In 2001, Amy Nichols of Vienna, VA, found herself spending long hours at her telecom job and feeling guilty about leaving Griffin, her Boston Terrier, home alone all day. Her “mom” guilt, plus the fact that her weekends usually involved a visit to the pet store or volunteering at local animal rescues, started Amy thinking she might be in the wrong industry.
Her own desire to give her dog a fulfilling day led to Amy’s career fulfillment – doggie daycare NOVA style. Amy quit her day job, sold her house and scrambled for additional financing. Her first move? Gutsy. Rent a huge space in the middle of Tysons Corner so she would be where folks were working those long Washington area hours and needed help with their pets while they did it. Amy’s investment paid off.
She opened that Tysons’ location in 2002 and has consistently grown her business for the past 12 years. Dogtopia is now a national dog daycare, spa and boarding franchise with 31 locations in the U.S. and Canada. At Dogtopia, pets are valued as family and can enjoy playtime and spa treatments during both day and overnight stays.
Amy and her husband, Michael Schlegel, vice president of development at Dogtopia, have four kids ages 2 – 11. They, like so many families in the DMV, combine busy careers with a busy household. Amy finds it challenging and fulfilling in equal parts. She strives to create a rewarding balance between building her business and being there for her family. It’s an elusive thing, that “balance” – and while Amy doesn’t claim to have found it, her story is inspirational.
You started your company before you had kids. Can you compare and contrast the before and after impact on how you work?
Before having our first son I worked crazy hours, and was happy to do it. My husband and I were the only “employees” on the weekends for the first several months in order to save money. Our hours at Dogtopia are long – there are always dogs in our care, so that meant our weekend work schedule was 6am – 11pm both days. I remember counting the hours until Monday when I would get some relief! We could have never done that if we already had children. I found out I was pregnant with Aidan on our first anniversary of the business. By then we had employees seven days per week and I was able to have a more “normal” schedule. I also used my pregnancy as a countdown to replacing myself as the Manager. I wanted to be able to take some time off AND have the business grow and thrive without me physically present. By the time Aidan arrived I had a store manager that took care of everything except bookkeeping and payroll. I remember submitting payroll from the hospital right after I had him and also thinking how cool it was that the business was doing just fine without me.
One of the reasons I started my own company was to be able to control my work schedule so that I could be an active and involved parent. I haven’t always been able to participate in the school activities I wanted to and we have had to use after care programs and daycare, but I was also able to bring both my sons to work with me until they were about 6 months old. I set-up a pack-n-play, a swing, a bouncie seat and lots of toys in my office. (to this day our boys are great sleepers and I credit that to them sleeping through lots of dog noise at a young age!) At 6 months they do a lot less napping and are much more active, so I began their transition to daycare at that point. Having those first 6 months with them while I was building my business was like having my cake and eating it too! It wasn’t always easy, and I was not able to do it with my twins, but I cherish that time we had together.
How have you managed your time? Do you believe in actually achieving balance or is it always striving?
When you own a small business, I don’t believe there really is such a thing as “work life” balance – it is just your life. The wonderful thing about it is for the most part I can dictate where I choose to spend my time, but both children and a business can be more demanding of your time at any given point. If I find myself working a lot of hours I try to take some time off to spend with my kids, and I am vigilant about no work on the weekends unless they are asleep.
What advice would you give to moms wanting to get back to work or strike out on their own?
There is no perfect time to start a business. Don’t start it if you are not fully prepared with a solid business and financial plan (both business and personal), but once you are, get out there and do it! I was fortunate to start pre-kids, but it has not stopped the steady growth of the business and my desire to start other businesses. Could I work more hours if I didn’t have children? Of course, but I also know that is not a compromise I am willing to make. I have always wanted a family, so I had to accept that with children I wouldn’t be able to do certain things that other entrepreneurs are able to do such as attending after-work events and lots of travel, but I wouldn’t change a thing. (I would really love a housekeeper though and my husband would love it if someone else prepared dinner every night.)
If you are a Mom that has been out of the workforce for a while, don’t discount the amazing skills you learn being a mother. I became more organized and a better manager of my time – both great skills in any job. It also impacted how I interact with my employees and Franchisees, in my case I believe it has made me more empathetic.
Franchising is a terrific way to hit the ground running. You are working on a business model that has already been proven, you just need to execute on it. On the other hand, you will have less ability to make changes to certain operational processes and very little ability to modify the brand and image of the franchise. It is trade-off and really depends on what kind of business you want and what skills you possess. I do believe it does help with one major challenge for entrepreneurs – it can be very lonely starting and growing your business. There are so many questions that can only be answered with experience. Franchising really helps in this regard; the best answers and support come from those who have “been there, done that” something provided by the Franchisor and fellow Franchisees.
What do you think we moms could do to encourage our girls to strive for entrepreneurship?
This is a tough question, but one I think about a lot, especially since I now have two girls. I vividly remember a sign I had on my first computer in my make-shift office (it was an old piece of countertop on top of two file cabinets) and it said, “Failure is not an option!” That was truly and completely my mindset. Right next to that sign, I had one that said, “There is always a solution.” I feel that way more than ever now; the amount of information readily available via the internet is truly amazing. All the resources and education are out there if you are willing to look and take the time. When my kids want to give up on something; a puzzle or difficult game or book, I encourage them to give it another shot. I tell them, it is ok if it is hard, but let’s finish it and then you can decide if it is something you want to get better at or not do anymore. I don’t believe entrepreneurs are born; I believe they are made with passion, encouragement and tenacity.
Do you miss the “excitement” of budding entrepreneur vs. the responsibilities of established business owner?
Both are a lot of work, but really different work. Sometimes I miss the comradery and sense of accomplishment you get working in our stores and how fun it is to see the dogs happily greet their owners after a day of play. Our dog, Finnegan, regularly goes to the Tysons Corner location and I love it when I go to pick him up and get to see all of the happy customers – dog and human!
Is working with dogs a “meant to be” situation for you? Now that you’re a business black belt, do you think your initial puppy passion made a significant difference in your success?
Working in pet care and with live animals in general is very hard work. Half the job of our playroom attendants is cleaning. I have said many times over the years that Dogtopia is truly a “labor of love” for me. If I hadn’t been so passionate about it, the first location would likely have never even opened. That said, if I hadn’t made a point to continue developing and improving in my role as CEO, I would not have been able to grow the company to this extent. Dogtopia is one part passion and one part perseverance!
Do you have any favorite stories about your customers – the four legged ones?
I was just speaking with someone the other day about when we first installed web cameras in our stores. We have motion detectors in our lobby and kitchens to alert us if a dog gets into those areas due to the risk that they could eat too much food or get into medications. One night I got an alert that there was movement in our lobby. I was very concerned and logged on to see the lobby camera. There on our couch in our waiting area was a 180lb English mastiff that decided that was where he wanted to sleep. He had managed to open 4 doors to get into that lobby and was quite pleased with himself. We immediately changed all of the playroom door knobs as a result.
We had a very dear client come in one evening to pick-up her Cocker Spaniel, Sam. She seemed really down and it was clear that she had a bad day. I asked her how she was and she said, “Not so great…” and I replied, “Well Sam has a new girlfriend!” I gave her a picture of Sam with his new girlfriend and she burst into tears! They were quickly followed by laughter and her sharing that was by far the best news she had heard all day! We have moments like that practically every day at Dogtopia, we are really fortunate to have such awesome clients.
Is working with your husband something you’d recommend?
Depends on the day! All joking aside, I think it really depends on you and your spouse’s working styles and skill sets. It can sometimes be too easy to just bring your spouse on board, but I would recommend thinking about whether you would hire them for that specific position if they were not your spouse. It may be a difficult conversation, but it is way easier to not hire your spouse than have to fire them because they are not working out and everyone else in the company knows it.
What do your kids think about your career choice? Dogs must seem more appealing than telecom….
They have a much better understanding of the daycare environment and what it would mean to manage a store, but they really have no idea what I do all day at the office. I overheard my 7 year old tell my 11 year old, “Mommy shouldn’t be tired, all she does is talk on her phone and look at her computer all day!“ My oldest recently shared that he told his friends what I do and “they think it is cool.” At 11, I will take what I can get!
What support networks are important to you? You seem to be part of many women’s networking groups if Google is to be believed.
I have found that by being part of a variety of groups and organizations you not only learn a ton, but you are also exposed to different perspectives. I have been a member of Women Presidents Organization for several years and I was always amazed that after every meeting I would go back to the office more motivated and inspired and with tons of ideas. Sometimes it was because of something another member shared, but a lot of times it was just getting myself out of the office and in a different environment for a couple of hours. I also recommend looking into the resources offered by the SBA and the SBDC (Small Business Development Center) in your area. They often have business plan courses and financial training that is incredibly helpful when you are starting out.
Do you allow yourself to celebrate and take credit where due for your successes?
Dogtopia has been fortunate to win a number of awards and I have really enjoyed when I have been able to take my team with me to an awards event. It truly is a team effort; I may lead the company, but I don’t and couldn’t do it by myself.
Written by Cynda Zurfluh