It’s always uplifting to read a success story. It’s also inspiring to read about a woman who started a business for the “right” reasons and shares the rewards of her success by giving back. Recently, Problogger Gina Blitstein, interviewed Amy Nichols, CEO and founder of Dogtopia, a franchise of upscale doggie daycare/overnight care/spa/training and boutique locations across the country.
Amy left a high-power corporate career to follow her heart and make her life the life she wanted. Here’s are some of her insights as an entrepreneur and mom as she turned her vision into her reality.
WIM: What factors made you first consider going into business for yourself?
Amy: I wanted to fulfill a dream of having a business and working every day with something I love. I also knew that I wanted to have a family when I started Dogtopia so having that flexibility would prove to be a big factor. In fact, both of my sons ended up coming to work with me for the first six months or so, which was great. I literally had a pack-and-play and swing in my office. I would turn on classical music in my office for them to sleep. At one of my locations, I had a baby monitor in the front of the building for when I was working with staff. If you truly want to be flexible, start your own business.
WIM: Were you a mom then?
Amy: I found out I was pregnant with my first son on the one-year anniversary of me starting Dogtopia.
WIM: What were the 3 biggest positive changes in your life once you left the corporate world behind?
- Ability to Solve Problems: When I recognize a problem or challenge, I need to fix it. In the corporate world, I would recognize challenges all the time. You could talk with someone about it, but you couldn’t change it, which was always very frustrating to me. I made a commitment to myself that when I had my own business, I’d never have that attitude. I don’t get stressed by the problem or challenge; I get stressed at the inability to fix it.
- Passion for My Job: Being at Dogtopia, I get to work with people who are here because they love their job, People don’t work here unless they really love dogs, which is more fulfilling to me and a way I connect with everyone here. We love dogs and we all want them to have a high quality of life. People who are working at telecom company, for example, aren’t there for their love of telecommunications. Having a common passion with co-workers is very fulfilling.
- Setting Goals: I love that I’m now able to me more achievement-oriented and set my own goals. With sales, there is a quota for the goals. I can set expectations where I want them to be with Dogtopia.
WIM: What were the three biggest challenges in your life as you struck out on your own?
- Financial Adjustment: Financially, you have to make sacrifices when you’re starting your own business. For me, I had to give up driving a nice car and buying fancy clothes without thinking twice.
- Time with Family/Friends: Spending quality time with family and friends was hard for me at the beginning. Before starting Dogtopia, I had a fairly busy social life. My “going out” was cut down about 90 percent. Happy Hour was a thing of the past – I was now taking care of people’s dogs during their happy hour. I didn’t feel like I was missing out, but it was a huge adjustment. For Thanksgiving in 2002, we were five months in to the business. My entire family came to Dogtopia and we had Thanksgiving Dinner at the store – along with 30 dogs.
- Securing a Loan: In 2001 it was very difficult to get a loan. Being a first-time business owner, banks were unsure of me and unsure of a business that took care of people’s dogs. Dogtopia was a new kind of business. It was the seventh bank that finally gave me a loan. I didn’t give up until someone said “yes.”
WIM: How does being an entrepreneur mom affect your family’s schedule and priorities? Tell me your thoughts about balancing life/family/work.
Amy: The only negative thing is that I often feel like I don’t have enough time to be involved with school as I’d like. I can’t just take a day off out of the blue – I have to plan around it in advance. The good thing is that my husband is able to pick up where I can’t. He also works for Dogtopia as the vice president of franchise development and his role is more flexible to work from home.
Something that’s really fun for our family is all the travel because of Dogtopia. My 5 ½ year-old son Aidan has been to 8 Dogtopia grand openings throughout the U.S. in places such as California and North Carolina. We wouldn’t travel as much if it wasn’t for Dogtopia.
WIM: What do your children learn from having a mom who is an entrepreneur?
Amy: From what I can tell, I think they see that men and women can both equally do whatever they want to do. My son doesn’t know the difference between what my husband and I do. He doesn’t separate that. I think it sets a great example of showing equality. If you try and work hard can do or accomplish anything you’d like.
WIM: You care for dogs whose families are busy during the day. Are your children in day care while you work? If so, what were your requirements in choosing the right care for your children. How were they the same/different than the care you provide for your client’s dogs?
Amy: My standards are pretty high. My son Aidan is in Kindergarten now and we went to a private school so that he could stay later in the day. We went with a private school so that he could stay late in the day. Both of my sons also attended a private pre-school and what I really related to was that the principal is truly the “face” of the business, just like Dogtopia franchises. It was important to me that she knew me and my children and had their best interests in mind. It was clear to me that the staff at this school loved children. It’s the same thing at Dogtopia – we all work here because we love dogs and we try to make them happy during the day.
WIM: How do you take care of yourself without losing your identity into your professional persona?
One of the things I’ve learned from husband is separating work and family time. With my enthusiasm for Dogtopia, I want to talk about it all the time – even at home or family events. My husband likes to minimize it and would rather talk about the kids or our family when we’re at home or spending time with other family members. When we get home until the kids go to bed, it’s all about family. We also don’t work on the weekends unless we have to.
Amy: When you can’t do it all, is it easy or difficult for you to delegate?
In the beginning it was really hard, since I hadn’t had a lot of experience managing people in a retail environment. I used to be the one cleaning the bathrooms because it was hard to delegate and I felt guilty asking someone else to do that job. I’ve finally learned that if I am cleaning the bathroom now, I am not paying the bills or working to market Dogtopia. I’ve come a long way! Now I realize that I need to work on what I am good at.
WIM: What do you know about yourself now that you didn’t know before you became an entrepreneur?
Amy: I’m truly amazed it’s been eight years and I am still as enthusiastic as Day One. I often wonder if I was always this way. When I was in high school, I always had to do better than everyone else, which is kind of how I approached this business. I am continually looking for ways to improve. Along the way, I have also learned a lot about finance and legal issues as well. My capacity to learn was more than I thought. I took accounting in college and dropped the class. Now – I love looking at financial statements because it applies to my business. The better I understand the better I can run the business.
WIM: In your opinion, is everyone cut out to be an entrepreneur? What qualities are most beneficial to an entrepreneur?
Amy: No, everyone is not cut out to be one. You don’t have to be “born” an entrepreneur, but there are certain qualities you have to possess. You must be intrinsically motivated. You must have an internal drive to do better. You’re either born that way or you’re not. You have to be your own cheerleader.
WIM: If for some reason your business hadn’t succeeded, what would you be doing for a living today?
Amy: This is a funny question because for a long time I had a saying hanging in my office that read, “Failure is Not an Option.” The first six months of this business were really hard. Since it was quick, it was just more about pushing forward. If I weren’t running Dogtopia, I would be running something else, which is almost impossible to imagine.
WIM: As a successful businessperson, why is it important for you to give to charities such as the K-9 Support?
Amy: I grew up doing charitable work with my family, so working with a non-profit was such an easy choice. K-9 Support helped us take it to the next level. We didn’t want the money to go somewhere that wasn’t “relatable” to our cause. Washington DC also has a huge military presence so the military is always on our minds. *Editorial Note: K-9 Support is a charity that supports working dogs who assist the military, the hearing and sight impaired, the police, explorers and search and rescue efforts.
WIM: What will be your legacy - as a mom, as a business person, as a human being? Has being an entrepreneur shaped your vision of that?
Amy: I hope it will be that I grew something that benefitted other people. Franchising Dogtopia makes sense for my business – but the bigger picture is that I have helped other people get a business open that they really cared about. I constantly get e-mail from franchisees who thank me for setting them up with this opportunity.
Amy has made a huge success of her big idea. Hers is the story of a visionary who saw what she wanted and went for it, regardless of the sacrifices, changes and substantial risks involved. She’s a successful entrepreneur, woman, wife and mother. It can be done: Amy is proof of that.
What risks and challenges are you willing to undergo to create the life you want for yourself?