FOUNDER & CO-OWNER, SOHO HOUND
HOMETOWN: Brooklyn, New York
ALMA MATER: Florida State University
AT THE OFFICE: After leaving her New York City event production job in 2013, Morales found herself visiting friends in South Tampa and contemplating her next career move. “I was walking my friends’ dogs in Hyde Park Village. People kept coming up to me, asking me if I was a professional dog walker and if I had a business card,” she says. Looking to offer Tampa the same level of pet care her dog had back in the city, Morales created Soho Hound that year. “We specialize in dog walks, pet sleepovers, pet visits or whatever a client needs,” she says. While she and her staff of 13 are lucky to work with animals, Morales says the job isn’t always as simple as playing with puppies all day. “We have dogs who have seizures or who are in diapers. They can’t walk on a leash or might show some aggression or fear,” she explains. “Pets can’t communicate with us. We’re trying to learn about their behavior and make the right decisions for those pets.”
“I always laugh about the name [Soho Hound] because I had been living in Soho in New York City. When I came to visit, everyone was like, wow, you went from one Soho to another. I said, this Soho is a little bit different. They’re thinking of Howard Avenue and I’m thinking of Soho in New York City. It honestly just made me laugh. That’s how I started it with Soho Hound.”
GIVING BACK: It was natural for Morales to build a relationship between local animal shelters and Soho Hound. The company hosts donation drives for both the Humane Society of Tampa Bay and Hillsborough County’s Pet Resource Center, and it promotes the shelters’ adoptable animals on the Soho Hound social media channels. Social media posts from a recent staff event at the Humane Society led to the majority of the shelter’s featured animals being adopted within the day. “Being the voice for homeless animals is something I take so much pride in, and we were their voices that day,” Morales says.
“We ended up having a contact reach out who was interested in a dog named Gretchen who was a German shepherd. Someone reached out to us on Instagram and said, ‘Gretchen looks so adorable and I’d love to help out.’ The person went to the Humane Society and found out that Gretchen had cancer, and it had spread all over. She also had heartworm that could not be treated because of her condition. The lady still adopted Gretchen after seeing all of our posts on Friday. She said she wanted to live her last days in a home with comfort and love because she seemed so active and playful with us. That just melted my heart.”
WHEN I’M NOT IN THE OFFICE, YOU CAN FIND ME… Pre-COVID, I was always on a plane traveling the world. I’ve been to 26 countries now. That was something I loved. When it comes to travel, I was extremely nervous not being able to travel the way I used to. I found that I don’t need to jump on a plane. I can get in the car and take a road trip. Shut off, rent a cabin and hike. That’s what my boyfriend and I have spent the year doing. We just came back from Blue Ridge, and we did the Smoky Mountains in September. Hiking is something we both have a huge passion for. Now that I’m not on that plane, I definitely have my tires on the road and am seeing the different trails we can do. If I was traveling on a flight, I don’t know if I would have researched all the different national parks and trails. Normally when you’re traveling, you pop yourself on a plane and say, OK, let’s go! Being able to explore my own country in a different way that I was not expecting to has been the most pleasant surprise this year.
WHEN I WAS A CHILD I WANTED TO BE… A lawyer. I always told my parents I wanted to put bad guys behind bars, and my moral compass was screwed on very tight when I was growing up. When I was younger, I just had an answer for everything when my parents asked me something. My mom would just roll her eyes and say, “Tell it to the judge.” I’d say, I will! I’ll argue my case! She’d say, “My word, you should just be a lawyer, you’re just beating it to death.” I really would, especially if I knew I was right.
MOTTO I LIVE BY: If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space. I think the question I get the most is, how did you leave a job as a senior producer in New York City? It was your career, it was your passion, you’re making great money in Soho, you’re traveling the globe. How do you walk away from it? Obviously it was an extremely difficult decision. When I think about it today, if I had known the happiness I’d feel today, I wouldn’t have stayed 10 years. I always have the same message to everyone. Take that risk and take that leap, as scary as you may think it is. At the end of the day, if you’re not happy and not fulfilled, what does that all matter? I think that’s what people don’t ask themselves enough. If you lead with happiness, everything else will fall into place.
WHAT IS THE BEST PIECE OF ADVICE YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED? My mom is full of wise words. She told me this when I was 12 and in middle school: “You are who you surround yourself with.” It’s so important to keep a circle of friends who keep you honest and are honest.
THE BIGGEST LESSON I’VE LEARNED THIS YEAR WAS… Owning a small business during the pandemic has been extremely difficult. When March and April hit and everyone went into full panic mode, at that time I had 15 staff members and I had to lay them all off. I had to let them know we just didn’t have enough business for them. To keep this company alive, my business partner and I had to work 24/7 as long as it took to just make sure we were able sustain everything we had built. It was a very scary but an extremely humbling experience. It felt like my first month starting the company, where you’re knocking on doors and doing guerilla marketing. It took me back to a time that I forgot and that I wasn’t in touch with. I think it was needed, so you remember all the hard work you used to do and what it takes to hit the ground running. With this job, it’s all encompassing. I’m physically active, doing the walks if I need to jump in. The company needed that at the time. We did it for two months.
After that, we were able to build it back up and bring back some of the staff that were still available and hire again. That was something that was really hard. You try to keep the spirit up while you’re building this back, and it was a difficult time. While it was a humbling experience, it helped me reevaluate the company. It helped me look at Soho Hound from a bird’s eye view and make those necessary changes that I needed to with the company that I may not have had time to before. We were moving so fast and we were growing so fast that I wasn’t able to stop and say, let me look at everything. Where are we with every single aspect of this company, and am I happy with it? Should I make some changes? How can I grow this? How can I expand company culture? Sometimes you’re so busy and you don’t have time to focus. We were fortunate that we didn’t have to shut down. It’s hard to say you had a good experience through a pandemic, but I will say it was something that was humbling. It gave me the time to look at this and say I need to make some changes, and this is the time to do it. This company has given me so much life, and I can’t even thank it enough. If it were a person, I couldn’t repay it. This year was almost a time for the company to be like, hey, let’s sit down and rework everything you’ve always wanted to and never had time.
I know it’s been so hard for small businesses, and I know a lot of them have shut down. Obviously it’s been heartbreaking, and we are so grateful for our clients. During the crazy March and April, if it wasn’t for our doctors and our nurses as clients, and our elderly clients, they all still needed help. A lot of our clients were working 12, 14-hour COVID shifts. They still had a pet, and people were not willing to help. We were able to put COVID practices in place where we had limited interactions and masks, gloves, had the pets leashed up to just grab and go at the door. We had a full plan in place. We talked to every single one of our clients and asked them what their comfort level was to see how we could help them but still keep safe. Those two months were so difficult, but they brought me back to seven years ago when I started this company.
Sometimes as owners you move so fast and you’re not involved with the everyday of operations. Going back to it, besides being humbling, it makes you think about the direction you want the company to go and changes you can make to improve it. I think the one thing we hear a lot of feedback from our staff about is the fact we’re still on the ground and hands-on is what they love the most. We’re part of the team. We’re not just owners checking in from a distance. We’re actually hands-on and five minutes away, so we can jump in and help with whatever’s needed.
MY FAVORITE THING ABOUT TAMPA IS… This place is a little hidden gem. Obviously South Tampa is building a lot, and I’m so proud of this city, but I always let people know that why I love Tampa and have stayed here for so long is that it’s a great city but it has a suburban friendliness. Being born in New York City and living in New York City, I did not know my neighbors. You come in, you come out, you’re running around. You’re just too busy. New Yorkers are very nice, but you are just kind of in that hustle and bustle. You don’t have a minute to stop. I’ve been a resident of Palma Ceia for so many years, and I know all my neighbors. I walk my dog and say hi. There are times when I’m out walking my dog and it takes me an hour because I’m talking to every single person. It’s an amazing community. Everyone is so sweet. They want to help. I think to have that balance is why people love it so much. Everyone knows each other and is trying to help each other. It’s an entrepreneurial city. Then this year Tampa was named the most pet-friendly city in the U.S. [When I heard that] I thought, you know what, that’s exactly why I’m here. Being in the most pet-friendly city as a pet business owner, talk about the stars aligning. It all comes together.
MY SECRET TALENT OR SKILL IS… Being trilingual. With a name like Lalka Morales, everyone is always like what are you, where are you from and how do you pronounce that? I’ve been getting that since I was in kindergarten. Speaking multiple languages is something that helps in my travels overseas. My mom was born in Poland, and my dad was born in Peru. In my house growing up, we spoke Spanish, Polish and English.
THE BEST THING I WATCHED THIS YEAR WAS… When season 8 of Homeland came out this year, that was worth the two-year wait. Having to wait two years for a series finale is very rude [laughs], but it was amazing. Now I just spend my time convincing others who haven’t seen Homeland to watch it. I also just finished The Queen’s Gambit, and that was phenomenal.
WHAT IS YOUR DREAM VACATION? I’m an avid traveler, and the one continent I have not been to is Africa. It’s on my list. There is a place called Giraffe Manor in Nairobi, Kenya. It’s a boutique hotel on 12 acres of private land within 140 acres of indigenous forest. They call it Giraffe Manor because all the giraffes come up to you while you’re at the hotel. You can feed them, they pop into the restaurant windows, they say hello while you’re sitting al fresco for dinner or breakfast, and you have the most beautiful wildlife around you. It’s one of my dream places to visit. On my list is the African conservation experience, and you can actually volunteer and help take care of the sick, abandoned animals. It’s basically a rehabilitation sanctuary in South Africa. That is my ultimate dream. I would love to go volunteer and put that time in and then head over to Kenya and unwind and enjoy after I give back. South Africa is No. 1 on my list. As soon as we can travel and I can plan and take real time off, that is where I’m going.