While volunteering at a local animal shelter, former marketing consultant and travel writer Rona Distenfeld discovered that she had a real gift for training dogs. Already looking for a change of career, Rona decided to hone her knack for working with dogs to help keep dogs with behavioral problems in their homes.
After Rona started Good Dog Training in Austin, Texas, she found 90 percent of her early customers through Thumbtack (even now she says most of her word-of-mouth comes from people who found her through Thumbtack). Here’s how she got from being an emerging dog trainer to getting hired more than 400 times, with more than 200 five-star reviews.
How did you figure out you have a gift for training dogs?
I started volunteering at the local shelter, Austin Pets Alive, a rescue that pulls dogs from other shelters that are at risk for euthanasia. I started just walking dogs and very quickly became the person that opened in the morning. They hired a behavior program manager who started training classes for very committed volunteers, and I zoomed through those classes and became a member of the behavior team.
I found out some of these dogs had been given up in the first place because their original owners had been told by several trainers that they were “un-trainable.” And here I was training them and passing them through the Canine Good Citizen Test, and they would go on to get adopted. So I went to the head of the behavior program and said, “I feel like I’m making a difference here and I feel good about that… Do you think I could do this professionally?” And he said if he had any money, he’d hire me in a heartbeat.
My goal was not to work with the dogs in the shelters, but to work with dogs while they were still in their homes, so they stayed there and didn’t end up in a shelter in the first place.
The truth is that maybe 15 to 20 percent of my clients have a dog that’s such a problem that they’re considering rehoming or sending the dog to a shelter, and the other 80 percent are people with puppies or dogs they want to stop pulling them down the street or stop jumping on people. But for that small percentage for whom it’s the difference of the dogs staying in their homes or going to a shelter, getting a trainer in there to help them and actually get results… that’s what makes it all worthwhile for me.
How did you get started with Thumbtack?
When I discovered I had a gift for training dogs, I decided I wanted to do that to try to help them stay out of shelters. It was my goal to be accessible and affordable. I was looking for ways to get myself out there; I was getting some business through referrals, and then I ran across Thumbtack and checked it out. What I liked about it was it was a low financial commitment to figure out if it was going to work for me. It worked well for me; in my early days, 90 percent of the business I was getting was coming through Thumbtack.
What advice do you have for creating a great profile?
I think just writing it well makes a big difference. Think about the audience that’s going to be reading your profile and what they’re going to want to know. Rather than telling people what you’d like to say about yourself, tell people what they’re going to be interested in hearing.
If your profile is all about “me me me” and doesn’t let them know how those things about you are going to help them, it’s not helpful.
In my profile I talk about the experience I have and why I became trainer. I certainly didn’t become a trainer to make money and I didn’t even become a trainer because I love dogs. I became a trainer because I wanted to help dogs with behavior problems stay in their home. That’s a very different message than “I love animals and I’m really good with them.”
What’s the most critical element to succeeding on Thumbtack?
I think the most critical element to using it successfully is the reviews. People really read them. I cannot tell you how many of the people who contact me through Thumbtack say to me, “Wow you have 200 reviews and they’re all five stars, and the next person down has 20 reviews, and the person below that has 11 reviews, so you must be great because look at all of these people writing these amazing reviews!”
So I think that’s a really important element, especially if you’re good at what you do. Also I think the fact that people don’t just give me five stars, but also take the time to write something makes a difference.
What are your tips for getting people to leave reviews?
I only have limited control over the reviews, but there are a few things I do. I schedule when I want Thumbtack to send them the request for a review for the day after we’re going to meet, so they’ve had a chance to digest what we went over. And so many of those reviews say, “Wow, it’s like I have a different dog after only one day.”
What is your strategy for following up with leads?
When someone responds to one of my quotes, I try to get back to them as soon as I possibly can. If they have questions, I try to answer them as specifically and immediately as I can. If their questions or responses are complicated, I ask them to call me so we can talk instead of going back and forth.
What is one of the most rewarding jobs you got through Thumbtack?
I recently had a client whose younger dogs were escaping the yard pretty regularly and having trouble walking on leash. Animal control had been called and they’d gotten citations. They were feeling overwhelmed and they were considering rehoming them or taking them to the city shelter, though I didn’t know that at the time they contacted me. Their request just said, “Our dogs keep escaping our yard and we need help.” I went over there and I did a lesson with them and we looked at the yard, talked about management, and did some training—just a few basic things.
The next day they wrote a very nice review and I learned that the next time she took the dogs for a walk, it was a whole different experience. And all of a sudden they were like, “We can walk these dogs. This is going to be okay.” And all talk of sending the dogs to the shelter was dropped. For me that’s really rewarding.
What has Thumbtack let you do that you wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise?
I think it would have been a lot more difficult for me to get started with this career. In the beginning about 90 percent of my clients were coming to me through Thumbtack. Now a lot more of my business is repeat and referral, but the repeat customers are customers I got from Thumbtack and the referrals are from people I worked with through Thumbtack. So I feel like Thumbtack has been really important and integral in helping me build my business. It would have taken me much longer and been much harder without it.