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Chicago dog day care thrives, thanks to a team effort

Dogs at Active Dog Daycare

Working hard can be a lot of fun, especially if a company’s culture rewards employees as well as customers. At Active! Dog Daycare & Boarding in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, the pack leader is Alex Mickley, who says keeping his team motivated is both the most challenging and rewarding part of owning his own business. It starts with setting expectations during the hiring process.

“People assume they’re going to pet dogs all day, but you’re really more of a lifeguard than a playmate. We make sure they know what they’re getting into before they start the job,” he said. 

Pet care companies such as dog day cares often have a lot of employee turnover, Mickley said, but Active prides itself on its high retention rate. With most employees ranging in age from 21 to 26, Mickley takes seriously his role in helping them start to plan their career paths. Employees also socialize outside of work, participating in team dinners, fundraisers, and other functions. 

“I really believe in the team,” Mickley said. “I want them to understand that work is work, but this is a really fun job.”

Mickley’s own journey to entrepreneurship started when he began to realize spending time with his dog was more satisfying than his day job in residential financing. He worked with another dog day care for about a year before deciding to take the leap and open his own business in 2013, recruiting a friend who worked in commercial lighting to be his business partner.

“It was nerve-wracking,” Mickley said. “I borrowed some funds, but I didn’t know how financially sound I would be. I was in a totally new realm.”

Representatives from his local Small Business Development Center provided invaluable guidance as Mickley launched his venture. He met Steve Bob, now the associate director at the SBDC at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who helped him begin to put numbers to paper. Mickley had no doubts in his ability to care for dogs, but through conversations with Bob, he developed a business plan he could feel confident in executing as well.

Their work together paid off. Today, Active serves more than 100 dogs a day – more than 40 others are on their waiting list. The company employs 11 full-time and two part-time workers and projects sales of at least $500,000 this year. Key to their success has been their extremely reliable transportation services, which picks up and drops off dogs across a large swath of Chicago’s north side. Mickley notes with pride that the company has never missed a day of service, even during the city’s most brutal winter storms. Active also works to foster customer loyalty by keeping their prices competitive.

“I want your dog to come to day care as often as possible, without burning the dog out, and without burning your pocketbook out,” he said.

More growth is on the horizon for Active. Mickley hopes to expand to another location in Chicago, as well as to Denver and Portland, Ore., and is also considering adding a pet clothing line. Those additions might be months or years away, but lessons learned – both from counseling at the SBDC as well as Mickley’s own experience running the company – have provided a solid foundation.

 “My goal is to make sure everyone is in a fun and safe environment,” Mickley said. “We strive to put out a good and reliable service and always do what we say we’re going to do. Our reliability is why we’re successful.”

 

Company Name: 
Active Dog Daycare and Boarding
Location: 
Chicago, Illinois