How I Started A $1M/Month School Focused On Animal-Related Programs

Published: May 11th, 2020
Steven Applebaum
Animal Behavior C...
from Santa Clarita, California, USA
started June 2001
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Hi! My name is Steve Appelbaum and I started a vocational school called Animal Behavior College (ABC). Having trained dogs for years and seeing how dramatically the pet industry was (and still is) growing, I wanted to create something that would allow passionate animal lovers a real chance to earn a living helping animals.

Back in 1998, the only two educational paradigms I knew were brick and mortar and correspondence type programs. I rejected the brick and mortar model because I didn’t have the capital to set up physical locations all across the nation. What’s more and I guess in 1998 I was ahead of my time, I believed that the internet would revolutionize education and make many conventional educational facilities obsolete.

Correspondence (distance learning) programs were the other option and while these were not new concepts, I didn’t like them because they lacked the hands-on element I knew was vital for people to experience if they wanted to become working dogs trainers. Since the only two options I knew weren’t going to cut it, I thought of a third option.

At that time, I had another company that was supplying a national pet store chain with obedience classes in their stores. So, I combined a distance learning portion of the program to teach students theoretical/academic aspects of behavior they could study at home with a hands-on portion where students would observe and work with my trainers in the over 450 stores we offered obedience classes all across the country.

This hybrid model was an instant success. My school took off and we never looked back! We had double-digit growth every year from 2001-2014. Animal Behavior College programs are all animal-related. Today we teach people to be professional dog trainers, pet groomers, veterinary assistants, cat trainers, and aquatic management specialists. We are currently working on a zookeeper assistant program which will launch sometime in 2020. Our customers are people who are passionate about animals and want to make helping them their life's work. We have students in all 50 states and Canada.

Revenue varies but $1,000,000. per month is pretty typical. Our biggest month ever was $3.2 million but that only happened once. The COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be a challenge but we are open for business and are actually seeing an increase in enrollments. While revenue is one metric of determining the success of a business, the biggest perk for me is that over the years we have helped tens of thousands of people fulfill their dreams. What’s more, our platform puts us in a position to make a real difference in the lives of literally hundreds of thousands of dogs and cats.


What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

I was a professional dog trainer for 15 years. I realized during the mid-’80s that the pet industry was going to undergo a change. Specifically, small independent stores would lose market share to larger corporate players. In the pet business the only way larger stores would be able to compete with entrenched “Mom and Pop” local ones would be to offer some sort of “one-stop” shopping concept. A pet supermarket which aside from an insane number of products might also include services like dog training, grooming, etc. So, I made contact with a growing pet chain.

As a result of this, my small Los Angeles based company started offering obedience training classes in their stores. This was revolutionary at the time and we quickly grew to offer classes first throughout CA and within 5 years throughout the nation. At its peak my training company had over 550 dog trainers teaching in hundreds of stores in 40+ states. But I had a challenge. We couldn’t find enough dog trainers. What’s more, we found that absent any certification or required educational prerequisites to work as dog trainers, a shocking number of people who answered our ads for trainers couldn’t pass our basic skill and knowledge exam. We realized that there was a real need for a school to train dog trainers.

At the time I visualized interested people going to my school, graduating, and then working for my training company. However, I discovered that over 75% of the graduates wanted to go into business for themselves. I started Animal Behavior College in 1998 and within a year came to understand that the school was a better business than my national dog trainer company. We incorporated in 2001 and by the time the pet chain bought me out of my contract in 2004, ABC was a stand-alone entity generating 2x what my dog trainer company was doing.

We launched our veterinary assistant program in 2008, our groomer program in 2010, cat training in 2016, and our latest course, aquatics management in 2019. In 2020 we set up a subsidiary school called Apex Career School. This school offers medical coding and medical billing programs. If Apex does even half as well as ABC has, I will be very happy as once again we will be helping people reach their dreams.

Don’t define your life entirely by your business. That’s a trap! Sure, it takes dedication and a willingness to forget or forgot other things in your life at the start, but avoid making this your only source of happiness.

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

Having been a working professional dog trainer for years, I was very aware of the knowledge and skills a trainer needed in order to be successful. Since good dog trainers are also good instructors, I knew how to create lesson plans and understandable materials.

Once we realized that our graduates wanted to go into business for themselves, we started to teach students about how small businesses work. It’s important our students learn about business structures, how to create a business plan, budget, marketing, and more.

I wrote the first curriculum with help from other people working for my company at the time. My VP, Debbie K, a woman who had been with my company since the mid-'80s, was very helpful along with many others. I still have a copy of our first curriculum. It’s 175 pages. Since then it has been rewritten/updated a dozen times, is close to 1000 pages, and almost unrecognizable from the original prototype!

Describe the process of launching the business.

We used a very low-tech approach. By 1998 we had been interviewing and taking job applications for people who wanted to be dog trainers for years. We had a pretty big list of folks who didn’t have the experience or knowledge to work as professional dog trainers. So, we sat down and started to call them! We probably had close to 3,000 names and after we reached the first 150, we had 15 students wanting to enroll.

Having learned the hard way to start slowly, learn the ropes, and make mistakes on a small scale before growing further, we capped the enrollments for 6 months while we worked out the kinks in our new system. Then we opened up enrollments again and started calling more people from our list. We ended the first year with 75 students and could have enrolled 2x that. At this point, it was very clear that this was a business that had fabulous potential.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

We jumped on the internet bandwagon fairly early and by 2000-2001 we were starting with a form of what became PPC. These days we do a lot of PPC and SEO work and increasing amounts of social media.

Interestingly for us, we have found that while social works very well for establishing a digital community and of course for social proof, we still don’t get the majority of our leads from social media.

I think the biggest thing that helps us attract students are our graduates! We have over 25,000 alumni all across North America and we constantly get students wanting to enroll as a result of a personal referral from one of our grads. I love this as in my mind it means we are really doing something right here! That kind of business isn’t one you can buy! It must be earned one student and graduate at a time.

Another thing that helps are some of the animal welfare campaigns we have engaged in. A perfect example of this is something called “Students Saving Lives.” About 15 years ago Debbie K whom I mentioned earlier came to me with an idea. Why not ask our dog trainer students to volunteer 10 hours at a local rescue or shelter before they graduate? These places can use help.

We know that trained dogs are more adoptable and have a lower recidivism rate. We believed that having someone well versed in behavior available to answer questions from shelter staff or potential adoptees created a win for everyone. So we set this up. The result? ABC students have contributed over 150,000 hours to rescues and shelters all across North America. What’s more, many develop relationships with these organizations that last for years. All of this helps pets looking for forever homes and the people who want to love them. When we created this we had no clue that it would stimulate business. But it sure has!

We do other types of marketing as well. Some of you might have watched our commercials on Animal Planet or seen our YouTube Channel.

Finally, we look at our curriculums as living documents. As science teaches us more and knowledge advances, we continually update our programs to keep them and our students current. In fact, all of our graduates have lifetime access to the latest curriculum for the program they graduated from at no cost.

What are you doing today and what does the future look like?

The future is bright and ever-changing. COVID-19 has perhaps changed forever the way we work. Prior to it, we had 70+ people working in our 22,000 sq. ft office in Santa Clarita CA. We were able to transition to remote which saved everyone's job and allowed us to essentially not miss a beat. (We were down 2 workdays in March 2020).

Failure often leads to success if you can handle admitting mistakes and making changes. Don’t quit BUT learn from your errors and come back not only working harder but also working smarter.

Now at the end of April, it looks like we might want to seriously consider staying remote. That’s a big change.

Beyond that, our focus is on maintaining the quality of our current programs while offering new relevant ones. We think our soon to be released Zookeeper Assistant program will be very popular and as I mentioned earlier, Apex offering non-pet business courses like medical coding and medical billing is very exciting and potentially huge for us.

Throughout all of this, I have learned to be mindful of the work/life balance. I won’t spend 70 hours a week working. My personal relationships are too important to squander by ignoring everything except work. So, I keep fit, I run (15-20 miles a week), lift or do bodyweight calisthenics for 30 plus years, am a private pilot, avid reader and freelance writer, love travel (although none in the immediate future). Plus, my wife and I just adopted a Basset Hound! My 5th.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Follow your gut but do the research. In my experience, people often fall into one of two categories. Some are planners. Planning is a good thing as long as the plan doesn’t become more important than the action(s) involved in making things happen. The old cliché about the paralysis of analysis is one I never forget. Don’t let fear prevent you from taking action to follow your dreams.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have the doers. Jump now and worry later. In truth, especially when I was younger, I fell more into this camp. Sometimes if one leaps before one looks, they can be rewarded by incredible success. Other times the fall will be spectacular and painful. I learned to plan a bit, then plan a bit more and as objectively as possible assess whether the information in my possession proved or pointed to my gut intuition being correct. I’ve also learned to check my ego and not ignore data that shows my gut is wrong or plans need modification.

Other general lessons. Hmmmm…..ok here is one. I have known some brilliant people in my life. Many much smarter than I. The smartest ones aren’t always the most successful. There are many reasons why but one I’ve seen time and again is that some folks never seem to understand that no one can do everything well. Delegation is the key to success. Show me someone who has to control everything because they believe they do everything better than anyone else and I will show you someone who is limiting themselves.

Here is one more. Failure often leads to success if you can handle admitting mistakes and making changes. Some people are very eager to start something but when things go awry and they always will at some point, they can’t handle it. It defeats them and they quit. Don’t quit BUT learn from your errors and come back not only working harder but also working smarter.

Specific mistakes I have made? Lots! I should have jumped on SEO sooner. We should have gotten our website mobile responsive sooner as well. We were a few years too slow on those but figured it out eventually.

On the positive: I am good at identifying trends and very good at cutting through the noise to get to the bottom line. More of a long-term strategic thinker. The vision thing! That’s where I live.

On the negative: I can be impatient which isn’t always the best way to motivate people.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Ok, on this one I fully admit to being a bit obsessed. I read business and motivational books for fun and have since my early 20’s.

For me, the story that started it all was unquestionably The Go-Getter. A Story That Tells You How to be One by Peter B. Kyne

This was first published in 1921. Yes, the world has changed and certainly, technology is much different today than it was 99 years ago. Yet human nature and what it takes to succeed particularly when it comes to having the intestinal fortitude and sheer grit to not accept defeat is a timeless lesson. Plus, the story is fun. This moved me when I first read it at 22 or so and it has ever since.

Other books I have found noteworthy and well worth the read:

I could go on but that’s those immediately come to mind.

Podcasts. I tend to like non-business podcasts more but not exclusively. Here are two business ones I like:

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Well, I think I covered a lot of ground already and thank everyone who has read this far.

Plan but follow your gut.

Don’t be afraid to work hard but fear not working smart.

Your word must be your bond. That includes doing the right thing even when it hurts and/or when no one is looking. Old school? Perhaps, but people will want to do business with those they trust and honesty in a company culture starts with you.

Ok, here is one that may run counter to prevailing wisdom. You are not going to love every aspect of what you do. Sure, it’s important to follow your passion and to love much of what you do. However, very few people who do something day in and day out for 20, 30, or 40 years love it all the time! My point is that while it is important to not lose the passion that motivates your journey, you need to be prepared to deal with difficulty and the trials and tribulations that make up business and life.

Finally, don’t define your life entirely by your business. That’s a trap! Sure, it takes dedication and a willingness to forget or forgo other things in your life at the start, but avoid making this your only source of happiness, interest, or passion.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

Yes! We are open for business and hiring!

We are looking for Program Managers and Externship Coordinators. These are the folks who work directly with our students to help them succeed in their studies. We currently have 16 PMs and ECs but need more. This is a full time paid position and can be done from home in any state in the nation.

We are looking for an Assistant Program Manager. This is a manager who works with our Program Managers and Externship Coordinators to ensure they do the best job possible. This is a full time paid position and can be done from home in any state in the nation.

We are looking for Admissions Counselors. These are people who answer questions from potential students and help them with the process of enrolling. We currently have 15 ACs but need a few more. This is a full time paid position and can be done from home in any state in the nation.

We are looking for Finance Assistants. These are people who help students qualify for and enroll in our programs. Their focus is on student contracts, payment plans, etc. We have a great finance team but need 1-2 more assistants. This is a full time paid position and can be done from home in any state in the nation.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!