By Janet H. Cho The Plain Dealer, Cleveland
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) When entrepreneur Yalanda Medina launched "Squad FiftyOne pet ambulance" in April 2016 it was the first pet triage and transport service in Ohio. She grew her business by word of mouth and now has three vehicles and five employees to respond to about 35 calls a week.
Squad FiftyOne founder Yalanda Medina will never forget the night she was driving back to Cleveland when she got the call from the pet sitter saying, "I think your dog is sick."
She raced home, took one look at her normally feisty Yorkshire terrier, Bruiser, and rushed him to an emergency veterinarian at nearly 90 miles an hour.
Driving despite her tears, more scared of losing Bruiser than about getting pulled over, she knew that if the police were going to ticket her, they would have to chase her to the veterinarian first, because no way was she going to stop. Her second thought was "There's got to be a better way to do this."
"Anyone who knows me knows how much I love my dog, and really, it haunted me for years," she said. She kept asking other pet parents: "If your dog got sick, what would you do? I heard I can't tell you how many stories." Medina was so indignant that there wasn't a pet ambulance service that her husband suggested, "Well, if nobody's doing it, why don't you start one?"
When Medina launched Squad FiftyOne pet ambulance in April 2016 (she named it after a reference in her favorite childhood TV show Emergency!), it was the first pet triage and transport service in Ohio. She grew her business by word of mouth and now has three vehicles and five employees to respond to about 35 calls a week, mostly non-emergency, in Cuyahoga and surrounding counties.
She recently shared how she started her business with a roomful of aspiring women entrepreneurs from John Carroll University. When she won $25,000 from Aviatra Accelerators (formerly Bad Girl Ventures Inc.) in a pitch contest last May, she poured it all into the business.
A native Clevelander with two economics degrees from Case Western Reserve University, Medina calls herself an economics geek who became an accidental entrepreneur.
The always-analytical microeconomist started researching her idea by studying the pet industry, making charts and lists and looking for similar businesses. That's until someone finally said, "Yalanda, you're really overthinking it. Just buy a van and pick up some dogs.'
"So that's what I did. I bought a van, and I'm picking up dogs," she said. She got certified in pet first aid and rescue, and started the business with one employee -- her sister.
She helps people hoist 150-pound dogs that can't walk and catch anxious cats that don't want to go to the vet. She transports pets to critical care facilities and routine veterinary appointments, including patients undergoing chemo, who have arthritis, or need physical therapy.
She also picks up pets that have died, often to DeJohn Pet Center in Willoughby Hills. "People call us for all kinds of things," she said.
"Unlike people who schedule their appointments way in advance, most people with pets call me that day, saying, 'Oh, I just got an appointment at the vet.'" She also tends to get calls in the middle of the night, because pet owners will often decide to wait until the morning, and then change their minds when the animal gets sicker.
She converted two vans and an ambulance into an emergency pet fleet, with straps, harnesses, stretchers, and oxygen tanks. A recreational power lifter, she laughs when people warn her, " 'Oh, my dog's really heavy,' and he's like 80 pounds." She has picked up a 200-pound newfoundland and a 160-pound Rottweiler.
Medina recently drove up to a scene where an overprotective dog had nipped someone, and bystanders were shouting, "Shoot the dog! Shoot the dog!" Medina said the poor dog was scared and traumatized, and had bitten the man for swatting him. She quickly intervened and managed to calm down the dog so it wouldn't get hurt.
Medina touches the bandage beneath her right eye, explaining that she often encounters dogs who are sick, in pain, and frightened by strangers. Last week, an ailing german shepard bit her cheek hard enough to break the skin. "We always muzzle dogs that are in pain, but we couldn't get the muzzle on quick enough before he bit me in the face," she said. "You never know what's going to happen when you show up."
She created Squad FiftyOne from scratch, loosely basing it on the services available to human patients. "This whole thing has been trial and error," she said. When she first told people what she was going to do, they said: "'Aww, you're just going to be cuddling cats and dogs all day.' Or 'Oh, that's cute, but that's never going to work.' No one believed it was sustainable.
"Now clients tell us, 'Thank God for you. I didn't know what I was going to do without you.' People are just so grateful when we show up." ------ Squad FiftyOne Founder and Principal: Yalanda Medina Headquarters: 12910 Taft Avenue, Cleveland, 44108. Website: http://squadfiftyone.com/ Phone: 216-375-8294 or toll-free 1-888-510-1152. Pricing: Emergency Transport (within Cuyahoga County) from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. starts at $185; from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m., on weekends and holidays, starts at $230. Inter-facility Transport between veterinary facilities, hospitals, and surgical centers, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., starts at $195; between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m, starts at $240. Prescheduled non-emergency, routine, or recurring transport between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. starts at $55. Deceased pet removal starts at $125. Additional surcharges for dogs weighing more than 100 pounds, and for trips outside of Cuyahoga County.