Freelancer Interview: Dog Walkers Are Freelancers

Interviews | Aug 04, 2015

Blair Mackinnon is living the freelancer’s dream. He loves what he does, has a stable income and more clients than he can handle without having to do any marketing. His job keeps him balanced and healthy, and he thrives on his freedom to drop in and see his kids whenever he wants.

Blair has a dog walking business. His wife started it in 1998 (far before the explosion of dog ownership we’ve seen in the last few years), and he joined her in 2004. To get started they posted a few flyers and handed out cards in their neighborhood. Word-of-mouth helped popularize their business, and once people started responding, they’ve never looked back.

The Day in a Life of a Dog Walker

Let’s start with the reality that success at dog walking, like every other freelance business, requires discipline and the provision of quality service. On any given day, Blair takes 18-24 dogs to a local park that has a forest and off-leash area. He spends at least an hour in this dog heaven with each group he takes, making sure that they all get play time, none of the dogs fight or jump a fence, all poop is cleaned up and they are returned home safely. During this day he also meets with owners and, much like a daycare, he provides some of them detailed updates on their dog’s outing.When Living Freelance asked Blair how he screens clients, he told us that there are usually only two reasons he would refuse a new dog. The first is the dog itself – some just aren’t made to walk in groups with others, either because they’re too anxious or too aggressive, and Blair has learned from hard experience that he can’t properly train them when he’s got other dogs to attend to. The other reason he might turn clients away is when they haggle over the price before having even discussed the service. That throws up a red flag, and Blair says he has enough experience now to follow his gut on whether he should walk away.

Image of Blair dog walking

Business Time

The business side of the dog walking business is not his favorite part but

Blair has developed a system that works for him. He keeps a moleskin notebook with him which he uses to track hours and relevant details about his client’s pets. He manages everything himself but because there are many potential deductions, he has an accountant to help him at tax time. He hates bugging people for collections but on the rare occasion this happens he just does what he has to do.

During our chat, Blair noted that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks (his words). He knows there are a lot of productivity apps he should be using, but with three kids as well as a thriving dog walking business, he just hasn’t found the time to do the research, select the tools and transition his systems. Yet he advises others not to ignore this part of the business and plans to do more research when he gets a chance.

Why Freelance?

His favourite parts of his job are the dogs and being outside. He loves working for himself and being his own boss and can’t really imagine it any other way. He also likes his clients and develops friendly relationships with most of them. Sometimes it can be physically exhausting or a little grueling in the freezes of winter and heat of summer but Blair says he is genuinely happy to start work each day and motivation is very rarely a problem. Blair knows he can expand the business if he wants to and hire other people but then, he says, he will be a manager and not doing the work he loves to do, so for now he’s flying solo.

We asked Blair what advice he would have for people just starting out as freelancers. As someone who has tried a few different things prior to this (including growing industrial hemp, film-making and computer art), he had the following to contribute:

  1. Make sure you truly want to do what it is you’re going to do.
  2. Do your homework and confirm there’s a demand for your product or service. Understand the market that you’re jumping into.
  3. Figure out what distinguishes you and why people should want to work with you rather than doing it themselves or working with someone else.
  4. Communicate well and regularly with your clients. This is essential to long term relationships.
  5. Don’t be afraid of failure – you learn tons from your mistakes
  6. Don’t be afraid to say no to clients for unreasonable requests or things you can’t do.

Only half kiddingly he also said – “Don’t get sick.” Like all freelancers, Blair noted that the success or failure of his dog walking business is all on him. He spends his time doing the actual work or doing the work to get the work. He noted that this can feel a little weighty at times but overall, he wouldn’t have it any other way.