Maggie Ruff drives around Charlotte with a dozen different house keys. She lives for weeks at a time in upscale Myers Park homes — and once went a month and a half without buying groceries.
She has a “real” job as a part-time nursing assistant. But it’s petsitting that pays Ruff enough money to earn her share of the rent in the 1420 Magnolia apartments off Park Road in just a week.
The Providence Day grad started out caring for four or five families’ dogs. That’s since ballooned to 18 regular jobs, fueled by quality work and word of mouth.
A client in Fort Mill gives her a gas card to get her down to their home. One family with eight cats and a dog pays her $600 a week for four visits a day.
“People will pay top dollar to make sure their pets are taken care of,” Ruff said. “I had no idea it was going to be this great.”
What is professional petsitting?
Petsitting used to be something you just asked your neighbor to do when you went on vacation. But in Charlotte, that’s been rapidly changing.
Now it means hiring a professional service for everything from walks during the day, feedings when you have to work late, drop-in visits while you’re on a weekend trip and in-home visits during vacation.
And people are paying extraordinary sums for it. The standard is about $45 per day. A half-hour visit every workday can quickly run you $500 per month.
Why? People today are more attuned to their pets’ needs, whether it be with special food or medicine regimens — and they’re not necessarily willing to trust the 12-year-old next door with them.
At the same time, Charlotte’s population is booming, and young pet-owners are moving to town without the support network of people they can rely on.
Melissa Dobrovolski has worked with several professional petsitting firms to watch her dogs Sadie and Domingo in her Piper Glen home. She said both of her dogs are rescues, which brings its own challenges. Because of their temperament, she said she wouldn’t feel comfortable asking a neighbor. Plus, it’s easier to go online and know you can have someone come over when you need them.
“As busy as we are, I want to know that I can call someone up and they don’t have soccer practice,” Dobrovolski said. “I do think it’s expensive, but it’s kind of what you have to do if you have dogs.”
That need has opened up opportunities both for individuals and small businesses to make a living walking, feeding and playing with other people’s pets. They market themselves as more reliable and able to handle special instructions.
“There’s so much more involved with it,” said Fluffs of Luv Pet Sitting owner Jennifer Fagan, who created the business in 2007. “You’re making sure the house is secure. You’re checking for accidents. You’re observing the dogs and cats in their environment to make sure they’re not sick. … We pay a lot more attention to details.”
How the business model works
The industry is still very fragmented. At least 15 different small businesses operate in the space in Charlotte, on top of the dozens of freelance petsitters that do their own thing.
That said, pricing is pretty standard. The cheapest option is a 10-minute visit that pretty much just gets your dog a potty break and maybe some food poured in a bowl. Services increase as time increases, but the 30-minute visit is the gold standard and includes some exercise and clean-up time.
10-minute visit: $10-$16
20-minute visit: $18-$20
30-minute visit (the standard): $17-$22
45-minute visit: $25-$30
60-minute visit: $30-$35
More than two pets in a household will generally add $2 to $3 per visit. If you buy in bulk — for example, commit to five days per week or three visits per day — unit pricing comes down slightly as well.
For an individual petsitter, limited by the hours in a day, it’s not going to be enough to get rich — though it’s often better and more flexible than working at a place like Starbucks. But if companies get the marketing right, you can sustain a small business with little capital investment.
They’re well positioned to compete against doggie day care services, which generally charge between $25 and $30 for a day of care. Especially if you have multiple pets, in-home petsitting is a lot cheaper.
On the back end, most petsitting companies operate as marketing and scheduling enterprises staffed by independent contractors.
Terry Richardson started Little Friends Pet Sitting in 2010 after finding a certification and training program for professional petsitting online. She now has about 70 independent contractors working under her. The business operates out of her home in Dilworth.
The company has had 20 percent revenue growth year over year and will bring in $500,000 in revenue this year. Like most companies with contractors, Little Friends pays its contractors about half of the cost of a visit.
Of course, not all of them do it that way. Fluffs of Luv decided to convert from independent contractors to employees in 2013. Fagan said that allows her to hold required meetings and training sessions for her 62 employees. She also has a rigorous hiring process.
Monetarily, the set-up is a little different, too. Instead of getting a percentage of a visit’s cost, Fluffs of Luv employees get a standard fee for every visit. They also get paid for training sessions, free consultations and administrative time. It does add overhead costs, but in return, Fluffs of Luv doesn’t have to share employees with other services.
Fluffs of Luv is doing about 130 visits per day, with the $20 visit being the most common. That comes out to $676,000 annualized if you only count workdays.
Big (+ rich) players move in
Local petsitters are now finding more competition from national platforms.
Rover.com launched in 2011 out of Seattle and went nationwide in 2012. Today, it has a registered sitter in driving distance of 92 percent of the U.S. population. People who want to petsit can apply on the site and get vetted by the company. They then show up on a map with pricing and services. People who need their pets cared for can look through sitter profiles and schedule online. Rover.com takes 15 percent of the sitter’s fee.
Earlier this year, Rover.com landed a $25 million funding round and firmly entrenched itself as a player in the “sharing economy” category alongside Uber and Airbnb.
A search on the site shows 10-20 petsitters who will drop in to your home in most ZIP codes in Charlotte.
Another site, DogVacay, operates much the same way.
Local companies are wary of the new services but acknowledge it’s a good way for someone starting out in the business to get clients.
“Clearly I’d rather they were not here, but I’m not going to tell you they have a terrible model,” Richardson of Little Friends said.
Where will it go next?
We’re currently in a second wave of professional petsitting growth. The recession in 2009 touched off growth in the petsitting industry as people lost their corporate jobs. Now people are being drawn to the demand and the opportunity.
For now, demand is still outstripping supply. And company owners think there’s more room to expand the market by letting people know they’re out there.
“I still continue to be surprised by the number of people who don’t know that professional petsitting can be leveraged,” Richardson of Little Friends said. “I think there’s probably room for everybody, but not as much room as there was five years ago.”
Little Friends Pet Sitting is looking at franchising its model in cities around the country. Queen City Petsitting is already there, having set up businesses in Raleigh and Atlanta after launching in Charlotte.
Maggie Ruff said she is starting to get overscheduled, but her petsitting days may be coming to an end soon. She’s been applying to physician assistant schools with hopes to move up in the medical world. But if it doesn’t happen…
“I hear a lot of jokes from my parents — ‘If PA school doesn’t work out, you’ve got something good going,’” she said.
Cover image from Maggie Ruff