Business Vehicle

Top Financial Performers of 2008 Dominated by Dog Walker

Paul Mann has been awarded Best Financial Performer in the 2008 StartupNation Home-Based 100 ranking of outstanding home-based businesses.

Paul Mann, an Internet executive in Berkeley, Calif., had two problems. He was unhappy with his job, and he could never find reliable help to take care of his pets when he was out of town.

So what did he do? The logical thing. Mann cashed out his shares at Informative Inc., a company that generated $5 million in annual revenues where he was CEO, and founded FETCH! Pet Care, a pet-sitting venture.

“I’d been working in this glass, air-conditioned environment, but I really wasn’t happy,” he says. “I thought there must be something better.”

Mann was neither crazy nor shooting for an early retirement. He had made a lifestyle decision to get out of the corporate world, work from home and spend more time with his family, and pursue a venture that allowed him to work with his passion. That’s where the animals come into play.

It has worked so well that Mann has been awarded Best Financial Performer in our 2008 Home-Based 100 ranking of outstanding home-based businesses. The numbers speak for themselves: He pulled in $4.5 million in revenues last year and is shooting for $9.3 million this year. About 3,800 people work for his franchises across the country, offering every type of pet service from dog walking to iguana care.

“I was thinking big from the very beginning,” he says. “I thought this should be a national brand.”

Entrepreneurship is obviously in his blood. Mann says his father invented sterile ear-piercing techniques in the 1970s.

And it sounds like those innate instincts helped FETCH! take off from the beginning.

Within weeks after quitting his job in 2002, Mann had to start hiring others to help him walk dogs. Within a year he had 1,000 clients and quickly expanded outside of the Bay Area. By January 2004, he started franchising, in San Diego first, and now has over 200 franchisees nationally and is looking for more. So far the company has mostly done print advertising, but Mann expects to air television ads in two to three years. One bold current initiative is FETCH!’s co-promotion of the Disney animated film “Bolt,” which is getting the company exposure in many marketing mediums.

Franchisees are one of the many ways FETCH! grows. Mann charges an initial $12,000 franchise fee, then he collects 5% of franchisees’ revenues for royalties and 1% for the company’s advertising budget.

FETCH! has also expanded through corporate partnerships. Companies and associations use FETCH! as a benefit to employees, a strategy Mann says was borrowed from the Merry Maids housecleaning service. Showing even more marketing moxie, he recently inked a deal with the American Automobile Association, giving FETCH! access to its 51 million members.

But why is he so successful? For one thing, it’s a market niche made in heaven. According to Mann, the pet-care industry is the sixth-fastest growing in the United States. He also cites that American Pet Products Manufacturing Association’s numbers that say $43 billion is spent on pets per year in this country. Additionally, about two-thirds of all U.S. households have a pet as a member of the family.

Plus, there are more and more couples and young professionals out there without kids. There are simply many people with expendable incomes that value their pets but are busy with their successful careers and can’t stay home to take care of them.

And apparently the recession isn’t slowing down Mann’s business.

“Even though the economy is bad, you don’t stop feeding your pets,” Mann says. “People actually spend more on pets during this time. It gives them some emotional relief.”

He also finds that as people get laid off from large corporate jobs, they are looking to do something new, and he says FETCH! has provided such an outlet for many of his franchisees.

Others keep it as a second job in an unstable economy. Some 56% are able to actually keep a full time job and work for FETCH! while 19% hold down another part time job.

It probably helps as well that FETCH! provides a variety of services at different price points. Private dog walks cost $16 to $22. Private pet boarding is $40 to $55 a night. To clean up yard waste, it’s $16 to $22 per visit.

So what’s next? Within two years Mann plans to have the business in a full national rollout, making it a household name. Next year, he has his sights set on English-speaking foreign countries, and after that, it’s more penetration around the globe. He would also like to partner with a major pet retailer, like the Petcos and PetsMarts of the world, to gain better exposure.

Mann’s key lesson to startup hopefuls that want to follow in a similar path is simple. “Pick a market where you see opportunity,” he says. “It might be a very obvious need, but as FETCH! shows, it’s not always about having to invent a new widget.”

That opinion has been true across many of the Best Financial Performers this year. There are not uncommon business software developers like Stature Software, staffing companies like Mom Corps, coupon clipping companies like Wow Things, and the list goes on, proof that the novelty needs to be in the execution of the business, not in the niche itself.

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