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A Midlife Career Shift Against All Odds

After a corporate layoff, a Kansas City woman turned her love for her ailing St. Bernard into a million-dollar business

By Elizabeth Isele | March 29, 2013
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Elizabeth Isele is co-founder of SeniorEntrepreneurshipWorks.org, founder of SavvySeniorsWork.com and editor of the 50+ Entrepreneurship e-newsletter.

The career shift story of Delena Stout and her successful dog bath and all-natural pet food stores, as told to Elizabeth Isele:

Two simultaneous, seemingly catastrophic incidents in 2002 catapulted me into the world of entrepreneurship.

I was laid off from my job as the top new business development leader at the DLR Group, a national design firm in Overland, Kan., because I married a fellow employee. DLR had a rule against that.

Just as I was reeling from my "displaced worker" status, our beautiful St. Bernard, Aspen, collapsed on the front porch. She was just 4 years old, but had a lot of health problems.

My architect husband, Larry, and I rushed Aspen to our vet, who said she'd never live to be 6.

(MORE: 6 Best Small Dogs for Your Empty Nest)

A Vow to Her Saint Bernard

I promised Aspen I would do everything in my power to make whatever time she had left the best that it could be and decided to change everything that was not working — the prescription diets, steroid shots and antibiotics.

So I stopped looking for another job and started researching alternative natural foods, supplements and holistic treatments.

That's when I had my epiphany.

I realized that this was what I was meant to be doing. Helping Aspen and other dogs like her would become my "business."

Going to a School for Startups

Even though I had experience in new business development, I thought I should go back to school to learn the basics of startups.

So I enrolled in the Kauffman Foundation's FastTrac NewVenture program, a 10-week course offered around the country to help early-stage entrepreneurs identify market needs, evaluate risk and learn how to access financial resources and build a business plan.

In class, I first discussed creating a big-dog washing business. It was no easy task to give a 150-pound dog like Aspen a bath at home, and there were no other options close by.

My FastTrac adviser, however, quickly nipped that idea in the bud. "You’ll need more than dog washing to keep your business afloat," he said.

He was right, of course. I knew that I had been erring on the side of caution instead of jumping into my original idea of focusing on pet health and nutrition.

Rethinking the Business Idea

So I decided to combine the ideas of offering self-serve pet baths and quality pet nutrition products. I then created a business plan and forged ahead to address my next challenges: securing a location and financing.

Finding a location was much more difficult than I had anticipated.

Although there were several storefronts available in our Kansas City suburb of Brookside, we were turned down over and over because landlords felt "dogs are dirty."

(MORE: Career Shift: From Health Care Exec to Gourmet Food Retailer)

I wasn’t daunted though and got a property owner to provide a location once I agreed to some unusual contract terms. I had to install an outside spigot and retractable hose to keep the sidewalk clean and allow a "three barking complaints and you're out" clause in my lease.

Next, it was time to tackle the financing so Larry and I could refit the space and I could start buying inventory.

Trouble Finding Financing

All the big banks turned me down because I did not have a job and they thought the business was too high a risk; there were no similar bath and pet food stores in Kansas City. My research had been based on successful stores on the East and West coasts.

I then approached a director of a small, local bank who recognized the lack of similar stores in the area as a plus. It didn't hurt that he was also a dog owner and a prospective customer.

The bank backed me with a $25,000 loan. That wasn't enough, but I was determined to make it work.

I opened Brookside Barkery and Bath in 2003, a 600-square-foot dog bathing and grooming facility and all-natural pet food store for dogs and cats. We did almost $500,000 in revenues the first year.

In 2004, I received the Against All Odds Award from the Missouri Small Business Association.

How Success was a Problem

My next challenge was dealing with the fact that the business was growing too fast and I was undercapitalized. I needed to cash to expand so I could meet the customer demand.

So in 2005, when a neighbor with a successful dog training business proposed an equity investment, I was delighted to make her a partner.

Shortly thereafter, we opened a second store then a third in 2007, all in the Kansas City area.

(MORE: 5 Ways to Pay Less for Pet Medications)

Four years after the first Barkery's doors opened, we had broken $1 million in revenue.

In 2011, Brookside Barkery and Bath was one of the Top 10 finalists for the Kansas City Chamber 2011 Small Business of the Year award. We also lost our beautiful Aspen that year, at the ripe old age of 12.
 
Against all odds, she had lived an additional six good years.
 
The Business Today

Things have been very busy lately. We recently sold one of the three stores and are about to start offering a delivery service online, through a partnership with Holistic Veterinarians.

This nationwide, virtual store will let customers — and their vets — monitor the health programs and dietary needs of their pets as well as order nutritional products.

Tips For Entrepreneurs

My advice for anyone thinking about starting your own business?
  • Be diligent in your research. Look at the competition, make sure the demographics can sustain your type of business and determine what you’ll do to stand out.
  • Dedicate yourself to guerrilla marketing — that means working every event possible to get your name out. 
  • Find a mentor with experience in your field, who is willing to guide you.
  • Take advantage of great resources that are right under your nose. That's how I found my financing and my business partner.

It’s also how I corrected one of my early missteps. I had hired an outside marketing company to design our logo, but no matter how many drafts they submitted, they never seemed to get what we were about. Seeing my frustration, one of my staff members said, "Let me take a crack at it." Knowing me and my vision for the business, he nailed it.

Finally, be sure you have the fire in your belly. You need to believe your business is absolutely the right thing to do. And you need to keep going, as Aspen and I did, "against all odds."