Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Opening The Rex Center (Article for "SPLASH" Canine Water Therapy Association Newsletter)

When the idea of opening a canine aquatic fitness center transforms from being a dream into being a reality, it can take a lot of time, planning and patience (not to mention money and determination!). For me, the journey of creating The Rex Center began when my Shetland sheepdog, Vaastu, was diagnosed with an atrophied femur at 11 months old and had to undergo femoral head ostectomy.

After his surgery I scoured the Internet for ways to help Vaastu recuperate. I found lots of different things about “water therapy,” such as working with a hydro treadmill, but I mainly came across information about swimming. I soon found a facility in Menlo Park called Scout’s House where I began taking Vaastu for canine rehabilitation (including a water treadmill). At the same time, I also started working with him in my backyard after I bought a 7x7-foot hot tub. I wasn’t too sure of what I was doing, so when I found Cindy Horsfall of La Paw Spa in Washington, I was thrilled. Cindy has been doing water therapy for over 15 years and offers classes that teach the techniques used for canine swimming. My excitement dissipated after I contacted her and learned that her classes were full. Fortunately, as providence would have it, she called me at the last minute to let me know a spot had opened up.

Cindy’s class was wonderful for me. It was transformative in many ways that I didn’t expect. I learned so much about intention, and about water. During the class, Cindy started encouraging me to think about offering “canine aquatic fitness” (as we call it in California) in my hot tub for small dogs. After taking the classes, I decided that I really wanted to do something like this—have a warm water pool facility for dogs! But I also realized that having the facility in my home was not going to be for me. I prefer to keep my space private.

So, now I had a dream, but didn’t know how to really turn it into a reality. People thought I was crazy, but I knew that my dog needed warm water swimming and that others in the area needed it as well. My partner Susan was supportive, but worried that we wouldn’t be able to afford it. Susan and I talked to some vets, and they were enthusiastic and thought warm water swimming would be a great service to have for the area. I also talked to quite a few other people in the Canine Water Therapy Association, looked around at what other businesses were doing and just kept thinking about it without doing much.

This is where the help of Veronica Boutelle of dogTEC came in. dogTEC is a company that consults with people who are changing careers and starting dog businesses, such as dog daycare and dog walking, and helps them establish their business, craft marketing strategies and helps set them up for success. Although Veronica has worked with clients across the country, she wasn’t too familiar with the type of dog business I wanted to start, but was willing to take the time to learn more about dog swimming and canine rehabilitation.

Veronica also helped figure out how many dogs I’d have to swim per day and how much I’d need to charge in order to be profitable. She was able to determine that my facility wouldn’t be able to make enough money for me to support my family with me as the only employee doing dog swimming 5 days a week. After sitting down with Veronica once, she came up with the idea to incorporate day care and dog training into the business plan.

In June and July of 2008, Veronica and I began working on coming up with the name based on the scope of the business. She suggested that if I was having trouble with creating a name that I should email everyone that I knew for ideas. She also contacted creative people that she knew, and a lot of good ideas came about although most of the names had already been taken or were trademarked. Susan came up with “The Balanced Dog”—which we almost used—but the domain names were already taken and there was a “Balanced Dog Training” in Atlanta.

Eventually, someone came up with “The Rex Center -- All Dogs Allowed”. (Just like a park and recreation center—with a pool and a recreation room—but normally dogs aren’t allowed). We went with it! Because I am not an artist, and wasn’t coming up with any super inspired ideas for the logo, Veronica recommended a designer to create the look. Veronica proceeded to introduce me to Melanie Barti to design my logo. This has helped in the long run, because Melanie has designed the business cards, brochures and the soon-to-be website. Based on the description of the business, Melanie came up with 4 fantastic logos. We chose one, and then she tested out different colors and fonts.

Because we were doing dog daycare, we targeted finding a facility that was a minimum of 2,000 square feet. I decided to focus my property hunt in Pacifica, where there are 5 vets, one of them being a holistic vet. It’s 15 minutes south of my house in San Francisco, and could attract people from the “Peninsula” (south) as well as from the “City” (San Francisco). I did enough homework to know where to look within the city, and looked in certain areas designated for level 2 or 3 commercial use, only.

During my 6-month facility search, I came upon a “perfect” building that was in the process of being built. I could add drains, extra doors and ventilation, all before the building was completed! But, could I afford to buy a facility? Veronica and I went over the benefits of buying a property versus renting one. Given the economic climate in August 2009, the answer was no.

In the meantime, Louisa Craviotto, a fellow canine water therapy member who has also been looking to open a pool in Northern California, and I searched for “the perfect” pool. She talked to Florida North about their pool for sale, but found out there would be issues with shipping it to California (extra “tax” from the state to the tune of $18,000). We documented many pool manufacturers in the ACWT Yahoo! Group database. One day she came across a listing on Craigslist for a used swim spa. Turns out, it was a personal pool being sold by a spa dealer in Santa Cruz. I bought the pool in September despite not having a site to place it. Luckily the guy agreed to store it until December 1st. This was incentive for me to find a place “now”!

Finally, in October 2008 I found the location that would be the future home of The Rex Center and had the pool delivered the following month. The next step was to begin the process of obtaining a building permit through the city’s planning commission. It took me about 3 weeks to figure out how to apply for the use permit, and because I was not a vet, I would have to go through the full city planning process.

The business proposal began with gathering the names and addresses of property owners within 300 feet of the property and tenants (residents or businesses) within 100 feet so that they could have the chance to respond to the new plan. Then we had to create site maps, drainage maps, elevations, and other numerous documents and make 5 copies of each. When I was finally ready to send the proposal off to the city in mid November, I had about an inch and a half worth of paper! At this point, the city planning staff had a full month to respond—either with a rejection or an approval allowing me to move forward with proposing the plan to the city planning commission. During this month, they also sent the documents to all other offices that were concerned, for example, the fire department.

After 29 days, I got a response: my application was incomplete. I had to go back and change the plans to include a drain, which would cost me $6,000 to have installed. I had to figure out if this was something I could afford. Within a week, I resubmitted the application, and it was accepted for the planning commission’s next monthly meeting, which would be held in January because of December’s holidays. Another month of waiting…

As I was going through the approval process with the city, I reconnected with Veronica and we began working on marketing. Most of it was practical, common sense, but it was nice to hear it from someone who is knowledgeable. We worked on my brochure and website copy with a marketing writer. Then, we put together a packet of articles and a nice cover letter to give to vets. She recommended a “glossy folder”—so that it would hold up nicely—a logo label on front, and a couple of vet articles and a news article. Louisa and I worked on reading vet articles and news articles, found a few that we liked, included those and the Association of Canine Water Therapy code of ethics.

Also in the meantime, in November, I went to the Rocky Mountain School of Animal Acupressure and Massage and completed their two intro classes in canine therapeutic massage and canine sports massage. I also took a Reiki class with a fabulous teacher who is also an animal communicator. I made many more friends in the canine massage world, along the way. Each of those massage certifications required case-studies, so I started using The Rex Center on the weekends to meet my massage ‘clients’.

Fast-forward to January… I went to the planning commission meeting (finally!) I was number 9 on the agenda, and by the time it was my turn I had been there for nearly 2 hours. It was nerve-racking because each applicant ahead of me had been turned down. Thankfully, my proposal was approved, and unexpectedly, a local business owner stood up and gave The Rex Center his support. What a relief that all of that waiting and time spent filling out paperwork had paid off!

The next two months were spent doing construction permit applications. I hired a neighbor who happened to be a drafter to draw up plans. We went back and forth with the building official—who had told us all about his Border Collie. ;) By mid March, when the building permits had been approved, I was able to have the ADA (American with Disabilities Act) required doors installed. I also had the ramp leading up to the swim spa and the deck around the pool built, along with the railings and walls. Susan had the major painting was done by May 1st. On May 6th The Rex Center underwent its final inspection and I was ready for business!

Now that my dream has become a reality with The Rex Center’s official opening in May, we had just under 75 water sessions in May! Louisa is working with me while she still looks for a place to open her pool—so The Rex Center is open on Wednesdays and I swim with dogs on Saturday and Sundays. There are the lovely old dogs who just need the water and massage. There are young dogs whose owners want them to learn to swim. I even helped a Portuguese water dog “study” for his apprentice water dog title!

It’s almost too early to say if this is everything I expected. There are small successes like converting an inquiry into an appointment—and getting a first timer to come back a second or third time. Susan is taking Cindy’s class this month—and while she’s not in school this summer will begin opening the center more often. In mid-June, we’re doing an open house—inviting the local vets and everyone we can think of. There are so many things coming up that it’s too long to list. Keep an eye on our Twitter stream and website!

Thanks to Britany Lueras for helping me write this article.