indicatorAdvice for Alberta businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic

How a focus on relationships helped Calgary’s Doodle Dogs navigate challenge and drive success

By 21 August 2020 8 min read

In late 2019, Meghan Huchkowsky, co-owner of Calgary’s Doodle Dogs, didn’t feel quite right about the business’ new grooming salon.

Grooming was a new line of business for Doodle Dogs, which started as a pet retail store. The grooming venture had loyal clients, three talented groomers and was on a growth trajectory. But Meghan, along with her co-founder and brother Corey White, was not enjoying the process.

“I was spending more time than I’d like to admit on the grooming business and my brother was too,” she says. In fact, it was pulling them both away from growing the original retail focus of Doodle Dogs.

“There was a turning point when we ran the numbers and the total gross revenue was probably similar to what we make off bully sticks,” she says. The two knew in an instant their grooming salon needed to close. To shut it down successfully, they fell back to one of their core principles: relationships first.

 

Pawsitive growth into entrepreneurialism

A strong focus on relationships is what led to the initial success of the retail side of Doodle Dogs and the grooming business, says Huchkowsky.

First, it was her relationship with her brother Corey. Both spent years nurturing the idea of Doodle Dogs between them and ultimately supported each other as they left corporate jobs to start Doodle Dogs in 2016. Then, it was about building relationships with both suppliers and pet owners in Calgary through expertly-curated products.

“We really wanted to bring local pet food, treats, toys, gear and more back to Calgary. We were going to different cities and we would find super cool pet boutiques and we wanted to bring those things to Calgary,” says Huchkowsky.

Doodle Dogs now operates two brick-and-mortar locations in the city—one in Bridgeland and one in Parkdale—that offer curbside pickup, as well as a thriving online store with next-day delivery.

Huchkowsky says they’ve seen continuous growth since opening. She believes their focus on relationships combined with a dedication to next-level customer service is key to success. “We remember people’s names and their dog’s name. When I worked regularly in the stores, every Monday I would go through the sales and do follow up calls with people who bought food and ask questions,” says Huchkowsky.

As Doodle Dogs grew, she hired retail associates so she and White could focus more on running the business. The main focus of employee training was delivering that level of attentive service. “When our clients love us and our associates, then they support our store to connect with us and we can gain repeat business and word-of-mouth marketing,” she says.

 

Grooming doesn’t make the cut

In their second year, Huchkowsky and White began planningto open a grooming salon. The intention was to provide a value-added service for clients and attract more traffic to the retail store. Luckily, a spot next to one of their existing stores became available and Huchkowsky and White jumped at it.

As they set up the grooming business Huchkowsky started noticing how different things were from the retail side. “Everything was structured very differently—hours of operations, contractors versus employees, software programs for booking. It was a huge learning curve but nothing we were afraid of,” she says.

After the grooming business opened in January 2018 and gained momentum, she realized the expectations in a service business were not the same as in a retail one. Customers had many more day-to-day questions, feedback, problems and needs when it came to grooming their pets.

“It was great learning for me and while I was getting better at it, it was just constantly learning. As much fun as it is to learn and grow, it’s not fun to learn and grow all the time,” says Huchkowsky. “Doing this every day takes a toll.”

In the salon’s second year, Huchkowsky and White took a step back to look at the financials versus the time spent managing the grooming business. They realized they were spending half their time on the grooming business, but it was earning just 17 per cent of their overall revenue—about as much money as they made selling bully sticks. Plus, the grooming business wasn’t bringing customers into the retail business or vice versa as they hoped. Doodle Dogs even had a loyalty program to encourage grooming clients to shop in the store, yet the business remained relatively siloed.

With this clarity, Huchkowsky and White decided to close the grooming business.

 

Closing the salon

“Just because something is making money, it doesn’t mean it’s working for you,” says Huchkowsky. “Once we made the decision to close the grooming salon, we picked a date and spoke to our landlord right away. Our landlord was proud of us for ending it. He said he knew people who ran businesses that they hated for 20 years instead of wrapping it up,” she recalls.

Lindsay Davies, community manager for ATB’s Alberta South Entrepreneur Centres, says Huchkowsky’s ability to step back from her business and acknowledge it isn’t working is a rare quality but an important one.

"Relationships are also really core to Meghan. She has that as a core pillar of what she wants her business to be. The idea of being authentic and being a person first is really important to her and that seemed to serve her really well through [the closing of the grooming business]."

Lindsay Davies

While the decision was the right one for Doodle Dogs, there was still fallout to manage, says Huchkowsky. They had to carry the lease on the grooming salon space for a few months after closing its doors in December 2019. Then there was letting their three groomers go, which she says was really challenging, but each went on to other salons and that allowed Doodle Dogs to confidently recommend other locations to their clients.

Finally, they had to tell their clients. Huchkowsky says their approach was to be honest and not sugar-coat the truth. They notified clients through email newsletters, social media, posters in the store and prepared a script for clients who called the salon.

“We said it’s not our passion and we’ve chosen not to move forward with it. When they asked about it, we said we opened it for people like you. We loved it because of people like you. We were sad to close it because of people like you. Then we were able to recommend other salons so they could go support other great small businesses,” she says.

There were some disappointed clients—and she made time to personally apologize to them—but overall Huchkowsky says people were understanding. Happily, even with the closure, they didn’t experience a financial hit during that year because the businesses were siloed and the retail side was booming.

Despite the challenges, Huchkowsky says she is still proud of the grooming salon experience and wouldn’t change it. “We think of it as something we did that we shut down and not as a failure,” she says, adding that she does look back and think her and White could have looked at the financials earlier when they started to feel like they were spending too much time with the salon.

 

Lockdown leads to new opportunities

Within months of closing the grooming salon, the global pandemic hit.Calgary, like the rest of Alberta, went into lockdown. Huchkowsky and White consulted with their staff and determined the best approach was to shut down the two brick-and-mortar stores, lay off the six team members and the two of them would run the online store.

“We always had a small online store and next day delivery, but it had only been used by about 12 people,” she says. As the lockdown began on March 16, online sales exploded, growing to anywhere between 60 and 225 a day. She and White would pull together orders from 9 to 11am and then split up the deliveries with Huchkowsky taking the north side of Calgary and White the south.

Huchkowsky used her delivery drives to do guerilla marketing. She posted to Instagram Stories throughout each run sharing fun pics of pets, the stops she made for snacks and encouraging people to stay home. “People enjoyed it when we reposted their stories and even started leaving us presents, like wine, candy, handwritten cards. We began running contests for the community to share COVID-19 experiences,” she says.

“Those first 13 days of the lockdown we spent between two and eight hours a day driving,” she recalls. “On the 14th day I said to my brother, I’m running out of music and I don’t feel good. We need to stop Sunday delivery and hire a driver.” That driver now works full time at Doodle Dogs supporting the continued online sales. As the lockdown has lifted, the brick-and-mortar locations have started welcoming clients back.

Business growth with a booming online store and more than 1,200 new Instagram followers were not the only positives to come out of the 10-week lockdown period for Doodle Dogs. A new opportunity was staring them in the face in South Calgary. After White noticed he was delivering to the same area every single day, they plotted orders in Google maps and saw big bubbles in a specific location. So they are opening a new store to serve these online clients in person.

For Huchkowsky, the past year has included some important lessons. The first is paying attention to the numbers. “Keep an eye on your financials. I’m not memorizing numbers, but I’m aware of them. If we know raw food is selling better, we can decide to offer more or downscale other options. The same applies to all products,” she says, adding this allows her and White to make better decisions faster for Doodle Dogs.

The second is about the value of balanced partnership. “When you have two owners, ensure both of you are leaning into your skills sets and strengths. Know what you do well and own how you can contribute as a partner,” she says. It’s this division of skills that has been fundamental to her and White’s successful business relationship.

Lastly, Huchkowsky says entrepreneurs facing their own challenges should prioritize their happiness. “The best advice I can give anyone struggling is to go with your gut. You have your whole life to make money, but being happy is way more important,” she says.

If you’re looking for a deep dive on everything you need to know around how you can take key learnings from your entrepreneurial journey and use them to level up your business, our ATB X Accelerator program might be just the place for you. You can also reach out to one of our entrepreneur strategists to explore where you are with your business, where you want to be, and how to get there!

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