Nicole Odom is the owner of Dogtopia in Charlotte. Dogtopia offers dog-parents a variety of services, including daycare, boarding, and spa, all with personalized care. Before Dogtopia, however, Nicole began her career as an ensign in the Navy, first stationed in Pensacola, Florida and then in Atsugi, Japan. Her love of dogs came to full realization after she transferred to Washington, DC in 2005, where she worked in defense contract work. During that time, she volunteered in Louisiana, offering assistance to displaced dogs after Hurricane Katrina. It was then that she knew she wanted to pair her military experience with her personal life by becoming a full-time entrepreneur and franchise owner in the business of dogs!
In this interview with Nicole, she offered insight into her past, her business, and the “Aha! moment” that started it all. Enjoy!
CharlotteBusinessResources.com (CBR): Hi, Nicole! To begin, tell us a little bit about yourself. (And your dogs, of course!)
Nicole Odom (NO): I live in East Charlotte with my husband Graham and our three dogs, Katrina (my almost 14yo Akita), Penny (a very precocious 7yo Golden Retriever), and Jack (a dashing 7yo mutt who literally knocked on my door one day). We’re expecting our first (human) child in January 2015! I’m currently a board member of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) Charlotte Chapter. When not at Dogtopia, I enjoy volunteering with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Animal Care & Control, reading, and knitting/crocheting.
CBR: Have you always been a dog person? Tell us about your childhood pets and early experiences working with animals.
NO: I have always been a dog person, but I didn’t really know what that meant until after I volunteered with Hurricane Katrina dogs. My first dog was a buff cocker spaniel named Buffy that my mom got before I was born. She was a sweet dog. One of my favorite childhood pictures is of Buffy laying on me while I slept. Honestly, I didn’t do much with dogs or animals as a child. There was nothing like Dogtopia or dog parks around then, and I didn’t know about things like animal shelters until I was older. Our dogs and our grandparents’ dogs always went everywhere we went, so my life always had a dog in it.
CBR: After Hurricane Katrina, you volunteered assisting displaced dogs. What was that experience like?
NO: It was hot and terrible, but I loved every minute of it. I spent my time at the LSU Agricultural Center, where a good number of the displaced dogs were brought. Since I had two large Akitas at the time, I was very comfortable working with the bigger dogs when they had a shortage of volunteers. I helped make sure they were walked and had water, food, and medications. Some of them had owners in the area that had nowhere to keep them, so sometimes we would get a dog just so they could spend the day hanging out with their human before they went back into the Ag Center for the night. I would get so wrapped up in what I was doing that people would have to stop me and ask me if I had any food or water that day. It was definitely my “ah-ha moment.”
CBR: You began your career as an Ensign in the United States Navy. In what ways do you think that experience led you to where you are today, and how do you think it’s prepared you as an entrepreneur?
NO: The Navy prepared me for life as an adult in so many ways, and I’ll always be thankful. As an entrepreneur specifically, it’s helped by preparing me for the hard work and dedication that go into owning a business. We always heard in the military that it’s not a job, it’s a career or a lifestyle. That is absolutely true with business ownership as well. If you don’t like the industry you’re in, you’ll be hating life for the first year of business. I also think the Navy prepared me for franchising because I learned how to be a leader and a team player all at the same time. I chose a franchise, Dogtopia in particular, because I knew that someone had already “been there and done that.” I wasn’t going to have to reinvent the wheel when it came to things like website layouts, operational manuals, and employee handbooks.
CBR: When did you decide to turn your passion for working with dogs into a career?
NO: I made my decision while driving home from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I knew that if I could enjoy my time there despite all the awful conditions, then this is what I was meant to do. I didn’t know at the time how to turn that into reality, but with the sale of the company I worked at in 2007, I saw my chance. Because my company had been employee-owned at the time of its acquisition, we each benefited financially from the sale. Rather than save the money for a retirement that was more than 30 years away, I knew that I could turn the employee stock I was being awarded into something I was passionate about.
My own dogs, one coincidentally named Katrina, had attended daycare at Dogtopia of Tysons Corner, VA. I enjoyed the atmosphere and consummate service I received at Dogtopia, and one day I casually mentioned to the staff how great it would be to own something similar. They told me that Dogtopia was a franchise and was always looking for new franchisees. It only took me a day to think about it before I filled out the interest form and began the discovery process.
Although I was passionate about working with animals, I knew that I didn’t have any formal work experience with them and would need some training. That, coupled with the fact that that I don’t come from an entrepreneurial background, and I didn’t have a partner with whom I could start the business, made becoming a franchisee a natural choice. With a franchise you get support from day one, from advice and guidance through the build-out and permitting process, to training in pack management, payroll assistance, and human resources support.
CBR: What has been the greatest challenge for you as a Charlotte entrepreneur? The greatest achievement?
NO: The biggest challenge is one that just recently cropped up when I promoted one of my team members to Assistant Store Manager. I had to learn how to fit into my new role within my own company. From the very beginning, I’ve been the center of the company operations. I worked the front desk, I made the employee schedule, I trained new employees, I answered the phones, and I made all strategic decisions. I’ve been slowly letting go of small tasks over the years, but this change to the management team has been the most drastic one I’ve made since we opened over four years ago. I think the hardest part is trusting the people I’ve promoted to make the right decisions when I’m not there, and stepping back to let them run things even when I am there. It’s something that I’m still working on being comfortable with.
I think one of the greatest achievements I’ve received so far is also pretty recent. I was named the 2014 NAWBO Charlotte Rising Star in May. That was a huge honor for me. The other two finalists are stellar businesswomen. Just being considered in the same company as them was a great accomplishment, but to win was amazing.
CBR: What types of services are provided by Dogtopia, and how can individuals take advantage of these services?
NO: Dogtopia prides itself on being a place where pets are valued as family. Dogs enjoy playtime, spa treatments, and overnight stays in a positive environment. Dog owners have assurance that they’re leaving their beloved pets in the hands of trained professionals while they’re at work or on vacation. Dogtopia associates nurture each pet as if it were their own. Each location offers dog daycare, boarding, and spa services, and most have professional grooming. Dogtopia does not discriminate by breed and welcomes social dogs of all ages, sizes, and abilities.
As Dogtopia offers an open play environment, all dogs must be evaluated by Dogtopia staff before attending daycare or boarding. Evaluations are by appointment and may be scheduled by calling 704-525-4440 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. During the evaluation we will introduce your dog to a few play mates, one at a time, and monitor their behavior. If your dog’s responses demonstrate a good fit for the environment, they’ll be free to come anytime for daycare or boarding.
Dogtopia is a wonderful place for dogs that are friendly, social, and generally healthy. We require proof of your dog’s vaccinations at the time of evaluation for the rabies, bordetella, and DHPP vaccines. Dogs must also be free of fleas and ticks and have had no communicable diseases within the last 30 days.
You can save time by downloading our required enrollment forms prior to your evaluation appointment from our website . Please remember to bring proof of your dog’s vaccines along with your paperwork.
CBR: What advice would you give fellow entrepreneurs that you wish you’d known when you first began your career?
NO: You can’t do it all. Hire people that have different skills and personalities than you. If you hire carbon copies of yourself you’ll never fill the knowledge gaps that you have.
CBR: What are your goals for the future of Dogtopia?
NO: The immediate goal for Dogtopia of Charlotte in 2014 is to continue the growth trend and increase revenue by a total of 12 percent; we hope to reach $500,000+ in revenue by 2015, while keeping expense growth at 15 percent.
The plan for growth doesn’t stop with just increasing revenue, however. In February 2015 we will begin a $25,000 upfit to our building, focusing mostly on giving our lobby a more upscale look. Although this remodel is a requirement from the home office, I am excited for the potential it brings our store. It will give us new digital signage to better display our pricing, local events, and to highlight our Dog of the Week. It will also give us a much better planned retail area with the potential to increase our revenue by as much as $4,000. I also plan to combine this remodel with our fifth anniversary in March 2015 by hosting a grand re-opening celebration for our store.
CBR: Anything else you’d like to add?
NO: If I had to go back and start this adventure all over again, I would try to find a partner to bring on this crazy journey with me. While I have amazing support from my husband, parents, brothers, friends, employees, and peer groups, being solely responsible for this business has been unbelievably difficult at times.
The main benefit of having a partner would be the ability to be two places at once. Ideally, I would choose someone with a complementary skill set. I’m very good as the face of the business with our customers, and I understand marketing and the approaches we need to take with our community involvement. My areas for improvement include staff development and financial management. With someone strong in those areas, we could grow faster and have a more efficient staff. It would also enable us to delay hiring a management team, saving the business approximately $20,000 per year.
The other obvious benefit to having a partner is someone who would share the financial burden of the business, giving the business more capital for our marketing efforts, staff salaries, and equipment replacement. An extra $50,000 in working capital in our first year would have been invaluable in stress-relief alone, and it would have put us in a better position today with vendors and partners. Personally, I went from having an annual salary with benefits to having no salary and no benefits because the business couldn’t afford them. Although I am able to give myself a very modest salary now, I’m still not bringing home anywhere close to what my skills are worth.
The important thing for me is, given all of this, I would do it all over again, even if I couldn’t do anything differently. Owning this business has been the greatest learning experience of my life, and it’s made me not only a better manager, but also a better person. I’ve gained so much more patience, compassion, and understanding that I’m able to bring into my personal life, which makes me a better boss, a better friend, and a better wife. It’s a crazy roller coaster, but I’m definitely enjoying the ride!
Thank you for a great interview, Nicole!
If you want to learn more about Dogtopia, be sure to visit their website, like them on Facebook, and follow them on Twitter. And if you want to see something really neat, watch the live webcams to see all of the dogs having a great time at doggie daycare!