From being a single mum to overcoming a family tragedy, Jo Middleton hasn’t let anything stand in her way to ensure canines get the care they deserve with Dog First Aid
When speaking on the phone with Jo Middleton, founder of Dog First Aid, the canine first aid franchise for professionals, it’s clear how in demand she is. “I’ve got about ten minutes if that’s alright with you?” she checks politely. It was a case of third time’s the charm as the previous calls had to be rebooked to accommodate her packed schedule. “Franchisees have access to my calendar,” Middleton explains, adding they can book a chat with her whenever they like. It’s plain to see how open she and the team are to those joining the network, with her diary usually being packed back-to-back.
That caring disposition was forged prior to launching a franchise when Middleton worked for the NHS in Blood and Transplant as a first aider. But as a single mother, she decided to pursue her other passions. “I left the blood service in 2008 and decided I was going to do something with dogs that would fit around two children, who were young at the time,” she details. The self-confessed dog lover had been involved in rescuing man’s – and woman’s – best friend and this resulted in a dog-walking and petcare business. It allowed her to work around two tikes and furry four-legged friends, while the company grew from just being Middleton working solo to a team of dedicated staff and five vans on the road.
Like all good entrepreneurial stories, the Dog First Aid operation was unplanned and something of an accident in 2013. “One of my own dogs came back injured on a walk and despite extensive human first aid training, I couldn’t connect the two to administer first aid,” she says. It inspired Middleton to team a group of veterinary professionals to put together material for a “little” local course for those working with dogs. “I had so much interest that the course was fully booked and I had to book a second one,” she recalls.
Interest in Dog First Aid would only grow further following the two courses. “I had an enquiry through Facebook from a rescuer in Cardiff that wanted us to go to Wales and do some training with their volunteers and it went crazy from there,” says Middleton. She explains many people are unaware just how distinctly different human and dog first aid are. “We’re keen to ensure anyone who works with dogs obtains and keeps knowledge current with dog first aid training,” Middleton details. “If you work with children, you have to do paediatric first aid and we’re very much of the view that if you’re looking after other people’s dogs, you should have your dog first aid.”
However, running both the petcare business and Dog First Aid was increasingly eating into Middleton’s time and she was less hands-on with the animals as a result. “I was breaking myself with Dog First Aid – I was in North Wales on the Saturday and Essex on the Sunday in one weekend,” she says, offering an example of how demanding things had become. “The reason I went self-employed in the first place was to do something that fitted around the kids as a single mum. It was a tipping point where I was like, ‘right, I can’t carry on like this’.” That moment of clarity led to Middleton making a tough call between which business to sell and which to franchise – Dog First Aid was victorious. “On the back of the first course, one of the attendees went on to save their dog’s life three months later,” she reveals. “Once that happens, you’ve got this fire in your belly.”
With powerful testimonials like that, it’s easy to see why Dog First Aid became so popular. “I work with lots of different business coaches, sales coaches, franchise experts, legal experts etcetera and over the period of just over the year, we got the business franchise-ready,” says Middleton.
With the franchise website and operations manual good to go at the end of 2014, the founder received devastating news. “My dad got given a few weeks to live,” she says. “So I had a bit of a head-spinner and needed to drop everything and be with my dad.” She handed over the reins to her PA, who took leadership on the franchise rollout. Middleton returned after six months and says the business was stronger than ever. “That was the initial test of the operations manual really and we went and got three pilot franchise territories on board,” she details. “We’ve now got 13 franchisees across the UK and 42 territories.”
On top of the passing of her father, Middleton faced other challenges when taking Dog First Aid into the franchising world. “When you go to business networking meetings, Joe Bloggs business owners don’t necessarily understand what a franchise is,” she says. “If you say you’re a franchise business, they presume you’re a franchisee rather than a franchisor.”
Becoming part of Encouraging Women Into Franchising (EWIF) was a breath of fresh air as she found likeminded individuals on the same page as her. “When you’re not part of an organisation like EWIF, you feel like you’re mad,” she admits. The other thing she had to adapt to was going from selling a service, which was getting people booked onto courses, to selling pieces of the business. But her biggest challenge was doing all this as a single mother. “It’s very important for me to be able to pop my mum hat on,” she says.
The first official franchisee came on board at the end of 2016 and it was unsurprisingly through word of mouth – the key marketing method for the franchise – from a course attendee that brought Dog First Aid to their attention. “The first franchisee is a vet nurse,” Middleton reveals. “She’d used her veterinary skills to travel the world and did all sorts of things in the tropics. She’d come back to the UK and wanted a fresh approach, so came on board with us.”
Middleton has been keen to make the experience bespoke for individuals once they join the network. That means a combination of webinars and workbooks bringing them up to speed as well as on-site days, one-to-one training with veterinary professionals and unlimited forum access. “They then get assigned level one, level two and level three support where they can have weekly, monthly or bi-monthly calls,” she adds. “I always say: ‘if you don’t tell us what you need, we don’t know’. We haven’t got a crystal ball, so it’s very much two-way communication.” With up to four franchisees brought on at a time, which generally happens quarterly, to ensure they get all the help they need, Middleton expects to have 20 by April 2019.
All of the challenges faced and the hard work done by Middleton, paid off this year as she took home the New Woman Franchisor of the Year title at the 2018 EWIF Awards. “For me to have won the award and for my girls to have seen my journey from being on my backside ten years ago when we relocated to today having won the award from the businesses, it’s really lovely for them to see that anything is possible,” she says, adding that the award was very much a team effort. There came a slight downside to this though – Middleton had food poisoning the night before, which meant 24 hours prior to the ceremony was spent “hugging the toilet all night”. Building on that, she laughs: “Where I was so weak from not eating, I literally got my award then dropped it and smashed it into two pieces. It was a good thing because Stephanie, my PA who ran the business when I was dealing with my dads’s death and I got a piece each. It was meant to be.”