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Client Corner: WaG Premier Grooming Salon and Dog Spa

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Stephanie Davis

WaG is a full-service salon and day spa with a menu including both traditional and creative grooming, and their staple service of patiently catering to the nurturing needs of senior pets and anxious dogs who may have had bad grooming experiences in the past.

Maria Erna, owner of WaG Premier Grooming Salon and Dog Spa, with her two dogs.

Today, pet owners treat their pets as family members and strive to offer the best possible care to their furry friends. The numbers don’t lie either; Americans spent nearly $70 billion on their pets in 2017, including health foods, wellness items, and services. With this booming industry, and a love for all animals, including her two rescue dogs, Maria Erna opened WaG Premier Grooming Salon & Dog Spa in February 2019 to provide a high-quality spa grooming experience to her community. We chatted with Maria to learn about her small business journey, her favorite moments of owning a business and the advice she has for others ready to start a small business.  

From Consulting to Pet Pampering

Prior to opening WaG, Maria spent over 30 years working as a Business Consultant. Consulting gave her the opportunity to work in a variety of industries including technology, real estate entertainment, radio, and restaurants/hospitality.  With clients across the globe Maria traveled often and like many pet parents, had to plan who would watch her dogs or where to board them when she was away from home.  In addition to the boarding aspect, she also had to consider where to get them groomed and often turned to big-box retailers. While the prices were reasonable at those locations, there was often high employee turnover,  making the level of service unpredictable and inconsistent. With two rescues, she didn’t know the experiences they had prior to living with her, and there was the chance for increased anxiety in new situations, which eventually lead Maria to bathe her dogs herself at a local self-service dog wash.

Though Maria is not a professional groomer, she had always wanted to work in the pet industry, even having written a business plan for a dog daycare over a decade ago, but saw a stronger need for a better grooming experience in her town.   

At WaG, every aspect was thought through to ensure dogs have the best grooming experience possible, incorporating the best of what she experienced, and improved on what she did not like at other shops. Maria searched for the best groomers in the area who had formal grooming education and training, and also trained in pet CPR and first aid. The staff is also trained to handle senior pets and anxious dogs who may have had bad grooming experiences in the past. Overall about the layout of the salon, Maria says “it feels like you are walking into a hair salon and boutique with soft music and candles. The grooming salon is in the front, not in some back area that can’t be seen. The staff treats your pet the way we want ours treated, like family”.

Along with considering the best experience for the dogs, Maria also aims to provide a service and experience pet owners value, and keeps their needs in mind. The service menu includes traditional and creative grooming, including show competition grooming, facials, high-quality products, and even the option for self-service grooming and bathing. Premium products are chosen with care and vetted to be sure they are made in the US and cruelty-free. Maria chooses products from local small business owners whenever possible, and for the times she can’t, she makes it a priority to support other small businesses across the country.

The Good, and the Challenging, Of Being a Small Business Owner

For Maria, there is a lot of good associated with being a small business owner. She offers the level of service that she and her team would want for their own pets and being able to deliver that experience, and peace of mind to her customers gives her immediate gratification.  Seeing the before and after transformations in both personality and appearance is rewarding. She enjoys providing a service to her community that pet owners have a strong need and desire for. Being able to make new furry friends every day is also a pretty nice perk

While there is a lot of good, it’s no secret that being a small business owner is hard work that often comes with a few challenges. Maria had a specific vision for her business in terms of the design and the various elements in it. The salon has a high-end, yet comfortable rustic look and feel, and with that design came a lot of planning and creativity. She was working with a great team to custom build everything when situations out of anyone’s control came up and delayed her opening date by several months. Due to the delay, Maria had to scramble with finding a way to manage her cash flow which was depleting quickly while paying rent and bills with no grooming income. She admitted that she was quite stressed, but found a way to make it work and was thankful for the planning she had done. She sold personal items, leaned on friends for construction help, tweaked the budget, took on a few small consulting jobs and sought assistance from a local bank that caters to small businesses. All of these steps gave her the padding she needed to move forward.

Advice for New Small Business Owners

Every year, thousands of new small businesses pop up. However, the sad flip side is many are forced to close due to a variety of reasons. Because of the stressful nature of running a small business, advice is super helpful, and Maria has some good tips to offer.

  • Find mentors and don’t let pride or ego prevent you from asking for advice. Maria said the best thing a small business owner can do before opening shop is to surround yourself with people who are already where you want to be. The people who are killing the small business game have already made their fair share of mistakes through their journey and can offer tips and cautionary tales to new business owners. Your mentor(s) don’t have to operate in the same industry as you. One of the most successful people Maria knows is a serial entrepreneur who runs both a liquidation company and a restaurant and provided her with a plethora of information, advice, and guidance, and most importantly things NOT to do. At the end of the day, small business owners are dealing with the same problems, so the type of industry doesn’t always matter.
  • Don’t take no for an answer. If you truly believe in your business idea and know that you can make a difference, don’t be afraid to make the leap. However, Maria cautions being smart about the leap. Do your research and make sure that your product or service is needed or solves a problem. Your gut feeling should match the data. For example, before choosing a location, Maria did research on how many other grooming shops were in the area (the closest was three miles away and none offered high-end services), she looked at the average median income, and she looked at the local traffic study to see how many cars traveled on the road her business would be on. WaG is located in an established shopping center frequented by locals, and Maria chose the location due to the added benefit of foot traffic patronizing other businesses that have been in that plaza for more than 20 years, as well as taking advantage of the street traffic that would see the signage. Reach for your goals, but make sure the research backs it up.
  • Surround yourself with a smart, qualified staff and support them. Because Maria isn’t a trained groomer and had a vision of high-quality services, she searched for the best Grooming Director that met specific criteria included having invested in themselves through training and continued education to bring her vision to reality. Once she filled that position, the Grooming Director knew where to get more like her and continues to hire and manage the WaG staff.  Maria stressed that once you have the right staff, share your vision with them and they will guide you in what the business needs to get there. Learn from them because it makes no sense to hire good people and tell them how to do their job. Supporting your staff is important because they need to feel appreciated and satisfied with their contribution. Maria recommends giving employees some type of ownership in your business. Ownership doesn’t have to mean financial stakes.  In her case, it means giving them a flexible work schedule, freedom to make decisions, input on policies, product selection, and space planning, and allowing each groomer to have their own professional social media accounts to promote the work they are most proud of. Grooming dogs all day is no easy feat and is physically demanding. Maria supports her staff outfitting the salon with state-of-the-art equipment, ergonomic stations, anti-fatigue mats, the products they prefer to work with, and the latest cloud-based technology to manage their appointments and client base from anywhere. It is a perk for the Groomer to be able to see her schedule from her phone and decide to come in later if she chooses.  Culture is important and will continue to keep your employees engaged in their work.
  • Take full advantage of free resources and be creative in your marketing. Once you have a business plan, you need the marketing to back it up. Marketing doesn’t have to be as expensive as it may seem given the endless resources that exist. Maria started her marketing more than six months prior to opening and provided updates on the construction and progress. Then touted the grand opening date. She joined her local Chamber of Commerce and took advantage of their resources and networking events to get her name out before opening. She also pairs with businesses that complimented hers to cross-market.

Bottom Line

Talking with Maria about her small business journey was inspiring and her passion for animals and her community really showed through. We kept the conversation with her going and she was a guest on the SurePayroll podcast Back of the Napkin. In her interview, she got into more detail about her small business journey, how she motivates and supports her staff and more. Listen to the full episode here

For more information on WaG, check out the website at or visit @WAGPlace  on Facebook or Instagram for photos of her clientele.

Photos provided by Kamal Asar and WaG

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This website contains articles posted for informational and educational value. SurePayroll is not responsible for information contained within any of these materials. Any opinions expressed within materials are not necessarily the opinion of, or supported by, SurePayroll. The information in these materials should not be considered legal or accounting advice, and it should not substitute for legal, accounting, and other professional advice where the facts and circumstances warrant. If you require legal or accounting advice or need other professional assistance, you should always consult your licensed attorney, accountant or other tax professional to discuss your particular facts, circumstances and business needs.