Making It

By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, March 25, 2007

Amy Nichols introduces her 10-year-old Boston terrier, Griffin, the inspiration for her chain of canine day-care centers, then admits the irony: Griffin isn't allowed to mingle with the other dogs.

"He's obnoxious," she says. "He just gets in dogs' faces."

But it was Amy's earlier guilt about leaving Griffin alone (nowadays he can hang out in the corporate offices with the humans and has a canine companion at home) that led her to open her first center, Happy Tails Dog Spa, in 2002.

Amy, 33, grew up near Baltimore, graduated from the University of Maryland and spent several lucrative years in telecommunications sales. But it wasn't enough. In 2001, the lifelong animal lover quit her job, sold her house, moved in with her fiance and set out to create a career where she could "make good money but also, hopefully, really care about it."

Even with seed money in hand, Amy, who lives in Herndon, had trouble finding a loan to open the 9,000-square-foot center in Tysons Corner. "You have to believe in it 10 times more than anyone else," she says, "because you're going to get no's." She believed so firmly, and the Tysons center did so well (it brought in $1.5 million in 2006), that in 2005 she franchised the business, now called Dogtopia.

Amy also married in 2001 (her husband, Mike Schlegel, now works with her); had her first child, Aidan, in 2003; started a charity to provide toys and supplies for military working dogs in 2005; opened a 20,000-square-foot headquarters and second location in White Flint in 2006; and is expecting her second child this summer.

At this point, Dogtopia has eight franchises around the country, though the company's franchise consultant, former Curves International president Gary Findley, sees potential for "several hundred" locations. Amy is "sharp; she's a go-getter; she just has a lot of energy," he says. "Not everyone makes a good franchiser, and I think she will." Franchisees pay an upfront $35,000 fee and royalties of 7 percent of gross revenue.

Each Dogtopia center has brightly painted walls, rubber-floored play areas and a grooming salon. Dogs are grouped by size and temperament, and, as in many child-care centers, there is play time and nap time, cubbies for belongings and Web cams. The price is about $30 a day, and dogs usually come two or three days a week. Discount passes, half-days and boarding are available.

Franchisee Jeff Lutton, whose Alexandria location will open in June, was influenced by his dog, Josie, who attends the Tysons center. He says he thought to himself: "Josie loves this place, and it looks like a viable business." Dogtopia workers sealed the deal, he adds, by telling him, "It's unconditional love every day."

Amy says pet care can bring unusual issues -- such as the dog who ate a bottle of glitter and had "the prettiest poop we've ever seen" -- and laughs that her wardrobe has gone "from Ann Taylor to Target." But, she adds, "even in the darkest day I've had, I've never wanted to go back."

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