It’s easy to get me to write about animals, especially dogs. My yellow Lab was my best darn friend, next to my wife, for more than a decade.
So when Laura Clark asked if I was interested in writing about her local pet chain, I was in. The story begins in November 2002 when Laura and Larry had enough money to kick back and retire to Virginia horse country.
Instead, the animal lovers — four dogs and a cat — opened a pet store. Then another. And another. Now they own six stores under the goofy name Wylie Wagg.
Laura Clark, 49, who did the talking for this piece, loves her pet-food based retail chain because it serves her mission of bringing better chow to animals. But as I interviewed her, she cautioned me that this is not some part-time gig that keeps her busy in the off hours.
“A lot of people think it will be really fun to be around animals all day and really fun to follow my passion,” Clark said. “This kind of thinking is dangerous. If you are going to start a small business, you have to have a focus on business and you have to be maniacal. You cannot be an occasional business person.”
Leases, taxes, endless forms and the challenge of finding good employees keep Clark in constant motion.
She works up to 15 hours a day, seven days a week. She attends conferences, thinks about her business constantly, whether she is there or not. Even when she is away, Clark isn’t far: She crashes in an apartment above her newest store in Cathedral Heights in Northwest Washington.
“Is it a good business in terms of reward at the end of the day? Yes. It’s a fantastic satisfaction, making people and animals happy. It’s a good business. But if your focus is money, wealth, forget it.”
Of six Wylie Waggs, four are in Virginia and two are in the District.
Her four Virginia stores average $1.2 million in sales each and earned a collective profit of $230,000 before taxes and interest in the 12 months ending June 30. The Clarks pay themselves in the low six-figures.
“I did not do this for the money, obviously,” Clark said. “I did this for the reward, which has come in spades. This is a happy business.”
The two stores in the District, which opened in the past two years, are not yet profitable, which explains why Clark is living upstairs from one of them. The company has around $550,000 in debt.
Payroll and leases are roughly half the costs. Wylie Wagg employs 34, including 12 full-timers who get health insurance, discounts and competitive pay.
The balancing act on costs is difficult. Store rents for the six locations can cost between $11,000 to $14,000 a month. Trying to find good employees is also challenging.
She grew up in an upper-middle class family in North Carolina, attended Wake Forest and worked at a variety of marketing jobs, including stops in New York and San Francisco and at companies such as Norwegian petroleum giant Statoil and Washington-based Web site designer Proxicom. About 15 years ago, she and Larry, who has run several businesses, decided to settle in Middleburg, Va., to be near family.
The entrepreneur gene is in both of them, so they decided to launch a pet store.
“I really wanted to have my own thing, my own business, and I loved animals,” Clark said. “My dad was an entrepreneur. He was fun to watch.”
They launched their pet food store just as people were focusing on healthy foods for themselves. Clark figured healthy food for pets was next.
“We hit the market at a very key time,” Clark said. “There was an increase in demand in the human food industry for organic and healthy food. So because pets are part of the proverbial family, people began thinking about what they were putting in their pet bowls.”
Clark, a lifelong vegetarian, started poring through online data, reading books and visiting at least 25 pet stores as far away as California. (She still does.) She talked to entrepreneurs and store owners.
Satisfied there was an unmet demand for healthy pet food, they found an old hardware store in the center of Middleburg and agreed to a handshake deal over coffee to a three-year lease covering 2,000 square feet. It took $110,000 to open the doors, including business licenses, attorney fees and stocking shelves.
They picked Wylie after one of their dogs, Riley, and added Wagg as a salute to Middleburg’s yen for quirky business names.
In March 2003, they opened for business. With low rent and lean staffing — and Clark manning the store every day — the business was profitable within 18 months. They ditched the store’s grooming station after a couple of months because it was smelly and difficult to find groomers.
“We quickly realized not to be in that business,” Clark said. “Focus is really important. When you start a small business, decide who you are and be that.”
I stopped at the Cathedral Heights store last week (hoping to run into a dog, and did). The freezer was filled with things like Steve’s Real Food Turducken Diet, food that is “good for your pet and the ground they walk on.”
On the long raw-food list, you have your pick of things like six pounds of raw rabbit patties for $53.25, frozen ham bone two-count for $9.50 or two pounds of beef chub for $11.99.
Clark said the raw and freeze-dried foods are the fastest growing categories, although dry food is the biggest seller. Dogs are 70 percent of the business, while cat food — pet cats are surging — eats up most of the rest. Food for birds and other beasts makes up a tiny percentage.
They followed the Middleburg store two years later with a Fairfax shop. Tysons/Falls Church opened in July 2008 and has become the busiest. Arlington opened in May 2010, Woodley Park in July 2014 and Cathedral Commons last May.
Location is everything in retail, so the Clarks piggy-backed near grocery stores, where they could catch people running errands.
“At Cathedral, we are near Giant, at Tysons we are next to Whole Foods, at Fairfax next to Harris Teeter,” Clark said.
The Woodley Park store is near two giant convention hotels, which means it caters more toward souvenir-hunters (think Washington-themed bakery treats or cherry tree/dog theme Christmas ornaments) and pet owners who feel guilt for leaving their furry friends at home.
The stores host occasional pet rescue days and have developed close relationships with many customers.
“A love for animals is a great equalizer. We see people from all walks of life, from all income levels. But they all share an equal desire to do right by their animals.
“Pets want nothing but food, love and sleep. It’s such a simple thing. The world is fast-paced, people are stressed.”
Especially if they are running a small business.