Think it's a bad time to start a business? Don't tell that to these folks

Think it's a bad time to start a business? Don't tell that to these folks
The owners of Yeller Cab (from left to right) - Will Waits, Nancy Wolske, Patricia Belt and Scott Belt (photo by Shannon L. Cheesman, KATU News).

PORTLAND, Ore. - The owners of a new taxi service in town that caters to the four-legged crowd have joined the roster of local entrepreneurs who have found a niche to fill amid the down economy.

The owners of  Yeller Cab, a pet taxi service, have hit the ground running since they first started doing business back in early August. Just two months in, they are already developing a clientele and looking forward to the day they turn their first profit.

Now there's no question that it takes a giant leap of faith to open up a business, especially right now with the economy so tight. But if you believe that the glass is always half full, you instead see it as an opportunity and seize the moment. And that's just what the folks at Yeller Cab are doing.

"More businesses are started in downturns in the economy than in an upturn," said Scott Belt, co-owner of Yeller Cab. "If there's a need out there and you're doing it the right way, you'll fill that need."

Who Came Up With The Idea?

Co-owner Nancy Wolske said she had been thinking about opening Yeller Cab for a few years in honor of her dog named Schooner, who died of cancer in 2008. She spent 20 years working in long-term care and quickly became attached to Schooner after adopting him as a retired guide dog.

The late Schooner (photos courtesy of Nancy Wolske)

"When you adopt a guide dog, there is a very strict protocol," she said. "There is a lot of paperwork involved and they do a home inspection. It's almost like adopting a child and for me, that's what it was."

Wolske spent years working with Schooner.

"We did a lot of on-site animal therapy," she said. "And there were people with dementia or Alzheimer's that couldn't remember a lot of things but they could say Schooner."

Schooner fell ill pretty quickly in late 2008. He had a wellness check in October of that year and passed his physical but a lump was found. The lump was removed and Wolske thought everything was fine but the day after Christmas, Schooner didn't get up.

Wolske said she thought it was simply a matter of too much turkey gravy in his dog food but the next day Schooner took a turn for the worse and she rushed him to a veterinarian.

"They couldn't get a heart rate," she said. "Obviously he was alive but what had happened was he had metastasized lung cancer. We took him to DoveLewis but it had bled out into the sack in the heart. So we said goodbye to Schooner."

Wolske said she would mention opening Yeller Cab now and then to friends after Schooner passed. Working in long-term care she saw a need for animal transport for those who couldn't do it themselves and she also wanted a way to honor Schooner's memory.

One day she mentioned her idea to Scott Belt, who she worked with at a private elder care facility, and asked him what he thought about it. Belt certainly had his hands full working as Chief Financial Officer for the facility but he saw an opportunity.

"Nancy had the idea of doing this and the CEO of my company was like 'you should have ownership of a few things - you should go out there and start doing this to grow yourself.' And I was like 'Nancy, let's do this. Let's try this.' There's a market out there for it and I believe in the concept of it," Belt said.

How It All Came Together

Fast forward a few months and Belt and Wolske had two other partners, Belt's wife, Patricia, and his brother-in-law, Will Waits.

Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman, KATU News

Inside the Taxi

The pet taxis are Nissan Cubes and they're set up specifically for pet transport. "We have a ramp that holds up to 200 pounds and we actually have calming music. It's called Through a Dog's Ear," said Wolske. "And then there's a feline calming spray that we can use, with the owner's permission."

Belt's wife, Patricia, serves as the company's Director of Customer Relations. She used to teach English in Brazil before moving to the U.S., where she met Scott.

Patricia is the creative force - she came up with the initial look for the cabs and worked with a designer at Think Signs to flesh out the concept. Patricia also works on educational materials for kids.

Belt's brother-in-law, Will Waits, is the company's Director of Logistics, which makes perfect sense since he used to be an air traffic controller and has a military background as well.

Scott Belt is Yeller Cab's President/CEO and Wolske is the company's Public Relations Director.

The group put up their own money for the company, deciding that privately funding Yeller Cab was the best way to go.

"There are just so many hoops to jump through to get any type of loan at all, so it was just easier," said Belt.

Once the team was assembled, they got their business license, insurance and bonding squared away and became full-fledged entrepreneurs.

That's just part of the work that comes with opening a new business, though. The hard part is finding your clientele. So how did they get started?

"(We went to) a lot of events," said Waits. "And we drove around to just about every veterinarian, groomer and doggy daycare in the metro area giving them fliers, magnets and business cards."

And like any business out there, they are using social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to their advantage.

How Is It Going So Far?

Yeller Cab's owners have a small client base right now but they see the potential for growth.

"(Our customers include) busy professionals to smaller veterinarians, or veterinarians that have a case they need transported to a bigger animal hospital like DoveLewis, to seniors or even young people who just can't transport their animals to the vet," said Waits.

We contacted DoveLewis to find out what they think of Yeller Cab. Marketing Director Tiffini Mueller said the folks at the animal hospital think it's a great service to have in the Portland area and they've been happy working with Wolske.

"We hope her business is a big success and that it continues to help animals and their owners," Mueller said in an e-mail.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user wwarby (Creative Commons)

What About Exotic Animals?

Transporting exotic animals is a whole other ball game and Wolske said at this point they'll have to consider it on a case-by-case basis. "Since none of us are really accustomed to handling those critters, I'd rather build up to it and have a special vehicle for it," she said.

Things are pretty busy for the owners of Yeller Cab right now, as it usually is when a startup first gets going.

"It's all hands on deck right now," said Wolske. "And it's all good because this really is something that feels good."

Now there is one snag they have run into so far.

You see, Portland's city code requires a permit in order to operate a taxi vehicle and only a limited number of them are issued. Any business that has the word 'taxi' or 'cab' in its name must have that permit.

So what about a taxi service that transports animals instead of people? Well transporting just animals is fine but because Yeller Cab also advertises that pet owners can ride along in certain situations, that changes things.

"From our perspective it does create a little bit of a conundrum," said Kathleen Butler, Regulatory Division Manager for the City of Portland.

Butler said her division will be recommending that an exception be made to the city code for certain niche businesses like Yeller Cab. A board meeting to consider the proposal is scheduled for Nov. 9.

If the exception is made, the city code will be rewritten and Yeller Cab will be in the clear. If not, the company may have to make some changes to make sure they are in compliance with the city. That might include changing their business name.

What are the Company's Goals?

Well for one, they're hoping to one day have a whole fleet of Yeller Cabs. Right now they have two - one that is named after Schooner and another that is named after Mazzy, another beloved pet. One operates on the west side of town and the other on the east side.

They would also like to give back to the community at some point.

Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman, KATU News

"Whether it's bringing donated pet food to people that don't have pet food or just doing stuff for the community just as a gesture of good faith or goodwill," said Waits.

Wolske said she also hopes that once they are able to hire employees, they'll be able to offer folks a position that allows them to work from home.

"So they can work from their home, support their family and serve the community where they live," she said. "You have the Yeller Cab at home and it's part of your community."

Before they reach those goals, however, there are the immediate ones to achieve. The most important one is to become a trusted name in the community.

"Our goal is to earn people's trust as we build this organically," said Wolske.

"We just have to get people comfortable with us and get them to understand that we do know what we're doing - that we're designed for this, we're trained for this and therefore we will take great care of their loved one and transport them around," said Belt.

Is Yeller Cab the Only Pet Taxi In Town?

Photo courtesy of Dog Gone Taxi.

We did find one other dog taxi service in town - Dog Gone Taxi.

We talked to the owner, Rebeca Berni, and she said Yeller Cab won't be a direct competition for them. That's because Dog Gone Taxi works with a lot of national pet relocation companies - they specialize in moving pets from city to city and even coordinate international moves that involve customs.

Dog Gone Taxi launched in Seattle in 2004 and is now operating in Portland and San Francisco as well.

There are also pet-related businesses in town that will transport animals as part of what they do.