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The business making a motza out of our obsession with cat photos

Tuesday, 28 January 2014 | By Engel Schmidl

The lot of a small business owner is not always an easy one.

 

There’s the cash flow, staffing and red tape issues for starters. However, most SME operators probably don’t deal with what animal and wildlife photographer Alex Cearns encounters on an almost daily basis.

 

“You have to be immune to – excuse the phrase – poo, spew and goo. Because you do get stuff on your hair and they’ll lick you on the face, and sometimes they wee. But because it’s animals it really doesn’t bother me at all,” Perth-based Cearns tells SmartCompany.

 

Cearns and her partner started the business, which specialises in wildlife and pet photography, in 2006 after being inspired by a photography trip to Tasmania. For the first few years she worked at it in her spare time, juggling her passion for photography with full-time gigs as a police officer and then as an airports audit professional.

 

At one stage she was working two 40-hour-a-week jobs, fitting in photography when she got the chance. In 2009, she got serious about her pet passion.

 

“I changed the business name to Houndstooth Studio and rebranded in 2009. I got serious about the website and started shooting evenings and after work. In 2010 I was so busy that it was either the business was going to implode on me or I had to leave my job because I couldn’t keep up,” she says.

 

Houndstooth is one of the thousands of pet services businesses which have sprung up across Australia in the past decade or so to cater to pampered pets and their often cashed-up owners.

 

“The target market would be pet owners who see their pets as their ‘fur children’, so they’re very engaged with their pets. They’re the sort of people who take their dogs to doggy day care and the dogs have their little coats in winter and sleep on their bed,” says Cearns, who also provides her skill and expertise to animal and wildlife charities such as Animals Australia and local shelters.

 

 

Cearns says Houndstooth’s annual turnover is in excess of $300,000.

 

“Our business running costs are high as we use the best product and service providers in the industry. We budget our living expenses to ensure we invest maximum profits into our philanthropy.”

 

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Growing the business was a slow affair at the start, but early engagement with Facebook and strong word-of-mouth referrals has seen Houndstooth secure a solid base of customers.

 

“It’s the type of thing where until you actually go into someone’s home and see the pictures on the wall, people won’t book it. They become brand ambassadors then and go out and tell everyone about their experience.

 

“If you have 20 of those, and you’re booking three or four of those per person, that escalates and snowballs. Now we’re photographing about 1300 animals a year, with about 900 of those in the studio.”

 

According to the Animal Health Alliance report Pet Ownership in Australia 2013, Australians spent an estimated $1.2 billion a year on pet care services, which includes grooming, boarding, insurance, training and walking services. The report estimates the Australian pet industry in total is worth about $8 billion a year.

 

While these figures are impressive, Pets Australia thinks the true number may be even higher, as the figures don’t take into account pet ownership of animals such as fish, reptiles, rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, mice and ferrets.

 

Speaking of ferrets, the little critters are one more hazard of the job for Cearns, a state finalist in the Telstra Women’s Business Awards last year.

 

“I’ve only ever been bitten by a ferret and a bear cub. They were both shot in the studio. The ferret bit me on the elbow, while I was looking at the other ferret, while the bear cub ran off and when I picked him up he turned around and cheekily bit me on the leg and ran off again. The bear cub was when I was shooting in Cambodia, while the ferret was someone’s pet.”

But for Cearns, who has been around animals all her life, the satisfaction of working in a business that is also her passion far outweighs the occasional nip or mucky by-product of her line of work.

 

She says she didn’t realise how strong an affinity she had with animals until she started working with them every day: “It’s not a career; it’s more a lifestyle.”

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