By Jamie Damato
Most of us have, at one point or another, fantasized about walking into our boss’s office Monday morning and offering our resignation. But a growing number of entrepreneurs who felt guilt and sadness because Rover wasn’t welcome in their cubicles have turned their frustration into success by changing careers and starting animal-oriented businesses.
“I had been running with my own dog for two years and loved seeing how happy he was to run. The light bulb went off at a time when I was unhappy with work life, and I heard someone complain about their dog walker,” remembers David Hill, owner of Chicago Dog Runner. Several months later, Hill quit his job as an insurance salesman to start his business, which takes dogs on long runs along the Chicago lakefront every day while their guardians toil away at their desks.
According to the 2007–2008 National Pet Owners Survey, 63 percent of U.S. households have a pet, equating to 71.1 million homes spending a total of $43.2 billion on domesticated animals. The American Pet Products Association, Inc. predicts that pet guardians will spend $45 billion on their furry friends in 2009.
So who are these entrepreneurs making all those billions of dollars? Are they big businesses with million-dollar marketing budgets, or are they Mr. and Mrs. Jones, who just really love walking neighborhood dogs for $10 an hour? The answer is both and everything in between.
After years of working in veterinary hospitals, animal shelters, and even driving a horse-drawn carriage, I realized that my true passion was working with and around animals and their people. In 1996, I founded one of the country’s largest pet-sitting companies, and in 2000 opened one of Chicago’s foremost dog-training companies. It took me years of hard work, patience, and at least one night of being locked in a bathroom until a client’s dog decided I wasn’t good enough to eat. But not everyone takes the same path. I hunted down some of the most successful pet-business owners around and asked how they did it and what advice they have to offer those who want to make the same leap.
title: Pet Stylist
name: Billy Rafferty
the story: Rafferty started grooming at boarding kennels as a teenager and honed his skills in salons and as a dog-show judge. In 2001, he founded Doggy Dooz Pet Styling in Chicago. After 24 years in the grooming industry, Rafferty boasts many accolades. He is a sanctioned grooming show judge, has a slew of notable clients (including Oprah Winfrey), and is co-authoring a book, Happy Dog: Caring for your Dog’s Body, Mind & Spirit (Penguin-NAL, September 2009).
the AHA! moment: “From as early as I can remember, I wanted to help animals and make them happy, just like they made me. I also loved cutting hair and being creative. I started with my sister’s dolls, but then something clicked. At that moment, I switched my hair-cutting abilities to teddy bears. And there my career took off. Hubert the lion and Snoopy had mohawks.”
the ups and downs: “I followed my dream and endured unbelievable amounts of disrespect, and kept my head high and continued to move forward. I didn’t care what anyone said because I was following my heart. I was born to care for animals.”
advice: “It’s always about the animals! Their well-being and comfort should always be in the forefront of your mind.”.
title: Pet Photographer
name: Renny Mills and Sheri Berliner
the story: While some entrepreneurs have known their entire lives that they want to work with animals, others have lit upon careers with animals out of need or passion further into their professional lives. Take Renny Mills and Sheri Berliner, two women who found that photography was that much sweeter when it involved animals. Berliner recalls being a creative manager for a trade association and overhearing a co-worker talking about how her husband was going to drown some stray kittens that night when he got home from work. That night she came home with a box of kittens and has never stopped advocating for and photographing animals since. Mills, meanwhile, didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life or work. She had spent five years working as a photo assistant, but simply felt lost. One day a friend asked her to photograph a dog, and she was hooked. From that day forward she knew that pet photography was what she wanted to do, and she has never looked back.
the ups and downs: “One of the best [moments] is when a client calls you and tells you how happy your images makes [him],” says Mills. “On the dark side of moments, a great Dane decided to bite my arm. After photographing thousands of dogs, I let my guard down, and the dog bit me. He even warned me, but I kept shooting. That is a day I will never forget, and it changed how I approach my clients [dogs].”
advice: “Patience, patience, and more patience,” says Mills. “In this business, you must stay calm, be aware, and believe in yourself.”
title: Creator, Paradise 4 Paws
name: Saq Nadeem
the story: Nadeem, another highly educated pet lover, turned his love of pets into a business plan for a luxury five-star pet resort. With a Master of Business Administration from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Nadeem invented Paradise 4 Paws, a boarding facility located minutes from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport that is open for pickups and drop-offs 24 hours per day.
the AHA! moment: “As a frequent business traveler, I was very limited in the time I could spend with my pets (boarding them Saturday afternoon and picking them up Friday after work due to travel schedule and pet hotel hours). My aha moment came when I was dropping off my pet on a Saturday afternoon and thinking, ‘How can I leave my girl again after seeing her for only a day?’”
advice: “Know this is what you want to do by actually doing it—whether that’s by taking a part-time job or by volunteering.”
title: Top Dog, Out-U-Go!
name: David Lipschultz
the story: Lipschultz started working with Out-U-Go! pet services when he was 23 years old. In his brief professional life before Out-U-Go!, Lipschultz lived in Los Angeles managing a restaurant. “It taught me a lot about customer service, working with staff, and most importantly what real work ethic was all about.”
the ups and downs: Lipschultz says that making dogs, cats, and humans happy is his favorite part of the job. “By providing exercise and attention for the dogs, they are happier, more relaxed, and more confident. By providing professional and convenient scheduling for the humans, we can make the responsibilities of being a pet parent a little easier. Together, that means the pet-pet parent relationship can be more focused on quality time, and that makes everyone happy. That makes me happy,” he says. But Lipschultz adds that there is one downside: “We are dog walkers and pet sitters, so my least favorite aspect … I’m going with poop.”
advice: “While working with pets can be a lot of fun and extremely rewarding, it is also a lot more than just petting puppies. As in any other profession, it’s important to get into it for the right reasons.”
title: Founder, Animal Behavior College
name: Steven Appelbaum
the story: Although Appelbaum earned a Bachelor of Science in political science, he’s been a professional dog trainer since 1980. Applelbaum founded Animal Behavior College in 1999, prior to which he served as founder and president of Animal Behavior and Training Associates.
the AHA! moment: “Although I was always an animal lover, the aha moment came to me in high school. I was looking at [an article with] a picture of a dog who had somehow managed to wander out on the ledge of a large high-rise building in Manhattan. The dog was frozen with fear, not sure what to do, and a crowd had gathered below. Now had this been a person standing on that ledge, some of those hardboiled New Yorkers might have been yelling, ‘Jump! Jump!’ However, this was a dog, and so everyone was yelling, ‘Stay! Stay!’ It was then that I thought I should be involved in helping and working with animals. P.S. According to the article, the dog was rescued.”
advice: “Follow your dreams. Get the best education you can and then come join us! It will not be as easy as many might think, but the rewards are worth it. Some of the best people I have ever met anywhere are in our industry—caring, decent people who really do give back. It is a wonderful business to be in, but remember it is a business. And possessing a clear understanding of your chosen profession, including sound business principles, is a must for success.”
title: CEO, Lucky Litter, LLC
name: Alan Cook
the story: This Ivy League–educated entrepreneur found his passion in a litterbox. Cook is the brains behind ScoopFree, a state-of-the-art self-cleaning litterbox.
the AHA! moment: “I cleaned a dirty litterbox exactly once, and I thought the experience was disgusting! I researched automatic, self-cleaning litterboxes and was not pleased with the results. This prompted many questions and led me to start a new adventure developing a self-cleaning litterbox that really worked.”
the ups and downs: Cook says receiving fan mail from happy customers is his favorite part of the job. His least favorite? “My friends announce me as at dinner parties as ‘the kitty litter guy.’”
title: Founder, Pet Butler Franchise Services
name: Matt “Red” Boswell
the story: Before finally landing in the pet industry, Boswell undertook numerous entrepreneurial endeavors, including the launch of an employment website and service, vending, Amway, and a coffee delivery service.
the AHA! moment: “When I realized that there are over 100,000 million pet [guardians] in the U.S. and every one of them hates cleaning up after their pets.”
on the economy: “Pet-related businesses are in a fantastic, robust industry! I believe the pet industry will continue to grow—although not quite as aggressively as we’ve seen over the past decade,” says Boswell. One area where Pet Butler has been affected by the economic downturn is its franchise expansion. Boswell says there are plenty of interested candidates, but the access to funding has been significantly impacted over the past three quarters. He says he expects things to turn around in the second quarter of 2009.
advice: “It’s still work. Don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s all fun and games. Plan long-term, be disciplined, and don’t quit!”
title: Founder and CEO, Karen Pryor’s Clickertraining and Sunshine Books, Inc.
name: Karen Pryor
the story: Although Pryor comes from a family of writers and entrepreneurs, her entrance into the pet industry came decades after she developed a name for herself training dolphins in Hawaii. After parting ways with Sea Life Park, Pryor made her living as a writer, and in 1993 she founded her company based on taking the clicker training techniques she used on dolphins and adapting them for dogs.
the ups and downs: Pryor soon realized that her business was growing fast. But it took some legwork to make sure things kept running. “I had four or five people working for me, and then Petco bought our dog-training kit,” she recalls. “All of a sudden we had a customer ordering things by the [thousands]. It was more than our capital would cover. I didn’t have the capital to make it happen. We faced a lack of resources. … We managed to survive and have been growing ever since the mid-’90s.”
advice: “Enjoy your life. Any industry is like another. Be nice.”
title: Veterinarian/Business Owner
name: Yael Cidon, DVM
the story: Cidon knew that she wanted to be a veterinarian since she was 4 years old. She worked in various animal hospitals as a kennel attendant, receptionist, and assistant before receiving her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) from Purdue University in 1992. In 1997, she founded PetVets Animal Hospital in Oak Park, IL.
the ups and downs: “I love working with the animals themselves, as they can be a real joy to be with, to see, to touch, to communicate and interact with. But many times per day I am ultimately the bearer of bad news, as I can diagnose many more pathologies than I can actually treat simply [because of] a limitation of our current knowledge and technology.”
advice: “Before you decide to do anything in the pet industry, make sure you’ve spent a considerable amount of time involved in that profession, even peripherally. Becoming a veterinarian or a technician is an enormous investment of time and money. Make sure that this is what you really want to do. Loving animals is not enough to keep people in the profession, and burnout is quite common.”
title: Owners, Soggy Paws
name: Paul Rathe and Kevin Richardson
the story: Paul Rathe hated his job and wanted to open a self-serve dog wash. His partner, Kevin Richardson, armed with a Master of Business Administration from Stanford University, helped him build a business plan and quickly realized that this could be a lot more than just one store. Four years later, the two men have four Soggy Paws stores and plan to keep on expanding.
on the economy: “Customers are still buying staples, such as food and treats, but they are trying to find the best value. You see customers waiting just a little bit longer between services than before. Some of this will continue. We’ve been affected as much by the horrible weather as the bad economy. We hope that once the weather improves, we can also see the local (Chicago) economy improve.”
advice: “Realize that it’s work. It’s great working with animals. They are wonderful. But this is not a retirement job. You still have customers, payroll, rent, distributors, cleaning, and all the other hard work that comes with running a business.”