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WaG Leads the Pack in Holistic Grooming Services with Maria Erna

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Karen Stoychoff

In this season 1 episode 2 of Back of the Napkin, serial entrepreneur Maria Erna, owner of holistic grooming business WaG, dishes about how to master canine and client relations, and take a bite out of business planning. Listen to the episode.

WaG Leads the Pack in Holistic Grooming Services.

Maria Erna Ready to Unleash Franchise Dreams.

Maria Erna, owner of WaG Grooming Salon and Spa in Salem, New Hampshire, has a simple philosophy: hire “a top-notch staff” and “let them do their job.”

A successful small business consultant, Erna’s love for dogs, inability to find quality canine grooming services, and an entrepreneurial spirit inspired her to open WaG, short for Wash and Groom. “I grew up with dogs and we started with German shepherds at a very young age,” said Erna. “And as I got older, I decided more to go the rescue route.”

Erna notes that some rescue pets are “triggered” during the grooming process. “The anatomy of the dog, the behavior of the dog, the personalities, every dog has a different personality,” Said Erna. And, “if it's a rescue, you don't know the situation it came from and what could possibly make it nervous.”

Take a Bite Out of the Unknowns.

Erna leveraged her background in business development, social media marketing, and real estate – along with some well-placed connections and a good bit of serendipity – prior to starting WaG. She examined traffic studies, salaries, and income levels in the area. She checked out various locations and monitored movement in and out of nearby businesses. When a lease opened in an area she liked, Erna pounced. “The planning is what's important, because opening any business is a risk,” said Erna. “If you can eliminate as many of the unknowns, it's going to make a difference.” Erna suggests every aspiring small business owner complete extensive planning and research prior to opening their doors.

Fostering a Culture of Care.

Erna recruited professionals she believed best fit her leadership style, and who were among the best in their field. Together, they fostered a culture of care, based in trust and respect. Erna says hiring the best people and then letting them do their thing is so obvious, yet something many small business owners fail to see. “Why would you hire the best and then go in and tell them how to do their job? It just makes no sense to me,” said Erna. “Whether they found us, or we found them, I give them my vision of the company, and if they buy into it, and it's their passion to groom, then we want them on board.”

Letting team members do their job for Erna means giving them state-of-the-art tools, access to chiropractors due to the demands of handling animals, and treating them like partners in the business. For example, she rarely comes in and dictates policy. “I go in with a challenge and I open it up to the group,” said Erna. “How are we going to handle this?”

Master of Client and Canine Relations.

Having a staff of expert groomers invested in the success of the business means you can focus on the canine client, says Erna. And like people, not all dogs are alike or have the same experiences, especially if they are rescues. “When you're working with them with very sharp instruments, scissors and clippers, you really need to know about the body of the dog,” said Erna. “You can give them a quality groom and keep them safe as possible.”

In addition, you may need to manage dog owners and their anxieties and moods, as much as the canine client. “You've got the energy of the humans, this mix of emotions, and animals are very in tuned to that,” said Erna. “Your animals feed off that energy, so if you're calm and relaxed, they're going to be calm and relaxed.”

Erna and her groomers have brought that attitude into the business model that is predicated on minimizing the triggers that could set off these dogs. That includes the comfy confines where the grooming is done. Their space has a rustic set-up with a homier feel than a vet’s exam room. No stainless-steel tubs here.

“I had tubs custom built through this company that does these specific grooming tubs – more like a bathtub at home,” said Erna. “It's just a whole different change and feel for them, so that we can put off the right energy and work with them.”

WaG the Dog.

Erna is set to expand WaG, in terms of service and geography. On the service side, Erna is exploring adding a photo studio. Geographically, she is looking to open more locations with an eye on franchising. “I truly in my heart want to franchise and bring this model out to the world,” said Erna.

Her biggest concern is controlling the quality of the product. She’s open to advice from franchisees on how they do it. “I'll take it [advice] all day long, because I definitely want to do that,” said Erna.

Dogs everywhere are begging it happens.

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