Dollars and scents

Business stinks, but the work keeps piling up in
yards across the state for "entremanures."
By Sam Boykin

David Mann jokes that the 10 years he spent in Hollywood as an assistant editor on Lethal Weapon 2 and other movies prepared him for his current career. But instead of taking crap from showbiz egomaniacs, he handles the real thing. He’s a poop scooper for hire, scouring the backyards and common areas of the Triangle for dog droppings.

Mann, 47, and wife Galya, 36, opened DoodyCalls in Raleigh in October and had 30 clients by June. He scoops; she handles accounting and marketing. It’s not exactly the career path he envisioned when he left Wilmington for L.A. in 1986, but he’s sure that animal-waste removal can be fertile ground for go-getters who know their, um, stuff.

At $16 for a weekly visit — more for multiple dogs or more frequent visits — the Manns need many more customers to have a shot at getting stinking rich. “It’s kind of risky because a lot of people aren’t familiar with this kind of business,” he says, “but it’s catching on.” Pet ownership is at an all-time high. The U.S. has more than 75 million pet dogs, the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association says. Each produces an average of 274 pounds of manure a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Many cities have laws regulating its disposal.

But it doesn’t help that the economy is as soft as a Pomeranian’s coat. When money is tight, people are more likely to let go their poop scooper than the landscaper or pool guy. And competition is at an all-time high — partly because you don’t have to be flush to get started. If you’ve got a rake, a scoop and an easy way to get rid of the residue, you too can be your own boss and join the hundreds giving new meaning to gross income.

About 400 scooping services operate around the country, a figure that has more than doubled in five years, Matthew Osborn says. He runs Pooper-Scooper.com, an international directory of pet-waste removal services. Nine North Carolina companies are listed on his site, but there are several dozen throughout the state. With names like Scooperman, ScooperDude and Doodie Free Zone, it’s clear the owners aren’t a pretentious lot. They know theirs isn’t a glamorous business, and that’s part of the reason the Manns hope to prosper. “Somebody once told me that it’s always good to own a business that does a job nobody else likes,” he says. “And I don’t know many people who enjoy scooping poop.”

Jim Ingram, 51, is a big guy with a round belly and long white beard who looks a lot like Santa Claus. In fact, he plays St. Nick at Christmas time. Or as he puts it, “I don’t play Santa. When I put on the red suit, I am Santa.” The rest of the year, he runs Doo-ty Calls, a Germanton-based pet-waste remover. It was his wife’s idea. One day in 1999, as they watched a television program about a scooping business in Ohio, she turned to him and said, “Hey, you should do that.”

So he did, starting the business with a capital investment of $10. “It was just enough to buy the printing materials. I started putting up flyers and signs in vet clinics and pet stores. It took me six months to get my first customer.”

After three years, he was able to quit his job as a cook in a barbecue restaurant and make Doo-ty Calls full time. Today, it has more than 60 customers, including about a half-dozen apartment complexes. He tools around Forsyth and Guilford counties in a blue Chevy S-10 pickup. On the side is a picture of a dog taking a squat behind a red circle and slash. In the bed are the tools of the trade: a narrow rake, long-handled dustpan, bucket, trash bags and a Clorox solution, which he sprays on his tools to avoid the spread of disease.

Customers can have him dispose of dog doo in their trash can, or he’ll double bag it and take it to a landfill. Weekly rates start at $11 for one dog — $4 for each additional pooch — and he clears about $30,000 a year. “This is an easy business to start, but you’ve got to have staying power. When I started, there wasn’t much competition. Now there’s about six pooper scoopers in this area.”

Sharon Baynes of Youngsville was volunteering at the Franklin County Humane Society when she called another animal shelter and Ingram answered the phone. “We started talking, and I asked him what he did. When he told me, I laughed at him. I said, ‘People actually pay you to do that?’” But the more he described his gig, the better it sounded to Baynes. “I always wanted to start a business that I didn’t have to put a lot of money in,” she says. “I already had a truck. And volunteering with animal rescue, I figured I was doing it, anyway. I might as well get paid for it.”

So in 2003, she launched Scoop-n-Doo, clearing just $1,096 in her first year. Baynes, who wouldn’t reveal her age, now has 41 clients — “mostly average, everyday folks” — and made $21,500 last year. She works full time at a factory to make ends meet. “Some people laughed at me when I started, but my family supports me. And there are times when it gets you, especially the smell, but you learn to deal with it. Especially when you’re going to the bank.”

One of her competitors is Chris Gonzalez, who started Garner-based Poop Away in 2005. He moved from New York about 10 years ago. “I was looking to buy a house, and the prices in New York were so expensive. At the time, a lot of people I knew were moving to North Carolina, and they were telling me how cheap and nice everything was. I came down to look and wound up moving here.”

Gonzalez, 38, had worked most of his adult life as a handyman, installing gutters, siding and replacement windows. “I was burned out, and I was starting to get back problems from going up and down ladders all day long.” The idea of starting a scooping service had intrigued him ever since he saw a television news story about one in the early ’90s. After moving to North Carolina, he decided to give it a shot. “I did the numbers and figured it wouldn’t be that hard to get a business going in a big growth area like the Triangle.”

He launched a Web site and started networking with pet sitters and landscaping companies. When friends found out what he was up to, they laughed. “We had a poker game at my buddy’s house. They went to my Web site, and they’re like, ‘You’re going to pick up dog shit?’ I said, ‘You people laugh now, but you’ll be crying later.’” Gonzalez quit doing home-improvement jobs last year, and today Poop Away has nearly 120 clients and grosses more than $50,000 a year. He’s buying out another company, which he expects to bring 60 more customers. “As soon as the deal goes through, I’m going to buy another truck and hire some part-time help.”

While his new career sometimes calls for long days and hard work, it’s easier on his body than what he used to do. Along the way, he has picked up wisdom that only hands-on experience brings. Small dogs mess less, for example, but it’s harder to find. “I have a couple of customers with Great Danes, and I can spot the poop from 20 feet away. It’s not like some poodle where you really have to look.” After a few trips to a customer’s yard, he pretty much knows where to look. “Dogs are all creatures of habit. They’re going to go in one certain area. And you count piles depending on how many dogs people have, so you know you’re getting it all.”

Some scoopers get more than they bargained for. “I’ve found a lot of funny stuff in poop,” says Susan Fischer, proprietor of Poo Patrol Pet Waste Clean Up Service in Fletcher. “It’s amazing what a dog will eat. One dog eats crayons, so I get some very psychedelic land mines. One time, I even found a little plastic army guy. He was stuck, and it’s like he was looking up at me saying, ‘Help me, help me.’ I need to write a coffee-table book about all the stuff you find in dog poo.”

Perhaps nobody in the business has as much fun as Dan “Scooperman” Williams, who has made it an integral part of his identity. He started Scooperman five years ago in Charlotte and is often found at trade shows and other public events sporting his trademark, full-body Superman-style outfit, complete with red cape, yellow belt and the word “Scooperman” emblazoned across the chest. He often cruises around the city in a bright blue truck, his company’s name emblazoned along the side and ISCOOP4U on the license plate.

Prior to becoming an “entremanure,” Williams, 48, worked in data management for an aerospace contractor at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. He was laid off in 1996 because of a corporate merger. When a buddy complained that he’d rather pay someone to clean up his dog’s poop than do it himself, Williams had an epiphany. He invested in some advertising and decals for his truck and started Pet Butlers. He moved to California in 2001 to get married but discovered there were several scoopers in Orange County, so he worked as an assistant manager at an art-supply store. His wife took a job in Charlotte in 2003. “I nosed around and found no one was scooping in the area and started Scooperman.”

It took a while, but the shtick paid off. In 2005, after about a year of operation, he had about 50 customers. Today, he has close to 200 in six counties and cleared nearly $50,000 last year. He recently hired two employees — nicknamed Scooper Chick and Crapton America — and has three vehicles in his fleet, including a black Chevy S-10 with a license plate that reads #1WITH#2.

But it hasn’t all been pun and games. His marriage went south soon after the move to Charlotte — ending in divorce — and he nearly worked himself to death trying to get the business going, often toiling seven days a week. “I had high blood pressure and had to wear a heart monitor.” Now that he has some help and is healthy again, Williams says he’s excited about the future and predicts his company will gross about half a million in the next two to three years. “I just regret not having the courage or the vision to start a business when I was a younger man.”

One of the attractions of the poop-scooping business is its low startup costs, but the Manns are taking a different approach — paying $24,500 upfront, plus a cut of their revenue, to a franchiser. Mann left Hollywood in 1998 to be closer to his parents but also because of a phenomenon all too familiar to Tar Heel workers: technological change. The industry was moving from film-based to digital editing, which meant less work for assistant editors. “I occasionally miss the excitement of L.A. and working in movies, but I don’t really miss assistant editing.”

David met Galya online, and they were married in 2006. The couple wanted to own their own business, but without any experience they figured some sort of franchise was the way to go. “We looked at several franchises and even considered a janitorial service, but then we came across DoodyCalls,” he says. “With all the new homes and subdivisions in Wake County, it seemed like a good fit. And being part of a national franchise does help. We get more exposure and help if we need it.”

Charlottesville, Va.-based DoodyCalls has about 30 franchises, and the Manns’ is the first in North Carolina. After coughing up the franchise fee — thanks to an inheritance from his mom — they attended a 30-hour training session, which covered marketing, accounting and business administration. DoodyCalls gets 12% of the gross. Part of that goes to a national call center, where company representatives sign up clients and handle complaints. “You get business coaching, public relations and ongoing training,” President Jacob D’Aniello says. “There’s an entire team helping them be successful.”

In addition to cleaning private yards, the couple also works with homeowners associations, apartment communities and parks to manage pet waste in common areas, for which DoodyCalls charges $45 per hour. They also install and maintain pet-waste stations — from small bag dispensers to 11-gallon bins — which they’ll service and maintain for about $20 a week. “The commercial jobs do pay more, but it is harder work.”

He hopes to have covered the franchise fee and turned an annual profit by May 2009. “We usually work seven days a week, but I really love it. Financially it may take awhile to get to where we want to be. But we’re getting new clients every week. We just have to keep at it and be patient.”