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Veterinarian Wendy McClelland, left, checks out a dog while making an animal house call for Sarah Palmer in Calgary on July 3, 2014. (Todd Korol for The Globe and Mail)
Veterinarian Wendy McClelland, left, checks out a dog while making an animal house call for Sarah Palmer in Calgary on July 3, 2014. (Todd Korol for The Globe and Mail)

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Some Alberta pets don’t need to visit the vet Add to ...

The #Takeoff series is about crowdsourcing issues important to Canadian small businesses. They tell us about their defining moments and we write about their stories, the issues, and strategies for success or how to overcome obstacles.

Vets To Go Inc. believes house calls are the best way to delivery veterinary care. The mobile veterinary company provides a full range of non-emergency veterinary services at competitive prices in Alberta, mainly for cats and dogs, including vaccinations, nose-to-tail checkups, blood and allergy testing and in-home euthanasia, in the Calgary, Medicine Hat and Edmonton areas.

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It seems that many pet owners agree, as the company says it is growing and has immediate plans to expand.

According to the company’s president, Greg Habstritt , a commitment to “quality of life” guides all their decisions for everyone involved – from the pets and their owners to their own team of 14 employees, who enjoy flexibility in how they can work. Vets To Go was founded in 2009 by veterinarian Wendy McClelland, who wanted a practice that she could balance with her young family and provide a less stressful experience for the animals being treated. Mr. Habstritt, a serial entrepreneur and founder of SimpleWealth Inc., focused on wealth creation and training programs for entrepreneurs, started as the company’s business coach, and became a partner in 2013. He was attracted to the company because he saw the potential for innovation in the vet industry.

“Veterinarians come out of school with technical ability, but zero business training, then are expected to start a business and somehow know how to do it,” Mr. Habstritt says. “My partner Wendy provides medical protocol – she’s a fantastic vet – but I provide the business side. If you ask why our company is succeeding, one reason is that we’re executing well by focusing on culture and the second is we’re embracing technology.”

The company’s technology handles scheduling, invoices and billing from a centralized system, making it easy for the company to consider franchising. Mr. Habstritt says it was designed purposefully so that they could scale out to 30 more cities, and do it quickly because the system is already built. The company is fielding multiple requests from people who want to get involved, although one challenge is that veterinary medicine is a very regulated licensed industry. Not just anybody can open up a vet clinic, explains Mr. Habstritt. Generally speaking, you have to be a vet or a vet has to have a substantial amount of ownership in order to meet the licensing requirements.

“Veterinary medicine is one of the few industries left where there’s no discernible consumer brand,” says Mr. Habstritt. “Our vision is to become the trusted authority in the vet community. I’d like Vets To Go to become the 1-800-Got-Junk of the vet industry,” he said, referring to the franchise operation with multiple locations in North America and abroad.

“The challenge is that a lot of vets don’t have the skill set or mindset to take a franchise and build it, so the question becomes, what’s the best model to scale this out? Do you get into franchising, licensing or partnering?”

As a dog owner, Brian Scudamore, founder of 1-800-Got-Junk, a Vancouver-based junk removal service with franchises across North America and Australia, thinks Vets To Go is “awesome.” He sees it as a company that could build a brand and a national presence under a franchise umbrella.

“I think it’s a smart route for him to go,” Mr. Scudamore says. “Having the call centre set up and the technology integrated into the business is all great stuff. We’ve done it for three brands, from junk removal to painting to moving. I don’t see a reason why someone couldn’t do it in a space like this.”

One caution is that Vets To Go needs to make sure they have a model that’s been in operation long enough to be a proven franchise recipe.

“Greg needs to be able to say, ‘Look, we’ve done this before in three locations for five years each,’ ” Mr. Scudamore says. “All of those have been profitable from the first 18 months. Here are the levels of profits and the bugs we’ve ironed out.”

Victoria Sopik, co-founder of Kids & Company Ltd., a Toronto-based childcare provider with locations across Canada and in Chicago, shares a culture based on “caring.” She warns that managing to grow while maintaining the company's brand and culture is a huge challenge.

“My advice is to make this message of caring a top priority as they grow and to personally deal with every issue or complaint. The challenge will be finding vets interested in changing how they do business and embracing their technology. Not many vets have experience running a business, therefore training and hand holding will be a big part of their go-forward plan.”

Ms. Sopik thinks franchising as a vehicle for growth is an unnecessary risk for Vets To Go. Kids and Company operates by developing long-term partnerships with numerous private and public organizations.

“At Kids & Company, we never considered franchising, as it was always very important to have full control of operations to maintain our top level of high-touch customer service,” Ms. Sopik says. “It can be difficult to control franchisees. If Vets To Go picked the wrong franchisee, it could adversely affect their brand and reputation. Negative social media reviews can cast a bad light on an entire company. Licensing might be an easier way if the agreement is properly set up and can allow for head-office control.”

While Mr. Scudamore concurs that it’s harder to keep your culture as you grow, his advice is to be incredibly selective with franchise partners, especially as Vets To Go expands outside Alberta and the core market they know.

“Never compromise on the quality of the people you bring in. We don’t mind saying no if we don’t think it’s ideal. They’ve got to be a cultural fit. Then our franchise partners go through an intensive ongoing training process with different levels over a year to make sure they’re absolutely prepared for everything they’ll encounter. It has to be ongoing so you make sure everybody is singing from the same song sheet.

“Vets To Go could leverage the brains of all their brilliant franchise partners to make things happen more quickly. Our best ideas in any of our brands come from our franchise partners.”

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