Ethel Taylor is an unlikely new player in the local pet-care industrial complex.
Before risking her life savings to open the Doggie Washerette on Georgia Avenue NW, Taylor was a missionary in Liberia. Before that, she was a mail carrier who was bitten by a dog. She does not own a dog. She had never owned a business.
Yet here is Taylor, in her blue-and-orange-decorated store, wearing blue-and- orange shoes, a blue-and-orange shirt, a blue-and-orange sweatshirt, even blue glasses. She stands, a billboard with a pulse, next to two Australian-made K9000 self-serve dog- washing machines, which automate dog-washing by shooting water, shampoo and conditioner through one hose.
“People who see me and have known me through the years, even my family, they say, ‘What happened?’ ” she says. “I don’t know. All of the sudden, it’s here.”
How Taylor went from bringing churches and schools to Liberia to bringing the region the newest innovation in the $3.5 billion-a-year dog grooming industry is a quixotic, spiritual tale of entrepreneurship. There were business seminars at Holiday Inns, ideas that came in dreams and a local community of architects, church members, bookkeepers, mentors and contractors who bought into Taylor’s metamorphosis by writing her checks, giving her cut-rate deals and imparting business know-how.
“I just heard this spirit in her voice and saw this passion in her face,” said LaNilta Taylor, part of a husband-wife architect team that gave Ethel Taylor a decent price on their services. “We felt we needed to help her out.”
Taylor stumbled onto the idea for the business — she was surfing the Web and saw the dog-washing machines — two years ago, at the height of the recession. It was a brutal time to start a business, with more than 4,500 small businesses shutting down in 2010, according to theDistrict of Columbia Small Business Development Center Network. Banks weren’t lending money. A lawyer told Taylor she was stupid and crazy.
“But I really just thought this was my year to do something new,” she said.
Taylor did her homework on the industry. She found that in Ward 4, where she lives and wanted to open the business, there are more than 2,000 dogs — not to mention thousands more in nearby Silver Spring and Takoma Park. And she already knew people were crazy about their dogs, cats and other pets.
Collectively, owners spent about $17 billion on their pets in 1994. Today they spend about $50 billion a year, according to the American Pet Products Association, with about $3.5 billion spent on grooming and boarding. But according to Mintel Research, only 29 percent of dog owners use grooming services; the rest choose either not to wash their dogs (gross!) or to wash them at home (hassle!).
The local doggie industrial complex has stores such as Bark ’N Bubbles that offer self-washing services, but typically there is just a big tub and supplies to use. The K9000, at $18,000 each, is a nifty but expensive advance — a carwash for dogs. In fact, most machine owners locate their K9000s outside carwashes.
A clean dog and a clean car make for a very a happy dog owner, but Taylor wanted to urbanize the machines and bring them indoors, building a community around them, even promoting the space for dog-washing birthday parties.
She felt so strongly about this idea that she convinced her husband, a retired religion professor at Howard University, that they should cash in retirement accounts and much of their savings to fund the start-up process. She bought the machines on her credit cards. Samira Cook-Gaines, director of the DC Women’s Business Center, where Taylor took some classes, doesn’t recommend such funding strategies, but Cook-Gaines said they are common among women starting a business for the first time.
Things began clicking for Taylor in strange, mystifying ways almost right away. She befriended a maintenance worker at the Holiday Inn during one of her business classes and mentioned her idea. He introduced her to a local contractor named Abraham Jackson, who was inspired enough by Taylor’s story that he gave her a $60,000 discount on the project.
“This was an African American woman who wanted to jump out on her own, with a vision, and she was trying to do it when the economy was not doing so good,” Jackson said. “I was wowed. ”
She met an architect in an elevator. She met her bookkeeper through her insurance guy. And she got a check to trademark her idea from a member of her church, Maria Mobley, who approached her after services one day and said, “I want to sow a seed into your business.”
There have been times when Taylor thought about walking away. The constant, daily pressures of starting a business can be overwhelming even for someone who has done it before. But just when she was most frustrated, Taylor would dream creative ideas that kept her going. She dreamed the colors of her shop. She dreamed the layout. She dreamed an idea to keep three different- sized cages at the front of the store so customers with a couple of dogs could store one while washing the other.
“I would say, ‘God, you brought me this far on zero. I know I’m not supposed to be here. Tomorrow let me wake up with the answer,’ ” she said. “And you know what, nine times out of 10, I would dream the answer.”
Taylor has been open since August. She has more than 100 repeat customers. They pay $20 per wash. Rebecca Levy, who lives in Silver Spring, visits with her black Labrador, Chet, once a month for a scrub. “Chet likes it,” Levy said, “or as much as a dog likes a bath. But he does jump into the tub now. And we really just like the owner.”
The owner is the only employee of the Doggie Washerettte. She works seven days a week. Weekends are busy; weekdays are slow. She is not profitable yet. She needs to service 12 dogs a day to make money. On some days, hours go by without a single dog. She has essentially run out of money to promote the machines.
“I really need this business to start moving,” Taylor said.
In her dreams, she is successful. She has a pipe ready to hook up a third machine. She talks about additional locations. She thinks those days will come: “God gave me the vision to figure this all out.”
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