Lisa Suswain is the Managing Director of Wagging Tails, a multi-award winning franchise company launched in 2007. In a nutshell it’s a company run by dog lovers for dog lovers, providing a home haven for dogs while their owners are away on holiday. Wagging Tails has shared the limelight with the likes of McDonalds and Subway as the current 2013 winner of Best Franchise Marketing Support in the Franchise Marketing Awards held in March.
It's an extraordinary story, and in this blog we introduce you to Lisa the Mumpreneur. She shares the beginnings of Wagging Tails, her thoughts on the factors (and people in her life) who contributed to this company becoming a truly inspiring business, and what gems of inspiration she feels she can share with others looking to start up their own business…
Wagging Tails is indeed impressive with seven franchised branches, 92% increase in booking year on year, with franchisees anticipating profits in the region of £25,000 after just 18 months' trading.
Numbers aside, its success seems to lie in its core philosophy. In Lisa's words "…I liken what we do to a nursery for your child. It's that same very emotive subject…you want to know your dog will be cared for in a home environment, that's what it's all about – peace of mind." But first, the early days…
Ballet, The Big Idea and Early Beginnings
Lisa was previously a professional ballet dancer, trained at The Royal Ballet and performed with Vienna Festival Ballet. In the early part of our interview it was all too easy to actually picture her story of walking into the bank to open a business account, full of confidence, poised and with the kind of passion that simply engages people as she shares her great idea. The Bank Manager didn’t quite get the Big Picture (well not in the first 10 seconds anyway), and Lisa recounts “…because of my dancing background, I’m quite extravagant and over the top. I’m very passionate, I wear my heart on my sleeve. So you can see, if I believe in something I really believe it. This is what I want to do, I love dogs, it’s an idea that was very different from what was out there…and he looks at me with this look that said ‘Emotional Woman. Loves Pooches’ and then he spoke: “Dogs don’t make money”.
That moment was of course from 6 years ago, and a light laugh follows her story as she jokes that the bank manager has regretted it since, that she occasionally reminds him still, and carries on to share that the reasons for Wagging Tails’ take-off was not purely due to financial backing…
The truth is, Lisa didn’t think of herself as an entrepreneur from Day One. She cites her father as a key influence in business and life in general. He said to her from a young age that if she was to do something, to do it properly; She shares what he imparted: ‘…you put your whole heart into it, if you’re not going to do that then you’re cheating someone, you’re cheating other people.’ I pretty much grew up that way. You can’t be a ballet dancer half-heartedly. You really must give it your all and I think that thinking just carried on.”
A personal tragedy for Lisa turned out to be the tipping point for her entrepreneurial spirit to kick in. An injury halted her ballet career prematurely and although she did a few office jobs after that, the end of one passion made way for another passion to kick in. “After that phase I did a few jobs that didn’t really work out because my heart wasn’t in it, my husband asked simply ‘what do you want to do?’ …Well I can’t dance anymore, but I miss the dogs, I miss having them around, I used to take care of mum and dad’s dogs so they wouldn’t have to take them to a kennel…” And the idea for Wagging Tails took root.
The UK has 27 million pets, 10.5 million of which are dogs. There are nearly 300 kennels and every dog owner would know that leaving your beloved dog in a kennel comes with emotional compromises. Lisa grew up with dogs as her parents were breeders, and she reveals later on in our conversation that she was actually petting her golden retriever for pretty much all of our time together on the phone. Wagging Tails is a beautiful alternative to kennels. The dog owners will always know where their dog is, the dog-loving caregivers are carefully selected, trained and fostered by Lisa.
She states: “This is something I’ve always believed in. This is something I believed in 100%: I felt that every dog owner should have access to a holiday home for their dog without having to bring them to a kennel…To me this wasn’t something revolutionary, it was common sense. it was my passion, something I wanted to do and then developed into a small business. It was just a home-based business to make me happy…I think as it has grown, I brought the idea to a wider market, franchised it and I got more people thinking the way I think, then I started thinking ‘you know what, maybe I am an entrepreneur…at the start, I wouldn’t have said that.”
DNA of an Entrepreneur and Sharing Lisa's lessons
Last month, we talked a bit about how the question has often been asked – Is an Entrepreneur born or made? The nature versus nurture debate has gone on forever, but after the first ten minutes with Lisa, it seemed that there are indeed key skills and traits she possessed that have helped her through her journey.
Opportunist with Integrity
"I would've lost Wagging Tails if I listened to the bully"
A classic entrepreneurial trait is spotting an opportunity and seeing gaps in the market. The ability to deal with a business world riddled with complications and set-backs is crucial, and striking that balance between revenue and fairness is not always easy. Lisa recalls distinctly how the worst advice she was ever given (which she didn't take) came from a highly recommended franchise consultant. The advice was, in essence, to rip customers off with registration fees, extra charges during bank holidays (which tend to be the reason dog-owners need to part with their dog in the first place), and other fees Lisa could not agree with in principle.
She described how pushy the consultant was, talking down to her and using big words in a rather condescending way. "I felt this person doesn't get me, but I'm not going to be bullied into accepting just any advice. I would have lost Wagging Tails – I had done a great amount of research and spoke to a lot of people and dog owners who expressed to me what compromises they have made in the past. I knew what I didn't want to do and this person's business model was all about ripping people off, I think I was sensible to follow my heart…In the end the franchise consultant that we did use was a dog owner, he totally understood what I was trying to do – thought it was a fantastic concept and to this date we still look after his dog when he goes on holiday."
Many of the most successful entrepreneurs were risk-takers with an incredible attention to detail. Lisa recounts: "Looking back now, I think whooop it was a bit of a risk. If I was an outsider looking in, I’d think it was a bit of a risk, but from my point of view, this is something I felt everyone needed; so that’s it, I’m doing it…There were other people doing a similar concept – I looked at them to see if I could work with them. I did find that there were compromises – dog owners couldn't see where the dog was staying, there were extra charges during the bank holidays, unreasonable registration fees. So the risk, although there, I carefully balanced with what I had learned, and just got on with it."
Adding a dash more awe to the Wagging Tails story, Lisa is a determined Mumpreneur. Did we mention that she launched Wagging Tails while undergoing IVF; and is now the happy mum of 20-month old Eliza-Grace? She continues the mammoth of a job as Wagging Tails' Managing Director while she and husband Jim raise their little girl and train her to walk the dogs.
Have a Support Network
"It's the people around you most who know you best"
From taking the leap and fleshing out her idea, to researching the market and developing her business plan, Lisa counted on family and friends. She also cited the invaluable support network she found in MumpreneurUK -"The guys at Mumpreneur, they're fantastic. Laura and I – I've had some hilarious chats with her where we both have 'baby brain' We'll be talking, then stopping mid-sentence 'What was I saying again? I can't remember, we'll get back to that.' I love having people that understand that. "
"Family and friends can offer the best support network for you outside the various business consultants. Are you doing something sensible? Are you getting carried away on a whim? I think trusting the people who’ve been around you the most can really help reinforce what you may already know…"
Lisa is a self-proclaimed workaholic. But she has learned to find that balance of what works for her. She may take out her laptop well into the evening to quickly note an idea ("…and I use Twitter a lot" she adds), but she does take several breaks during the day.
When online she constantly sees what people are doing. There is certainly so much information out there that one quickly learns to discriminate between what can be learned from the way other successful businesses do it. "Whether it’s a well-known company, or a new company using Twitter to launch their new business, I gain knowledge and inspiration from that….but for the most part I think inspiration comes from the everyday woman”
When I asked her who she would have breakfast with– anyone in the world– for a quick pow-wow who would that be, we get a 5-second pause and she blurts excitedly:
"Victoria Beckham. To me she is just absolutely stunning and a very clever business woman – she's constantly keeping everything fresh, she’s done it all while bringing up children. It would be her, I’d love to pick her brains – although I’m not sure she’d eat breakfast with me!
And that was it – we ended our chat with a joke of how it was probably time for a "Mummy Refill" – a term all we working mums know to be the best possible example of a work / life balance there is: having the freedom to work hard and also be right there raising your kids.
She's indeed an inspiration!