Interesting Journeys Into Petpreneurship: Claire Harris

In part three of Interesting Journeys into Petpreneurship, we talked to Claire Harris the founder of Pets2Places, about creating the UK's first pet taxi service.

Interesting Journeys Into Petpreneurship: Claire Harris
An Interview with Claire Harris the Founder of Pets2Places.

Welcome to Interesting Journeys Into Petpreneurship, a new series here at Roch where we talk to entrepreneurs in the pet industry about about their businesses, their journey into petpreneurship, and what they have learned along the way.

Today we are talking to Claire Harris the Founder of Pets2Places, and this is easily one of my favourite petpreneur stories so far, because it is the story of an entrepreneur struggling through some very difficult circumstances, sacrificing and working hard before finally succeeding and scaling her business nationally.

Guy: Thank you Claire for joining us today, I really appreciate you taking the time to come and have a conversation with us. Please tell us a bit about yourself!

Claire: I'm the founder of Pets to Places, which I founded in 2014. But before I founded a pet business, I was the franchisee of a domestic cleaning business.

Guy: So you weren't from the pet industry?

Claire: I'd never worked in the pet industry before and up until 2012, I was a franchisee of a completely unrelated business. It was a friend of mine who decided to start this franchise and she talked me into investing and joining her. She sold me the dream, but over time massively under-delivered what she had promised.

That was in June of 2012, and then unfortunately in August my husband died and I became a widow. I was not in a good place mentally at all. I tried to carry on running the business, but the franchisee began to behave horribly towards me.

I was struggling, but they didn't care about my circumstances, they said it's your business, get on with it, there was no sympathy, no support, and no understanding from them. They bullied me to the point of a nervous breakdown so they could force me to hand back the franchise territory, I lost all the money I had invested.

Even after I walked away, they continued to harass me for a little while. 

Guy: That’s a tragic story, it must have been a difficult time for you.

Claire: It was a dark time for me. I took six months out for myself to just take a step back, focus on myself, and on the children, it was almost the end of 2013.

I was thinking about starting a business at the time when somebody I know who works as a receptionist at the vet said to me, oh, why don't you take people with their pets to the vet? In Milton Keynes, where I live there used to be a service called an animal ambulance, which stopped when the operator died. But people were still calling the vets and saying, oh, I need to get my animal there and saying that they were struggling to find a taxi driver who would carry their pet. So the receptionist said, oh, why don't you just do this? And I thought I might as well.

Guy: I am hearing that you identified a common problem within your community, people were struggling to find transport to take their pets to the vets.

Claire: Exactly, exactly. So I started the business. It was called Pets2Vets at the time, I was just taking people to the vets and I didn't really do anything to build the business, I was a very inexperienced new founder to be honest. I went into Tesco and bought this little Nokia phone and a 10-pound top-up card.  Somebody I know prints leaflets and stuff, so I just designed my leaflet and logo. I had no money to do much when I started the business, I had to make do with what I had.

Guy: That's called bootstrapping your startup and it makes you strong. You bootstrapped your startup and grew it organically without external investment.

Claire: Exactly. I just went out into the community, started a Facebook page and started getting the word out there, and it grew so quickly so fast I was giddy.

Guy: Did you expect Pets2Vets to blow up like that?

Claire: I knew there was a demand, but I didn't expect it to blow up like it did.

The business just took off and word spread, people started calling me. I didn't even have to do that much to get business. I accidentally found a gap in the market that needed filling, and I filled that gap. But then my customers started saying, oh, can you take me to the groomers or the kennels? Or I want to go and visit my friends or whatever. I suddenly became the go-to pet transport service in my region and was driving pets and their owners around everywhere, not just the vets anymore.

Then things got a little confusing because of my business name Pets2Vets, because people would call and they'd be like, oh, do you only go to the vets?  So that's how the name change came about, I changed the name to Pets2Places.

Many of our customers don't drive. If you don't drive and you don't have friends and family and the people taxis aren't going to take pets, or perhaps getting on a bus or train is not an option because maybe you've got mobility problems, you probably need a reliable pet transport service on a regular basis.

We became the go-to pet transport service in our region with lots of regular customers, but the customers kept telling us about their friends who lived in other places and how they needed a service like ours. We heard from our customers that lots of people outside of our region wanted to hire us, and that’s how I came up with the idea of franchising.

Guy: You felt a much wider need for the service you provide in other parts of the country, and you felt that this demand could support a national franchise model?

Claire: That's right, but remember that I had previously had a very negative experience with franchising, I wasn't a big fan of franchising because of that. But I think it taught me so much about how not to franchise and how to treat people. My franchise program has been built on good old-fashioned values, which is just what I was raised with. That's the baseline of my business, treating people as you would expect to be treated, helping people as you would want to be helped.

I made that our culture.

Guy: That's an incredible story, you somehow managed to bootstrap a startup and keep it alive through dark days following the tragic death of your partner, and being screwed by your former franchise partner losing all of your money. I think that's a really inspiring story, I think it shows that no matter how bleak your circumstances are, you can always find a way forward somehow. Good job!

Claire: Thank you so much.

Guy: Talk to me about your business a bit more.  How many customers have you got who regularly use your service, and how many franchisees have you got?

Claire: So we are still in the early stages of our Franchise Program, that’s new, but as a company, we have been going for 10 years now so we aren’t a startup anymore.

We have approximately 600 regular customers in our home region who frequently use us, and who rely on us as their primary source of pet transportation, then we probably have at least twice that number who we only see once a year. Some people have pets with a medical condition so they go to the vet every month, and others you see once a year when they go for their annual vaccinations, or when they go on their annual holiday and you are dropping their dog at the kennel.

Guy: So you are the go-to pet transport service for thousands of people?

Claire: Yeah 100%, the thing is, we're such a unique service provider, and there isn't anybody else doing what we do. Not the way we do it anyway.

Guy: Talk me through that, what is it you do differently?

Claire: We always use a people carrier, we never use a van. Most pet transporters use a van and keep the animals caged in the back of a van, and they multi-transport, which means they transport more than one person's pet at a time. Whereas we don't do that. We only transport one person's pet at a time because that's what's in the pet's best interest, two dogs who've never met each other before aren't suddenly being shoved into a small space together.

You don't know what behavioural issues those dogs might have, maybe they're anxious, or maybe they just don't like other dogs. I don't agree with multi-transporting, we carry customers and their dogs at the same time, like a taxi service for pets. Because we carry the customer as well, sometimes the customer might bring their friend, or their family, or their husband or wife, or whatever and when you've got a car there's more space for someone else to come.

We also transport to so many different places, we might have started out picking you from the vets, but now we transport wherever you want to go, we do pickups from the airport, from ferry ports, when people are moving house, or going to the train station. It’s usually always people and their dogs, so we use people carriers.

And it's such a needed service as well, I consistently hear about the problems pet owners have trying to use a normal taxi service for these purposes, so we are like a lifeline to them.

Guy: That's good to hear! How's your franchising network going, have you found that it's easy to expand? What does that franchise program look like?

Claire: So we use a people carrier, our franchisees have to use a specific one that we fully adapt to the needs of the business. Part of the franchise joining fee goes toward this conversion, we only use properly crash-tested equipment in our vehicles, and we fully convert them so that they are fit for safely transporting animals and their owners.

We train the franchisee on how to transport animals in several different scenarios during a three-day residential training course we run where we teach people how to transport animals. Somehow over the last 10 years, I've accidentally become one of the country's leading authorities on pet transport. The more I looked into pet transport, the more I understood how badly people were transporting their animals, and I spent a lot of time studying the subject.

Guy: Have you got many franchisees? How has it expanded across the UK?

Claire: I'm deliberately scaling the business slowly. 

Guy: It’s a new strategy and you're making sure you're getting it right?

Claire: Well, exactly, exactly. The thing is, it's never been done before, our is the first pet taxi franchise in the world, to my knowledge. It's the first one in the UK.

Because it's never been done before I think it’s important to get things right before trying to scale even further. We've already had all of our national territories mapped out for us by a professional mapping company. We know where it works and where it won't and what I'm doing right now is supporting the first franchisees we onboarded, and holding their hand for the first six to 12 months, giving them as much help and support as they need to grow their franchise business.

Guy: Makes all the sense in the world, sounds like the right thing to do.

Claire: Yeah. And it's about taking on the right people as well because I've had quite a few people so far who wanted to join who I have said no to. After all, they haven't been the right people. So it's really important to me to take on the right people. I could have just sold more franchises but I haven't, I've only sold two because I want to make sure that I have the right people on board, and I want to be able to support them and see them succeed, I want my franchisees to be happy.

Guy: Do they need to pay for a franchise? How does that work?

Claire: There is a franchise fee of £10,000, and they have to buy a vehicle as well. So an initial investment is a quite lot of money, probably £25,000 to £30,000 with the vehicle.

Guy: Am not sure it is a lot of money compared to the cost of starting any other kind of business, especially if you already have the kind of people carrier you use.

Claire: It's absolutely a cheaper way of starting your own business. I also think we're in a very unique position where we don't have a lot of competitors right now. We're looking for people with heart and soul and compassion to be on the ground, on the front line, running the service, helping the people of their community. We make money by default and grow organically because we're good at what we do.

I've had franchise inquiries from people who are like, oh, how much money can I make? And I can already tell they are not the right person for this business, it is an old-fashioned kind of service that we're offering to people focused on people and their pets. We expect the franchisees to have that personality and want to support pet owners in their community rather than focus on making as much money as they can.

Guy: I think it’s a valid question from people who might be considering investing in your franchise though. How much income can they expect to make?

Claire: Within five years, we expect them to be turning over £170k

Guy: Nice little business for one person.

Claire: Yes, it’s something one person can grow as their own business over time and make a healthy income. By the time they get to year three, they probably have to put a second vehicle on the road because you've only got so many hours in the day. But it depends on the franchisee. If they're happy to just bob along by themselves, that's fine. If they want to put a second car on the road, that’s fine too.

There are also certain backgrounds that we're recruiting from. The armed forces for example, any kind of NHS emergency services, anyone who's worked with elderly care in the community, anyone who's worked in child care. We look for a strong sign of protective empathy from our people, and so far, that's what our franchisees and employees have been like. It's just a certain personality type that we look for when we're thinking about bringing on new franchisees.

Guy: What other challenges do you have in your business?

Claire: We haven't quite 100% got our marketing right, but we're doing well. At the moment I am focusing on building an online presence, and on our SEO.

I'm doing loads of blogging. I spend most of my time writing content, and increasingly I put myself out there building a professional brand for myself over time. But like I said, I'm not looking for rapid growth, I make a great income now and I’m quite happy to grow slowly and bring on the right people because I want longevity in the business. I want this business to be something that's still standing in 100 years when I am gone. I don't want to just be out there selling franchises to anybody who will buy one, I want to build a long term community service.

Guy: It sounds like the way you are building your franchise network is heavily influenced by the very bad experience you had as a franchisee.

Claire: That's right. I was sold a dream and they failed to deliver on their side, there was no training and support, and they didn’t care about the people in their franchise network. So I'm really big on training and support, and I've moulded my franchise program based on my own experiences. I think that puts me in quite a good position to be able to sell a business as a franchisor because I've been on the other side of the fence, and I know what its like to be unfairly treated.

We also have ten years’ worth of really positive reviews for the business from hundreds of people and remarkably few negative ones, I want to keep it that way.

Guy: That makes sense. Solid reasons, Claire.

Claire: Thank you.

Guy: Let’s move on to the second part of our interview. What does it take to be a successful petpreneur? After running a pet business for 10 years, you are one!

Claire: I think it takes determination and I think it takes managing your expectations. Because I think we live in a society where we want everything right now and that's not how starting a successful business is, it can take years.

I think in Milton Keynes, I've had four other people try to copy me and they've all failed within three months because they expected to build their business to the level of success I've achieved, but they expected to do that in three months. And that's just not achievable. It takes years. It took me a decade to build the business to where it is now, it took me years to get to the level of success. So I would say, if you haven't got that kind of time frame in mind, then think twice about committing to a business like that. It takes a lot of determination, and I think you have to have the right mindset as well, because there are going to be days when you're like, oh, god, I'm working my socks off, and I'm not getting paid.

Or you're constantly having to reinvest the money that you are earning back into the business unless you've got funding from outside, which I never have, I’ve completely self-funded the entire growth over the 10 years. There are days when you're like, I'm just going to go and get a job in Tesco and stack shelves, this is too hard it's hurting my brain. You will get days where you just feel like giving up– if I had a pound for every time I felt like giving up, I could give up.

So I think just determination, you've got to be in it for the long haul. There's no point coming in and thinking, I'm going to start a successful business in three months. Even now, people look at the success that I've achieved, and I'm still at the beginning of my journey, or what I perceive to be quite close to the beginning.

I think you've got to have a strong mindset if you're going to start a business because the amount of shade people throw at you is crazy. You've got to truly believe in what you are doing. You have to think, I'm going to do this no matter who's laughing at me or putting it down or no matter how hard it is.

I'm never going to give up.

Guy: Good answer Claire! What's it like working in the pet industry?

Claire: Like any industry, there's good and bad in any industry, and I would say you've got to find your people. I found a huge group of super supportive people, they're nice and everybody wants to help each other. But, like in other industries, you're always going to have those people who– they're in it for themselves.

And they don't want to collaborate, they just want to be nasty. If they're not doing well, they want to shoot everyone else down. In terms of the customers, the best thing about working in the pet industry is not just that you get to work with pets all day, but you get to work with pet people, and pet people are a different kind of person, working in the pet industry brings you into contact with lots of pet people, and they're just great people. I have never had a bad customer in 10 years.

Genuinely, hand on heart. I'm not just saying it. They're so grateful for what we do, and they love what we do. And we love what we do, so it's a win-win.

Guy: Great answer Claire.

Claire: Thanks.

Guy: Where do you see the pet industry headed over the next five or 10 years?

Claire: Well, the pet industry is set for some massive growth, and the pet services sector is the fastest-growing within the wider pet industry. While the pet food sector is very large, and the pet product sector is even bigger, pet services sector is overtaking.

Guy: How do you see your specific niche growing over the coming 5 to 10 years?

Claire: I think there's going to be massive growth in the pet transport sector. The world is changing, society is changing, the younger generation owns more pets than ever before and makes up 56% of pet ownership, people are working from home, and many are not bothering to buy a vehicle, because why would you have a car if you work from home and have no need? The younger generation prefers to simply rent a car through an app when they need it or use something like Uber to get a ride. Many of them see no reason to spend money on a car.

Guy: Can you see yourself providing your services through an Uber-like app? 

Claire: That's part of our growth plan for the longer term. Right now, we're just trying to build the network to the point where we've got like eight franchisees, that's when we'll look at introducing an app, that's definitely where we are heading. 

Guy: What advice do you have for aspiring petpreneurs?

Claire: If you're thinking about starting a business in the pet industry, I would say, number one, think about how long it will take to do that. I would say look at your finances. Because everybody's got everyday living costs, right? We've all got bills to pay, and food to buy, I think people need to ask themselves if they are being realistic about how long it's going to take to build a business. Because whatever they're thinking, I would say quadruple your expectations to get to the reality.

I would also tell them to check out your competition. I think if you're looking at doing something in your local community, check out what your competition is, and check out who's doing what. You've always got to know what your competitors are doing. At the end of the day, in any business, it's really important to have a strong USP. So ask yourself what is going to be your unique selling poin and think about who your ideal customer would be, do the thinking before starting.

In this day and age, pretty much everything has been done, so ask yourself what are you going to do that's new and different. Or how can you put a twist on something that has already been done? What can you bring to the unique table? It’s not easy and I think that's why people join a franchise. Because the hard work has been done for you, the research has been done for you.

Guy: Sounds like good advice Claire. Now before we finish up is there a petpreneur or a pet business out there you want to shout out to?

Claire: I want to shout out to my franchisee Chris who runs Pets2Places Pontefract & Wakefield, he has done an incredible job with his business, hist customers love him and the service he provides, and I'm really proud of him.

Please check Chris out on Facebook and Instagram!

Guy: Thank you so much, Claire. This has been a really interesting conversation and I appreciate you taking the time to talk to us about your business.

Claire: No problem. Thank you for listening to me!

Editors Note: This brings us to the end of the interview, thank you so much for reading. Do please give Claire and her business a follow on Linkedin and Facebook, and check out her website over at

Read On: This is Part Three of our Interesting Journeys in Petrpeneurship series, click to see Part 1 featuring Niki French, and Part 2 featuring Chloe Smith.