Shane Whelan is the owner of PetBidder and Carrying the Fire.
Hello, I'm Kerry Guard, and welcome to Tea Time with Tech Marketing Leaders.
Welcome back to season 10. I hope you've enjoyed my conversations with Lavanya Ganesh, Peter Zaballos, and Amber Anderson, or maybe you skipped around and heard from Rachel Jordan or Steven Shapiro. As a reminder, we dropped our full season of episodes Netflix style. You can binge or jump around either way; there's no need to wait week after week. Enjoy listening your way.
In this episode, I chat with Shane Whelan, owner of PetBidder, and carrying the fire. You might be wondering why I have Shane on our tech marketing leaders podcast. Sometimes I come across people who just catch my attention, who have a great story, who are out there doing something different and thoughtful. After talking to these people, I realized that we can all learn from their journeys, and Shane's journey is just so inspiring. How he sees the world and his customers is something we all need to lean into no matter who we're marketing for. It was an honor to connect with Shane, and I hope you feel just as inspired as I did. Let's take a listen.
Kerry Guard: Hello, Shane, thank you for joining me here at Tea Time with tech marketing leaders.
Shane Whelan: Hey, Kerry, thank you for having me.
Kerry Guard: I'm so excited to have you. Before we kick off into the heart of our conversation, which I'm very excited about, why don't you share with our listeners your story? What do you do? And how did you get there?
Shane Whelan: So, I have a couple of businesses. I'm from Milford, Michigan, and I'm 33 years old. I started my first business about six or seven years ago. And my whole life, I got out of school, and I was always really passionate about interesting things and people, but getting out of college and just kind of bouncing around and feeling really lost. I just didn't know what to do. I was a hard worker, and I had always thrown myself into things. I got a job landscaping for like eight bucks an hour. I just remember driving to work at seven in the morning. I was just kind of silently crying to myself because I just realized I just hated my life. And I just felt like I was meant for so much more, and I think a lot of people go through that when they're just unhappy, or maybe it's just me. So I got some encouragement from the right people and started learning some stuff, and I formed my own LLC, which was installing invisible fences. And so, for those first couple months, it was basically me driving around in my pickup truck with a shovel, just trying to make it happen, passing out flyers, and doing whatever. But it didn't matter because I was doing my work, it was a reflection of me, and I could spend 12 hours passing out flyers. I was happy, and so the first handful of months was pretty brutal. It would sometimes take me two entire days to install an invisible fence. It's just me and my shovel, so I didn't have anything. And so winter hit, and I kind of had three months off to regroup and recalibrate here in Michigan, where winters can be kind of brutal. And so, I got a website, I started marketing that website, and spring hit. I could afford a van, I could afford a trencher, and I was off and running like I was doing it. I went from having $10,000 in 2014 to have a six-figure income in 2050. I was making money, I paid off my student and business loans, and I was literally on top of the world, but the thing about the invisible fence industry is that it's a one-time service, so if you get an invisible fence and like it, you're only getting it installed once, as opposed to window washing or carpet cleaning, which is repeat business and you have clientele. I've realized that these companies that have been in business for years are just trying to get the next job. It can kind of create an unhealthy mindset. So, I went from being on top of the world in 2015 to going into 2016 to make a six-figure bent in a tiny niche market.
I was all of a sudden on all of my competitors' radars, and things went from being awesome to just really bad. I mean, things change quickly to the point where people's whole vibes and attitudes are totally different. People who are not customers write bad reviews about me, and things just got crazy. And I realized I'd hit kind of a milestone when the owner of my marketing company pulled me aside and was like, "Shane, I've been doing this for 30 years and I have never seen anything like this" because we were getting cease-and-desist letters or like, weird stuff. My Google AdWords were getting clicked on top of the bad reviews from non-customers and things just got worse. I think there's a huge difference between a 27 or 26-year old rookie and owners who are double that age and have been doing this for many years, where you can insinuate, or put doubt in competitors, or put doubt in your prospect's minds about competitors. People would call me out to their homes and just be terrible to me, or be rude to me, or say things like, "Mr. Jones wants to look like a hero in front of Mrs. Jones." We had good reviews, we had a clean-cut van, I was clean-cut, and it just didn't make any sense. So I had to learn to just dig deep daily just to survive because we have got a family to provide for and with revenue cut in half, it was we who took a hit. I was able to get that call from Mrs. Jones every day and feel that nastiness and slowly turn it around so that she could see things for what they were, and I just got really good at doing that every day, cutting through the noise and putting my fingertips on the pulse of my prospect. And not only making them, not only winning our customers but making them love us and turning that customer into a referral machine in the marketplace. And it got to the point where we were doing the same thing as our competitors but we were, at times, literally double the price. The way it felt to do business with us was significantly different, and so, the experience that we offered and that we created from beginning to end of that customer's lifestyle, was just significantly different from anyone else who was doing what we were doing.
Kerry Guard: I have so many questions.
Shane Whelan: That was a long kind of ramble.
Kerry Guard: Right! And it's where we go from here, but before we get there, can we talk about invisible fences? So these are the fences that you use for animals, right?
Shane Whelan: Yeah, so there's a wire that goes around the perimeter of the yard. You flag that wire, and your dog wears a computer collar and just gets a little beep and pickle every time they go near those flags in the yard. And you just teach them to slowly stay away from those areas.
Kerry Guard: Right! Yeah, my dad had one of those for our puppy, who worked for a little bit until he got very brave. Anyways, I just wanted to make sure our listeners knew what it was that you do because it makes sense that that is totally a one-time thing. It's not a repeatable business in the sense that you can keep going back, which does make this really tricky from a business standpoint and that repeatable, repeatable revenue. So how did you go from there? I feel like we skipped a step. You went from 10,000 in 2014 to six figures because you built websites and created a presence for yourself. It sounds like you've got the right equipment to help you work faster. Is that really what it was?
Shane Whelan: Some jobs would take me two entire days with my shovel, and having a trencher designed to do that would take me two hours.
Kerry Guard: Oh my gosh!
Shane Whelan: In that first year, getting a customer for 1,000 was like we needed the money so badly, and all of a sudden the phone ringing consistently to do three jobs in a day was like just such a breath of fresh air, and that was just so right to just grow
Kerry Guard: Yeah, sometimes you need the tools before you can make an investment. If you really believe in something, you sort of need to make that upfront investment sometimes. Wow, that paid off. But then there are competitors, and this is where I want to sit in our conversation today. I have another question that I normally ask, but I think I'm going to save that for the end because I think this is just such a good flow and I love where we are. I don't want to disrupt the vibe, the energy. In 2016, people were so mad at you that they were like, "Dallas Shane, and let's go after his business," Who are these people? And why do they care so much?
Shane Whelan: Well, I think it was initially competitors and what they said, and as I said, I was essentially a kid. I don't know what was said verbatim, but you would just get weird nastiness first thing in the morning, and people would just have weird vibes. And when finally someone said, "Hey, such and such company said this about you." And it was kind of like a part of me was like, okay, so it's not just me sucking you in a mean. But I think by just aggressively sowing doubt about who we were. Some companies would create fear as if you don't know who was in your yard. You don't really know, and then you create fear, and other companies will just try to portray us as pathetic losers. Looking back now at it all, it's almost embarrassing because it's so petty or silly, but it was a battle.
Kerry Guard: And kind of work which is like hardening.
Shane Whelan: Yeah! And as I said, it's a one-time service if you've been in this industry long enough. I don't want to say mental illness, but people will view and interpret things much differently than most other industries, where they're hanging on so tight and so tightly wounded that when somebody new comes in, they just blow a gasket. And so it got to the point where I could tell which company was saying what I could tell when Mrs. Jones called. I could tell she talked to this company or Mr. Smith called talked to this because, as I said, they were very different in the way they tried to portray us, and I just made it my mission. I'm not going to talk about my competitors; I'm not going to acknowledge them. I'm going to win over Mrs. Jones, and I will do it without talking about our reviews. I'm going to do it without talking about our awards and all of that stuff we had. So I was just sitting down with Mrs. Jones and just putting my fingertips on the pulse of the room, just paying attention. I think that a lot of times when we have stuff coming at us, or we have a tendency to feel insecure, and we start talking about ourselves or selling ourselves, those negative traits can seep through. But if you do the opposite, if you look outward and pay attention to your prospects, you can just sit down when you hear them. You don't have to talk, and you're paying attention to the details in the vibe, and you're taking them outside of their daily mundane riffraff, and that's why I use the phrase "you must want to be like a good song." Your customers might not know the words or the lyrics; they just like how the music makes them feel. I hated talking about our awards or reviews. I hated that hard sell. If we got put in a corner or five stars across the board minus review from non-customers, we've got these legit awards from a home advisor, but I wanted to do that. I wanted to be different and create an experience that was so far different from those other companies that they were thinking about us, but we weren't thinking about them, and it separated us in the marketplace. We could raise our prices, and we've developed allies. These were people who had heard all this junk and who kind of ate it up. We were able to win them over so thoroughly that if I needed a review, referral, or anything like these were like now, friends, or more allies, or whatever.
Kerry Guard: How are you? I'm trying to figure out how you were even able to get into the room. If these people are like, "How do they do it?" If they're reading reviews online and hearing about you, why would they even call? Like, how did you even get in touch with these people to break through all that noise? And actually, I feel like in sales, right? It is so hard to get somebody on the phone, and then for them to have such a bad taste in their mouth to win them over. So before we can even win them over, you got to get them on the phone. How did you even get in the room with them?
Shane Whelan: I think part of it was that they are warm leads. So they are already actively searching for the service, but it was weird because, as I said, I think people can sow doubt, to where people were almost offended that we were trying. I think people would say ‘’Oh, you're the guy that works in his mom's basement," which is inaccurate, right? It's not even close to true. Right? And so they almost want to call you out. I don't know how to see if it's true or so that they can call that other company back and go; we call it pet containment out. They were terrible. Mr. Jones calls us out just to throw his weight around in front of his wife or whatever it just got. There were so many ridiculous stories that some of them are not even worth bringing up because they're just so silly and stupid. But I just took that on the chin and would just slowly turn it around so that they could see things for exactly what they were. And getting free attention in a way, I think at a certain point, from competitors because they were talking about us, we weren't talking about them. And I think, no matter what, we were going to stick out.
Kerry Guard: Yes, let's talk about that. So once you were able to get into the room with them, you talked a lot about the user experience. So what was that user experience? You mentioned being attuned to the details, not talking about your competitors, not talking about your awards, which I think is still so counter-intuitive to not necessarily not talking about your competitors. I think that's something we could all say we're going to rise above, but to not lead with your awards. I think it's so interesting. So what happened? What did you say when you were able to get in the room with them? Was that how you did it? What was the user experience like? How did you create that feeling?
Shane Whelan: So I guess just sitting down, I would just look at the message, see a person, and see a mom. I know, and I would see through whatever nastiness and just really pick "Oh, you've got a Steinway piano." And just to connect or resonate and make them feel the love, make them feel the warmth. It's almost like they're at a barbecue, and I use the analogy; they have a good song. And even if they don't know, they might not even want to know the lyrics of the song; they just like the way the music makes them feel and have full confidence that we're the best ones for the job. I'm not even going to try to sell ourselves; I don't need to, we are the best ones for the job, and we will take care of every little detail from beginning to end. You don't even need to know to ask these questions. I think we were just so different from our competitors because maybe even I don't fully understand it. We never ever talked about our competitors, and we were just significantly different than this. It’s just the part of winning the customer, and they’re still doing the actual work. The way we would end things and stuff, we want it to be that warm, fuzzy blanket.
Kerry Guard: That's just creating that connection and seeing people as humans because that's really what businesses do. We're selling a service, you're selling a thing, but at the end of the day, people buy from people, and this is definitely the message that's coming across from a lot of individuals I'm talking to across marketing, especially in sales, it's all about people. Times have changed, and you need to roll with the times, and you are definitely on the cutting edge of that. You saw the remnants of that when you made that shift in how you communicate with people, engage with them, and leave your competitors aside.
Shane Whelan: But I think a big thing was looking outward instead of inward and paying attention to Mrs. Jones. And like when she would tell us about her dog breed, we would always remember the dog's name and looking up like a really cool fact about that unique breed, and it was almost like we wanted to pull them into an experience of something really unique. It was almost like they had drunk a glass of wine before meeting us; we were super disarming and non-defensive. And if they wanted to bring up stupid things, our competitor said, we would just give them a blunt, honest answer. But as far as I was concerned, those companies didn't even exist. We were just taking them totally out of that, and they might not understand it, but they just liked the way it felt.
Kerry Guard: Yeah, there's something about that personal element. If you can just show that you took the time you took a minute to care and to understand, that goes such a long way, especially these days.
Shane Whelan: Yeah, and when it just flows and happens to where you can just disarm them, they can let their guard down. It's almost like we would have people give us Detroit Tiger and concert tickets, and our guys are getting these amazing tips. We built the system where our guys were incentivized based on customer feedback. And so we were really big on the customer experience and it wasn't about making the job perfect. In some industries, that's really important. But we can get caught up in the technical perfection, deception of where a simple job or turning into like quantum mechanics. We're so worried about the granular nitty-gritty, but we incentivize our guys based on customer feedback and how they felt, and nine times out of 10, they would just get raving feedback about our guys. I could keep going on that, but it was all about the customer experience.
Kerry Guard: So, two questions. The first one is that you talked about the customer experience, and from the very beginning, you said they were warm leads. Is this on your website? Is this your outreach? You talked about the very first thing you ever did was walk around with flyers, so what became you mature? Because you definitely talk about getting a website and this sort of thing, especially when we talk about warm leads, what does that mean to you?
Shane Whelan: So our SEO or organic reach, we ranked really well. And then we did AdWords, which is like kind of our foundation. People were actively looking for our services. As opposed to cold calling, if we see a dog in the yard to see if they want an invisible fence, some people were actively looking to keep their dogs safe.
Kerry Guard: I even love how you talk about that the fence is there, not to keep your dog in or keep you from chasing them, but to keep your dog safe. Even that is still on-brand with everything you're saying.
Shane Whelan: Yeah, and it was almost like secondary service in a way. We were just different. We had just met, and we just stuck out. I feel weird talking about myself or whatever, but we were just so different from our competitors that we just took people out of their daily routines to where they would just call us and just say, "Gosh, you guys are just amazing." And people were literally just giving us free stuff. The customer experience was huge, always looking outward, always putting people at ease. I think being light-hearted and charming is always better than being serious and intense, like how our customers or competitors could be. That intensity that shoves stuff down people's throats about other companies and it got to the point where I was thinking, "Why are you so focused on that other company?" And so I use the term operating from your pure place where your attention is on your family and your business, and then you open that up a little bit more to your employees, and it's like when you're focused on those things. Why would other competitors? Why would any outside entity even be relevant? Why would you be thinking about that? And I think our customers really felt that and saw that, and you start to wonder if they would talk to our competitor and say, "Okay, why are these other companies so relevant to you?" "What are you worried about? What are you thinking? "Where's yours? It was a very difficult road to make it through.
Kerry Guard: It sounds like you found the blue ocean in it, though, like in the midst of all this negativity in how your competitors were reacting by doing the exact opposite. You saw this huge gap as an opportunity to lead with positivity and humanity first, and then everything else follows. Let's talk about your messaging because keeping your dog safe is just like I don't have a dog, and I want you to build me a fence. The way you talk about your people and how they have it, is your mission and values. Does that? Is that something that sort of helps pull this together and hold it? Is it just the way that you act and lead by example? How do you instill this literally through every element of your organization?
Shane Whelan: I think at the end of the day, you're there to serve your customers, but in reality, your business is there to serve you. And when I viewed my business, I said, "No, this is my baby. I've built this from the ground up, and it’s a direct reflection of me. " It's hard to ask a lot of your team if you aren't living that way if you're not demanding a lot of yourself, and that will unconsciously seep through a lot if you aren't crossing your T's and dotting your I's and doing the things you need to do. It'll just seep through. Leadership is that you can't lead others if you can't lead yourself, and that's just something you have to live with daily.
Kerry Guard: So true. So how's your team now?
Shane Whelan: From there, I branched out into software and then into consulting. We're kind of winding down the pet containment company but got up to five, which is pretty big in the Invisible Fence world.
Kerry Guard: It was cool, too. So, it's specific to Michigan, or was it all? Right? I would imagine what you were doing was very localized.
Shane Whelan: Yeah, I mean, we're only going to travel so far. It's just southeast Michigan, and like I said, it's a one-time service. There are a lot of owner-operators, but I have friends who have long companies and carpet cleaning. You can get big very quickly just because it's a repeat clientele, and everyone's got a yard and carpet.
Kerry Guard: Everybody needs cleaning and mowing, that is for sure. I am trying to find a good yard people because I hate doing it. Why did you keep talking about this one non-repeatable business element to these fences? Why did you choose this type of business?
Shane Whelan: I was working at my landscaping job, making eight bucks an hour. I actually got a job offer from a local pet fencing company, and I took that job and just instantly fell in love with it. It was my first job that it wasn't completely like a job, and I really enjoyed it. I was making good money. I was good at it. I enjoyed the work and the people. And when we're talking about leadership, everything starts at the top. You can get pulled into really cancerous or really dysfunctional stuff; all of a sudden, one day, you're like, "Oh my gosh, this is half like I am out of here." I was saying so much starts with you and the way you live in such a way that it unconsciously pervades the people around you. If you've ever been around alcoholism or just toxicity, it'll carry its way into the people around you into complete dysfunction, and that's what happened there. It's nine months, and I'm in St. Louis specifically. It just became a very dysfunctional place where you couldn't have a good home life, and a good work-life, and things happened, and it was time to go. I didn't know I would be jobless, and I had no idea I could be an entrepreneur. I quit. I had learned so much about interacting with people and stuff. I had no idea I could do this on my own but I got encouragement from the right people and formed an LLC with my little pickup truck and my shovel.
Kerry Guard: I love this word and this stuff. Someone could see it. I could see you standing on somebody's lawn with your shovel like you own the world. It's such a clear vision.
Shane Whelan: Well, I would borrow a relative's nice vehicle to give the quote. To come and give the quote, sexy and perfect, and then we'd go to do the work. I'd show up with my pickup truck and my shovel. They weren't always expecting it, but you have to start somewhere, so I worked my way up, and those moments are really important. They will lead to the way you handle those and the way you handle your heart in those moments; it will just lead you to bigger things and opportunities as long as you're stretching yourself and not letting fear control you or dictate you. And you keep an open heart and an open mind to learning, there's an unlimited opportunity and potential out there.
Kerry Guard: From the moment you started, it was all about the user experience. Pulling it, making sure you had the right car and created the right fill. Regardless of how you showed up to do the work, you started with that initial user experience, then that carried through even to today. I have one more question for you and my wrap-up questions, but before we get there, I think we want to know where you are today? What is your business? What are you doing? How's it going?
Shane Whelan: From there, I branched out into software for pet fence companies and then into generally just pet service companies. And now I'm getting into consulting, helping other companies or brands, especially in the online world, deal with nastiness. The internet is a beautiful invention, but it can be an outlet for hurting and broken people. It gives a voice to literally everybody, and it can damage people's livelihoods and hearts. You can gaslight, and you can do whatever you want. It's really important to know how to navigate that, so I've been really branching out into that. I just get so much joy out of seeing people's problems or situations and going, "Okay, I've been through this, let's solve this, let's get through this." And that's really gratifying.
Kerry Guard: It's definitely helpful to find people who've been there. So we've recently found a coach and what became so important to us as we started talking to people is that we found somebody who literally walked the same walk that we're trying to walk. I totally agree that finding those people you can help who's been there is so gratifying. Thank you for the work you're doing and for reminding people of the power of positivity and leading with your heart. And yes to all of this! I have a quick question for you that I normally ask at the beginning, but we just got into the flow and I think it's an important question. As we navigate today's world and find our footing in the new normal in these new businesses you've got going on, Shane, what's one challenge you're currently facing?
Shane Whelan: I mean, everyone could always use more customers. That's probably the biggest thing, and getting your ideal client, making sure you're a good fit. I wrote this ebook that goes along with the consulting, and just getting out there and getting known is probably the biggest challenge right now.
Kerry Guard: I would agree. It's a very crowded world out there. Finding your voice and then sharing it and having it be heard is a challenge and an undertaking and a commitment that you are clearly out to do because I follow you on Instagram. You are definitely consistent, and it's empowering. So, thank you for sharing your heart and for bringing us along. Amazing! I have my three people's first questions; we are also a human-first organization and believe that's what has to happen first. We have to treat each other as people before we can even talk about how we work together and form those partnerships. So, in that, I like to pull back the curtain and show a little behind the scenes of who my guests are. So are you ready? The first question for you Shane is, have you found any new hobbies in the last 18 months, especially when we were in those initial lockdown days?
Shane Whelan: I think, honestly, just posting on social media. It's not a hobby I enjoy, but just getting out there, and I'll sit down on a Sunday, try to knock out for three days worth of posts, and try to make any good. And then just doing that, I would say it's a hobby. It's something I'm doing and trying to do. Aside from that, I had a little girl last October, so she's definitely a hobby, and I'm enjoying that.
Kerry Guard: Full-time job for sure.
Shane Whelan: Yeah, that's really enjoyable.
Kerry Guard: Oh, congratulations. The second question for you is, if you could be in an environment where you could bring your whole team together in an office setting where you could have speakers and create a vibe, and you talk about creating that song, and that feeling, what song would you want to play to create that feeling for your team? As they create that energy together.
Shane Whelan: What song would I want to play for my team? It's a good question. I really like solo piano, and there's a pianist named George Winston. He's got a couple of songs, and one of them I feel silly about, but there's a song called "Color's Dance." It's a 10-minute song. And even if you're not into piano or whatever, it's just; it goes from kind of slow and warm to upbeat and happy to kind of intense and serious. Then it goes right back down to where it started, so it's a really cool vibe song that if I had to pick and make my people listen to it, I'd go something like that.
Kerry Guard: You're actually the second person this season to pick a classical vibe. So it's right on, and maybe this season, we'll have eight fans of classical music, and everybody will get to enjoy something different.
Shane Whelan: Yeah, I mean, he's still around and alive today. But yet, he's got some incredible solo piano, and I really enjoy something like that. But you can't quite put your finger on it. It's not Celine Dion, and it's not JC; it's something very different.
Kerry Guard: I love it, and we get to share it with everybody. This is great, and we have a Spotify playlist for everybody to listen to. It's fantastic. Last question for you, Shane, and It might be a little tricky given that you have an almost one-year-old, so bear with me. Imagine traveling with a one-year-old; it is really easy. If you could travel anywhere right now? Where would you go and why?
Shane Whelan: I think the Mediterranean, anywhere in the Mediterranea, I think, would just be really cool. I've been to the Caribbean. But I think having that same type of Caribbean vibe, surrounded by such unique culture, history, and mountains, would be ideal. I think that would be really cool. That'd be fun and warm. It's not as far south as the Caribbean here, but I think it's just as blue, and there are sandy beaches, and there's just so much culture around that whole area. And I think that'd be a really cool trip.
Kerry Guard: I couldn't agree more. I can't get my kids off this island and over to France. It's on my list and it's a big plan. Well, thank you so much. It was so lovely to have you and to share your story and how you really feel about the customer journey. I think it's something that could really be used here right now and in how people really need us together.
Shane Whelan: Yeah, no problem. Thanks for having me. We'll have to do it again down the road.
Kerry Guard: I can't wait.
That was my conversation with Shane Whelan. As a company owner, he has to do it all, including marketing. And I just love his story about his competitors and how he rose above and found a more people-centered approach. It's such a great reminder that our customers are people, no matter what. If you'd like to connect with Shane, you can find him on LinkedIn or petfinder.com. Shane, if you're listening, thank you so much for sharing your story. It was an honor to have you on.
In the next episode, I chat with my homegirl Lisa McDermott, where we talk about the importance of the content which we know you already know that content is important, but we lean into where to start, and how to make more out of it. Keep listening. Thanks again for listening to today's tech marketing leaders, the podcast that helps brands get found via transparent, measurable digital marketing. I'm your host, Kerry Guard, and until next time.
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