While most dog boarding and daycare facility owners are always trying to fit more dogs in to their establishments, Elissa Ferguson of Rockstar Pets, built her success on doing just the opposite.
Describing herself as “a typical long-time animal lover who made dogs their job”, Elissa had spent 10 years in advertising before deciding to get back to doing something that she really loved. She started working for a humane society and stayed for four years.
“Even though rescue work is very hard, it helped spur me to know this is what I was meant to be doing,” she recalls.
While working full-time, Elissa and her boyfriend decided to launch Rockstar Pets, and in 2009 put up a little ad on Craigslist offering cat sitting and dog walking on weekends. In 2011, Elissa left her job in favor of turning the pet sitting into a proper business, and rented a little building in Chicago. But it didn’t go quite storybook at first.
“Renting in Chicago is tough. We had to move the business three different times due to leases and things like that. We barely made it and the first three months we couldn’t seem to get anybody to try us.” But they kept at it and “got lucky”, Elissa laughs.
“People did eventually try us and it worked. We started out small and it grew from there.”
Over the next 9 years through word of mouth, social media and plain hard work, the business grew to 80 dogs a day with 55 in boarding. But in 2020, Elissa decided to change tack.
“Covid really knocked us, so I figured why not use it as a time to rebuild? Everything was going crazy anyway. I tore apart everything we did, and sort of knocked it back down to fewer dogs, with more staff per dog and with individual interactions. Then we started really concentrating on doing a more nature-rich kind of environment, trying to bring in natural elements in the city for the urban dog, actually getting plants and things made of wood, and actively trying to get rid of plastic.”
Inspired by her research into enrichment programs for zoo animals, Elissa made sure the enrichment programs were not just a kiddie pool filled with plastic balls as an add-on.
“It did distance us a little bit from traditional daycare. The actual idea there is that the dogs have more space and you work more with them individually. So, numbers were never our goal. We actually decreased our numbers and made it into a membership program where people could only board if they brought their dogs weekly to the enrichment program. We were trying to build a new model where people had to commit to coming weekly and not just be sporadic.”
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Now with a maximum of just 55 dogs, the resort was around the same level of financial profitability, but staff and dogs were much happier.
“I felt a lot less stress, and it was a lot easier on the team in some ways, because you know the dogs who are coming each day. You're no longer constantly evaluating new dogs. And because you are providing more learning for the animals and enrichment, you’re actually getting a better pup, a more balanced pup, because you are adding something to their life. With less stress on the team, there was less turnover. So, there were a lot of pluses there for me that weren't in dollar signs. And again, that's the way I tend to look at things.”
Elissa also set some personal goals. She had never lived outside of Illinois and was curious what it might be like to live in another state. She set a goal that by 2022, she would have a manager in place at Rockstar and she would leave Chicago permanently. She did leave - for Colorado.
“My plan was to move here for a lifestyle change and open a second location because I still enjoy dogs and enjoyed working with them. But as time went on, the more I thought about it, the more I asked myself, why would I want to be split between the two businesses if I was looking for a better quality of life?”
Putting Rockstar for sale online, Elissa got contacted by a variety of people, none of whom seemed to know much about dogs.
“I didn't start working with Teija’s group right away. I actually met with some people on my own. And I met some private people that came to me and working with them was, or talking to them, was a lot. And I couldn't negotiate for anything. I didn't know what I was really doing, I didn’t know the numbers and the offers that were coming in just didn't seem right. And also, lots of these people that I was meeting just wanted to just own a daycare. They didn't know dogs.”
Through a Facebook group, Elissa got put in touch with Teija.
“I did send her kind of an offer from one of the people that I had talked to on my own, and she called me laughing, and she's like, ‘no, you know I can do so much better for you.’ And she did!
“We just immediately clicked. She has a wonderful sense of humor and knowledge of the dog industry. She seemed interested in my model even though, you know, we may not have the numbers that we could of if we were cramming in more dogs like in the older model. Teija just right away saw the value of something different.”
Halfway through the deal, Elissa got a letter from Chicago authorities to say the zoning no longer allowed dogs outside in her area.
“I think I almost dropped the phone when I got the call. I’m like, ‘that's not possible.’ I know the zoning in Chicago. I've had 3 different locations, you know. It was a big deal.
“We were known as an enrichment center. My dogs are outside as much as possible and as much as they want to be outside. So, we were more of an outdoor space. That's our claim to fame, especially in an urban environment where outdoor environments are more rare. There are a lot of indoor daycares, and I always said I would never do it that way.”
It took 4 months to get the zoning sorted out and the outdoor space re-approved but it finally went through. The sale of Rockstar to a consolidator closed successfully in November 2023 and Elissa couldn’t be more pleased.
“Teija was great about answering my questions, because initially I did go to her with the thought that I wanted a small private business person to be the buyer, someone that's going to treat it like their baby. And we went through the pros and cons of both types of buyers, thinking about the team and what somebody else could bring in, and maybe take my model further and so, on. She never at any point, I felt, pushed her opinion. She just presented information so I could make the decisions which was really nice. You definitely feel empowered working with Teija.”
Since selling Rockstar, Elissa has been able to take all she learned founding and growing a traditional dog boarding and daycare into a specialist enrichment center and apply it at her new ‘canine Montessori center’ in Old Colorado City. She is still in her happy place – working with dogs and dreaming up all kinds of new enrichment programs.