Sit, heel, turn over $20 million

With a staff of three and a couple of four-legged friends, Sylvia and Danny Wilson have made a $20-million a year business with franchisees all over the world. They are happy to share their experiences with SmartCompany readers.

Sylvia and Danny Wilson (right) founded the dog training franchise Bark Busters in 1989. With a staff of three, they have built a network of master franchises and 409 franchisees worldwide to turn over $20 million in 2006.

In 2007 revenue will reach $28 million. Bark Busters is now operating in Australia, New Zealand, Britain, the United States, Canada, Japan, Taiwan and Israel. And they are soon to set up in France and Germany.

Sylvia and Danny are happy to answer your questions. Email to [email protected]


Jacqui Walker: What is the niche you saw when you started the company?

Sylvia: We realised while working at the RSPCA that many dogs were being surrendered in their prime by their owners who could not control their bad behaviour. At the time there was no help for these people whose problems fell through the cracks. Many dog trainers are reluctant to deal with dogs deemed dangerous or difficult to train. Many prefer to recommend euthanasia without even meeting these dogs face to face.

Did you always intend to franchise? How did that decision come about?

Franchising was not our first immediate thought, as we thought we were the only solution and preferred to be a ‘two man’ show.

We wrote books and produced videos thinking that we would help those dog owners we could not reach. However when people bought our books or videos they still needed assistance. We could not reach them all, so we realised that franchising was the best solution for us. It was a way of providing them with the best possible service as the people who we got involved with would own their own business and could be guided by us. It was also a way of protecting the system.

We decided to investigate franchising, but before we were ready a lady approached us asking if she could join us and be our first franchisee. She had seen a story about us in the newspaper where we had mentioned that we were considering franchising. We told her she would have to wait until we had completed the legal process. She pestered us until we got the company ready to franchise then she bought the first franchise. Sometimes there are people out there who push you to take the next step, and sometimes it’s the right step. In our case it was what made us get to the franchising line faster.

What strategic errors did you make in the start up phase? And how did you recover?

We made a small error during the setup stage when commencing our business; we took on board a business partner. This proved to be an error of judgement on our part as they tried to take over and run the show. We severed our relationship very early on. We realised that we had undervalued our own natural talents at the time, thinking that we had to have someone with business experience to assist us.

We have discovered that we are natural entrepreneurs with good solid marketing and business sense. With the growth of the company and the fact that we have grown it into the largest dog training company in the world with just two directors (Danny and myself) making the business decisions, we are so grateful that we took that direction. We will never again give anyone control over our company.

Now you have a big reputation and a network of franchisees, was it difficult to sell the first one? How did that come about?

Our first franchise was a ‘walk up start’ and we had no problem finding people after that. Your first can be easy to find if you believe in your business as others will. We have assisted other businesses to franchise and they have had no problem finding their first franchise once we showed them how to believe in themselves.

What are your best tips for recruiting franchisees?

We use many avenues to recruit the right people. We advertise in local newspapers, on franchise websites, magazines and via word of mouth. We also find that people who have been previous clients, once they see how the system works, will want to join us.

How have you ensured that the franchisees all offer a good service and represent the brand well? Are compliant with the system?

We ensure the quality control of the company and our people via regular audits, conferences and upgrades to training. We were the first dog training company in the world to be ISO9000-endorsed. We are accredited with Lloyds of London. This ensures that we provide a quality controlled service that takes care of the customers’ needs and ensures that no matter where they are in the world, that they will all get the same quality service when they call Bark Busters.

How would you describe your relationship with franchisees? Has that changed over time?

Our relationship with our franchisees is first one of friendship. We have franchisees that have been with the company for 14 years and we have forged longstanding friendships. They are part of the Bark Busters family. In the beginning we had to learn to be there for them and after years of only the two of us that was a learning curve and took some adjustment. We had to learn how to deal with people and to be patient and understanding of their needs.

The way things have altered over time is now we explain to our franchisees about what buying a franchise really means. That might sound silly but many people who buy a franchise think they are buying a job, they don’t realise that they are buying a business and a lifestyle where they have business mentors on tap with a tried and true business model. There is less chance of them failing.

What structure have you used for franchising overseas? Master franchising direct franchising and what was your rationale for that? What has been the biggest challenge with international expansion? And how did you overcome it? What lessons did you learn?

We have had very few problems expanding overseas as we grew from within the company. We found all our master franchisees from within the company (other than Israel). Our highest achievers were offered great deals to assist us in taking the company overseas and they have all been very successful. If we had any problems it was just learning how to best do business in each respective country as they all vary. Lucky for us all dogs speak ‘dog’, and that has made our problems small ones.

We have learned that you must speak with Austrade in each country as they can make your job easier. They have all the local knowledge and can point you in the right direction. We always do our research before entering each country, ensuring that the market is viable.

The USA was a tough market to enter and getting established was very expensive, but it is such a huge market that it’s more than worth the effort. We have just been listed as number one in the Pet Service Industry in the USA 2007 by Entrepreneur Magazine after only five years in the marketplace.

How is your industry changing at the moment? What are the new trends you are seeing?

The pet industry is rapidly growing, with dog ownership and pet expenditure on the rise throughout the world. The economy does not appear to affect our industry. There was a downturn in the franchise industry just recently in the USA where some industries were not selling any new franchises (which is now on the rise again). Through this downturn Bark Busters continued to attract and sell franchises.

Are you an innovative company? What are your new products and services and how to you develop your new ideas?

We are an innovative company. You cannot reach number one without being flexible and innovative. We are always learning and growing and constantly thinking of new and innovative ideas. We look for a need and look at ways to fill it. We don’t just train dogs, we have developed the following services:

  • Stand right, no bite: A dog safety lecture for service industry staff, dog rangers and shelter workers.
  • Dog handling and capturing course: A training program for rangers and shelter staff.
  • Barking solutions: An online service for those people who live near barking dogs and need a way of letting the owner know their dog is causing a nuisance.
  • Dally says, do right no bite: A dog safety program for children.
  • Dealing with feelings after a dog attack: A confidence building program for people who are traumatised after a dog attack.
  • Dog assessments: A service for those people who have had their dog declared dangerous. Or for those people whose dog has bitten someone and they need to know if their dog can be rehabilitated.

What are your ambitions for the company?

Our ambitions are to establish the company in at least 20 countries. We want to be established in Europe and throughout the rest of Asia. With eight countries already established and flourishing, and France, Germany and Spain on the horizon (which will make 11), we don’t see that this is too difficult a task. We are already number one in our industry and the market leader, but we don’t intend to rest on our laurels. We are very positive thinking people and know that we can achieve anything we set out to do.

We want to assist other Australian companies to do what we have done and know that Australian companies have got what it takes to make the grade anywhere they go.

Anything you would like to add?

Franchising is the best thing any company can do, but they must always behave in an ethical, genuine and honest manner to ensure true success. They must always take their franchisees into account and care for their welfare as franchisees can make or break you. If your franchisees are happy and content in the knowledge that you’re always there for them when they need you, and are willing to listen to their problems, then your business cannot fail to succeed and you will deserve your success.


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