Today, Dan J. Barton, 44, owns a fast-growing licensing business -- Splash and Dash for Dogs International -- in St. Petersburg, Florida. Ten years ago, though, he was running a World Gym franchise. Then, he met the terrier of his dreams.
--As told to Burt Helm
Her name is Mercedes. How much time do you have?
She was the first dog they brought out at the pet store. The one I fell in love with. She's a Yorkie. "How much?" I asked. "Oh, just $28 a month," they said. Who can say no to $28 a month for a puppy? Turned out it was for 60 months. I actually agreed to pay $38 a month so I could get accessories--lots of them.
That day, I bought her dog dishes, clothes, food, leather carrying cases, collars of all sizes. I bought her a pink leather bomber jacket. When they said she might outgrow it, I bought it in three more sizes. It's been love ever since.
When Mercedes was 4 years old, we moved close to Palm Springs, California. I'd agreed to take a corporate job at a nearby World Gym. But when we got there, I could not find a pet groomer who lived up to my expectations. I just wanted a place that was clean and friendly, and that didn't smell like, well, wet dog.
I thought, here we are living in this wealthy community in California, and there's nothing. If I'm this passionate about my dog, there have to be other people looking for the same kind of thing. So I quit World Gym and bought my first pet store.
I made the store everything I'd always wanted. It was spotless; it smelled great. A friend who was a designer for Planet Hollywood helped me with the layout: The theme was Old Hollywood. We hung heavy, red-velvet curtains, put the staff in uniforms, played '20s jazz on the speakers, and hung a $5,000 Swarovski crystal chandelier in the center of the room.
We sold good, better, and the best versions of all the accessories we carried. And the best really was the best. Customers could buy a hand-painted, handmade dog bowl by the designer MacKenzie-Childs for $200.
When we opened, word spread quickly, like I imagine it did when people found out they could buy coffee from Starbucks instead of 7-Eleven.
But there are a lot of ups and downs in retail. You're really at the mercy of everything external. If the weather was too hot or too cold, or there was a storm, or school was in session, customer traffic went down. Cash flow became an issue. Every night, I went home and floated in my pool and drank beer and wondered, what am I gonna do?
Finally, one night--I don't know how many beers I'd had--it hit me. At the gym, we got all this money up front at the beginning of the month. What if I came up with a similar membership model?
Suddenly, I'm back in my wheelhouse. I decided to offer unlimited access to grooming for a monthly fee. Whenever your dog is dirty, bring him in and we'll give him a bath, a brush-out, and a blow-dry.
Within several months, we were doing $20,000 a month in just memberships. We had other shops calling us and asking, "What are you doing? How is this working?"
I decided to license the service nationally, so mom-and-pops could use it in their stores. When we sold licenses to 40 locations--and then started expanding to shops in Australia--I decided to close the store near Palm Springs and move back to Florida to focus on the licensing business full time.
This past year, I decided to convert the licensing business to a full-fledged franchise model. We have four open right now, and have sold 15 more with six master development agreements. In the next three to five years, we expect those master development agreements will result in 500 locations.
We gave up the Old Hollywood decor, though, in favor of a more modern, upbeat look. We thought that would be friendlier to our male customers. They can't always handle that much glamour.
Mercedes? She's 10 years old now. She lives like a queen.