You are joining us in the third of four parts of this summer interview series, where I’m having real, honest conversations with entrepreneurs about the messy middle. Not the shiny highlight reel. Not all the big wins.
But the hard decisions and the big choices you have to make, leaning into absolute trust and faith that you can figure this out and make it happen. These are the stories that I feel like people don’t talk about enough.
Instead, we just get the shiny perfection, which leaves a lot of new entrepreneurs in those first two or three years of their business feeling like they’re doing it wrong if they didn’t magically manifest a business in six months.
Today I’m really excited to have this conversation with Hannah Branigan of Wonderpups Training. Yes, she is a professional dog trainer.
And this is a niche that we don’t hear about too often, but I love Hannah’s story, because it really goes to show you can take something that was a side passion, a hobby, and turn it into a full-time, legit business, that can create an incredible life for you and your family.
RC: What was it that had you thinking, I want to do my own thing, I want to be an entrepreneur? What did that look like for you?
I had finished undergraduate, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I got offered a fellowship for a graduate school at a school where my boyfriend at the time, who was really cute, also happened to be going, so it seemed like a really obvious choice to make, right?
You don’t have to pick anything and you get a whopping $19,000 a year to go crazy with and go to school some more. So I did that. And that happened to be in biomedical science. And I had always thought that I wanted to be in science. And this really is the long way around the barn, but I think it’s the best place to start.
I was doing the graduate school thing and I loved school, and I enjoyed that, but when you get to the part of being an actual grant-writing scientist, it turns out that I don’t like that part as much.
And the politics of it has nothing to do with science and it’s really very boring and it’s the exact opposite of being an entrepreneur in that I had no control over my life at all. Everyone else had all of the control but I also had like, all of the responsibility, so it’s like just being set up for failure every single day of your life.
I had this moment of, this is not right. So I had already passed, I’d completed all the coursework for the PhD program and I had passed the qualification exam, and all I had left to do was finish the research. a
One morning, I parked my car off campus and you walk in and I stopped at the bathroom of the lobby where my lab was, to throw up in the women’s room every morning on my way up to the lab. And then like, you’re 23 years old. And you are already this miserable. It’s probably not the right choice.
From there, I basically told my adviser that that this is not where I wanted to go. And everyone’s like, “but you’ve already got four years into this“. I said “Yeah, but it’s like the front cost fallacy. This is one more year, sure I would get the degree, in a job that I don’t want to do.”
I left and I took the master’s, and I went and just did a couple of treading water jobs for a while to kind of figure it out. I was working as a vet tech and I had been training dogs first as a hobby and then kind of for free, assisting other trainers and training, volunteering at an animal shelter and training for friends and family, which you should never do. Ever.
I still have relationships that are recovering from that. Yeah, so then the vet company that I had been working as a tech for asked if I wanted to start a behavior program there, so I did. I started working under that umbrella. It was still very much my program. It was kind of a nice little incubator type of situation.
It still had a lot of the negatives in that I had no real control over a lot of the business stuff, but I could build the program the way that I wanted. I did that and then I, after we grew that from one location, one trainer, to eventually I had several trainers working with me, and we’d expanded to other locations in that same company, and then I had that level-up feeling like, it’s time for me …
From there, I turned that over and a friend of mine is still running that program and it’s still really successful. I left to go up to the next tier and that’s where I really started my own thing.
I filled out the paperwork for an LLC for the first time. Which was nauseating and terrifying. But totally worth it. That’s a six-year journey. It was way more detailed than you probably wanted. That was sort of the process to where I got to here.
RC: When you were in that PhD program feeling like, “okay, this is not the right thing” you were dog training at that point yourself
It was actually one of those floating head moments where you’re like, watching yourself on TV. It’s really weird having a kind of objectivity on your own situation.
I had a dog that I had rescued and I’ve been volunteering in rescue since I turned 18. I’d gotten into training as a hobby as a way to help that particular dog and then I got, it became more of a hobby. And I got a second dog.
I realized that the more stressed I got about my real job or real life, I would spend more time training my dogs or thinking of other things to train, or volunteering to do more training. And I was like:
“What if we switched that? And actually made that the job? Maybe I wouldn’t throw up every morning. It might be a better quality of life situation.”
RC: Once you developed that program for the vet and decided to be legit, what did your business look like at first and what has it evolved to over the last few years?
That’s kind of crazy. It initially, I was doing entirely one-on-one dog training, so I had a few small group classes that I taught in my house. In my yard. But I was primarily going to other people’s houses to work one-on-one with them privately with their own dogs.
So I had gone from working with more mainstream group basic manner stuff to working with the harder cases, stuff that’s not appropriate for a group class.
I had already started transitioning that within my subject matter while I was working under the vet clinic. And this way, I had more time to do that, which was more intellectually interesting for me, without having to do the other stuff with that part of the business, I was able to do that.
It was all one-on-one. Occasional group classes, but mostly one-on-one. All word of mouth. I didn’t even have a website. I did get a Google Voice phone number with a voicemail.
That was the shape of the business to start and then I was doing that some more and I started doing a few group classes and some speaking engagements around, just regionally and then I got to speak at a couple of conferences at a national level.
That broke me through on the radar at a higher level. Right around that time, I got pregnant. You can’t work with aggressive dogs when you’re like, seven months pregnant, or shouldn’t.
I had gone through the Karen Pryor Academy, which is a professional instructor’s course for animal behavior and they offered me a position as an instructor for their professional instructors program.
Which is a hybrid program where the students do units online at home and then we meet at the end of every unit for a weekend workshop in person, and so there’s four units like that, where they do, so it’s a combination of online, stuff at home, and then in person.
That worked out really well, ’cause I was able to do that while nursing at home. And then hand my daughter off to my husband and run out for a two day workshop and come back. And that worked out pretty well.
Then I started teaching a couple of entirely online classes for another academy, again as a contractor. Started doing some online private lesson stuff through Skype and recorded video. I got kind of good at that.
If you would have asked me 5 years ago if could you teach dog training effectively online? I would have been like, “no it’s a physical skill”. You have to be there to coach people. And it turns out, actually it works really, really well.
I actually find I can be more effective online than when I was doing it in a more traditional format in person, because it’s easier to meet the dogs where they are and the people where they are and that’s where the behavior happens.
RC: What would you say to somebody who is looking for an opportunity to partner with another organization or work with another organization instead of going straight into launching your own thing first?
I would 100% recommend it. Even if it’s a temporary, one year kind of thing. I think boundaries are important. Know going in what everyone’s expectations are.
That was one of the only things that I could have done better, if I knew then what I know now, I might have asked for a few things in writing that I didn’t have in the early stages. But also, you don’t know what you don’t know. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that things would come up.
If you’re doing any kind of content generation, if you’re making the curriculum or you’re actually having to come up with your own lessons, who owns those is kind of critical to find out before you get excited and say yes.
Within that, I think it worked really, really well, especially for me, because I am continuing to be really nervous about marketing myself, putting myself out there, pretending that I’m a grown up when I’m not actually grown up.
Letting me ride some coattails for awhile while I figured out.
RC: It was a great way to baby-step into the business side while being comfortable with your skillset as a dog trainer.
By doing that partnership, you were able to gradually build up the business side of your skillset.
I got to watch, and I’ve had a series of really awesome bosses, which helps. I’ve had enough way less than awesome bosses that I can super appreciate someone who’s willing to actually help me grow versus someone who’s a micromanage controlling boss.
I learned a lot, that I would have just crashed and burned if I didn’t have that experience. And getting to kind of tap into their machine and take advantage of a little bit of that bulk marketing and then go from there was really helpful.
RC: Tell me a little bit about your latest venture and your signature program and what your experience has been launching that.
The way it evolved, or my idea for it evolved was because I’d been teaching these little a la carte classes for a couple of years now.
I speak at a lot of conferences and my niche that’s kind of developed almost on its own organically is this area of bringing positive reinforcement based training methods to competitive sports, which is unusual.
I’m teaching these little, single-subject classes or six week little units of classes or I’ll give a presentation on a specific subject and I’m also doing some private lessons and I travel around and do seminars all over the country.
Same thing, and for a two-day seminar, you have the same problem where you’re limited in time, so you have to define a pretty narrow scope to anything accomplished, otherwise you’re just firehosed.
People come up to me and they’d email me after the class had finished, or they’d come up to me at a conference, or after a seminar, and they’d say,
“I love the way you teach and I really want to do this thing, but I’m having trouble figuring out how to put it all together, I’ve taken all of these classes, but I feel like I have all these disconnected pieces of information and I don’t know how to plug it into a big picture.”
I remember what that feeling is like “okay, this little piece of information, that little piece of information, but how does this go together.“ I offered to a few clients,
I didn’t even think of it as a program at that time, just like, what can I do to help you connect those dots? And how can we fill this in to show you, so you can actually get somewhere?
So you can have a defined goal, because you can be doing all the training that you want to, but if there’s no finish line, there’s no goal post. I mean, it can be a temporary goal post, but there’s no way to cross something off or get a check, then it doesn’t feel like you’re making progress and that’s frustrating.
I helped a couple of people with that kind of connecting the dots thing. And it was actually through your program and you used the word mentorship and I was like, oh, that’s sort of what I’m doing, is I’m mentoring people.
I’m taking people, they’ve already been working with me, they know how I work, they have all the pieces, the puzzle pieces, and now it’s like “Let’s get in the car together and we’ll program the GPS and we’ll drive and I’ll make sure that you make all the right turns.“
It was very rewarding, because I got to actually be there for that transformation. I got to see everything slide into that a-ha and then when the fog clears and they can see the path, they can see how close they’ve been to the finish line all along and it just falls into place. I don’t know, I get chills.
From there I decided to make it an actual program. Because I get all these requests and dealing with them one at a time through email is kind of soul-sucking. So I was like, “okay, what can I do?”
So I saved a bunch of the emails that were going back and forth and I looked at the stuff that I was typing over and over again, okay, how can I put this into a PDF and make this like, a checklist?
I decided to focus on my favorite part of that transformation, which is that very first level of getting into sport, that novice level. Your very first time going to an actual competition and taking somebody to that point and then letting them go, that’s my favorite part.
I decided to design my program right around that transition, where someone’s already a dog trainer, they have a lot of skills on board, but they need support and help and they need some checklists, ’cause they’ve never been there before, so they need like a GPS to take them to that point.
And I made it into as much of a system as I can so that I can turn that into an actual program and help more than one person at a time and not be having nervous breakdowns.
RC: I remember when you messaged me, and you were like “I haven’t even sent out the link” you had kind of just teased it to your audience. And somehow, they knew the date you were opening.
A couple of people actually found the sales page, which you hadn’t emailed out at all, so the day that you were getting ready to open enrollment, some people had already found the sales page and joined.
That was crazy. There wasn’t a live link or anything, we had literally just been trying. I was trying to figure out how to actually connect a PayPal button to what I now know is called a landing page or a sales page.
I didn’t even know what that was. Somehow, a couple of people were excited enough to guess the URL, I guess? Or they somehow got in there and gave me money.
And I’m like, “hi, I don’t have a program yet, help!” So that was … terrifying and cool at the same time.
RC: What has happened since then? How many times have you run the program? How has that changed your business?
That was the beta. It was super small. I had no idea what I was doing from a technology management standpoint. I’m very confident in the material itself, so I didn’t have a question that this was a perfectly fine system to approach this process. Worked out a lot of those bugs.
I took a couple of months to go over that and then we just a couple of weeks ago opened enrollment again for our first official round, the first one I actually posted on Facebook and told people who weren’t already existing students that it was available.
And we started with a wait list again. Partly because I’m not going to put a bunch of time and money into something if three people are interested, ’cause that’s silly.
And I got 140 people on the wait list for 20 spots, which made me a little anxious. But it worked out, because of signing up for wait list and actually paying money are two different things. So what ended up happening was when I officially opened enrollment again and I did everything behind double-closed doors.
When I officially opened enrollment, I had people emailing me at like 7:30 that morning, like, are you opening yet? I was like, nine o’clock, I’m planning to open at nine o’clock. Then, at nine o’clock, the email goes out, doors officially open, and I had ten people enrolled in five minutes.
Then I picked up a couple more over the next couple of days, and then I posted on Facebook, and the rest of those spots filled. With, again, within six hours of that Facebook post going up.
RC: One thing that’s interesting about your business that’s kind of different from some others. One, your people are like serious fans.
Some people will launch and they won’t have people hunting down the link before or emailing like, is it open yet? Is it open yet?
I think this is really amazing because most people struggle to find that kind of fan base, and you’ve already got it there waiting for you.
Do you think that is there because you kind of built off of working for those other two companies as a teacher?
I think it’s two things. There’s definitely some of that. I think probably half of the people who have found me and ended up that way, found me through one of those other companies. And certainly, there’s legitimacy being associated with another national brand.
Otherwise, I have for the last several years, just been posting videos of myself, just training my own dogs, and occasionally clips from like, a lesson. Not with any plan, nothing that I would call like, a social media plan, but just “hey, here’s what we did on Saturday and I would through it up on YouTube”.
People just enjoyed watching that and liked what they saw. And then, they’d follow me on YouTube, and then when I joined Facebook, they joined me. I was really late to the Facebook game. But I finally joined it.
The same thing kind of happened there. Sharing …“This is what I’m doing anyways, hey, here’s a two minute clip of me being myself with my dogs and how I would normally train”. Normal stuff. They really liked that.
RC: What else have you been working on that’s made an impact in your business as you shift away from working, under other people’s brands as an instructor and now under your own brand or your own business?
I have two DVDs that are recorded that are available for sale. That was working with a production company. Again, I didn’t do it by myself. They’re still really low-tech. It’s a recording of me teaching a seminar with very little editing.
When I’m in a professional mode teaching in front of people, I try not to drop the f-bomb a lot. Other than editing out bathroom breaks and stuff, it’s pretty much just me teaching a seminar and those have been really popular. And a lot of people have found me that me.
Or they heard of me and then they went and bought the DVD and now they got to actually see me teach in person, and again, it’s not scripted. It’s me interacting. I do PowerPoint as part of my seminars, but the majority of it is me working with teams in live, in real-time, right there. That helped.
I did start a blog, but I have found that blogging is hard for me. It takes me like, all day, to write one blog post, and it’s just very sweaty. People like it, but just compared to how much effort it is for me to make a blog post, it’s just bizarre.
But then, in February I started a podcast, and that has turned out to be everything I wanted the blog to be but less stressful.
I know other people would find the reverse to be true, but for me, sitting down with a microphone and a couple of bullet points and then talking about those things for 20 or 30 minutes is way easier than obsessing over a blog post for a day or longer.
RC: That’s one reason I tell people is to go into your strength. If you like writing, write. Be a blogger. But if you were going to take eight hours to write a 500 word post, you should not be blogging, you should be doing something else.
I can whip out a podcast a lot faster and not have to go lay down after. And I think it also helps because, especially as someone, as a teacher, how I talk comes out better when I’m actually talking, I think the voice helps a little bit with people hearing me than when I’m trying to write.
RC: Have you found that since launching your podcast, you’ve had more people find you and join your community?
RC: Now that you’re on the other side, what would you tell somebody who’s just getting started on their entrepreneurial journey?
What would be your biggest piece of advice for them?
My biggest piece of advice, I would say cornily, being yourself, I think is probably the hardest … It’s terrible advice, because I heard that same advice and I was irritated by it, initially. Be your most authentic self.
What I actually did that helped me get my head wrapped around this idea of actually marketing but in a way that is also me, was I made a Google document that I pasted in all of the texts that I had sent my friends over the course of a couple of weeks and then I just went in and pulled out the ones that were too personal.
I basically put in a threshold, if there was more swearing than I would want my mom to see, I would pull those out. And if it was like, obviously if it was like, I’ll be there at six, those don’t count.
But then I looked at this is how I would normally talking if I’m not thinking about how I’m talking with just a little bit of a filter for excessive swearing. And then the rest of those, those are tweets.
Approaching it that way helped me apply that idea of just be yourself, but in an actionable way. Instead of like, be myself, great. It’s like, don’t be nervous. Oh, fantastic. If I knew not being nervous would help, I would have stopped being nervous forever ago, so I’ll just stop being nervous from now on.
I did the same thing when I was first writing lessons, I looked at those videos of myself teaching, when I’m not thinking about a video camera.
I’m just in front of a student and how can I most effectively teach this person right now? What does that transcript look like? And take out the “ums” and the “you knows”, and that’s a good pretty good lesson, right there.
And then I can just sort it and filter it a little bit. I found out looking at recordings of myself in some way more helpful in identifying what that was, so then I could be myself.
RC: I remember the first time we started working together, and I remember reviewing your website for you, and I was like, it’s so buttoned-up and you’re more fun than this.
I think that’s a problem, especially anybody who comes from a super professional, super academic world.
I know I had to de-program myself to not speak in MBA talk. I think when you’ve been in that world and you’re so used to things being a certain way and writing a certain way, that when you’re told … And especially when it’s a copy on your website or your emails or social media, it’s really hard to be like, it’s okay to crack a joke.
It’s something that shows more of who you are and it’s been really fun to watch you do that because you are, and it’s been really fun to watch you do that because you still are very professional in your site, but now there’s more of you and your style and your humor and I think it took awhile to pull out and find your comfort zone.
I just kind of turned it sideways because would write something, and then I would look at it and I would ask, “is that professional? Does that sound professional?”
And now, I’m writing the thing and at the very least, I don’t ask myself is that professional anymore. That’s not the problem. Not in writing, certainly maybe in person. In writing, I stopped. I put a block there. I’m no longer asking is that professional, and now I’ll be like, would I really say that? And then I’ll read it out loud. No, no.
RC: I love hearing about the success you’re having. So, everybody can find you at WonderPupsTraining.com. Where is your favorite place that they can find you in social?
Facebook and Instagram are where, if you’re looking for a window into my crazy world, that would be where to find it. Drinking From the Toilet on iTunes and SoundCloud and everywhere podcasts are sold.
Isn’t Hannah just such a smarty? I love, love, love her talking about this journey, and there’re so many nuggets we could pick apart and dive deeper into, but the one I want to really walk away with is when she said you know, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And she acknowledged that going into this business.
She knew there was going to be so much that she didn’t know about what she didn’t know. By understanding that and looking for opportunities to partner with other organizations, especially in those first few years; really helped her to accelerate up this learning curve to establish credibility for herself.We do not have to start from scratch. You don't have to start from ground zero.Click To Tweet
If you start making those connections, start making those relationships and see if there are opportunities to partner with people, to co-teach or to guest teach for people, because getting involved with other people’s businesses is a great way to set up that foundation for yours.
I hope you enjoyed this episode, thank you so much for being here. I can’t wait to connect with you again for the next interview in this series with Catherine Middlebrooks. I’ll talk to you soon.