On being ... a business

By Ingrid Sapona

When did everything become a business? I mean, honestly…

Take dog walkers, for example. I know they’ve been around for so long that no one bats an eyelash at them any more. But the idea of making a living at it -- and a good one (in Toronto $15-$18 an hour is not unusual) bugs me. A number of friends use them and I admit the business model makes perfect sense: they provide a service that fulfills a need (both for the dogs and their owners). But is it so hard to find someone who’d look after a furry friend out of the kindness of their heart, or their love of animals, or just to help someone out?

House sitting is another activity -- or should I say, “service” -- that I’ve heard more-and-more people pay for. What’s with that? I understand that an empty house can be an invitation to trouble -- but do we really have to pay someone to be there when we aren’t? Over Christmas friends paid something like $80/day to have someone house/dog sit for them while they were on vacation. Of course, such costs can be rationalized -- they have two dogs and I’m sure boarding them at a kennel would not be inexpensive.

But, the woman they hired worked another job during the day so for the week they were away my friends paid for “doggy day care” on top of the house sitting fee. And, they have a large fenced-in back yard, which means the house/dog sitter didn’t even have to walk them every time they needed to go (much less worry about poop and scoop) -- all she had to do was let them out. I know, at least the dogs were in their own home…

I remember being in college and house sitting for my god parents -- for free. We looked at it as a win-win: they appreciated having someone look after things and it was fun for me to have a place to myself. I’m pleased to report that I know some similar, non-monetary, mutually beneficial arrangements still exist. I have friends, for example, whose neighbors gladly park in their driveway during the winter months my friends go south. My friends benefit because cars coming and going (and fresh tire tracks in the snow) make the house look lived-in and their neighbors benefit because they don’t have to jockey cars in their driveway (which they’d have to do since overnight street parking is prohibited in their neighborhood in winter).

Looking after pets and houses aren’t the only services I find it hard to believe people shell out for. Just the other day there was a front page story in the Toronto Star about a business where, for $5 per call, this woman will phone someone on your behalf to deliver “custom-ordered praise”. The examples given in the article were things like: “You make the best grilled cheese ever”, “You have the perfect bald head”, and “You fit neatly into small spaces”. (Honest -- I’m not making this up!) In case you’re wondering if this is a flash in the pan -- according to the article, the woman has been in business since the fall and she even has an employee (someone who delivers flattery in French -- after all, Canada is a bi-lingual country).

The article quoted a customer who used the service to call her husband to cheer him up when he was having a bad week at work. The customer, who said it was the best five bucks she’s ever spent, was quoted as saying, “Nice things aren’t so easy to believe when they’re coming from someone who knows you so well”. Though that may be true, if I got such a call, I can’t imagine I’d be more inclined to believe the compliment from some stranger than if it came directly from the person who paid someone to compliment me. I would, however, think that if someone who ordered such a call for me had $5 burning a hole in their pocket, they could have put the money to better use -- whether on a latte, a lottery ticket, or better still, a donation to a food bank.

Growing up, if neighbors were going away, they’d ask us to take in their mail, water their plants or their lawn, and if they had a pet, we’d feed it, play with it, walk it, or whatever. And they’d do the same for us. It was never a big deal and no money ever changed hands. (Mind you, I’m sure my mother dropped off a loaf of her homemade bread or some cookies as a special thank you, but that was the extent of it.)

Don’t get me wrong -- I’m all for entrepreneurship. But besides feeling that some of these “businesses” are started just to try to prove the old adage that a sucker is born every minute is true, I worry that paying for such things might actually be eroding our social fabric. I know -- seems like a big leap -- like I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill. But honestly, I can’t help think the more activities we become accustomed to paying for, the less we’ll come to rely on each other as neighbors and friends, which can’t be good for society as a whole.

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona


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