Putting on the Dog -- and the Snakes

It doesn't matter what business you're in, everyone needs to open new markets -- even professional puppy wranglers and reptile handlers

By Karen E. Klein

Q: I own an entertainment company with eight employees that brings puppies and reptiles to parties. The puppy half of my business has expanded recently, but the reptile half has shrunk, perhaps due to market saturation (we are the biggest reptile entertainer in Southern California). I am looking to expand with either improved advertising or a new, related service. Any ideas? -- V.S., Torrance, Calif.


Is it possible that competition has entered the reptile entertainment market? If this is the case, it may be time to reexamine your positioning, through advertising or line extension. However, before making a major change in your business, you should do some digging and try to analyze exactly what is causing the change in your revenues, experts say. "Before spending your dollars and energy barking up the wrong tree, try to be certain that you are treating the symptom with the right cure," says Linda Hamburger, with OnCall PR in Boca Raton, Fla.

For many small businesses, being able to stick with a core competency is exactly what sets it apart from larger competitors. So, as long as your small business continues to provide animal entertainment better than anyone else, you'll retain the competitive edge. Trying to keep up with the Joneses may seem like a good idea, but can also backfire and thin your ability to provide service excellence. Also, it's generally not wise to use the "guess I'll try this" approach to boost sales: Small businesses with smaller budgets tend to give up easily when a new project doesn't provide immediate results.


  Think about whether you need to try a new sales approach, Hamburger recommends. "It seems unlikely that reptile demand would drop and puppy demand would increase, yet the market being served remains the same," she says, pointing out that the difference may be a question of how the sale is being made. "For example, given the choice, I would much rather sell warm, fuzzy, lick-the-faces puppies and cute little kitties than cold, furless snakes. My approach might even be something a customer picks up on," she adds.

Could it be time to hire a sales associate with a particular interest in reptiles? Could you hire someone on commission to go after particular markets that you feel you could be serving better? "Try out different sales roles among your existing employees and see if anyone has suggestions to bring to the table. Ask them for ideas about different sales tactics and approaches -- for example, specialty theme parties, adult packaged events, or corporate group sales," Hamburger suggests.

If you don't see improvements in your numbers after a renewed focus on sales for several months, think about branching out to different audience segments with your existing product. "For examples, puppies are particularly appealing to shut-ins and seniors in long-term care facilities. Reptile parties might be interesting as an adjunct to a natural history museum's summer programs," says Gay Silberg, of the Graham, Silberg, Sugarman advertising agency in Los Angeles. "Imagine what could be done for kids who are disabled in some way and may not be able to interact with animals in ways that other children can," she adds.


  Guerrilla marketing coach Al Lautenslager came up with several possibilities for expansion, including marketing your animals for educational events, kids' clubs, and seasonal camps, classes, tours and demonstrations; putting on educational seminars for adult pet owners, pet shops, and community groups; writing a reptile-of-the-week column in a special-interest newsletter for a zoo or museum, or in your local newspaper; running local contests such as "name the new reptile" or "guess the age of the reptile" and starting your own online monthly newsletter on reptiles.

"Contests particularly are a great PR angle when they are introduced and when the winner is announced," he says. "Another idea is to offer backstage passes to your shows for charity groups, schools, special-interest hobbyists and the media."

Before you decide what kind of expansion to pursue, it's a good idea to examine your outfit's overall image. "If you believe that your Web site, ads, publicity efforts, or image could use a makeover, certainly do get competent counsel from a local PR agency or a creative specialist," Hamburger says. "The cost should be affordable and the image, once decided upon, should be consistent." Silberg agrees, adding that any advertising you do to promote a new market expansion should be properly positioned and executed: "For instance, mailings to nursing homes and other healthcare facilities could be effective, especially if you can direct people to a website for more information or for special deals and packages."

Have a question about your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at Smart Answers, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 45th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally.

Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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