Here's the Real Poop on What it Takes to Be a Successful Entrepreneur

Last Updated Jan 12, 2011 9:47 AM EST

Too many aspiring entrepreneurs dream of being the next Mark Zuckerberg. But the truth is that most successful small companies have nothing at all to do with game changing new technology, market disruption, or cool new widgets invented in a dorm room or garage. They're started by people who discovered a market need that wasn't being met, and who found a way to meet those needs efficiently and professionally. That practice very often produces businesses that look simple, but that are wildly successful. Take, for example, College Hunks Hauling Junk, Restoration Cleaners, or DoodyCalls. There's nothing sexy about junk, mold, or dog poop, but, says, Jacob D'Aniello, cofounder of DoodyCalls, "it's not what you do, it's how you do it." Here's how he and his wife, Susan, started their $3.5 million pet waste removal franchise.
In 2000 D'Aniello was working as a technology consultant in Washington, DC. commuting two hours a day from his home in Centerville, VA. The dot com bubble had burst, and he began to see many of his private sector colleagues who were in the U.S. on work visas pack their bags to go home. He and Susan had talked about starting a company together; it seemed a heck of lot less risky than waiting to be laid off. One morning, D'Aniello was listening to the radio on his morning commute, and he heard a story about a pet waste removal business in another part of the country. That was his aha moment. "I was never focused on poop," he says. "I was focused on a vision and on creating a brand. It was a means to an end."

So how did D'Aniello determine that removing dog poop from homeowners' yards was the perfect business opportunity? It's not as weird as it sounds!

  • It met an important personal need. "I love being outside," he says. "And this was an outdoor job and it was something that was not in the tech industry. I was tired of sitting in a cube."
  • There was a huge need for the service. "40% of households have dogs and no one likes picking up after them," says D'Aniello. "There was no company that provided the service, so it was a great business opportunity."
  • It offered recurring revenue. Dogs poop. And they can be relied upon to keep pooping. Once he had established himself as reliable and efficient, D'Aniello felt strongly that repeat business was in the bag, so to speak.
  • The business was simple. "I didn't want to build bridges," says D'Aniello. "I didn't want that kind of responsibility. If you're cleaning a yard and you miss a bit of poop, you can go back the next day and correct that and no one is going to die."
  • The market was wide open. "You can start a business by trying to win clients away from someone else," says D'Aniello. " But I wanted to build a business by bringing people not participating in the market into the market. There was not an established market of people purchasing pet waste removal services, so the limits had not been defined." By being a first mover in a new industry, D'Aniello felt it would be easier to establish brand identity and win customer loyalty.
The D'Aniellos did all of the dirty work themselves for the first three years, with Jacob sometimes doing poop pick up in his suit and tie before he headed off to his full time job. "Or sometimes I'd change in the restroom in Burger King," he recalls. By the time the DoodyCalls had 170 clients, they had quit their full time jobs and began hiring staff. And when people from other parts of the country began calling, they decided to grow the business through franchising. Currently, they have over 40 franchisees in 23 states, and they still own their own original franchise in Charlottesville, VA.

"Picking up poop is easy, but managing and growing a business to a certain size requires complex business processes," says D'Aniello. Franchisees get access to technology that helps manage and schedule hundreds or thousands of clients, plus a central call center at the company's headquarters (called Doo'ville). The company also brands a vehicle for franchisees. And the D'Aniellos frequently try out new services on their own franchise. For instance, a new litter box service, introduced to franchisees last November, was launched successfully in Virginia and is now being offered nationwide. "The minute we put it on the website, people stared signing up," says D'Aniello. "The last week of the year, we had 20% of new clients came from the kitty litter service." He adds that company has "never had a down year," even during the recession. You might say that the D'Aniellos are, well, cleaning up.

Do you have a highly successful business in a very basic industry? Let's hear about it.