Nine Months Later

It’s been nine months since I embarked on my adventure as a small business owner. I am proud to introduce my business — my baby: Happy Dogs at McCarren Park.

Operating a dog daycare has been hard work, not only mentally having to juggle all aspects of running a business but also physically — including picking up poop and cleaning up pee. The novelty has certainly worn off. But I am glad to report, through all the ups and downs so far: I love it, absolutely.

I dove in with my whole being when I took over the store on July 1st. For the first three months, I was at the store every day, weekends included. The only exception was the day we had to close the store for Hurricane Irene. I was working 12 to 13-hour days every day. I thank BigLaw for my stamina.

The business we bought was very much a fixer-upper — with great potential. Prior to taking over, I spent weeks researching the basics of running a doggie daycare, such as obtaining the necessary business permits, acquiring adequate insurance coverage, meeting various payroll requirements, setting up reliable merchant accounts, etc. It was a long list, but I got all the ducks in a row before taking over, so I was able to put almost all of these things in place within the first week. Again, I thank BigLaw for the many Memoranda of Closing I did over the years.

Then I waded into the uncharted water of staff management. Within the first month, a couple of existing staff quit because they didn’t like my new, more professional policies, leaving me even more short-handed in a business that was already short staffed. On top of that, I had to dismiss another staff for cause. BigLaw never taught me how to fire someone or remake a team.

It was not a fun time. I was tired. In my exhaustion, I did panic once — ok, maybe twice. What did I get myself into? A doubt reared its ugly head: why am I dealing with various employee shenanigans when I could be working on some high-profile, intellectually challenging transactions and getting paid (relative) big bucks?

Fortunately, I nipped this doubt right in the bud. I was thankful of the journey I had chronicled in this blog. It was a reminder of why I quit BigLaw. I remembered theobstacles I had to conquer to become the owner of this doggie daycare, something I badly wanted.

I pushed forward, with my husband’s steadfast encouragement and advice. Through trial and error and patience, I was able to assemble a new team of staff. I now have eight members I am proud of. The whole ordeal turned out to be a blessing in disguise because I was able to instill the high standard of dog care and handling that I wanted, which probably wouldn’t have worked with the old group of staff.

Along with the high standard of dog care, I envisioned providing superior customer service, a level that would satisfy me — a customer who is highly demanding yet fair (at least I’d like to think so).

I was again in uncharted territory, not because I didn’t know how to deal with demanding clients, but because I had to rely on the performance to others.

As a lawyer, the work product of a transaction was a direct reflection of my performance, over which I had a great deal of control. Yes, I did have to rely on junior associates for certain tasks, but ultimately I could still review and correct their work product directly. Running a store is different. It is about managing different people with different skill sets to achieve a result that is dependent on work that I could only control in an indirect way. As a perfectionist control-freak, depending on others’ performance was foreign and unnerving.

I wanted us to hit the ball out of the park every single time. For instance, we forgot to return a food container to the parents when a dog was being picked. It gnawed at me for a day or so. In the beginning, I got “gnawed” often.

I quickly learned that I needed to prioritize. Certain aspects of service, such as ensuring dog safety and keeping up-to-date vaccination records, are must-haves. Other aspects, such as returning food containers, are important but secondary. We should strive to get the secondary things right each time, but the priority is on hitting every must-have out of the park.

I also learned that I had to quit trying to do everything myself. I needed to let my staff make mistakes and then learn without wanting to rescue them every time. Instead of being consumed by the “gnawings,” I started redirecting the negative energy from not having my standards met into systematic training. I know that Happy Dogs, just like a human baby, needs certain freedoms from an overprotective mother to grow. So I am learning to walk the tightrope of letting go a bit while maintaining high standards.

Last month, I had a surgery that kept me from work for an entire week. My team took care of the store in my absence without a hitch. That week seemed to go on forever and I couldn’t wait to go back to work. I realized that my desire to go back was not so much motivated by my anxiety or the need for control. Instead, I missed my staff, I missed my human clients and, above all, I missed the dogs — my dogs — looking at me with their soulful eyes happily wagging their tails at Happy Dogs.

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