Americans spend more than $58 billion on their pets, making the pet industry one of the United States’ fastest growing economic sectors. One of the fastest growing subsectors of this industry includes canine daycare and boarding. More than 15 years ago, Charlotte Bell left her well-paying job at a Beverly Hills bank and opened Yellow Brick Road, one of Southern California’s first cage free doggy daycare centers and overnight boarding houses. By following her passion for dogs and taking the plunge into the waters of small business ownership, Charlotte started her business as a humble, tiny location with several dogs but now has grown her enterprise into a thriving 13,000 square foot operation that is responsible for caring for 900 dogs and employing 26 people.
How did you start your business?
I was actually working in the field of information security at a bank in Beverly Hills and I had a dog that was blind and deaf and had a bad heart. The dog was 16 years old. So I couldn’t leave him alone because he couldn’t even find his food bowl. I was lucky enough to have a private office and I would sneak him and keep him in my office all day. I did this for almost a year. And one day, the security guard that worked in the garage that knew what I was doing came into my office and put a newspaper article on my desk about a small doggie day care somewhere in Los Angeles, and said “you should do this.” Now this was in 1997 almost 20 years ago. So I read the article and it made such an impact on me that in six months I quit my job and opened my first day care for dogs in Manhattan Beach.
How did you fund your business in the beginning?
I refinanced my house. I bought my house a long, long time ago when interest rates were really, really high. And then the interest rates dropped like 10 percentage points. Since I knew I was going to be quitting my job, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to refinance my house without a job, I went to the finance department of the bank where I worked. I told them what I was going to do and they told me they had just financed the first doggy day care in Hollywood called “Hollywood Hounds.” So I was the second doggy day care they financed. I also sold all my bank stocks before I left.
Running the Business
How did you learn to run your business?
The finance department of the bank where I worked told me that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in San Francisco provides a whole big, fat protocol on how to start a doggie day car that they sent out for free. So I contacted them and they sent me this big, fat book…step one, step two, step three, and that’s what I used as my teacher. I followed the steps exactly.
Who was your first customer?
I remember the dog! It was a 21-year-old Chihuahua whose name was Chico. He was the very, very first customer. He was a special little dog.
What’s the biggest mistake you made in the first year?
There were a lot of missteps along the way. Well, because I was on a thin budget, I had to do everything myself. I never took business management courses, never handled cash. I remember everything was really, really hard, like I used to get up at 5 a.m. to walk the dogs, and then I even washed the dogs myself. But when I look back I’m not sure I can say I made any really big mistakes. It was just really, really hard.
What’s the smartest thing you did in the first year?
The smartest thing I did was to make the leap and left my really well-paying job. You know many, many years ago somebody gave me that very famous quote by the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” I had the quote on my wall in my house for more than 10 years, and I followed it. It was the smartest thing I did to make the leap of faith with the spirit of “I can do it.”
What’s the most rewarding thing about running your own business?
There is no separation between my life and my job. That’s what I was looking for. I’m not hating my day now. At the bank it was a horrible thing. I absolutely hated it. But now I just love my life and I love my job and there is no line of division between them. It’s a special thing and I just feel so blessed.
What’s the most challenging thing about running your own business?
It is the horrors of staffing. When I was envisioning my business, the last thing I ever thought about was hiring people. But now I’m finally learning how to hire, who will be responsible, but it took a long time. Now I have 26 people working for me.
What’s the most surprising thing about running your own business?
The only thing that surprises me is that when you are doing what you are destined to do how things just roll out for you and guide you. It constantly surprises me.
What business owner or entrepreneur do you admire most? Who is your role model?
No I really don’t. But that’s because one of my biggest weaknesses is that I have never studied business before and I’ve never read business success stories. I wish I had. But I can’t tell you there is one person. I wish I had studied more business stories.
What I’ve Learned
If you could go back to when you were starting your business, what advice would you give yourself?
I would have done a lot more research. I mean I would have studied more and I would have prepared myself for the running a business. My biggest weakness in general is that I have not studied other business people’s stories and what they’ve learned.
What do you wish you had known before you had started your business?
My gosh, everything! I never went to school to study finance or how to manage people. I would have done all of that.