An idea and glimmer of passion lead to bliss
All change starts with an idea and a glimmer of a passion…
Finding a Future in Doggie Day Care
A Telecommunications Executive Follows Her Bliss to Become a Successful Franchiser
By Elizabeth Garone
When Amy Nichols says that her career has gone to the dogs, it’s a good thing. Ms. Nichols, a former telecommunications sales executive, is the founder of Dogtopia, a national chain of upscale day-care centers for dogs.
Ms. Nichols approached seven banks before she secured a loan for Dogtopia
Ms. Nichols always knew that she wanted to work with animals. “I didn’t want to sell animals. I wanted to be caring for them,” she says. But, after college, she thought she should get a “real job.” Following in her father’s footsteps, she chose telecommunications. In the late 1990s, she built a career working for a number of the big players: Bell Atlantic (which later became Verizon), Cable & Wireless USA and XO Communications. She moved up the ladder, starting in sales support where her job was to find outside contractors to install the purchased phone systems.
“I noticed that all those cool kids at work who drove the nice cars, they were in sales,” she says. So she negotiated her way into a sales position.
In sales, Ms. Nichols excelled. For a time her success—and the financial rewards that came with it—sustained her. But she says after a while, the thrill of the chase left her “feeling empty,” and she was ready for something else. She decided her next act would take her back to her first love—something involving pets, something that she could develop herself, and something that would allow her to bring Griffin, her Boston terrier, to work.
“She has always had an entrepreneurial spirit about her,” says Ms. Nichols’s husband, Mike Schlegel, who met her when they were both working in the telecommunications field. Today, Mr. Schlegel is the vice president of franchise development for Dogtopia. He says that one of the first things Ms. Nichols asked him when they met was where he saw himself in five to 10 years. He didn’t have a good answer. But, he recalls that Ms. Nichols quickly “professed that she wanted to run her own business.”
Getting there was no walk in the park for Ms. Nichols, who met with 12 landlords during the second half of 2001 before finding one who was willing to give her a lease. While she had an excellent work record and a 30-page business plan, she didn’t have experience running her own business. Plus, she was a young, single woman. And the dog concept, virtually unheard of at the time, wasn’t translating with property managers.
Ms. Nichols’s luck turned when Net2000, one of the telecom companies that had tried to recruit her, went belly up in late 2001. She quickly secured a lease for the 8,775-square-foot building. “Their failure led [the landlord] to look outside that industry for the next tenant,” she says.
But it wasn’t just landlords who were skeptical of the dog-day-care concept. Ms. Nichols approached seven banks before securing a loan. Like the landlords, they all wanted to see a successful owner track record. It was a small women-owned bank, Southern Financial Bank, that finally gave her a $75,000 Small Business Administration-backed loan. She had also been saving her money for several years and she sold her house, which netted about $80,000. Everything went into the business, with a few thousand dollars going into marketing, says Ms. Nichols.
Ms. Nichols opened her first center, Happy Tails Dog Spa, in June of 2002 in Tysons Corner, Va., offering day care and boarding. She remembers looking up and seeing her dog-spa signage surrounded by those of telecommunication giants. “That felt really good,” she says.
In its first six months, Happy Tails grossed $250,000. By seven months, the company, with its then eight employees, was profitable. In 2003, revenue was above $1 million helping to finance the growth of the business, especially franchises. “I didn’t spend a lot on advertising. I lived for the business,” says Ms. Nichols. “Everywhere I went, I had my [company] shirt on, and I talked about the business.”
Her telecommunications background contributed to her success as a business owner, says Ms. Nichols. For one, she knew enough to buy 200 URLs while still in telecommunications. One was www.dogdaycare.com. She has been using it ever since for Dogtopia, which became the official name of the company on Jan. 1, 2006, after she failed to secure a federal trademark for the name Happy Tails.
Today, Ms. Nichols owns three Dogtopia stores including the original one in Tysons Corner, another one in White Flint, Md., and one in Cary, N.C. There are 18 franchise stores in 10 states as well as a dozen other locations in various stages of development. Franchisees pay a $40,000 up-front fee and then 7% of gross revenues. Ms. Nichols expects total revenues for Dogtopia to reach $7 million for 2009. She has a goal of 200 stores by 2015. First up is the first mini Dogtopia, which she plans to open within an existing dog business in Washington, D.C., in the spring. “I’m very excited about this,” she says. “We haven’t been able to get into D.C. until now.”