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Business Observer Friday, Nov. 21, 2014 6 years ago

Pleasing the pooch

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Dan thinks of his dog as his child, and believes she should be treated as such. He's launched a membership-based dog spa for people who think the same.
by: Traci McMillan Correspondent

Dan Barton loves his 6-pound pooch, Mercedes. Within weeks of getting her, he bought her a $200 leather bomber jacket and a Swarovski crystal collar. “The dog was like a child to me,” he says. That's why he was disgusted by the smelly, dirty, big-box pet store options for getting Mercedes groomed.

“There was no guidance, no help,” Barton says. He wanted to find a person who treated his pet like a family member. So in 2008, he bought a pet store, without any experience in retail or the pet industry.

The $58.5 billion industry has proven to be a successful endeavor for Barton's St Petersburg-based company, Splash and Dash, especially with his unique business model. Barton has managed to grow his upscale dog grooming business to $2.3 million in annual gross revenue, with a three-year annual growth rate of 2,118%, which landed it on the Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing companies.

But it wasn't an easy ride. The first pet store he purchased was in California, where he was living at the time. With his lack of experience, he found managing the store a challenge. The amount of customers varied depending on weather, holidays and a number of items out of his control. “It became very difficult managing cash flow,” he says.

Barton remembers jumping into his pool at night, drinking a beer (or three) and praying to the “retail gods to show me the light,” he says. One month into this nightly ritual, it hit him. He needed to rethink the entire retail concept. Barton's past experience was in running health clubs, which spurred his idea to create a membership model for grooming. Dogs could get unlimited spa services based on subscription fees like those associated with signing up for a gym membership. Starting at $39.95 a month, dogs can get brushed and bathed all their owners want.

Barton set an initial goal for the membership fees to cover payroll expenses. Within three days of selling the grooming memberships, he covered them. He kept building one little goal at a time until he came up with the lofty goal of covering all facility expenses for the pet store. He managed to hit that within two months. “There was a need in the market for consumers to maintain their dog on a regular basis without a high cost or burden of appointments,” Barton says.

During the economy's crash, Barton was able to take his idea national by licensing the service to existing pet stores. The company became based in St. Petersburg by happenstance. One of Barton's goals early on was to create a business he could run from anywhere in the world — more specifically, from a laptop on the back of a yacht. He ended up finding that yacht in 2010 in St. Petersburg. Now, “the company is growing so fast, I need to get a bigger boat or get an office,” Barton, 43, says.

In less than three years, Splash and Dash has expanded to 36 locations in the United States and a location in Australia. Early in 2014, Barton realized that the pet store owners he was licensing to were asking for help with accounting, payroll and finances. “There was a need for full support,” he says, which is why he broadened his business to create a franchise concept. With further research, Barton realized that since 2008, the average person looking to buy a franchise was willing to spend $50,000 to $75,000, down from $125,000 prior to 2008. Splash and Dash has created a model where franchisees can be up and running for $60,000.

In April, he closed on seven development agreements with more than 500 locations in scope, and the company has “been on fire ever since,” Barton says. The company now has 10 franchises targeted to open from the beginning of December through the first quarter of 2015. The goal is to sell 100 locations in 2014, and open 50 locations in Pinellas over the next five years, Barton says.

Now his biggest challenge is getting the word out that opening a franchise pet store can be a cheap and profitable business, according to Barton. Spreading the message to consumers isn't as challenging, he says. “Once they experience our passion and pride for their pets, they see we offer something the big-box store doesn't have.”

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