Millionaire Success Story Heidi Ganahl
Founder, Camp Bow Wow
Married, three daughters
Bachelor’s, MBA, CFP
Ashley Andrus referred me to Heidi
Today I'm sharing another interview from my book, 21 Questions for 21 Millionaires. Today's post is from one of my favorite people as I share with you the millionaire success story of Heidi Ganahl.
Tell me about you.
I grew up in southern California until I was about 13, then our family moved from Irvine to Monument, Colorado, a small town just north of the Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs.
B:What was the impetus for the move?
My parents wanted my brother Patrick and me to have the experience of growing up in a small community where we would know our neighbors and classmates and live in a more rural environment. I went to middle school and high school with only 70 kids in my class. I had great friends, many of whom I’m still in touch with.
Of course, by the end of high school I was ready for the big city life, so I took advantage of a scholarship at SMU [Southern Methodist University] in Dallas. Later, I realized that my roots were in Colorado, so I transferred to CU Boulder [Colorado University].
I always thought I’d be an advertising account executive and live in San Francisco, or Chicago. I did internships through high school and college in advertising. I was very focused, and really believed that’s exactly what I wanted to do, but I was very entrepreneurial, too. I wanted to own my own agency eventually.
Does that come from your dad who owned a business?
Yeah, my dad’s very entrepreneurial. He was always in sales so even when he didn’t own his own company, which he eventually did, he was all about creating your own success, being super optimistic, and having a great attitude. He always told us that that we should get a good education. Neither one of my parents finished college, so they were pretty key on that.
My mom, she’s kind of his alter ego. She’s the accountant/bookkeeper type, realistic. It drove her absolutely nuts at times that I didn’t have a stable eight to five job and work for corporate America.
When I graduated from college I moved to San Diego and went to work at an ad agency as a receptionist. I was ready to get going. I did that for a couple of years and moved up to Junior Account Executive and ran out of money out there. I couldn’t afford to keep up with the Joneses.
I came back to Colorado. There were no advertising jobs here so I went into pharmaceutical sales–I answered an ad in the paper–with a small pharmaceutical company. I was one of their original 12 sales reps.
I had a blast, but a couple of years later thought I wanted to go work for the big guys, so I moved on to a huge national company and absolutely hated it. That was my first big taste of corporate America. Great training program, I learned a ton from them, but it was brutal.
In the meantime, I met Bion, my first husband, and got married. He was very entrepreneurial too. He put himself through school and worked for my dad. We were the typical yuppie couple.
I got laid off from my second pharmaceutical job and started to realize maybe this was a blessing in disguise. I wanted to start my own medical distribution company, Achoo Allergy Products, so I took a job selling asthma equipment for kids to pediatricians.
About the same time, Bion and I would go over and hang out at this doggy daycare next to my folks’ business; we took our dogs there. Kennels just weren’t good enough for the dogs, we just didn’t want them stuck in a box all the time; they were very spoiled. We had two big dogs and had abused our family and friends with requests to watch them when we were away. We thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if the dogs could go to a camp, play all day and have a great time, and then stay overnight, like a vacation for them, too?” So we built the business plan for Camp Bow Wow.
Bion was finishing college, I had this medical distribution thing going, and we had no money in the bank. But we thought, “Let’s try to start Camp Bow Wow.” We started looking at sites and the landlords would say, “You want to do what? Put 50 dogs in a room? Are you crazy? They’re going to kill each other.” We couldn’t find a landlord that was open to that or get any kind of financial backing.
Bion died in a plane crash while we were looking for a site. My world totally changed. I got a large settlement a few months later, a million dollars, and managed to quickly blow through that. I made a lot of loans to friends and family members. Once you learn more about the psychological impact of getting a settlement you discover that you’re actually trying to get rid of it because there’s so much guilt attached to it.
I was always of the mindset that I was going to be a big success and all the sudden people were saying, “You’re going to be a success because you have all this money.”
I thought, “No, I’m still going to do my entrepreneurial thing and be a big success some day.”
I was experiencing that on top of a quick rebound marriage, which was a disaster, and lasted only a year. The blessing from that was my wonderful daughter, Tori.
I then started Nursery Works, a baby bedding company. I thought that would be a cool idea. I hated it; it was order taking, basically. Then I started doing consulting for people who received sudden wealth, trying to help prevent them from making the same mistakes I did. That’s when I created the Maginot Group.
I ended up doing most of it for free because I felt like I was taking advantage of these people just as much as the people that were charging them to give them advice. Half the time they didn’t listen to me; they thought they were not ever going to make those mistakes. These are folks that have received $1 million to $20 million dollars. Seventy-five percent of those people blow it within three years.
In December 2000 my brother came to me and said, “You don’t like charging people for the Maginot Group and you hate pharmaceutical sales. We’re digging up the old business plan for Camp Bow Wow. That’s what you were always passionate about, let’s make that happen.”
My immediate reaction was “I can’t, I’m too overwhelmed. I’m a single mom. I don’t have any money left.”
He said, “You have $85,000 left, let’s do it.”
We went out and found a spot. He ran the day to day and I continued to do flextime pharmaceuticals to support Tori and me.
You were doing flextime pharmaceuticals, you were speaking a little bit for Maginot Group, and then you start Camp Bow Wow because your brother said, “Let’s dig this up”?
He had been working for my parents’ janitorial supply company and my dad sold the company. I think we had a glass of beer and away we went!
B:What if you had tried to do it in 1994 – would it have caught on? Did the market need more time?
I think the market needed a little more time and I think I had to have those other experiences with starting and closing down Nursery Works and getting my master’s degree; lots of life experiences that helped me be ready to start Camp Bow Wow.
We started Camp Bow Wow and I was in charge of the marketing and getting the business rolling and Patrick was there to hang out with the dogs and keep the business going every day.
It started off with a bang and things went very well until about six months into it. The zoning folks came in and said, “You don’t have a use permit for this place.”
We’re like, “What’s a use permit?”
I got my first lesson in zoning and permit approvals.
We had to move the facility a couple blocks away. We found another building, which was totally a fluke. That’s our Cherokee street location that’s still in existence today, one of the busiest Camps out there.
Things just started evolving. I was a hard-core perfectionist about the brand and how I wanted things done and the customer service. We went through a lot of employees, but the customers loved it.
You were a perfectionist, but you got slapped with a zoning violation.
Didn’t know what I didn’t know.
B:I think so many people are afraid to get out and pursue their dream because they think they need to have all of the pieces in place before they do it.
That’s a good point. I think you’re right.
I get asked this a lot, too: “If I knew then what I know now, would I do it all over again?” and I always hesitate. It’s exhausting to think about going through all that again, but I didn’t know what was up ahead, so you just deal with it when it happens and you take one day at a time, one fire at a time, and try to put it out.
Why is focus important and what does it mean to focus?
Everybody and everything tries to derail you from your vision; it’s like a video game. Franchisees want to do their own brochures. Your employees think they have a better way of doing things or they want to follow their vision instead of yours.
You’ve got to keep everybody on the same page. Your website, all the technical parts of the business, your customer service, your front line, the Camp counselors that are talking to the customers; everything has to permeate that brand for it to be successful. If you think about the best brands in this country–Coca-Cola, Google, Starbucks–it’s consistency. Somebody can have an experience with that brand and it’s consistent day after day.
But my goodness it’s almost like a cult; you have to get people to buy into that. We call it drinking the Camp Bow Wow Kool-Aid, whether it’s working here, being a client, or a franchisee. The beauty of franchising only lies in the cohesiveness of everybody in the vision. If everybody’s off doing their own thing, it doesn’t work.
That’s been one of the biggest struggles; I could have taken short cuts, it would have been cheaper to do things a different way. From the very beginning I felt it was very important to have a [great] website. It cost a lot of money when I didn’t have any money, it’s continued to cost money when I didn’t have any money, but I’m very stubborn about it.
The thing that I will not compromise on is taking care of the dogs. I will shut down an operator in a heartbeat if their heart isn’t in the right place or they are not completely focused on the dogs’ safety because that’s our brand.
I’m trying to create Disney for dogs; a place where the dogs can have an incredible time, and the franchisees have an incredible time running their business. I want to make it as easy as possible for them to run the business so they can focus on the dogs.
But at the end of the day, it’s got to stay true to what my vision of the brand is. It’s worked this far. When people try to derail me, I’m going to follow my gut because my gut’s gotten me pretty far with what the customers really want.
You have to listen to that and respect it even if it costs money, or if it means making a tough decision about firing somebody, or bringing on a program that’s controversial.
Did you ever set out to be a millionaire?
I always wanted to be very successful. I wanted to be a great leader or a female entrepreneur. I always had that drive, but when I set out to become a millionaire was after I lost the million dollars from the settlement. I knew I had to earn it back, so my whole goal has been to create a company that is worth at least a million dollars.
You had a business plan, but did you have written down, specific goals? “In year one I want to make this much, in year two this much, the company this much, me this much.” Did you have it crystallized?
For my Camp I did, for the franchise part of it, no.
B:You just fell into that?
By the seat of my pants.
We had a client who was a regional sales director for Mrs. Fields Cookies. He said, “Have you ever thought about franchising this?”
This was after I had opened my second Camp.
He said, “Why don’t we go to the IFA [International Franchise Association] meeting. I want to introduce you to some people and let’s see if franchising Camp Bow Wow is a viable concept.”
Nobody had franchised a dog care facility yet. It was bizarre; I can’t imagine why they hadn’t.
B:Earlier you had tried to talk that lady who opened up her dog care facility next to your dad’s business into doing it, right?
Yep, and she said, “No, I just want my one little place.” She’s still there. She’s still doing it.
I just thought I would have four or five Camps in Denver and that would be the end of it or I’d do the sportswear part of it [selling doggy-themed clothing].
We went to the meeting. He wasn’t super knowledgeable about how much it actually cost to start franchising a business and all of the implications of doing it, so I paid my attorney to put together the paperwork. I took out a loan on a credit card of $25,000, put up a couple of signs on the counters at the two Camp Bow Wows, and went for it.
It was a couple of weeks, I think, after I put that sign up that a lady named Nancy walked into our central Denver location–she had been to Camp once with her dog, Daisy–and [saw the sign]. She called me up and said, “Heidi, I think I want to do this, can we meet?”
We had breakfast and a week later her parents financed the whole thing. She opened the first franchise in Castle Rock. She’s such a trooper and we got to be very good friends. I couldn’t have asked for a better first franchisee; she was so tolerant of everything.
My dad, my brother and I worked at her place for two months straight going back and forth to Home Depot helping her build it out. Her parents came, her brother, everybody pitched in; it was fabulous.
Did you do all kinds of demographic studies and surveys or did you just say, “You want a franchise, let’s go”?
I did everything you shouldn’t do when you franchise a business, but I was just so tenacious and so starry eyed about, “I’m sticking to it, this is what’s going to happen.”
A lot of it was luck.
Did you practice a formalized version of visualization of where you wanted things to be, or did you just have this general concept?
I am the poster child for The Secret, but I didn’t know about The Secret. I didn’t have any formalized education on visualization but my dad and my grandfather taught me that. My grandfather was a chemical engineer; he was involved in the Manhattan project, brilliant man.
He taught me that you have to have passion for what you do and vision, but you have to step it out; you have to have a plan and work your plan. He was all about having an idea of how you’re going to get there, but knowing what the steps are to get there. In my head I had it, I just never put it down on paper necessarily.
I always knew I wanted to make Camp Bow Wow a household name and I wanted to change the way people took care of dogs in this country. I realized that the Camps were the business, once I got away from the retail idea of selling sportswear.
B:And that was two years into it, do you think?
I think it was when I opened Camp Bow Wow Broomfield and I saw the response was tremendous; way better than the first Camp even. I thought, “Oh my, this is huge. People love this concept and they love what we’re doing.”
I think it was about the time I decided to franchise. I knew if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this right and everybody’s going to know what Camp Bow Wow is and we’re going to have fun with this. We’re going to make it a fun concept that blows the mom and pop kennels out of the water so that dogs don’t have to sit in a little box 24-hours a day and get a bowl of water.
B:And that’s when you caught your vision?
B:You fell into the franchising part, which is where you’re really hitting it big?
Life has certainly not taken the path I thought it would. I always say if I’m going to write a book about my life it’s going to be called The All American Girl Gone Wrong, because I was the epitome of the All American Girl. I was a cheerleader and I wanted to be an ad exec. I was like Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blond, I was just too naïve to know any different.
I had a great family, a great upbringing. I got married to a great guy and was ready to have my 2.5 kids and do pharmaceutical sales when all [heck] broke loose. But I’m such a grounded person. I have a stronger faith, [but I’m] not religious.
What belief system guides your life?
I was raised quasi-religious, the typical “we go to church on the [religious] holidays.”
My mom was Catholic, my dad was Baptist and they didn’t want to go that far, but did want to give their kids a taste of it.
When Bion died I felt very lost. “Is there something out there? What is it?” I read all kinds of books in the first six months about spirituality, different religions and beyond death and that kind of stuff; it gets kind of morbid. I finally came to a really comfortable place where I knew that there is a higher power and I do believe in God.
I don’t know if I believe in the stories the Bible tells, but I believe there’s a reason why we’re here. We’re supposed to learn certain lessons, we’re supposed to become responsible for ourselves and the rest of human beings and take care of each other. I think that’s the lesson that we’re supposed to learn, but man it’s hard.
I think that’s why I’m so attracted to dogs and kids. They’re so innocent and have that all loving, no judgment, unconditional peace about them. So I think that’s the spirituality piece for me.
Who were your mentors?
[Two friends.] Deanna is a very good friend of mine. After going to high school together, we both ended up at CU. We became very close. [Another friend], Dawn Marie, and I have known each other since I was born.
Those two girls have kept me grounded through everything that has happened. Those are two people in my life who will never go away.
How would you say you got where you are, if you had to distill it?
I’d say my lack of fear, my vision and my sheer, stubborn tenacity. I’m not going to fail. Failure is not an option for me.
Yeah, I piddled around with these other companies doing these other things, but this is what I’m supposed to do and I’m going to be a big success. You just have to believe that in your head.
How did you stick to the business, stay tenacious, grab the results that you’ve gotten and still focus on the family time?
I think involving my family in the business was a big part of it. It wasn’t either or, it was always blended. And I think my energy level.
I have tons of energy. I’ve never been one to sit around on the couch and watch TV. I’m always making the most of every moment, whether it’s with Tori, with my friends, or my family. It’s certainly swayed toward the bad side where my mom and dad had to sit me down and say, “Hey, pay attention to your family and your daughter.” That has happened several times.
Would you say the journey–this is a loaded question–was it relatively easy, or was it hard?
Oh my, it was harder than...
It was so hard. That’s why when people ask me would I do it all over again, in that sheer moment I go, “NOOO!” Yet again, I can’t imagine my life without doing this, but it was really hard.
Why are you so well respected?
I don’t know, maybe because I’m so real. I’m very open. I am what I am and if people don’t like me or don’t get along with me, that’s OK. We can’t all get along, but I just have fun. I try to be good to people because I’m a firm believer in Karma. What you put out there comes back to you.
What’s your greatest joy in life?
My daughters, my husband, my dogs and my family. Spending time with people that I love and making a difference in dogs’ lives.
What should people who want to be successful know?
That it’s a [heck] of a lot of hard work and that cash is king. Cash will rule your life: not having enough of it, having too much of it, knowing what to do with it, how to invest it, how to build the company with the cash that you have.
B: Cash will rule your life?
Cash flow management, I guess I should say.
B:OK – cash flow management. You said earlier that money doesn’t make you happy.
B:When you can’t pay your bills, you’re not happy.
B:So money does make you happy to a degree?
It’s a tool.
B:But once you have enough, is that when money ceases to make you happy?
It’s Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid: once you have your basic needs met, you realize money’s not important, money doesn’t create happiness.
B:When you’re managing your cash, no matter how much you have, if you’re managing it well and living below your means, you’re still falling in that happiness zone. Is that right?
Yeah, and you’re not stressed out because you’re maxed out on all your credit cards and living in a house you can’t afford with a car you can’t afford. It’s the American way, and believe me, I’m the biggest offender.
What advice would you give to somebody looking for a break? They’re beating their head against a wall and they’re wondering, “Where is it? Where’s success?”
For me, sometimes the best thing to do is just to ask God, or the universe, for what I want, and then put it away for a little while and stop thinking about it.
I think that sometimes we get bogged down in the minutia and you’ve got to just give your brain a rest and it will figure it out. If you have a question before you go to sleep and you ask yourself the question, usually in the morning you wake up with some clarity, so keep it simple.
If you watch The Secret, the people that have used it successfully talk about visualizing what they want, really thinking about what the end result looks like, then putting it out there and putting it out of your mind and seeing what happens. I know that sounds a little bit crazy, but I’ve done it in some cases and it works.
When you’re analyzing something too much or you’re buried in something, let God figure out what’s supposed to happen. Quit trying to figure it out. You can do the same thing with God and prayer. When you pray, you pray for what you want the end result to be and you leave it in God’s hands. It’s the [idea from the poem] Footsteps; He’ll carry you if you let Him, if you quit worrying about it and trying to let your mind run your life instead of that current or that energy.
What do you wish someone would ask you?
I wish my franchisees and the people in my company would ask me what they do at their job that makes me happy. They get so focused on what they think they should be doing.
What is success?
Success is loving what you do, enjoying getting up every day, jumping out of bed, being excited about life. The day I get bored or don’t enjoy what I’m doing is the day that I’m not successful.
What else do you want people to know?
I think after talking to you, and hearing where you are in your series of becoming an entrepreneur and becoming successful, it’s that you just take one day at a time, one step at a time, and don’t overwhelm yourself with the whole thing about opening a business or being a huge success at work.
[Just ask yourself,] “What can I do at work today to get there? What small step can I take? When I finish this day, what do I want it to look like when I look back and know that I’m working towards that goal?”
Just not making it too complicated. It’s that keep it simple thing again.
Bonus Question: Have you ever stopped to think about: you lost Bion and that taught you huge lessons, you lost a million dollars and that taught you huge lessons?
Yes. I think part of the reason Camp Bow Wow has been successful is that I don’t have any fear. I can lose everything and I’ll be OK. I’ve lost the person that is most dear to me in my life and I’m OK.
I’m not happy about it, but you survive. My therapist used to say, “You wake up every day and you decide if you’re going to die or if you’re going to live. You’re going to act as if you’re dead or act as if you’re alive.”
I feel like life isn’t always what you expect it’s going to be, but it’s an adventure. It’s a wild ride. You never know what’s coming.
I hope I can instill that in my daughters. Don’t have such rigid expectations. Just go with the flow and have some fun. It’s going to twist and turn, but you’ve got to be flexible and just enjoy the ride – which is so not who I was before everything happened.
I’ve learned faith in myself and my abilities to overcome bad things. At the end of the day, it’s OK. That’s what life’s about, just learning and growing and having confidence in yourself that you can overcome obstacles.