Jim Hannesschlager, franchise owner of Orangetheory Fitness in Falls Church, VA, saw 2020 as an opportunity to expand his portfolio and open a completely different type of business – a dog daycare. Hannesschlager opened his Dogtopia location in Falls Church in October 2020 and described the journey to that point as “amazing, challenging, heartbreaking, and rewarding.”
While he thought running a dog daycare, boarding, and spa franchise was going to be completely uncharted territory, he quickly realized many parallels between fitness and pet services, which he has leveraged to his advantage and turned into revenues well above projections, despite the pandemic.
Franchise Chatter (FC): Tell us about your background. What attracted you to the franchise industry and Dogtopia?
Jim Hannesschlager (JH): I have wanted to be a business owner, and in franchising specifically, ever since I had a part time job delivering pizza for Domino’s 20 years ago. My boss at the time was a multi-unit General Manager for a franchisee that owned 10 units and I grew to understand the economies of scale – I was fascinated. I spent the next several years in business development and general management, which helped me learn how to function within teams as well as lead them.
Not long after graduate school, I had the opportunity to build a fundraising and facility development program from scratch for a large, national organization. I loved the freedom and grew to appreciate the need for scalable process, through much trial and error!
A couple years later, I met an investor in a fitness franchise brand in need of a multi-unit General Manager to grow the franchise footprint to 5+ locations. I was given insight into all aspects of franchise operation and growth and learned fast, while ultimately leveraging that experience into the purchase and development of my own stand-alone unit in that brand.
Fast forward to when I landed at Alex Samios’ doorstep at Dogtopia, pestering him about the dog business. I was attracted to franchising because while I’m not the most creative guy on the block, I’m willing to work hard at a proven model in which I see value. Franchising gives me the structure, guidance, and guard rails that I thrive on and allows me to focus on things I feel are my greater strengths – people, sales, and process.
As a dog owner, I was familiar with Dogtopia’s services and their competitors. Anyone can understand the implications of the booming pet industry with a few Google clicks, but my experience with strong brands made me do enough due diligence to convince me of what I now know as dogma: Dogtopia has the most talented, impactful, and passionate support office in franchising.
The brand has best in class marketing and presentation of its units; and its operational playbook is clear, concise, and proven. You might say the brand has unparalleled gumption and is not only proving itself but excelling even amidst a pandemic. Bottom line: I wanted to be in the dog business, but I also wanted to be in the brand that would define and own its category and I feel I made the right choice.
FC: How has your fitness background impacted your Dogtopia location?
JH: In many ways, Dogtopia is fitness for canines and their pet parents. For me, physical fitness has clear implications for mental health, which often transfers domains to improvements in people’s home and work lives. The same is true for the pups in our care. When dogs attend daycare 3x a week, they become a better version of themselves, which I have seen bring joy to the homes of their pet parents and families.
In fitness and at Dogtopia, this allows my people to understand the deep, personal connection our customers have to our service and its results. At the end of the day, it’s about the product of your work. Those results are what we want in fitness and what our pet parents desire at Dogtopia.
FC: What are some similarities and differences between the fitness and dog daycare industries?
JH: When I look at each industry, they both require relentless sales gumption. Fitness is not something large swathes of the population want to do deep down in their heart of hearts. And dog daycare is in many ways still mainstreaming as a service and requires extensive education to a prospective customer.
Thus both require strong, fun marketing, and engaging salespeople who believe in your product/service. I have enjoyed seeing the parallel between each industry and every day try to meet the challenge of finding and empowering individuals with a similar enthusiasm for the sales activity required in each business.
FC: What are some skills you learned working in the fitness industry that has helped you succeed as a Dogtopia owner?
JH: Beyond the basics of unit development and launch, I’ve gained skills in two key areas: persistence and patience. Two diametrically opposed forces come to mind. The former goes a long way with the above-mentioned sales needs and the latter is key for the lulls and long term growth of each business.
People don’t lose weight overnight, they get discouraged, and they want to leave your business. With dog daycare, pet parents don’t see results after a couple visits and start to fade in their frequency. Both customer sets need the same thing – a persistent, educated salesperson to guide each customer through their own journey. I have learned that you must persistently educate your customer while motivating them to have the patience to trust the process of each business.
Distinguishing between these two opposite skillsets when faced with daily activities that require one or the other is immensely challenging but I find with my fitness background that I am getting it right more often than not.
FC: Why do you think it’s important for franchisees to diversify their portfolio?
JH: COVID. Next question. Ha! Too soon? But in all seriousness, the world is changing at such a rapid rate that it seems wise to have a diversified strategy. When I look back 5, 10, 15, 20 years, I see an acceleration of newness entering my life annually from culture to technology to politics to recreation. It seems harder and harder to pick the right time to exit, let alone to pick a winner to begin with. And if a focused, two or three-pronged approach works in personal finance, why not franchise investment?
Don’t get me wrong, it is difficult and time consuming to pivot, and your attention becomes divided with multiple brands. I stressed about this early on but have come to welcome the refreshing change of pace in my daily and weekly activities in support of two separate brands. In my case, a downturn or upturn in one does not translate into the same result in the other and I find comfort in that.
FC: What are some challenges you faced while opening a Dogtopia location during 2020?
JH: In February of 2020, I had a fully funded project ready to go with a signed lease, a contractor lined up, and my marketing set to hit the streets for a presales campaign. With my eyes set on a summer opening and a full July 4th boarding weekend, I was beyond excited! When the world changed in March 2020, we had to delay and understand the new landscape.
I had to have tough discussions with our financial partners, landlord, even my General Manager who was already on the payroll. When we decided to forge ahead, albeit with a short spring delay, we had all sorts of logistical challenges involving delivery of components to the worksite. Our presales campaign went largely virtual and outdoor – a complete divergence from our planned approach. We had to move out of our temporary presales office due to the closure of the building.
Two nights before our Grand Opening, my wife drove our truck and our 3-month old around to every pet supply store in the area buying up all their crates because ours hadn’t arrived. I’ll never forget an outdoor Grand Opening event shouting at our Mayor and City Councilmembers through my mask and a minimum 6 feet of social distance to thank them for their time with an awkward ‘almost’ handshake turned wave.
Fortunately, our presales performed robustly and interest in our service has far exceeded projections from Fall 2020 to present. Do I want to do it again that way? Let’s just say my wife and our General Manager nearly killed me as we met a seemingly endless line of challenges. Ever the optimist, however, I believe we are stronger for it and can’t wait for the next location.
FC: What are some ways your location has pivoted and how have these efforts helped your location grow?
JH: We are 100% focused on the hero of our business – daily dog daycare – while maintaining operational excellence. Our location checks all the boxes, including convenience and ease of entry/exit which has become a great support for our pivot to curbside service and limited/quicker in-person visits. We have found that the short average duration of pickup/drop-off has been a customer preference – perhaps requirement – for us in the age of COVID. We can easily accommodate curbside pickup and our app functionality drives this operational centerpiece beautifully.
Our in-store events and pop-up freebies for members have been hugely popular driving frequency spikes on those days. We know there is a light at the end of this tunnel, yet these pivots have forced us to focus on the X’s and O’s of Dogtopia’s playbook and we will reap those rewards as a stronger, well-oiled machine when the onslaught of pandemic puppies comes.
FC: What are your future plans with your Dogtopia location and beyond?
JH: We are focused on the extraordinary ramp we are seeing at our Falls Church location and we are focused on enhancing our position as a leader in daycare, boarding, and spa in a competitive marketplace asking for a dominant player. I currently have an Area Development contract to grow the brand in the rest of the Northern Virginia territory so my mind is mostly on how to effectively scale up the business in our geography.
I’m quite bullish on the brand and my little aspirational kingdom doesn’t even feel like the tip of the iceberg for this brand.
FC: How can someone learn more about Dogtopia?
JH: If you don’t have a location near you, visit Dogtopia.com to get a sense of who we are and what we do. At the rate we are growing, I’d imagine you have or will have a location open near you soon to visit in person.
Personally, I can’t brag enough on the support team and their Discovery Day experience. I have found it transparent, informative, and my experience now in the brand has shown it to be an honest representation. But take my word for it, call Alex Samios. And then if you can’t take his word for it, call me! I’ll give it to you straight.
If you want to be in a strong, high-performing, wholesome brand that has staying power, this is the one.