My beloved Aunt Mary — we called her “Mimi” — left me and my siblings a few thousand dollars each as she approached her end several decades ago.
I put the cash in a savings account and later folded it into a mutual fund. It was a big gift, coming from a woman who never earned more than $10,000 a year as a secretary. Mimi was my mother’s sister, whom we all loved — and still do.
I say this because Amber Sutton Donohoo, the subject of this week’s column, received a similarly generous gift in her 20s from her late grandmother. Instead of blowing the windfall on a car or clothes or a fancy vacation, Donohoo took the $10,000 her grandmother gave her each year and smartly invested in real estate.
“I saved it,” said Donohoo, 43. “That’s how I would get a down payment.”
She now owns a few residential properties in San Francisco and the District, including a home near Capitol Hill.
Donohoo then used the real estate to help fund her entrepreneurial dreams.
“My family has always been into real estate,” the California State University at Chico graduate said. She majored in business with a concentration in accounting.
The former NASA project manager and number-cruncher traded careers to run two Dogtopia day-care facilities in Northern Virginia. The franchises together earn her a total of $300,000 or so a year in salary and dividends.
She is her own boss, doing her own thing around the pets she adores. And she owns some investment properties to boot.
One Dogtopia is located in Prince William County, the other in Fairfax County. Each employs about 10 to 12 people, and together they gross nearly $30,000 a week. That should make for a good 2016, with more than $1.5 million in gross revenue for her entire doggy day-care business.
Payroll eats up one-third of that, and rent takes an additional 12 percent or so. Then Dogtopia takes royalties and marketing expenses that add an additional 9 percent to her costs.
Donohoo said she pays for half of the health insurance for full-time employees as a way to keep them from leaving.
“I want to hold on to good people,” she said. “People are everything.”
I wrote about Dogtopia’s founder, Amy Nichols, five years ago. But I have not written about it from the franchisee point of view.
Donohoo, the franchisee, struggled to get her business on solid footing.
She walked away from her $120,000 job with NASA after 12 years, when she was 34. She wasn’t sleeping well. She wasn’t happy. She had moved in 2004 to the District from California, where she grew up, for a career reset. That didn’t work. It was July 2008.
“I lost my get-up-and-go,” she says, looking back on her early midlife crisis. “I loved NASA’s mission, but I wanted to do something else. I was trying to figure out what makes me happy.”
The answer was dogs. (They make me happy, too.) She might get it from her mother, who often brought home stray animals when Amber was growing up.
“They love you, unconditionally,” she said. “They are happy with the simplest things in life.”
She started exploring dog boarding and dog day-care businesses online, and quickly narrowed it down to Dogtopia because she liked the idea of no fences.
After a year of searching she found her first location, which was already a dog day-care center under another name, in Woodbridge. She spent between $450,000 and $500,000, which included a $300,000 renovation to the property and $100,000 for the list of customers and other assets. She also paid $35,000 to Dogtopia for a franchise fee. Donohoo funded the outlay from savings (remember, she is cheap) and a loan against her real estate.
She signed the franchise agreement in August 2007 and opened her location a year later.
People who think business is just profit, profit, profit — think again.
It took two years before Donohoo made money.
She had to oversee the renovation and dismiss many of the employees. She had to find a good manager to run the day-to-day so Donohoo could focus on the accounting and finances.
In the meantime, her lifestyle disappeared.
“My income went from $125,000 a year to zero. I had to downgrade. I had saved enough money to cover my mortgage and car payment. I had to change all my beauty products and buy cheaper stuff. Instead of $175 designer jeans, I went to $20 Old Navy. I quit dance class for a year. I quit my trainer. It was a real nail-biter.”
Donohoo even delayed visiting the dentist after her crown cracked because she couldn’t leave the business for a few hours.
“Working for the government, no problem,” she said. “Just take an hour of sick leave. But when everything is relying on you, you just can’t go to the dentist and walk away from the business.”
After 18 months, she took a salary, which is now $50,000 a year from each Dogtopia.
Once she had the first business under control with good managers, she turned her attention to buying more Dogtopias. She knew from the start that she wanted multiple stores. If she could scale and control prices, she come make some real dough.
She was smarter the next time around.
She opened a Springfield location in November 2012.
Chastened by the Woodbridge experience, she asked the landlord to pay for installation of the heating and air conditioning units. That saved her $60,000.
Donohoo has settled into the role of business owner. She doesn’t get involved in ordering supplies. She takes weekends off but is on the premises Monday through Friday to make sure the quality is up to snuff. She also handles the financial details.
Most of her customers are single people or couples with no kids living at home. Many are adults whose kids have just left for college.
“You have to be a little older to afford us,” she said.
The business slows in the late winter and early spring, but it picks up around Thanksgiving and barrels through to the new year as families take vacations and leave the pets behind.
Each store serves an average of about 50 dogs a day, a tally that rises to between 80 and 100 in the busy season.
She is married and lives near Capitol Hill with her husband, who works in the personal-security business.
Donohoo said she has put off pursuing more Dogtopias, as life is now pretty good.
She said she feels lucky to have had a grandmother and mother who blessed her with business smarts and some money to get going in life. Her mom owns a successful antiques store in California’s Wine Country.
For me, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about those few thousand dollars — and a lot more — that Aunt Mimi gave me. Feels like a million bucks to me now.