KB Burdick started with the math. According to her calculations, the average dog produces about 274 pounds of waste per year. Multiply that by the thousands of dogs in any given town, and she had more than enough proof that her pet waste removal business, Operation: Doggie Doody, would never have a problem with demand.
Based in Virginia Beach, Virginia, O:DD serves hundreds of commercial and residential clients. Technicians roll up to each client in a truck, methodically sweep the property for pet waste, and hygienically dispose of whatever they find.
Burdick says that her number two operation is now a six-figure-earning business. “If you think this might be for you, but you’re not a fan of puns, you can’t do this job,” she says, laughing. “You got to get ready for the worst jokes in the world and giggle about it every single time.”
Hello Alice chatted with KB about the challenges of funding a business with personal credit, marketing with memes and referrals, and how her business plans anticipate her retirement plans. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You’ve worked in shelters, vet clinics, and other animal environments for decades. But what first got you interested in animals?
I think the earliest memory was taking our dog to the vet at 4 years old. My mom told us that the vet was going to fix our pup, and I was like, ‘Yep, that’s what I want to do!’ By 12, I was working with trainers and starting to learn some techniques. Then came some pet sitting and volunteering with animal hospitals where I would actually clean kennels in exchange for viewing surgeries and shadowing appointments. Obviously, it has shifted significantly from becoming a veterinarian to working in dog behavior. That is 100% the passion of my life.
What ultimately brought you to the pet waste industry?
I actually kind of randomly came across pet waste management. After my stepdaughter graduated from college, my partner and I decided to run away. We moved out to Colorado for a couple of years, and at the time, I’d been working as a dog trainer. There was a pet waste company that was hiring that had a groomer and a vet tech on staff, and I called wondering if a trainer could be a good fit for the business. The guy on the other end told me what the job was and asked me to come and check it out. I went out with him for one day, and I was so in love with what this business is. So many pet industry jobs involve a lot of stress for the animals. But in this case, the dogs are relaxed and in their own space. They show me where the ball is in their yard and want me to toss it for them — it’s this amazing place to be! So, when we decided to move back to Virginia, I told my boss that pet waste management is what I want to do. He amazingly wrote me a check and was the first investment I had in my company.
That funding combined with my background sets our business apart from other folks who do this. A lot of people look at this industry and they see that it’s a low startup cost; they think they can just go out there and pick up some poop. But when you come to somebody like Operation: Doggie Doody, it’s not just picking up the poop. Waste is a huge indicator of health, and we’re looking for things that could help us say, ‘Hey, there could be a problem with your dog.’
What are some examples of problems you’ve spotted in clients’ dogs?
Well, the most obvious one is dogs eating things they shouldn’t. If I see that they’ve eaten something like socks, I can be that person who can go to the owners and say, ‘Hey, listen, I have been there for surgeries that thankfully saved a dog’s life because of obstructions. You need to make sure the socks are put up.’
I also see these dogs once a week, which allows me to see changes in them that their owners might not notice. One time there was a cute boxer that was older, probably 10. I’d see her every week, and one day I went to her owner and said, ‘You know, her belly looks like it’s expanded a little bit. I’m a little concerned and think you should get a vet to check on that.’ She called me that night and told me, ‘Thank you so much. She was riddled with cancer and was going to die any minute.’ So the owner and her dog were able to have a peaceful goodbye that they wouldn’t have been afforded otherwise.
That’s so sad, but it’s great that you were able to facilitate that moment.
Yes! I’ve got another woman right now who told me, ‘Oh, we have a puppy, but you can’t see him right now because he’s at the vet because he has parvo.’ Somebody who doesn’t know what parvo is might not understand, but there’s a protocol that has to go into place. She looked at me like I had three heads when I told her that I shouldn’t even be in her yard right now. Almost immediately, I got her a separate set-up that stays at her home. Even my shoes stay at her house because I don’t want to move anything from that yard to another house; that parvovirus can actually live in the soil for a long time. In fact, parvo is so virulent that all it’s going to take is me getting it on my shoes, walking into my next client’s yard, and if they have a puppy that hasn’t been vaccinated yet, it could easily infect that puppy, too.
Wow. What does a more typical O:DD visit look like for a technician?
Once we’re in the yard, we immediately start a pattern. We go in one direction through the entire yard in about a two-foot pattern all the way across. We also do a four-foot cross pattern to ensure that they’ve gotten all the waste, which should lead you basically back out of the yard. Finally, we leave a post-it note that generally says something like, ‘Have a great day, so glad to see the pups!’ If there’s an issue, like if they’re digging a hole under the fence or the dog has diarrhea, we’ll put that information on the note as well. Then we leave the yard, double-check the gate, and go back to the truck where we take our 13-gallon waste bag and put it into a black trash bag so everything is double-bagged. Then the bucket and pick go into a sanitizing solution, and we have a boot wash that we also use before we get in the vehicle.
Earlier you mentioned that this is an industry with a low startup cost. What did it take for you to get O:DD up and running?
I started with $4,000, and most of that money was to buy a truck. Then there’s insurance. I’ve got million-dollar coverage for any incidents that might happen. For instance, if something terrible happened and a dog got hit by a car — my insurance company covers all of that. If you don’t know where to look for insurance, you’re gonna pay thousands of dollars a month, but we started out at about $300 a year. That’s not very much. The rest of it was regular expenses for SEC filings, state filings, and all of those things that in the grand scheme of things are just nickels and dimes along the way. As long as you have a truck and you buy a little bit of equipment — the stuff that’s sitting on my truck right now is maybe $200 — that’s all you need.
So it was pretty cheap to start. Have you ever needed outside capital to fund your growth?
For sure. The payroll costs when you’re training and hiring are just out of this world. As it currently stands, I have three trucks on the road. I could probably put two more trucks on the road so that I can focus on marketing to sustain all of those people full time. My financing issues are trying to find a line of credit so that we can float that extra payroll to bring on new employees for a few weeks while, for example, we’re also adding six new paying customers.
Part of the problem there is my own personal credit. Years ago, when my mom was going through cancer treatments, I defaulted on my student loans and gave up on my credit. I’ve worked really, really hard to fix it, but even at a 700 credit score, trying to get any kind of business financing is next to impossible. Meanwhile, I have a four-year-old business that has had 63% growth during a pandemic. Personally, I think there’s some value there!
How do you go about marketing a business that’s all about dog waste?
Yes, the job itself is gross, but people love pictures of cute dogs. That’s why we utilize our dogs as much as possible. What we started to do is things like memes. If you look at our Facebook page, that has been one of the biggest sources for us as far as getting new clientele. There’s a lot of recommendations through there, and people share our posts a lot. Recently we posted a meme that’s one of my French bulldogs who has slobber all down his face and his eyes are closed with a caption that says, ‘Caution O:DD will make you make your pups… COOKIE DRUNK!’ That got six shares, which really, really helps. The other thing is definitely word of mouth. We spend very little money on advertising dollars right now, but what we do spend goes toward incentivizing referrals. Everybody that refers somebody to us, that person gets a free week of service.
What are some of your biggest business challenges right now?
You’re catching me at noon on a day that is supposed to feel like 105 degrees; global warming is something that’s a real concern for us. I look forward to being able to make some changes in that direction as we grow. We’re not at a point where I can go out and buy a brand new fleet of electric trucks, but that is certainly something that I want to look forward to. I want to face the challenge of lowering our carbon footprint as much as possible.
Another big challenge is keeping employees on board. For a lot of people, this is a pass-through job. This is not their forever job because they don’t want to pick up dog waste for the rest of their life. I have all of the passion in the world, but trying to translate that passion to employees who are picking up dog waste for money is not always the easiest. It’s really up to them and their heart to see that what they’re doing is making a difference. But along the way, I’m happy for us to be a stepping stone, and I care deeply about making sure that my employees have a good work-life balance. I want to make sure that they feel valued and that they have places to grow, either with the company or wherever they’re going beyond this.
How about you? Do you plan to be doing this for the rest of your life, or are there plans to sell the business one day?
My long-term goal is to build up my business. First, I want to have employees in positions of management so that I can back off being in the yards. That way I can support my employees and check in with my dogs and my families and focus on the marketing. Eventually, I’d like to be able to turn to those employees and give them some options. I’ll say, ‘I’m ready to retire now. You can buy in, and we’ll take care of the admin stuff for a percentage of your sales. Or you can buy your route for this amount of money, and now you have your own business.’ My retirement goal is to have a bunch of companies potentially branch off of this so that as I go, my legacy continues.