Friday 18 October 2019

Dynamic doggy businesses clean up with their canine companies

Some entrepreneurs have taken inspiration from their furry friends, and are making money, says Vicki Notaro

Ruby & Duke petbox
Ruby & Duke petbox

Vicki Notaro

We're a nation that loves our furry friends, so it's not very surprising that - now we have a little more disposable income than in recent years - canine businesses are really taking off.

Grooming, treats, toys and training have always been popular purchases for pet owners, but in 2015 there appears to be growth in a wider sector - less based on necessity, more on indulgence. The old adage may be that you should never work with children or animals, but for Irish businesses, the latter is proving profitable.

The trend stems from America, where companies selling doggy paraphernalia outside the norm are expanding rapidly. Bark & Co which operates BarkBox, a service that delivers boxes of toys and treats on a monthly basis, last year increased their valuation by 10-11 times on the previous year, and in July 2014 raised $15m in funding. A similar business model has recently popped up here in the form of Ruby & Duke, run by entrepreneur Niall Harbison.

"I started Ruby & Duke because I always found pet toys and treats really expensive, and found it hard to find interesting treats that were healthy and kept the dogs entertained. You can get them online, but ordering them individually is a pain, so putting them in one box a month seemed like a logical step."

Harbison loves that the business allows him to be around dogs all day long, with five canine colleagues in the office including his own rescues, Buster and Snoop. Ruby & Duke is operational just over a month, but had 252 box shipments in the first four weeks.

At €25 a box (less if you sign up for longer periods), Harbison is hopeful that it will be a profitable business.

"There are similar box subscription companies in other areas like beauty and food, and dog-themed ones in the US. People love it, and in my experience they spend on their dogs no matter what. As the economy improves, people will treat their dogs even more."

Dublin-based Canadian Jenny McCarthy owns Cheeky Dog Bakery, and is a dog treat baker by day, legal personal assistant by night.

"I work evenings in my former occupation to cover my own bills and be able to continue to invest in the bakery while it starts up," says the 33-year-old, whose business is a way for her to work in a doggy word, having previously worked with animals. She tells me it's where her heart lies.

"I was lucky enough to stumble into the dog bakery world myself after I couldn't find a bakery for my dachshund Oscar's first birthday.

"I knew they existed, I'd seen them back home in Canada and online, but I couldn't find one in Ireland. I ended up making a cake for him myself which he absolutely loved, so I started researching from there. It took almost two years from making the decision to go for it, to when we were invited by Dogs Trust to their supporters day event, where we start selling properly.

"Since then we've been selling through our online shop and at events and markets. My goal is to have a bricks and mortar shop where you can bring in your dog to choose their goodies or have birthday 'pawties'."

Jenny says that the costs involved in such a start-up are high, as she uses human-grade ingredients, but that business is burgeoning.

"It's definitely picking up. Customers are stumbling across us online. I think dog culture in Ireland is changing and growing. Things that used to be socially unacceptable years ago are now the norm."

Jenny is correct in thinking that previously scorned things like dog clothing, and even doggy day care, aren't a joke anymore. Dublin-based dog-minding service Mutt Ugly's day care facility is currently over-subscribed, and they've just opened a 'Scrub Club' on Clanbrassil Street.

The salon for fluffy clientele expands their number of stores to three. Owner Sinead Clarke opened the first shop nine years ago.

"In a previous life I was international marketing director at DoubleClick, which was sold to Google for $4bn, but I had always wanted to work for myself. I'd been trying to take a back seat with Mutt Ugly - three kids under five doesn't leave much time, but I came across the perfect premises in Dublin 8 last year, and it just felt right - like the first one we opened in 2006. I found it by chance the day I handed in my notice in my old job."

One of the groomers that works for Sinead, Lyndsey Murphy, spotted a gap in the market for overnight doggy minding, and runs a side business called DoggyHolidays, where she takes pooches for sleepovers when owners are away - ideal for dogs who have separation anxiety or who don't respond to kennels.

Not content with buying our dogs clothes, toys, cakes and expensive hair cuts, we're also keen to immortalise our pets in photographs.

A quick Google will bring up lots of Irish snappers who specialise in pooch portraits - such as 34-year-old Dylan Madden and 29-year-old Ciaran McDonnell Byrne, who started their pet photography business Say Cheese because they wanted to bring an even higher standard to the growing market.

"There was a lot we had to pick up and very quickly, given the unpredictable nature of animals, but we quickly honed our skills. Working with dogs, it's important to try various lighting techniques in order to best capture each dog's character and individuality."

Dylan has found it to be a profitable business thus far.

"We offer a very unique and specialist service. Thankfully, to some people their pets are like their children, and in that regard they are happy to spend good money on them. The pet industry is rapidly expanding, with industry sources predicting a rise of 50pc in overall sales in the next three to five years.

"We are hoping to capitalise on this growth and expand the business further."

It's not just those who have dogs of their own that are using canine businesses - the company BorrowMyDoggy operates online across the UK and Ireland, matching dog lovers who are without their own canine companions to busy owners whose dogs need walking and minding when they're not around.

Co-owner Rikke Roselund says she never expected the start-up to be more than a weekend project, but its strong community element has taken off.

"We started BorrowMyDoggy at the end of 2012, so we are still very much a young pup of a company with little experience in this economy. What we have seen, however, is a growing number of members in our community of members year on year."

If we look to the US as a leader in trends, we can expect more dog businesses to crop up. But whether Ireland will go as far as accepting a Cuddle Clones-esque business - custom soft toy versions of your pet based on photographs - or pooch couture remains to be seen.

One thing is for sure - Irish dog lovers are willing to put their money where their heart is.

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