Jacob D’Aniello, the co-founder and CEO of DoodyCalls, can imagine only one scenario in which his business could fail. “If one day everybody in the world woke up and decided they loved picking up dog poop,” he says grimly. “If it suddenly became everybody’s favorite recreational activity, that would be a terrible day for us.”
Lucky for him and his company, which just celebrated its 13th anniversary, the world’s feelings about animal feces probably won’t be changing any time soon. People love their dogs almost as much as hate the smelly gifts they leave behind. But for just $15 per week per dog, DoodyCalls will come to your home, apartment community or place of business and eliminate any evidence that a canine used it as their personal bathroom. “Our customers aren’t lazy,” D’Aniello stresses. “They’re just upwardly mobile.” He compares his service to pre-made spaghetti sauce. “You could make your own,” he says. “But you don’t.” What his customers are paying for, says D’Aniello, isn’t just a backyard free from the smelly landmines left by man’s supposed best friend. They’re paying for leisure time. It’s ten more minutes in their day that would’ve otherwise been spent with dog crap in their hands.
DoodyCalls has managed not just to stay afloat but thrive. The company’s annual revenue for 2011 was $4.5 million, a big jump from 2009’s comparatively modest $2.9 million. (If you’re curious, that breaks down to approximately 6.6 million poops disposed of by DoodyCalls last year.) They currently have 55 franchises in 22 states, and there are plans to open as many as 250 locations in the next decade. The biggest challenge, says D’Aniello, has been customer awareness. Not just letting the public know that DoodyCalls is open for business, but that paying somebody to come out and pick up your dog poop is a real thing that actually exists. “People don’t usually come up with crazy businesses they’ve never heard of to type into the Internet,” he says. They’re as likely to search for “dog poop pick-up service” as they are “astronaut yoga” or “clown exorcism.” In other words, they have to know it’s something they can buy before they look for the best place to buy it.
“That’s one of the things that was so attractive to us when we first started,” says D’Aniello, who started the Charlottesville, Va.-based company with his wife Susan in early 2000. “The sky wasn’t defined yet. Nobody knew what a big pooper scooper company looked like.” In recent years he’s had some competition — most with similarly silly-sounding names like Dr. Scoopy Poo and Call of Doodie — but DoodyCalls remains the industry leader. At least D’Aniello thinks so. “Maybe I’m a small pooper scooper company,” he laughs. “I don’t know. I think I’m doing well, but there isn’t much to compare myself to. It’s like trying to judge your success in a vacuum.”
As with any company in a relatively new and unproven market, setting the right price point is often a stab in the dark. Charging by the dog makes sense in theory, but it can become a bigger job depending on the size of the yard. And then there are the unmentionable factors, the things nobody wants to bring up with a new customer. (There is apparently no kind way of asking if a dog has a spastic colon.) The seasons can also have unforeseen consequences. As D’Aniello’s learned the hard way, winter is the cruelest month for a dog poop entrepreneur. “It wasn’t a big deal this year because we didn’t get a lot of snow,” he says. “But when it does snow, it’s like putting poop in the freezer.” Trying to chisel out the hardened remains of Fido’s digestive concerns can be an exercise it futility. Worse still is when the snow thaws, and a winter’s worth of preserved stool is unleashed at once.
“Thank god for my wife,” D’Aniello laughs. “She has the stronger stomach. There were a few times…” he shudders, unable to recount the unsavory details. “Let’s just say I had to leave.”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on the Bloomberg Businessweek website.)