Vicky Gunn runs Millie’s Beach Huts and Millie’s Pet Services but just five years ago she was bordering on burnout as a frazzled accountant.
She took her Spaniel Millie away for a day out to Walton-on-the-Naze in Essex, hired a beach hut and fell so in love with it she decided to buy one herself.
One hut became two, then three, and Vicky threw herself into learning everything about running her new business while still in her day job.
Now she runs her two businesses full time, and Vicky is a content creation and PR ninja, having featured in the Daily Mail, The Telegraph, Virgin, Forbes and ITV News.
I wanted to speak to Vicky for “If I Can” because she’s worked so hard and has lots of tips to share on business and generating your own brilliant media coverage.
Can you tell me about your background before joining the pet industry?
I trained as an accountant and while I worked with international brands such as BT, Britvic and IBM, the last seven years of my eighteen as an accountant was spent working in the NHS.
What made you go into the pet world?
I always knew I wanted to run my own business but thought I lacked creativity to do so and didnt know ‘what’ to do. But, back in 2015, I hired a beach hut to visit with Millie, my springer spaniel.
I was shattered from working away from home contracting so, feeling like a guilty dog mum when home, I was desperate to spend time with Millie at weekends.
I found out there was a new development with some for sale! I remember posting on Facebook, ‘There’s a beach hut for sale. Wonder if I should just do this?’ and people replied, ‘Of course you should!’ So I did.
It hadn’t even been built, so it was really bizarre and not my style at all, I was always a planner but I’d just spent £12,500 on a beach hut!
How did it go from there to you running Millie’s Beach Huts?
Walton is a busy seaside resort and I thought if I rented it out to cover the money I spent on interiors and got a bit of return, that would be ok. I’d be able to enjoy it and cover our costs at the same time.
A few months later, the hut next door still hadn’t sold. I already had bookings from some Facebook posts about how I was going to decorate the hut.
So I bought the hut next door. I carried on contracting full time and saving as much as I could, spending every morning and evening working on the hut business and bought a third hut.
So how did you get people to visit?
I was able to invest in branding and spent time and money learning about marketing and websites.
It was down to the fact that I worked full time that I needed things to be automated and to have all the necessary information online.
But the reality was that the profit would only be justifiable if started to value my time and how much time was needed actually running the business.
I jumped in feet first with blogging on the huts website. They were sold out in the first year. Then people began asking about me managing their beach huts for them.
There’s a lot to figure out – how did you do it?
I was introduced by a friend who ran her own business to the Content Marketing Academy and I jumped into their Facebook group.
Being new and ‘naive’ I would ask things like, ’What are you talking about SEO, what’s that?’ ‘What’s blogging?’ I got a lot of advice and general support.
Surrounding myself with people who ran small businesses gave me the confidence to leave my job and move up to Scotland where I set up my second business.
I tried lots of things to grow each business but for me, the success has come from blogging. I did a 90 day challenge in 2017 where I wrote 45 blogs in total over those 90 days. Even now, they are the ones that are paying me back.
One of my top performing blogs has that magic ‘black box’ around it when you search on it’s keyword.
It’s amazing to see that it’s seen as the expert response to the keywords (best beach hut hire) and journalists and beach hut owners have found me from that one blog.
I bet that’s been great for media opportunities?
Yes, that’s the one that the Telegraph journalist read and who then picked up the phone.
While social media posts clearly drive sales, I find blogging and producing helpful content is the reason I’m found online and written about in prestigious publications.
So after your experience with Millie’s Beach Huts, would you recommend blogging?
Yes, it takes time to have any impact and when you start you fear putting stuff out.
I also wrote some controversial and personal blogs, which weren’t easy to hit publish on. One which was about my business versus another beach hut business listing the pros and cons.
At the time I was scared putting it out but now it helps people find me when they google my competitors names.
I think blogging is really important but optimising your posts, having an understanding of SEO, using H1 tags, making sure the keywords are in, making sure that alt tags are there, is key!
Things like this made blogging worthwhile, otherwise I could have written 300 blogs that’ll never be found and that just sat on my website with no traffic.
(For ideas you might like to check out 27 ideas to promote your pet business free download – it’s a four page PDF with lots of inspiration)
And Millie is a big part of your business?
Yes, she inspired it and now it means I get to spend my time with her and being a dog owner myself sparks ideas.
We opened Millie’s Pet Services in September 2017 and have a dog boutique and dog groomers. My mum Shirley qualified as a groomer and works for me.
Then the rest of it is retail, so really uses my own experience of buying for Millie and frustrations that have come from that.
It was scary starting out I had no idea about wholesale prices, terms, contracts, electricity, water and that you have to pay for a license to play music.
We were due to have a live opening on the Saturday and I opened the doors on Tuesday not knowing how to use our point of sale/till!
But you just have to go for it.
What did you do to prepare?
We’ve used some old fashioned techniques like a chalkboard in the window telling people when we were opening and a link to our webpage to sign up to emails to find out more.
This has worked well recently when we launched our self service dog wash. We had a local artist draw up our chalk board and people stop and take a photo of it and the website link to book!
Creating interest and making it easy for people to find out information meant I was able to build an e mail list before our opening day. We had a queue at the door for our official opening.
We hired a face painter and did grooming demonstrations where people could book appointments for their dogs.
We had a Facebook page where we created a buzz around the launch and it’s grown from there.
How have you found going from having a regular job to running two businesses?
It’s tough at times. When you have a job, you might have a bad day at work but when it’s your business and it’s your money, it changes things.
When your business is paying your mortgage and providing for those who rely on you, a bad day at work can feel so much worse.
I have had days where only nine people walk in the door and they might only spend £50. I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, what on earth have I done?’
Then on a day that you think will be quiet, you’ll have people come in and buy Dogrobes and Ditsy Pet collars and leads. You just can’t judge the business one day when it comes to retail.
How do you deal with the highs and lows?
My friends and family have been amazing. I made a lot of sacrifices and put everything I had into my business at the beginning which meant I had to move back home.
I’m in my own place now again, but for a while, there were lots of sacrifices. Meals out, big holidays, they all stopped but my closest friends and family understood.
I had lots of support from the Content Marketing Academy and accountability buddies who helped me push through when things were tough.
However over the last year, I’ve moved away from needing that specific support and have more of a local network around people with businesses that are similar.
I find it much easier to collaborate with them and have wider conversations about running a business but do make use of some online communities too.
It’s about having a mix of people that truly understand my business and can advise and help.
So for me, that’s people who understand our locality, Carnoustie, who know what’s happening with footfall and what could be influencing it.
You do lots to promote dog friendly things locally too?
Yes, we have a map of all the dog friendly places which goes into welcome packs in the local Airbnbs and holiday cottages with vouchers in to encourage them to visit.
Working with other dog friendly businesses has been a game changer and resulted in us launching Dog Friendly Angus and Dundee, a Facebook group of over 3,000 people.
It’s helped expand our reach and I know find that people come from as far away as Aberdeen to have their dog groomed.
This drives more business into my local town as we can recommend my customers try local cafes and know that they do this for us too.
Being easily found online is important of course but so is building relationships and supporting each other.
What are your top tips for people starting out?
Set yourself deadlines. I set a date that I was going to resign and it meant I had to prepare and feel confident I could make a go of the new business. If you don’t commit, time flies and it won’t happen.
Hire a coach. You will naturally wobble but having a coach or at the very least a friend who is going to be tough with you will make you stick to your time frame and keep you accountable. Sometimes you need somebody to say, ‘You’re capable of doing this.’
Get visible. Make sure you can be found online. Get a website and a blog up and a Google My Business page and keep it simple at first.
You can build it up as you go. Make sure your Facebook page is linked up and you have your address on there. These are the basic things that help bring people through your door.
Trust your intuition. There’s been so many times that people have said to me, ‘That’ll never work. You’ve only got dog stuff in that shop even when you’re called Millie’s Pet Services.’
I’ve been told I should be doing all kinds of things but if I tried to please everyone it would have sent me complete off track.
Don’t be swayed by other people’s opinions when you start out. Test and check, then only change based on evidence that you have to support it.
Have faith. I know people thought I was mad when I left my job to set up my business but it was what I wanted to do and I knew with hard work I would succeed. It’s been hard but I’m proud of what I’ve achieved.
I hope you’ve found Vicky’s story inspiring – I think she is awesome to have not one but TWO pet businesses and she’s shared so much helpful information.
Find out about Millie’s Beach Huts at: https://milliesbeachhuts.co.uk/
Learn more about Vicky’s shop at: https://milliespetservices.co.uk/
Read her awesome press coverage:
If you’re reading Vicky’s story and want to give blogging a try, you might like to take a look at my Kick Start Your Pet Business Blog mini course for just £127
Inside are videos, worksheets and templates to help you get started with blogging, plus a 30 minute one to one which usually costs £97.