In his eight years since starting Sandberg K9 Solutions, Jon Sandberg of De Pere has built a successful business. But, as a solo entrepreneur, he knows that there are limitations to growth that he is trying to overcome.
It all began when Sandberg was completing a master’s degree and undecided what his next career move would be. A friend, who had just returned from a conference in Madison that focused on current health topics, handed him a pamphlet on the use of dogs to sniff out bedbugs.
“From my studies, I knew how to do research, and because the common denominator in my life had always been dogs, I started looking into it and realized that there was a large demand in this country,” he said.
His journey started with a visit to the Green Bay SCORE chapter, where he was mentored by Jim Fitzpatrick and Bob Jahnke. Fitzpatrick, a certified public accountant, helped him work through the numbers and gave suggestions on how this type of business could be sustainable. Jahnke helped with marketing.
“When I wrote my initial business plan with Jim, I came up with a plan called ‘sniff wizard,’" Sandberg said. "I considered the dog and how many hours he could work, the number of days a week, and the number of jobs I would need to make a profit. When I wrote that, I thought that hotels would be my biggest client.”
He says that his initial plan turned out to be different from what was anticipated. Because of continuous hotel bookings, it was difficult to get in and do more than a few rooms at a time. That meant a lot of coming and going and being at the mercy of how busy the hotel was. Also, he noted, many hotels haven’t fully accepted the problem.
And bedbugs are a problem.
Nationwide, numerous surveys say that about 20% of homes have had or currently have bedbugs. Infestations in the United States have been increasing. They are sturdy, little creatures and attach themselves to almost anything and will survive for several months without eating. When they do eat, it is by sucking blood.
Sandberg said his dog, Chester, is able to sniff out bedbugs before there is a huge economic cost due to a large infestation. Although bedbugs can often be seen with the naked eye, they may be in areas of a mattress, furniture, or other places that aren’t readily visible.
“It took me about three years into the business before people understood the capability of the dog and that it could save them money,” Sandberg said. “Because it is such a specialty niche, people looked confused, but when I explained how they could save money by being proactive, they started to see the benefits.”
His first break came after he redefined his market.
He said, “I needed to know who my client was and it wasn’t who I thought, so I pivoted. Business owners need to do that. Look at COVID, if you didn’t pivot and adjust, you could be dead in the water.”
A big change came when he started doing business with the Green Bay Housing Authority; that opened up additional opportunities. He learned that the apartment and residential markets were his primary customers. And, as the word about his business spread, the size of his market area also increased to where hours were maximized.
That is a challenge for business growth. With Chester limited to four hours of sniffing a day, Sandberg isn’t in a position where he can take expand his client base much beyond where it is now. He has looked at options. He considered buying another dog or two and hiring employees, but in working with Jahnke, has come up with a bigger idea.
“Bob got me on a Zoom call with one of his clients who actually franchised a cleaning business, and then sold the franchise. He provided good information, but because of the costs involved in franchising, we came up with a plan to sell this concept as a business package. The buyer will pay a certain amount upfront and then there will be a monthly membership fee,” Sandberg said.
He will include a dog that has been trained at a nationally recognized training facility along with master level training in working with the dog. The package will have an operational handbook that gives information on administration, sales, and marketing.
“At the current time, Bob and I are breaking all of the details down into manageable stuff. When that’s completed, we will get it to someone who can clean it up, and then hire an attorney to put it together into a nice package,” Sandberg said. “We hope to have it ready to go within a year.”
The information will be added to his website, and marketed throughout the country. He says that his most likely prospect is a person who loves working with a dog regardless of their feelings about bugs.
He added, “A big selling point is that you can dislike bugs and still do this. I am not an insect person. The whole purpose of starting the business was working with a dog. I’ve been able to see Chester mature from a pup, to where as a ‘senior citizen,’ he works at a methodical pace and will go into a residential building and slow down because he knows he will be there for a while.”
For those who decide to buy a package, Sandberg will be able to share years of experience and guide that person to success.
Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and past district director for SCORE, Wisconsin.
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: De Pere man, with help from bedbug-sniffing dog Chester, find success