Monday, July 13, 2015

The Whole Story

My last post to this blog was 4 years ago. I thought about cutting ties and starting a brand new blog, but some of these older posts are good. And although my life has changed drastically in many ways since I wrote them, even the cut threads of my personal narrative are part of the continuous woven tapestry of my life.

Since you're probably new here, let me introduce myself.
My name is Vania Velotta and I was a professional groomer for almost 20 years. I started this blog while I was running my own grooming shop because I had thoughts I wanted to share with clients and other groomers.

The Groomerisms concept was born out of a desire to find a playful way to bridge some of the communication gaps between pet owners and pet professionals.

I'd like to share the whole story, though, so let me back it up to the beginning.

April 1997
I was an undergrad at Oberlin College, taking classes in biology and chemistry and writing. It was a tough semester academically, but I needed some spending money, so I applied for part-time work at a grooming shop in a western suburb of Cleveland.

My resume listed one previous employer: the boarding kennel in my hometown where I'd worked the register, scooped poop, and dished out Iams for two and a half years.

My only actual grooming experience was with the family sheltie, who came to work with me on Sundays, so I could bathe and neaten him up in their walk-in tub.
Sheltie Sampson
Sampson hated having his feet trimmed
almost as much as I hated hairy Grinch feet.

I got me the job, but I learned pretty quickly that I far from qualified to be a professional groomer. I did a lot of bath dogs and shave-downs to start.

The shop was clean and professional, with four talented, generous groomers on staff who helped me pick out equipment and showed me how to use it when they had time. They scissored up the worst of my mistakes and complimented me on my animal handling skills.

I earned a small but steady paycheck, learned a little technique, and considered it a fun experience. But I had no intention of making a career of it.

I wanted to be a veterinarian. I thought there was no higher calling in life than saving animals and I thought that's what vets did.

Growing up, we always had cats and I was always crazy about them. My parents were pretty laissez-faire about pet ownership, though. The cats went in and out as they pleased, unaltered, often unvaccinated, and took their chances.

I estimate the average life expectancy of my childhood cats was about four years. I loved new kittens but I bonded with every cat. I was devastated by every loss. By the time I was three, I was telling people I wanted to be a "veteran" when I grew up. Eyebrows raised, "A what?" they'd say. "You know. An animal doctor." A saver of cats.

June 1997
I was working with a cat rescue organization on campus and had a steady stream of foster cats keeping me company as we searched out forever homes for them. We had them tested for FIV and FLV, vaxed, fixed, and made adopters sign a no-declaw, indoor-only contract. Although we didn't the facilities to do anything other than have sick cats humanely euthanized, we were having a huge positive impact on the number of unwanted kittens born around town. As we kept up our TNR efforts, we saw the number of FIV/FLV positive cats go from 50% to less than 10%.

We were saving cats.
This baby is turning 16 in a couple months.

During summer break, I got a job as a veterinary assistant in a busy five doctor practice back home in Connecticut. I cleaned cages, folded towels, and wrapped surgical packs for sterilization. I assisted on surgery days, shaving bellies for spays and watched the dials on the anesthesia machine.

Working there made me realize how fallible medicine is. Sometimes the vets could save cats hit by cars, but usually not. Also, it became painfully clear that animals didn't like going to the doctor any more than I did. They got poked and knocked out and cut open and euthanized there.

I still wanted to be a vet, though. I liked learning, I liked the idea of being called a doctor, I loved working with animals. I accepted the fact that a vet's office was a stressful place. Emergency drills left me shaking and feeling like no amount of schooling could ever make me feel adequate. But I was determined to push through it.

And then I started having trouble observing surgeries.

I remember a day watching the overhead lights dance on the beautiful pinks and blues of a big dog's innermost places and I thought,"All living things look like this on the inside." My dogs, my cats, my family, me.

I went vegetarian when I was 12 because I decided I didn't like consuming stolen body parts. A dead animal was an empty shell, not a tasty snack. But this was a living body. The tissue and blood and bone was full of living nerves, speaking to a brain still capable of feeling fear and pain. As the vet examined the length of intestine, white gloves palpating, searching for blockages, healthy coils lay glistening on the blue surgical drape. This part of the body was never meant to be so exposed.

I was hit with a cold sweat and creeping blackness at the edges of my vision.

I never actually fainted, but I came close a few times. I found that I could still watch surgeries as long as I stayed seated and didn't try to stand. I figured I could power through and get past the baffling squeamishness. But when I got instantly woozy watching one of the vets put a big needle in a tiny kitten's chest, I realized that I was getting worse instead of better. I couldn't detach myself. I couldn't dial down my empathy enough to deal with animals turned inside out. Not even to help them.

How could I be a doctor of veterinary medicine if I couldn't even watch a simple procedure without getting dizzy and nauseous? And yet, how could I not be a vet? I'd never even considered any other life path. My high school class ring was custom-made with a dragon on one side and a veterinary caduceus on the other. The point of going to school was so I could be an animal doctor.

And my body wasn't having it.
Junior year of college, I gave it up and decided to go into web design instead.

My earliest work was actually kind of cute.
HTML coding was a hobby I'd picked up freshman year. I was far from home, living in a dorm, and uninterested in drinking. I had free time, free internet, and not a lot of friends, so I'd stay up late, reading terribly designed internet tutorials about web design and coding.

In the narrow gaps between the biology and chemistry I was still committed to study, I fit in a javascript programming class and several studio art classes. I got work/study jobs as webmaster for two different offices at the college.

December 1999
I graduated and made my way into the world. The dot-com boom was in full swing and I had just enough experience to qualify as an entry-level web designer. That was the heyday of comic sans and blinking text, but I had better taste than most, so I didn't have any trouble getting interviews, which led to job offers.

Giving up on vet school was disappointing, but now I had a chance to start making money instead of spending more on education. I'd pivoted at the last minute and landed on my feet. I felt like a grown-up person with a real job. I bought my first new car and then my first home - a two bedroom condo with a Metroparks view.

But the dot-com bubble burst, marketing budgets quickly dwindled and disappeared, and with them went the fancy Silicon-Valley-wannabe start-ups with their ping-pong tables and free lunches. I was laid off twice by failing companies in as many years. After 9/11, it got even worse. Then it was hard to get an interview, let alone a job offer.

But I had a mortgage to pay, so I answered a groomer wanted ad. Groomers are always wanted. By May 2002, I was working six days a week, doing upwards of ten dogs a day.

September 2006
Fast-forward a few years, past a few more grooming jobs. I was married, living with my husband near Cleveland. Together, we opened a grooming shop called K9 Design Dog and Cat Grooming in a cute little village bordering one of the area's top-ranked suburbs.

My first groom client at K9 Design
Thanks to a stellar credit score, I'd managed to finance the whole thing with some low interest credit card cash advances, but that meant we didn't have the budget to hire help with the build-out.

We worked fourteen hours a day for several weeks getting the space ready to open. We did all the painting and installed about a mile of tile. We acid-stained and sealed the concrete floors, working through the toxic, chemical fumes and their headache-inducing high.

The cage bank I ordered from Canada wasn't due to arrive for another month, so I bought some wire cages to tide me over. I had a cheap, wobbly grooming table set on a wooden box because it didn't go up high enough. I had a shop vac and a mish-mosh of brushes, clippers and dryers.

On opening day, there was only one client on the books. He was cute, but typically cocker: full of mats and cranky about it. His owner wasn't interested in shaving him down. We compromised with spot shaving and she pre-booked him on a maintenance schedule.

My earliest clients all paid by credit card, so technically it was my mother-in-law who gave me my first dollar bill. She scribbled "good luck!" on the front and framed it to hang in my lobby.

After my years in high-volume shops, I welcomed my slow early days as a chance to finally study my craft. Between stamping stacks of advertising postcards, I joined email lists and read grooming articles. I learned what a proper bichon is supposed to look like (you can imagine my surprise). I got a copy of Notes From The Grooming Table by Melissa Verplank and began to see the art of dog grooming in a new way.

I couldn't find appointment tracking software that I liked, so I used my web programming know-how to build something myself. The clients loved it. They loved my work and referred their friends and neighbors. I never did finish sending out all the postcards. After a while, my website and a line in the yellow pages were the only marketing outreach I did.

Over eight years, I stayed small, serving about 1500 clients total, many of them on a regular repeating 4-8 week schedule. I can't say how often I introduced a puppy to the clippers for the first time or made an old dog clean and comfortable for the last time. My records show I did about 11,000 grooms at K9 Design. I always had trouble finding good help, so almost all of that was me, check-in, bath, brush, clip, and check-out.

I had a big space and my rent reflected that, so I had to work hard to stay profitable. I'd made more working for other shops than I did working for myself. And everything was my responsibility - from the clients to the pets to the clean-up.

After a few years, I got pretty run-down. I didn't have enough energy for other things. The canvas on my easel sat blank for months, then years, at a time. I chopped my hair off because it required too much brushing. Though I regretted it - short hair is not a good look for me - as soon as it grew out, I'd chop it again.
It started out so shiny, though!

I rallied for a while, setting stricter limits on how I booked my days and firing clients who asked too much of me. I began playing audiobooks while I worked to give my brain interesting things to chew on. In the winter, when things were naturally slower, I started working on a draft of a novel in between haircuts.

Writing again felt wonderful but it made grooming harder by comparison. Incoming client became unwelcome distractions from what I really wanted to be doing. Telemarketers and door-to-door sales calls infuriated me. I still loved working with the animals, but I had less patience for chit-chat with my clients. I knew that I needed a change but I wasn't in a position to make one. It also didn't help that my marriage was slowly falling apart.

February 2011
My husband and I called it quits but continued to share the house. I had too many pets to rent and move into my own place right away. We finalized the divorce a year later. I owned K9 Design outright, along with just enough savings to put a down payment on a tiny house.

The shop was a good earner for a two-income household, but it was a stretch to pay the bills by myself. My landlord was steadily edging up the rent on the building. I could try to find a smaller, cheaper space, but I didn't have the money or the know-how to do another build-out. Or I could close down and groom for someone else.

I couldn't stand the thought of going backwards.

But I was lucky and I met someone amazing. A brilliant tattooed vegan cat person, like me.

That's a whole different story, though.

He moved in and we made plans together.

September 2014
We closed the shop and got married in Cape Cod, just before the weather turned cold. My "temporary" grooming career had stretched in highs and lows across two decades. And then it was over.

Sort of.

My last haircut at K9 design.

You don't ever really stop being a groomer, do you? It's not my job, but I still do it. I bathe my German Shepherds in my bathroom tub and blow them out in the driveway when the weather's nice. I carry nail clippers with me everywhere so I can trim claws in need. Sometimes I offer to makeover pets for close friends and family. I've been dreaming about acquiring myself a mid-size white poodle so I can play with color and style.

I miss my set-up and my long-time clients. I miss the animals I worked with for so long. I miss the income - especially the tips. But professionally, I'm happier as a struggling artist/writer/whatever than I was as a successful groomer.

Time will tell if my body will someday force me onto yet another path, but for now I've fallen back on another old hobby of mine - thinking up ways to help other groomers with their businesses. I started Groomerisms back in 2008, enlisting the help of nationally syndicated cartoonist Jenny Campbell to draw up The Tangle Chart and the "You Charge More Than My Hairdresser" comic. I didn't have enough time while K9 Design was open to make a real effort at selling the brand. It was more for me than anyone else.

But now I want to make Groomerisms products something that you want.

Good advice from The Gumroad Small Product Lab.
I've certainly not been idle these last eight months. I landed an internship with I've been learning the ins-and-outs of modern marketing, social media, and the blogosphere.

You may have noticed that I'm actively trying to build Groomerisms' social media following. I redesigned the website and created a bunch of new offerings as well.

I'm hustling, as they say, from a desk chair that my two Oberlin cats have been using as a scratching post for the past sixteen years.

What a journey. And here we are starting up a bumpy, uncertain new road.

Most days, nobody buys anything from Groomerisms. But there's usually a re-pin or a like or a share somewhere that I can celebrate.

I literally do a happy dance every time I get an email letting me know that someone decided to purchase a copy of the Tangles Are Trouble or the Double-Coated Breeds Dog infographic.

The positive reviews that came back on my first stab at an e-book were equally as precious to me as its few sales. Daryl Conner called the The Groomer's Guide to a Low-Stress Life "helpful, thought-provoking, and fun." I've been Daryl's fan for ten years now.

So what's next?
  • Creative Grooming / Color Workshop - just the other day I volunteered to organize something in the Cleveland/Akron, OH area. A worthy challenge, and a little daunting. But I'm confident I can pull together something awesome, even if nobody shows up. There's already a lot of interest, though, which is exciting. If you want more info on that, out the survey and I'll put you on the mailing list: (Also, advice welcome.)
  • Trade Shows - In all my years as  a professional groomer, I only went to one grooming event. It was a Super Styling Sessions seminar with Sue Zecco and Jay Scruggs. I always wanted to go to more, and bigger events. Maybe see what it's like to compete. Sit through a few classes and meet some groomers I only know online. Now I could go as a vendor and peddle my posters. I wasn't ready this year, but there are lots of possibilities for next year.
  • Groomerisms and the Art of Zen - I'm excited to start blogging regularly again and create posts that are useful to both groomers and pet owners. has some newer articles on it, but I will likely bring those over here and keep everything in the same place. (Groomtracker is the name of my grooming appointment software that will someday be available for sale). 
  • More Art - Though writing is my first love, it's been a lot of fun working on pet portraits. I wish they were more popular and requests for them would start pouring in. I want to draw until my hands cramps and who better to draw than your pets? In the meantime, I'll keep working on Groomerisms infographics and t-shirts and posters...
  • Bylines -- I've been thinking about submitting articles to the major grooming magazines but I'm not sure how to approach them. I'll be looking into it soon, though.
So, that's my story. It's not over. It's just beginning, I think. Thank you for reading and thanks for supporting!


  1. You have certainly had quite a journey that has led you to this point. I'm going to check out your site and sign up to follow you on social media. Wishing you the absolute best and much success

  2. Wow. Best of luck to you. Please keep blogging because I'm interested to see how it turns out. Meanwhile, I'm off to read your older posts. Like you, I have a hod podge history, though mine is more anxiety-ridden. I admire your courage. At 47 I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up. I'd settle for "content."