From Side Gig to Small Business: How One Local Entrepreneur Turned Her Passion Into Profit

When Nicole Damico started pet sitting in 2016, she saw it as a fun way to make some spending money in addition to her full-time job in medical billing. Fast forward to today, and Damico’s company, Keys and Collars, employs 25 team members and provides pet-sitting services for over 475 clients through Volusia and Flagler counties.

“I love animals and, after pet-sitting for a few friends, thought it might be a good side hustle,” said Damico. “I quickly realized there was a need in our community for a reliable, trustworthy pet-care service and decided to pursue the opportunity. I never imagined I’d be where I am today.”

As word spread, Damico recruited friends to assist with visits. But she came to realize that to capitalize on the opportunity, she’d need to devote more time and finances to the business.

“I knew there was potential to really grow the business, but it would mean leaving the security of my job,” said Damico. “When I lost my mom to cancer in April of 2017, I realized the importance of pursuing what brings you joy, even if that means taking risks.”

Damico began to put together a business plan and save funds, and by October 2017, she was ready to dedicate herself completely to Keys and Collars. She credits her initial success to support from her family and friends.

“My dad has a corporate background, and my mom was an entrepreneur, so they were huge advocates of doing things the right way. When it came to starting a business, I wasn’t quite sure where to start, so I reached out to local resources and connections,” said Damico. “I quickly learned we might have a small town, but it’s a large community. From assistance with a logo to advice on business insurance, people were more than willing to offer advice and guidance.”

Keys and Collars grew quickly, and Damico was soon hiring more and more staff to meet demand. But the growth didn’t come without obstacles.

“Finding reliable, trustworthy staff has consistently been a challenge,” said Damico. “We receive a lot of applicants, but it’s extremely important that our team members fit the Keys and Collars culture and are a positive reflection of the company.”

Another huge curveball? The COVID-19 pandemic.

“When the pandemic began and everything shut down, all our business disappeared,” said Damico. “We’re a company that relies on people being out of their homes, and all of a sudden, no one’s going anywhere.”

Because Keys and Collars was a part-time position offering supplemental income for many employees, Damico was able to redistribute the remaining jobs to the few employees who relied exclusively on Keys and Collars in the first few months of the pandemic. And by June, business was back and busier than ever.

“The support from our customers was amazing,” said Damico. “Even if they were working from home, we had many people who retained our services. I’m forever grateful and believe it’s a testament to the way we treat our clients and the relationships we’ve built.”

When asked what sets Keys and Collars apart from competitors, Damico believes it comes down to two main factors.

“We know that for many people, pets are a part of the family, and that’s why we ensure we’re offering the highest level of service possible. Each of our team members has a passion for this business and approaches each client, and their animals, as if they were part of their own family,” said Damico. “Additionally, the team aspect really elevates us; you don’t have to worry about a last-minute cancellation. With Keys and Collars, you know you’re receiving reliable, reputable care.”

Because Damico hasn’t had to rely on traditional marketing—she estimates over 80% of business is generated from word of mouth and referrals—she’s able to reinvest in both the business and her team members. She’s also active in the community, taking part in community events and sponsorship opportunities.

When asked for her advice for other entrepreneurs, Damico emphasizes that you can’t be afraid to fail.

“Starting a business is hard. It tests you. It’s going to impact your relationships with your family and friends,” she said. “But know that there are people battling the same challenges and that you’re not alone. Leverage connections and reach out to resources within the community; you never know what someone’s able to offer you or what you may be able to offer someone else.”

Keys and Collars celebrated their six-year anniversary in October. So, what does the future hold?

“I think eventually I’ll want to expand our footprint, but right now, there’s plenty of business locally,” said Damico. “In the short term, I’m always looking to learn and grow. I want to ensure we’re continually evolving and looking for ways to improve and better serve our customers.”

Keys and Collars’ services include pet visits, walks, overnight stays, doggie daycare, pet taxi services and wedding companion services. To learn more, visit keysandcollars.com.

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