New Yorkers love their dogs. And if you’re in Manhattan’s East Village and come across a well-trained pooch, they might just be a student of Annie Grossman’s School For The Dogs. Annie is a successful entrepreneur who turned her passion for pets into a thriving business. Here’s how the co-founder of a popular pooch training center in New York is making life better for humans and animals.
Annie attended NYU and landed her first writing job with the New York Observer while still in college. She had a robust career, authoring two books and writing big pieces for high-profile publications like the New York Times.
Photo by Milla Chappell
“I eventually became a freelancer getting better jobs, pay, and clients. But when the financial crisis hit in 2008, things started to get harder rather than easier,” she says. “Places I was writing for closed and people I was writing for were laid off.”
With the landscape of her chosen career changing rapidly, she came to the conclusion that she didn’t love the work quite enough. “I wanted to figure out something else to do with my life. I wasn’t particularly engaged in any subject and I longed for that.” On a whim, Annie decided to become a dog trainer. “I was spending a lot of time at the dog park. I liked walking dogs and talking to people about dogs. I didn’t know what the process of becoming a trainer entailed but I wanted to keep working for myself.”
Annie’s entrepreneurial drive comes naturally. She grew up with self-employed parents, a political cartoonist father and a mother with her own business.
Annie’s research background kicked in and she began investigating dog training vocational programs. “A lot seemed like they just wanted money but I found one that seemed like it would be a good fit,” she says. “I paid with a credit card and figured I would make it work.”
Annie immersed herself into the industry, taking a job at a dog daycare. “I wanted to be around dogs while I was learning about becoming a trainer. I really loved it.” When she graduated from the program, she felt like she had gained valuable knowledge.
However, she didn’t quite know how to parlay that into money while staying true to the unique methodologies she had adopted. “No one was doing the kind of training I envisioned for myself,” she says.
While she figured out her next career move, Annie took a job as the associate producer for the Animal Planet show Too Cute: Puppies & Kittens.
“My background was a perfect fit. I ended up meeting a woman literally across the street from me and quickly realized that our abilities complemented each other in a nice way.”
They partnered up and Annie spent a year working days on the TV show and nights and weekends training dogs. “I worked out of my apartment. Most trainers go to private homes to train but I envisioned a business with a physical space. Luckily, I lived in the large home I grew up in. We turned the living room into a training center.”
Annie made good use of the space and most clients didn’t even realize the training center was also a private home. “It was quirky but it felt like a real business. Pretty quickly we started getting a lot of students through word-of-mouth and dumb luck. I thought, ‘Oh gosh, we’re onto something.” Annie was striving for an atmosphere where dog owners wanted to hang out with their pets. “Often, dog daycare had bad lighting and bad smells so we created a pleasant physical environment.”
Annie worked in that space for 2 years when tragedy struck. Her entire apartment burned to the ground. Fortunately, no one was hurt but she lost her home and place of business all at once.
Still optimistic, Annie ran into a problem many business owners face. The expense of expanding into a bricks and mortar location was just too high.
“Many locations required us to put down 3 month’s rent in addition to the 1st month so we launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise money.” She raised $20,000 and moved into a “slightly seedy” store front in the East Village where she operated School For The Dogs for a year. With business booming, she expanded next door, doubling the size. After a year they roughly doubled their size again moving to another East Village location. “We’ve consistently increased in size, staff, and revenue since 2017-it’s been pretty crazy,” she says.
Annie doesn’t have a large marketing budget and promotes the business by showcasing happy clients on social media and maintaining outstanding reviews on Yelp. She’s attracted extremely loyal and devoted clients, some who have been with School For The Dogs since her “living room days”.
Annie explains what sets her business apart from the scores of dog trainers in her area. “We are straightforward and come at training from a science based angle. We have a no nonsense and common sense approach. It’s as much about working with people as it is about working with dogs. Our clients appreciate that we treat them with the same kind of respect and care that we treat their pets.”
The rapid growth has been challenging. “It’s been a lot–especially because we’ve grown so quickly every year. Neither my partner nor I have a business background and now we’re in charge of taxes, rent, bills, and employees.” School For The Dogs does have a fantastic bookkeeper/accountant on the team who specializes in dog-based businesses. “The other day I was overwhelmed and said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ But she’s a great cheerleader and a great help.”
Annie has used outside funding along the way to build the business and is paying back family loans that helped her cover moving expenses. She also secured $10,000 through a New York City organization supporting female entrepreneurship and received microfunding through the crowd sourcing platform Kiva. She has used credit cards wisely to purchase inventory. “It’s sometimes necessary for retail products. But we try to use zero or low-interest cards as much as possible to buy our dog treats, food, leashes, and toys.”
In 2018, Annie knew she needed working capital began researching SBA loan options. Her previous attempts to secure funding were unsuccessful. “Any loan I had applied for, I felt like I was being rejected before I even got started. I even went to my own bank and they said no.” Annie reports a few instances where she spent hours filling out paperwork only to discover it was for a “ridiculously expensive” loan. “To me, it’s a cost/benefit thing. I certainly could have spent time doing something else. I wondered how many more rabbit holes I’d have to go down.”
She came across SmartBiz and connected with Relationship Manager Brian.
“In the past, the process felt a little overwhelming. SmartBiz seemed like a good way to get help with the application,” she says. “My takeaway is that SmartBiz isn’t trying to take advantage of business owners but trying to help people who are too busy to develop their own money expertise. I’m a fan of anything that can give me more time to focus on my business.”
Brian worked with Annie throughout the application process. He says, "I have been lucky enough to work with School For The Dogs twice. It's extremely rewarding to see a business owner successfully utilize an SBA loan to scale their business. As an over-the-top dog-lover, it's even more rewarding when that business provides positive reinforcement training to dogs and dog owners throughout NYC. I have no doubt that the second SBA loan will help this business take another step in the right direction."
Annie secured a $50,000 SBA loan in 2018 and a $100,000 SBA loan in 2019. She’s putting the funds to good use to fuel expansion.
“We hired 2 new employees to help us run things so we can provide more services to dog owners in need. Having money in the bank made it possible to make those hires,” says Annie. “We’re also looking to become more involved in teaching additional trainers our methods. We want to offer additional services out in the field.”
Annie has a long term goal for the business and herself. As a journalist, she’s passionate about creating engaging content for a subject she loves. “My personal goal is to have the business run completely enough so I can devote myself to content,” she says. “We have a lot to offer dog owners in our physical space but now we want to bring that to a wider audience.”
She’s on her way to meeting that goal by writing about pets for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Gizmodo, and Motherboard, among other publications. If you’re not in the New York area, you can still benefit from Annie’s dog training expertise. Listen to School For The Dogs Podcast, (co-hosted by her furry friend Amos), follow School For The Dogs Facebook page, or read their blog.