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Meet Stephanie Hjelte Fumanelli of Chicago Urban Pets in River North

Today we’d like to introduce you to Stephanie Hjelte Fumanelli.

Stephanie, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I started Chicago Urban Pets 9 months after graduating with a Bachelors in Architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology. I knew I didn’t want to work an 8am-5pm job and I definitely enjoyed a lifestyle where I could be my own boss. Architecture & Design is a big part of my life and together with my design partner we started to enter architecture & design competitions.
Once some of my life’s puzzle pieces post-graduation started coming together, I realized that I missed interacting with animals. I had always had pets in my life; dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, birds and even horses. This prompted me to seek out pet sitting jobs which resulted in me founding Chicago Urban Pets in March 2014.

For about 4 months I only had one client, the sweetest lab/vizsla mix named Maddie. She has now moved to the suburbs with her parent Michael. In many ways, Maddie was the mascot for Chicago Urban Pets in its early days and I am really thankful that Michael decided to use our services despite being so young.

The Story of Chicago Urban Pets is one of friendships, mainly with the door staff of buildings where I would regularly pass by handing out business cards. In particular I want to give a shout out to Paul over at 200 Oakwood and Everett in Grand Plaza, both of which helped me with some of my very first clients and with whom I still have a good relationship with.

About 12 months later, we had grown enough to start hiring and I have never looked back since. In August 2016, I hired my first General Manager Ella and now we have about 17 pet sitters. When I started Chicago Urban Pets I never realized how huge the pet sitting market was in Chicago. I find myself very lucky to have “fallen” into the pet sitting world.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
We definitely had some hiccups along the way, almost always due to the company growing.

The first struggle was how to stay organized with all client data, invoices, payments etc., as well as make sure my pet sitter’s schedules were always up to date. When I started off by myself I was just working with Google Calendar but as soon as I hired pet sitters and we were growing it just wasn’t enough to keep us on track. In the summer of 2014, I started researching various pet sitting softwares and finally found Pet Sitter Plus. The founder- Richard Booty was just great at helping me through the process of learning the software and it allowed us to continue to grow while maintaining a high degree of organization. The software also allowed us to have better communication with our sitters out in the field. They can acknowledge their schedule for the day every morning, that way I know they are up and well. Then they check in/out of every visit and press the complete button upon leaving.

Another difficulty was taking myself away from the daily administrative tasks so I could focus on larger projects for the company. At the time, I was using a personal email and phone number and decided I needed to move to having business contact information instead. All the communication was directed specifically to me, but as soon as I opened a business email and got a business phone number I was able to detach myself allowing room for others like Ella to help out with the daily administrative tasks.

One of the more recent struggles we had which now has been resolved was that of the email updates. Up until recently, our sitters would send the email updates with pictures to each pet parent after the visit. This meant that they were walking, taking the bus or biking and at the same time needing to write this detailed email. What resulted was that often emails were not sent properly or were sent much later than desired. This was both a problem for our clients and our sitters. We resolved this by allocating the last 5 minutes of all visits to writing the email update. The sitters stay in the apartment with the pet and has 5 minutes to get the update written and sent. Now the pet parent receives our communication immediately and the sitter can easily move on to the following job.

I am prepared that as we grow more issues will come up, but that is also the exciting part of running a business. The daily problem solving is something that keeps me fueled and excited about the future of Chicago Urban Pets.

Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Chicago Urban Pets – what should we know?
Chicago Urban Pets is a dog walking, cat sitting and overnight pet sitting service. We service many neighborhoods in Chicago: S Loop, Loop, Streeterville, Lakeshore East, River North, part of West Loop, Gold Coast, Old Town and Lincoln Park. As we grow we will also grow our service areas.

We are known for the amazing email updates and pictures that we send for every pet visit. The updates are detailed and express the personality of each pet sitter. Our clients rant over the pictures the sitters take, saying that the office will round up at their computer to see the daily pictures that come in for the midday walks.

We also pride ourselves in having very good communication skills. My General Manager Ella works regular business hours and I am personally “on call” mornings, evenings and weekends. We use a Google Voice number which allows for both of us to switch on/ off the calls from our phones depending on who is working, that way we don’t have to be in the same place. Our clients know us by first name and we treat both pets and parents as family. Our clients also have our sitter’s numbers and will sometimes communication directly with them. Our sitters in return follow up with us.

I think what sets us apart is that our pet sitters stay with us 1-2 years on average when it is often normal in the pet sitting business that employees leave on a monthly basis. I think the reason for this is because of the culture of Chicago Urban Pets: we are very flexible with our employees’ schedules which allows them to pursue school or a second job while maintaining the pet sitting job with us. We stay in touch with everyone on the team on a daily basis and have company parties 2-3 times a year so everyone can see each other. Many of our sitters have become friends with each other through this job and we even have a sitter that got a full-time job from one of our clients upon graduating.

Is there a characteristic or quality that you feel is essential to success?
The qualities I attribute to Chicago Urban Pet’s success is being detailed oriented in both the way we interact with our customers but also how we take care of their pets and household. Any type of request from the client is taken to the letter and our software allows us to customize every visit with specific instructions.

For example, we have clients that are specific on whether we should feed their dog/cat at the beginning or the end of the visit, or they want us to use a specific accessory. There could also be a situation where a dog/cat maybe just had surgery and we need to give them a pill just that one time, or give them a different food– we can make those type of accommodations which are easy for a one-man-show petsitting service, but takes a high degree of organization to allow in a larger pet sitting company like Chicago Urban Pets.

I also attribute living in River North very helpful. Being in the heart of our service area, I see our clients when out shopping or doing daily chores and it allows me to build personal relationships. It also makes it easy for me to take on work last minute and also help out when one of our sitters are sick. Having a personal involvement in the company is important to me, I know the majority of our client’s dogs and cats as I have dog walked or cat sit for them in the past. Our General Manager Ella was also a pet sitter for over a year before taking on an administrative position. Not only does she love interacting with animals, she knows exactly what it takes to be a good pet sitter, and she can put herself in our staff’s shoes when making decisions and helping them when they call in.

Loving animals is a given in this industry, being a peoples-person is the secret ingredient that often gets misplaced. We love animals and people, making Chicago Urban Pets a sanctuary for both.

Pricing:

  • 30 minutes dog walking / cat sitting (1 pet) = $17.00
  • …each additional dog = +$5.00
  • …each additional cat = +$3.00
  • 12 hour overnight visit 1 dog or 2 cats = $52.00

Contact Info:

Getting in touch: VoyageChicago is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

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