Making It

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By Margaret Webb Pressler
Sunday, September 30, 2007

What will you be doing in 10 years?

That was the question Toni Florence started wondering a couple of years ago as she reached her late 40s. A lawyer in the U.S. attorney's office for the District of Columbia, she just couldn't stop thinking about doing something else someday.

"What I do now is so serious," she says. "I just really wanted to do something fun in this second stage of my life."

So these days, for fun, Toni runs a mobile grooming salon for the pet set. Just a year ago, she got her first customized van, a $70,000 splurge emblazoned with Smoochespooches.com -- a name she brainstormed, and settled on because many friends told her they liked the ring of it. Already her groomer is working seven days a week, and Toni is planning for another van. She's hired an office manager and has a second groomer in training.

"The business is paying for itself," Toni says. "The only one who's not getting paid is me. But, with the second van, that will happen."

It's all been relatively easy, she says. Not that Toni hasn't put in a lot of hours, especially before she hired the office manager -- her niece. She was returning phone calls and scheduling pets before going to work, on her lunch hour and late at night.

Toni had planned to buy a franchise of some kind because she had no idea how to start a company. The adoring owner of two mixed breeds -- both adopted, one as a stray, the other from a shelter -- she was really attracted to the notion of a mobile pet-grooming business. But the franchise her research turned up wasn't well known and would have imposed too many restrictions. "I just said, I can do this myself," she recalls.

Surfing for help online, Toni found an Indiana company that would finance a van and customize it for her. Then she started scouting for a groomer at local Petco stores, and she found Joel Rambo, an experienced groomer willing to work for her part time (initially). She took out a $30,000 small business loan, but hasn't used much of it yet.

Then, last year, on September 22, she and Joel drove the brand-new van back from Indiana -- outfitted with a full-size tub with hot and cold running water and a grooming table.

"We wanted to be up and running October 1," Toni recalls. "The phone started ringing September 23."

From day one, the majority of Toni's clients -- well, their owners -- have found Smooches & Pooches by seeing the van and going to the Web site. She's booking four dogs a day on average, but on occasion scheduling as many as eight, with the price typically varying from $60 to $140 for a bath, trim and grooming, depending on the breed. She's bringing in more than $500 a day in revenue, she says.

Toni still works for the U.S. attorney's office (she obtained permission to start the business) and spends about three hours on Smooches work every night in her Northwest Washington home. She'll keep doing both, she says, until the grooming business gets so big it affects her legal work.

"It's amazing to me that I just started this thing from the beginning," she says. "I always looked at entrepreneurs with awe, but I never thought I could be one."

Have you turned a demand for a service into a profitable business? E-mail changb@washpost.com.


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