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How can you tell a happy pet? The Tail Waggin knows

She has a love for pets, and with the help of funds through the SBA Microloan Program, turned that passion into a small business bringing joy and comfort to grateful dogs and cats across central Nebraska.

Alison Martin owns The Tail Waggin, a mobile store she operates out of a decked-out and gaily painted SUV which takes toys, healthy treats, collars, leashes, beds, holistic food and wellness products to personal shopping appointments for pets.  The small business takes to the road to fill the void of quality pet products available in the area, offering customers a chance to shop at home.  Among other services, Martin suggests pet shoppers host friends and their families to browse merchandise at pet parties tagged with cutesy names such as a “Yappy Hour” or “Whine & Cheese” party.

“I knew in my heart all along I was destined to work with pets,” said Martin, who, along with her husband, enjoys six dogs in their household.

Loved working with pets so much she made a career change

Martin, a native Nebraskan, gave up a career in broadcasting in Denver and jumped from volunteering at the local Humane Society to a job serving as the agency’s offsite adoptions coordinator.  But that wasn’t working for her--she often sat awake at night fretting over the fate of the pooches.  So she moved on to a position at a veterinarian clinic, eventually learning of a local pet sitter who the vet would recommend to customers.

“I thought that was a great job,” Martin exclaimed, “without the heartache of working in a vet clinic.”

When she moved with her husband to Grand Island in 1999, and got certified by a national training center in pet first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation, Martin started her own pet sitting business she continues to this day--Two Paw Prints Pet Care.  It took promoting her business through word of mouth and ads in the local newspaper to kick-start her business.

“Pretty soon I had veterinarians recommending me, and within about a year, year and a half, I was doing the pet sitting business full time,” she said.

After years of keeping her clients’ pets company, Martin realized she had gathered a wealth of knowledge on premier pet products and nutrition, and tips on mitigating a pet’s frustrating behavior that she could share with a wider group of potential customers.  

Turned to the SBA Microloan program for help

But how could she grow her pet-sitting business into something more?  She came up with the idea for a mobile store so she wouldn’t compete with a national pet store chain coming into town, and reached out to Dena Beck with the Rural Enterprise Assistance Project (REAP), an SBA microlender.

The largest federal program solely dedicated to supporting the credit needs of very small businesses and self-employed entrepreneurs, the SBA’s Microloan Program works through a network of community-based nonprofit intermediaries such as REAP to provide loans and technical assistance to start-up and growing small businesses unable to get financing from commercial lenders.

Alison Martin (center) of The Tail Waggin

Beck helped shepherd a microloan for $10,000 approved in January 2011 for Martin (above, center) to purchase a specially-designed vehicle wrap for the SUV, and the balance for advertising and promotion, and purchasing inventory.  As a result, people in Grand Island, Hastings and Kearney often catch a glimpse of the bright paw prints and graphics for The Tail Waggin up and down city streets off to the next pet appointment.

“We’re trying to get word about the business to other pet-related businesses like groomers, attend events like weiner dog races, all to make ourselves visible in community,” said Martin, who offers inspired promotions such as the Buried Bone Club, which offers discounted purchases and a free newsletter to customers.

Martin, who also serves on the board of the Central Nebraska Humane Society, is able to leverage her years of pet care and animal behavior experience to tailor a selection of products perfect for a Fido or a Whiskers.

“It may be a toy that helps to eliminate destructive behavior due to boredom, or a product that can help calm a pet with anxiety during a thunderstorm,” she said, mentioning a piece of apparel tightly worn by a pet to simulate the feeling of being hugged.  She also has a supply of homeopathic and herbal tinctures which work to help calm a pet.

Meantime, her first venture, Two Paw Prints Pet Care has seen slow and steady growth since the end of the recent recession, and employs an independent contractor as an employee.

Says she wouldn't have succeeded without REAP 

And Martin is quick to share the credit for her success. She said that Beck continues to check with her progress as Martin continues to build her business and offers constant support.

“It’s a very simple fact,” she said. “Without our loan from REAP we wouldn’t have been able to do this business.  We wouldn’t have been able to start The Tail Waggin. We provide a valued service for people here to get expertise from someone in the pet industry to show them toys, treats and other products which will improve their pets’ lives.  It’s not only our start in this microbusiness but it’s about helping our community and all the pets here.”

Beck was named the SBA's Nebraska 3rd Congressional District Financial Services Champion of the Year for 2012.  Over the past six years working for REAP in her 16-county central Nebraska area of responsibility, Beck has helped provide 45 small business microloans for $475,100 through REAP, and contributed consulting and loan packaging assistance for another 14 loans for $1.1 million.  Her work was crucial in creating and helping companies keep more than 88 jobs in rural Nebraska.