Paying It Forward Through Animal Therapy
British entrepreneur Mike Dixon was determined to make a meaningful contribution to his community even as he strove to build a thriving business from scratch. Determined to do good while making a living, he created his store in a way that could evolve into a project that would give back and benefit the most vulnerable members of society. What originally started as a side hustle selling puppy crates on eBay would quickly transform into a successful business supporting children with disabilities and older adults.
For many years, Mike Dixon had flipped department store finds on eBay as a passive side income, but he had always been intrigued by the thought of starting his own online business. Determined to find a successful niche as a seller on eBay, Mike conducted his own research and discovered that pet supplies perform well online. As a proud dog owner of an 11-year-old Husky named Skye, Mike had always had a personal affinity for animals and saw this as an opportunity to make a profitable business out of one of his passions. With his new findings in tow, Mike launched his eBay store HugglePets — originally named after Mike’s 2-year-old son asking for a hug and a cuddle — in 2010.
As his online pet supplies sales took off, he and his father Ian Dixon decided in 2014 to open a brick-and-mortar store in their hometown of Wolverhampton, U.K. Since then, the pet, reptile and aquatics retailer has grown to supply live animals, pet products and accessories from the industry’s biggest brands.
Over the years, Mike and his team have had many transactions, but the one that stands out was the sale of a dog show lead to a woman who had just entered her dog into the annual Crufts dog show. “This customer drove 200 miles on a Sunday afternoon to collect the lead before her show the following day. A couple years later, we were exhibiting HugglePets at the same dog show, and the lady approached the stand and told us that the dog she showed two years prior had won their category,” Mike said. “She couldn’t have shown the dog properly if she hadn’t purchased the lead from us, and if we didn’t have that advert on eBay, that dog may have never won the award at Crufts.”
Indeed, giving back to others sits at the heart of everything Mike does as a businessman and entrepreneur. “It’s fantastic when you get personalized messages or emails from happy customers when we have exceeded their expectations or have helped them in some way,” Mike said.
As both his virtual and physical storefronts thrived, Mike knew he wanted to help make a real difference with the fruits of his success. When Mike saw a need in the market for animal therapy, he partnered with eBay to crowdfund over £100,000 to launch a nonprofit called HugglePets in the Community in 2018. Through animal therapy focused work, the nonprofit helps children with disabilities to develop positive behavioral skills and helps older adults combat feelings of isolation.
A Pet Store Unlike Any Other
Upon walking into the Wolverhampton shop, customers are welcomed by hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits, reptiles and spiders. Further into the store, pets receive grooming services in the pet salon and over 200 fish tanks line the walls of the store’s community aquarium. But what sets HugglePets apart from other pet shops is its 900-square-foot sensory play room.
Specially designed for people with sensory issues, the play room doubles as an activity center for children with disabilities. Composed of the community aquarium and sensory play room, the nonprofit organization invites children and older adults from the local community to interact with the animals and take part in classes, which include animal assisted therapy. These therapeutic experiences can include walking, petting, brushing and caring for the shop’s dogs and rabbits. Other activities the nonprofit provides include corporate team building exercises, and educational workshops like “Tea with a Twist,” in which the HugglePets team invites community members to the activity center for a cuppa’ tea and a cuddle.
“Cuddling an animal provides a wealth of benefits to those suffering from loneliness, dementia or other developmental disabilities,” Mike said. “Through one-on-one interaction with the animals, our hope is to encourage participation and conversation between our visitors.”
To ensure the staff is properly trained, Mike and Ian launched apprenticeships and employment opportunities for those with a passion for animal welfare. Apprenticeships in the U.K. are generally for people under the age of 24 who want to gain some training while being employed. At the end of the apprenticeship, the employer can make a job offer, or the employee is given a qualification that they can take on to their next role. Mike’s apprentices have been with HugglePets for almost seven years and have become an integral part of the HugglePets family. Throughout the year, the HugglePets staff receives both animal training and mental health awareness training, so that everyone in the shop has a part to play.
Retail Revival Forges New Connections
As his nonprofit took off in 2018, Mike and his team also participated in eBay’s Retail Revival Program in Wolverhampton to further hone their business skills. Designed to help small retailers get online, Retail Revival participants are trained in selling basics, creating personalized eBay shops and improving their digital skills, like search engine optimization and social media marketing. Mike was pleased with the one-on-one support they received from eBay. “Retail Revival has helped us to significantly grow our business,” Mike said. “It’s given us greater financial stability, so that we’re able to give back to the local community.”
The program also helped the father-son business create new friendships in their own backyard. The HugglePets team is now closer to the Concierge team in Ireland, and they also maintain communications with other Retail Revival participants in their ongoing Facebook group.
“We met businesses from our own city that we had never met before and made relationships with those people, which would have never happened if not for the Retail Revival Program,” Mike said.
For aspiring entrepreneurs, Mike recommends following eBay’s advice and guidance on customer service and listing items for sale. “If you make your business fit eBay’s policies, then you can blossom,” Mike said, attributing his overall success on the platform to eBay’s focus on the seller. “For me, it’s working with a company towards the same goal. The better a seller does on eBay, the better eBay does as a company. Other sales channels work as your competitors, but eBay has a vested interest to make sure you succeed.”
Staying Afloat During COVID-19
Since lockdown measures were enforced earlier this year, the HugglePets staff have gone virtual as they continue to support vulnerable members of the community. Mike and his team have taken their services online, asking customers to bring their own animals to virtual well-being sessions and coffee mornings. From children stuck at home to elderly living in care homes, these virtual sessions aim to help anyone dealing with isolation. In April alone, the HugglePets team managed to reach 500 participants virtually.
The HugglePets team is also hosting a back-to-school program for children returning to their classrooms after quarantine. Made up of six weekly sessions, the animal assisted intervention program works with local schools to offer sensory-integrated therapy through human animal interaction.
Though the lockdown has temporarily slowed in-person business, the HugglePets team is pleased by its continued eBay sales. “In the last 12 months alone, we’ve made a turnover of over £1.7 million on eBay,” Mike said. “This has also meant creating jobs in our local community, and we have a staff of 17 full-time employees.”
Mike believes that the good that HugglePets is able to do in the community is in part due to the success the business has achieved on eBay. “We like working with eBay, as the principles they hold are very similar to our own. We are about people and looking after them, and we feel that eBay, at its core, is about people and their sellers.”
Moving forward, Mike hopes that his business will “grow and have a real impact on people's lives for the better.”
“We care deeply about animals and their welfare, and we want to expand into many more products and categories, so that we can cater to all pets,” Mike said. “We want to create more jobs in our local community, and we know that with further success on eBay, this will happen across various departments. We are optimistic for the future with eBay.”
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