the time to research what my options were and talk with people who were in similar situations.”
One of the important issues to solve was who would be the first franchisee. Eventually, Tomlinson settled on Amy Pearson, a long-time employee of We Love Pets. However, it wasn’t just her experience with the brand or her previous job working with animal insurance that set her apart. “It was her enthusiasm and personality, which is more important than anything,” says Tomlinson. And the choice quickly proved to be the right one, with Pearson going on to become the franchise’s highest-performing franchisee.
The pilot’s success proved the importance of hiring franchisees with the right type of personality but that isn’t all Tomlinson looks for. “Passion is amazing but we also need longevity,” she explains. “We don’t need someone who thinks it’s a great idea at first but then changes their mind three months down the line. We need commitment.”
Guaranteeing the longevity and commitment of franchisees has become paramount in the increasingly competitive pet service market. While Tomlinson may have been the only game in town back in 2007, that’s no longer the case. With the meteoric rise of franchises like Wagging Tails, Barking Mad and Petpals in mind, it is no wonder why one Scottish franchisor recently dubbed 2015 the ‘The Year of the Dog’. However, what sets We Love Pets apart is not only the range of animals under its care but the extensive training employees receive. “We have a partnership with Wiltshire College,” Tomlinson says. “They’ve got a massive animal centre with all sorts of animals, from dogs and cats to snakes and horses.”
Laughing, she reveals that she just finished a course with some franchisees, learning to deal with exotic animals like tarantulas, snakes and even cockroaches, which are often kept as food for lizards. “So there was a lot of screaming, especially from the girls,” says Tomlinson.
This combination of pedagogy and personality has proven a knockout combo; after just three years, We Love Pets has 12 franchisees covering 16 franchise areas, an impressive expansion considering that the company hasn’t done any advertising whatsoever. With results like that, it is no wonder that Tomlinson was nominated for the Natwest EWIF Franchisor of the Year Award this spring. And, be certain, Tomlinson is only warming up. “We plan on going nationwide,” she says. “We want another 12 franchisees by the end of the year.”
Nine years have passed since she abandoned the legal route in favour of launching We Love Pets. “And I haven’t looked back,” concludes Tomlinson. “It has been absolutely amazing.”