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Amy Nichols - CEO of Dogtopia

To learn more about the Dogtopia Franchising Opportunity please click here

1. What made you decide to quit a successful career in telecommunications and start a Dog Spa?

I have always been a very motivated and success-oriented person, and right out of college I had specific goals that I wanted to accomplish. While working at Verizon I decided I wanted to be an Account Manager (technology sales). I was able to achieve that within a few years, but once I got there, with all of the financial rewards it entailed, I still did not feel fulfilled. I had the nice car, my own house, and was even putting away money for the future, but I started to feel more and more that this was not what I envisioned for my future. Large companies are great places to learn, but definitely inhibit creativity and the ability to be innovative - not to mention telecommunications was not super-interesting to me. What had always been interesting to me is animals - particularly dogs, and I would often find myself stopping by a pet store on my lunch break or after work. The puppies always made me feel good. My own dog, Griffin, a Boston Terrier, was also a big outlet - I loved taking him for long walks and with me when I went shopping and to run errands. It was then that I started to think about how I could combine my love of business with pets.

2. Did you have any doubts in the early days that you had made the right decision?

I didn't have time! Once I was open for business, that is. The hardest part emotionally and mentally for me was getting the funding and finding a location. There were not many landlords that were keen on having dogs running around in their building. I had to present to seven banks before I was approved for an SBA loan. But, being the saleswoman that I am, I knew that it was a matter of "selling" them on myself and my vision for the company. Not only was there no time for doubts, but I knew that I had to be very focused on the success in order to present my business plan to banks and Landlords for it to happen at all. "Failure is not an option," is something I told myself often. Ultimately it was through networking that I met my first Landlord, and proceeded to rent almost 9000 square feet in Tysons Corner for our first location.

3. How fulfilling is it to work with canines?

Dogs are great. Unconditional love and that uncanny ability to be forever-optimistic. I can be having a really challenging day, but one wet kiss wipes it all away!

4. Do you believe that dogs should be treated like children?

Yes and no. I have never felt that dogs are on par with humans, but I have to say that after having my own child (and another due this month) the "parenting" philosophies and teaching techniques are nearly identical. If you want a well-balanced child or dog, you need to provide the standards - food, shelter and unconditional love - but also boundaries and rules. I have a three year old and I have been amazed at how similar it is to manage him and young dogs!! You have to watch them every second - not just to keep them out of trouble, but also to protect them. Providing socialization and stimulating activities is another common element. Above all is consistency - when you make rules, stick to them. Ultimately dogs are not people, and I am thankful for that - my two dogs are much much easier to manage than my three year old son!

5. What kind of service do you offer to those who want to treat their dogs right?

As I mentioned above, one of the things that I believe is an important component for a healthy, well-balanced dog is socialization. Dogs are pack animals, and having a "human pack" is great - but there is no substitute for them spending some time with each other. Dogtopia provides this important component so that the dogs can then be happier and more relaxed when they are home. Exercise is an obvious need for all dogs, but most do not get nearly as much as they should, particularly with the most popular dogs being Sporting Breeds - Labrador and Golden Retrievers. Consequently, that is our most common customer - Labs! They need exercise and dog parents recognize that a well-exercised dog is also well-behaved!

Dog daycare is our primary business, but we also offer several other services. As an add-on to daycare, we also have overnight boarding services. We get lots of weekend stays, but have had dogs stay for several weeks. We added webcams a few years ago and that has gone a long way towards eliminating the anxiety people feel over boarding their dogs. They can check-in from anywhere in the world and see their dog having a great time - eliminates all the guilt! We have spa services at all of our stores - we can give them a bath and do their nails for you, or they can also use our self-serve tubs (very popular after an afternoon at the dog park) We also have training classes in the evenings and have boutiques in each of our stores for special snacks and unique dog products.

6. What do dog lovers say about you?

Usually "Thank goodness for Dogtopia!" Although dog daycare is still a relatively new concept, once someone starts to use us, they really get hooked and cannot imagine not having daycare for their dog! Dog lovers want their dogs to be happy, and that is what we do best!

7. What is the greatest factor that helped you succeed?

It is always important to follow your heart for true happiness and success, but it is equally important to be prepared to work really hard to get there. Determination and willingness to work as much as needed were probably the most important factors initially. After that, I would say that it was learning from our mistakes, it is OK to make mistakes, but use them as an opportunity to learn so that it is not repeated, and to improve your processes and procedures.

8. Let's talk about your franchising opportunity.

I used the birth of my son and subsequent maternity leave as a testing ground for my business. I felt strongly that I had prepared them to handle everything in my absence, and maintain our high standards of quality and service. I knew that if I was able to take-off that time and the business continued to run smoothly, then we were ready to expand. When my son was four months old I decided we were ready to move on to our next chapter - franchising. Franchising incorporates many elements that are really important in our business - the Owner/Operator model being of greatest importance. No one cares like an owner. I also felt that I wanted to help other people make their dreams come true by owning their own dog daycare - but at the same time creating a national network and maintaining the same quality and consistency across the brand. Franchising makes sense for us on so many levels, we can become the bigger company that I have strived for, but also maintain a small business feel in our locations.

9. What's it like to be a working mom? How do you balance family and career (and your dogs of course!!)?

Balance is an ongoing challenge, but it is probably one of the main reasons why I started my business in the first place. I love my business, but my family comes first. If that means I have to slow things down on the business side, then that is what we do. It all starts at home, and I felt that pretty soon after I started the company in 2002. My husband and I were both working too many hours - including staying over at the facility with boarding dogs, and it was just wearing us out physically, mentally, and emotionally. We had to decide how we were going to adjust the business in order to maintain balance personally and in our relationship. We made some hard choices, Mike eventually went back to work outside the company, but it was what was best for us. Four years later and he is back - but this time it is in a role that better utilizes his abilities, and the company is now big enough for both of us. Because we both work here, we can be very flexible when it comes to taking care of our son. We can fill-in for each other as needed, when the inevitable illness or doctor's appointment comes up, and it has really worked well. While I am out on maternity leave next month, Mike will be running the show here at Dogtopia! That gives me great peace of mind, and I know I will be able to really enjoy spending time with our new baby, and not worrying about my business.

10. Any words of wisdom for our mompreneurs?

First, research, research, research. Don't commit yourself to a major career change and investment until you have developed a thorough business plan. The Internet is a wonderful tool with virtually unlimited information - take advantage of it. Taking the time to research now will save you a ton of heartache and potential financial loss down the road. That being said, when you are ready, you're ready! Be your own biggest cheerleader, and hold on tight!

To learn more about the Dogtopia Franchising Opportunity please click here

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