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.