Kara Kleindienst’s business, The Barking Meter, is as high-pressure as a dog-walking company can be.
TBM is trusted with more than 100 of New York City’s most pampered and posh pups (pictured throughout this post) — dogs owned by designer Philip Lim, fashion industry pro Lauren Santo Domingo, actress Blair Brown, and a slew of other bold-faced names that can’t be disclosed.
The company turns a neat profit, employs seven people, and is responsible not only for walking dogs, but also training them and taking them to the groomer and the vet.
And it was all started by one woman seven years ago, without any venture capital.
Kleindienst worked in politics for the first year or two of her professional life, but quickly realised the cutthroat environment on Capitol Hill wasn’t for her. So in 2007, she moved in with friends in New York City — but her Plan B didn’t extend much farther than relocation.
While figuring out how to make ends meet, she was offered a side gig walking Philip Lim’s dog by her roommate, who worked for the designer. Kleindienst admits she had no idea what a dog-walking business would entail — but she loved dogs and couldn’t turn down a side gig.
She took the job, and now, eight and a half years later, she’s the head of a full canine concierge service with 75 of New York City’s most discerning human clients — as well as a brand new west coast branch in San Francisco.
Here are Kleindienst’s tips for success.
Book smarts aren’t everything
Kleindienst attributes most of her success to one thing: her EQ, or emotional intelligence.
“I don’t think my IQ is anywhere near as high as my EQ, and I think that’s what’s allowed me to be successful in my friendships, my familial relationships and, most importantly, my business,” she said.
In fact, before she decided to turn The Barking Meter into a full-time career, Kleindienst was trying to get into graduate school, but to no avail. Now that she’s a successful entrepreneur, she admits it might be a good thing that she didn’t get in, although she was discouraged at the time.
“It’s taught me, in a humbling sense, that I am good enough even though I don’t have those degrees,” she said.
Work hard on building relationships with your clients
In addition to offering services like training and vet visits, what sets The Barking Meter apart from other dog-walking companies is its personal touch.
The same person will show up to walk your dog every day, Kleindienst said, so the dog gets used to them and feels much more comfortable. And the clients feel better, too — some of them will come home early just to chat with their dog-walker, she said.
Perhaps most valuable, thanks to her attention to clients’ wants and needs, the expansion to San Francisco comes with a built-in client base.
“A few of our clients moved out there at the end of last year,” Kleindienst said, “and they said there really isn’t anything out there like The Barking Meter. I visited and checked it out, and I agree.”
Now, TBM is bicoastal — and they’re hitting the ground running with built-in Bay Area clients, without even having to advertise.
As long as your product is top-quality, your company doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel
Kleindienst is on her phone constantly, making sure everything is going smoothly. Each of her seven employees is trained at a high level to deal with every situation.
“I believe our company will do anything for you and your dog,” Kleindienst said. “We joke that we’re the dog’s personal assistant.”
Many would-be entrepreneurs get caught up in trying to think of something that’s never been done before, and this isn’t always a successful formula.
“You just have to do something really well,” Kleindienst said, “and there has to be something that sets you apart.”
It’s ok to be discerning about your customers
Kleindienst has been meticulous about managing her company’s growth — and that includes saying no to clients who might not be a good fit.
“We interview our clients,” she said, “and I’m happy to come out of the introductory meeting and call Joey [Kleindienst, her brother who serves as VP] and say, ‘I don’t think this is a client we want to work with.'”
If a client has demands that can’t be met, the company would rather send them elsewhere than disappoint them. Also, TBM is so popular that to even get an interview, a potential client must be referred by a current one.
“We try to develop that relationship from the start — we trust you, you trust us, because your friend told you about us,” Kleindienst explained.
If you’re not taking venture capital, be deliberate with your growth
If Kleindienst had sought out investors in the beginning, she said, it would have been much easier to scale her company — but she also might have fallen into debt if she allowed TBM to grow too quickly.
Instead, she was incredibly prudent, always saving enough to keep the business running for at least another three months before adding new hires or making changes. Even when she moved from DC to New York, she had saved enough money to live for exactly three months.
“I’m a numbers person,” she said. “I don’t project five years from now. I like to project what’s going to happen in three to six months.”
After three years of treating TBM like a side project while looking for something else, Kleindienst had an epiphany and realised she could become an entrepreneur and “really turn this into something,” she said.
So she hired her first two employees, but not until after she’d saved enough to pay them for at least three months. By the time the first three months had ended, business had doubled — and it’s doubled every single year since.
It might be tough in the beginning
Kleindienst managed her own budget in an incredibly cautious way for the first few years of her business.
“I’d count every day — how many dogs are on today, and what’s the total?” she said. “That would determine if I could go out to dinner Saturday night with my friends… It wasn’t until years later that I stopped counting how many dogs were on every day. I think that really keeps you grounded and committed. It might have been a great day today, but tomorrow, everyone could cancel.”
This is why any entrepreneur has to believe in what she’s doing, Kleindienst said.
“My ego was hit big time,” she said. “But you’re going to get yourself caught in a situation where you disappoint yourself and disappoint the people you’re trying to service if you think you have all the answers.”
Always remember, you’re smart enough
“One of my biggest insecurities, and one that’s still there [but] much less, is: am I smart enough?” Kleindienst said. “I am smart enough to navigate being a business owner, despite having no experience and not having a degree for it.”
In the beginning of TBM, her friends would introduce Kleindienst as the owner of a business.
“And I’d be like, ‘Yeah, whatever, I’m going to get a drink,'” she recalled. “I was never super proud. Now, I’m like, ‘Yeah, can I tell you about it?’ I’m very proud of what it’s become.”