Tragedy to Triumph: Heidi Ganahl Kept Her Focus on Her Dream

Tragedy to Triumph: Heidi Ganahl Kept Her Focus on Her Dream

Heidi Ganahl says she has always been an entrepreneur and dog lover. "My husband and I were characterized by two things: we thought up crazy, wild ideas and we loved taking care of our two dogs," she says of their life in the early 1990s. They even wrote a business plan for a "fun doggy daycare business" with a camp-like theme they thought would be great someday. But then tragedy struck: her husband Bion was killed in an airplane accident.

"That was a tough period," recalls Ganahl. "It took a few years before I came back around to the idea of our dog daycare business." That's when her brother Patrick encouraged her to use money she had left from the accident settlement to start the company she had always been passionate about.

In December 2000, she opened the first Camp Bow Wow, in Denver. Its success led to a second location--and a timely suggestion from one of her clients who happened to be a franchisee of Mrs. Fields Cookies. "He suggested franchising as a for expanding my company," she says. With some research, planning, and the usual paperwork, three years later she began franchising the brand.

Today there are 180 Camp Bow Wow locations, 6 of them company-operated. In 2014, Camp Bow Wow was acquired by VCA Inc., an animal healthcare company with more than 600 animal hospitals in the U.S. and Canada, which strengthened the brand's position and Ganahl's resolve to see it grow. "We have plans to open Camp Bow Wow locations in some of these VCA facilities," she says.

Ganahl, who sees herself as a visionary and strategist who loves constantly working on the brand and with franchisees to make things even better for customers, says one dominant thought has motivated her business journey and success. "Find something you are passionate about to start a business around, create a great plan, and find the best people you can to help launch it. Keep your focus on your dream, dream big, and go after it!"

Her current dream? 1,000 locations.

Name: Heidi Ganahl
Title: CEO, founder, Top Dog
Company: Camp Bow Wow
System-wide revenue: $86 million
No. of units: 180 (6 corporate)
International units: 1 (Nova Scotia)
Growth plans: 500 locations in 5 years
Public or private? Public
Year company founded: 2000
Year started franchising: 2003
Your years in franchising: 12

Getting Started

What inspired you to start your business?
I always was an entrepreneur and thinking up crazy ideas, and my first husband was like that as well. We had two big mutts we adored, and we abused our friends and family because we had to come up with different options for taking care of them. So we came up with this idea based on a brand-new thing out there in the big cities called "doggy daycare." We created Camp Bow Wow and used the camp theme and made it fun and cool and upscale. We wrote the business plan in 1994 when we were in our mid-20s and didn't have a lot of money. Six months later, my husband died in a plane crash and the business plan got shelved.

What is your background, and how did it prepare you for starting your business?
I was in pharmaceutical sales out of college, and I was pretty bored. I made a good living, though--we called it "the golden handcuffs." My pharmaceutical sales experience taught me how to connect with clients and how to effectively communicate our brand. My experience has helped tremendously in building our brand!

What's the best and worst advice you got when starting out?
Best: To start a business you're passionate about. I was always passionate about the Camp Bow Wow idea, but tabled it in pursuit of a couple other endeavors that were more "practical."
Worst: To invest in things we weren't quite ready for, and hiring too many people too quickly when we were just getting started.

Why did you choose franchising?
I love the visionary part of growing the business and building the brand, but I needed great people to do the operations side. Franchising was the perfect model.

How did you get started in franchising?
We started Camp Bow Wow in December 2000, and it did really well. We started a second location near Boulder, and that one did really well, too. One of my clients there was in franchising with Mrs. Fields Cookies, asked if I had ever thought of franchising, and introduced me to some great people who ended up mentoring me and got us off the ground.

Did you have a partner/co-founder when you started? How important was that in building your company?
My little brother, Patrick, was the one who convinced me to dust off the Camp Bow Wow business plan and invest the last of my settlement into the first camp. We made a great team: I was good at the marketing and strategic side, and Patrick was good at managing the operations and the dogs. We butted heads and even fired each other a few times, but our skills meshed and allowed us to grow.

How did you fund your company at the beginning? As you grew?
I had about $80,000 left from the settlement I received after my husband's death that I invested into the business originally. As we sold more and more franchises, we were able to grow quickly.

What were the keys to funding your brand?
Finding the right people--people who believed in us and believed in the brand enough to invest.

Building The Business

What has been the best and the hardest thing about being an entrepreneur?
Best: As an entrepreneur, you're an artist. You're seeing your vision play out and it's really fun and fulfilling. The hardest part is it takes over your life. There's no no time off. It consumes you and it can consume your family, too.

How has your experience in running a franchise business been different from what you expected?
Managing the relationships and the business at the same time. I care about our franchise owners and sometimes it's hard to make tough business decisions.

How did you grow the brand at first? What changed as you expanded?
At first, it was a lot of grassroots marketing to grow the business and get new clients. I was at the dog park or local events every weekend handing out coupons and talking about camp. Now, the grassroots tactics are still important but we have a much heavier focus online and making sure we have a great digital presence.

How did you transition from founding a brand to leading a brand?
I surrounded myself with great people, did a lot of leadership development work, coaching work, and learning as I grew.

How would you describe your leadership style?
I empower my team to do what they're best at. I build personal relationships with my employees and trust them to do what they're talented at and what they were hired to do.

What is the key to your company's success?
The people I've surrounded myself with over the years: our franchisees, employees, and loyal clients.

Being Female

Was being female an advantage or disadvantage for you in building your company? How?
Both. It was a disadvantage when trying to get capital and raise money, but it was an advantage in connecting with our clientele, who are mostly women and appreciate that caring aspect when it comes to their pets.

Have you found specific advantages or disadvantages to being a woman business owner?
I've never looked at it that way. It only occurred to me when I was trying to raise capital. I had to work harder to make people take me seriously.

What has been your biggest challenge as a woman entrepreneur?
Balancing work and family.

Why do you think there are fewer start-ups with female founders than male ones?
Women are generally more risk-averse. We need to encourage our girls early on that entrepreneurship is a great way to express themselves and do something they love.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Trying to have it all--you can't do everything and you can't be perfect at everything you do. Some days you're going to be a great business owner and some days you're going to be a great mom, but you probably won't be both in the same day.

From a woman's perspective, what notable changes have you seen for women in franchising since starting your brand?
The most notable change is there are more women! There were very few women in franchising in 2003. There's a great community of female founders and we're very supportive of each other. It's one of the most supportive women in business communities I've ever seen.

Which female leaders do you admire? Why?
Sheryl Sandberg and Condoleezza Rice. They are clear with their vision, but they are also relatable and authentic. I also appreciate leaders who give back, like Sara Blakely with Spanx and Tory Burch.

Has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life? How?
I've had a number of great mentors over the years who have helped me grow personally and professionally. I also love being a mentor, working with high school and college kids and instilling in them an excitement around entrepreneurship and following their passion.


How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Sometimes I don't very well : ) but I try to take each day at a time and put my faith and family first always. I also have learned not to beat myself up if I have to work hard for a few days away from my family, or if I need to spend time with my family and give up on work a bit.

What are your top 5 favorite things to do?
Hang with my four kids, watch college football, give back/volunteer, and speaking engagements to tell my story and inspire others.


What's the most important lesson you've learned so far?
The Golden Rule: treat others how you want to be treated.

If you could do one thing differently, what would it be?
It comes down to the people. I would have trusted my gut more often when it came to people and I would have been slower to hire and quicker to fire.

What advice would you give to other women considering starting their own franchise brand?
Align your business to your passions. If you firmly believe in your idea and pour your heart and soul into it, you will make a much bigger impact.

What's Next

What would you like to achieve in the next 5 years?
I hope to see the number of camps grow to 1,000 over the next several years so we can provide superior care to even more who have yet to experience Camp Bow Wow.

What's coming up that you're excited about?
I can't wait to see how technology plays into pet care.

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