05/11/2010 11:57 am ET Updated Jul 22, 2011

Camp Bow Wow: The Accidental $40 Million Franchise

With some 200 franchises spread among 40 states and Canada, Camp Bow Wow has become one of the fastest-growing pet services companies around. But the company almost never came to be. Faced with the loss of her first husband, a divorce from her second, and a series of poor investments, founder Heidi Ganahl found herself at rock bottom until her brother convinced her to dust off the business plan for a doggie day care and boarding facility in her hometown of Denver. Now, Ganahl, who has written a book about her life called Tales from the Bark Side, finds herself at the helm of a company that posted more than $40 million in revenue last year.

Where did the idea for your business come from?

It all started back in 1994, when my husband and I could never find enough friends and family to take care of our two furry mutts whenever we wanted to travel. The idea of doggie day care was just getting started back then, and we thought it would be a great idea, especially if you offered boarding as well. So we wrote a business plan.

And then fate intervened, right?

Yes, for his 25th birthday present, my husband got to fly in an old Navy airplane. The pilot was a friend of his. But as they did a flyby over our family's house, they crashed, and they both died on impact. That put my life in a tailspin for a few years.

What happened next?

Well, I made some poor decisions, and I found myself as a broke single mother. That was when my brother told me I needed to find my passion again, which was to start Camp Bow Wow. So, we scouted out an old VFW hall near downtown Denver. It was in rough shape, and we did a lot of work on it before opening the doors in December 2000. At the time, we were just the third doggie day care facility in the area, and things just took off from there.

When did you decide to become a franchisor?

After we opened a second location in September 2002, I had a client approach me who worked for Mrs. Fields. He told me that he didn't think there were any other pet services franchises out there and that I might want to look into it. The more I looked into it, the more I liked the idea. After making the announcement, we sold the first franchise in a week.

Was there a key turning point for the company?

There were many, like making the decision to incorporate a Webcam, but one key moment came when we were featured on the front page of AOL as "the next great franchise." We got thousands of phone calls from that and haven't looked back since.

How has the recession affected your business?

Pet services like boarding tend to be recession-proof more than the retail side of the business, which has been hit hard. What has slowed our growth has been the tightening of the capital markets and SBA lending, which has made it harder for our potential franchisees to get funding. Despite that, we did about $40 million in 2009 and expect to do about $50 million in 2010, helped by the growth of our new franchise, Home Buddies, which is in-home pet care that people can start for under $50,000 as opposed to about $500,000 to start a camp.

What happened to the original Camp Bow Wow?

I sold it as a franchise so I could focus on running the company as a whole.

Do you have any pets today?

I have two dogs -- a 100-pound black lab and a four-pound Maltese-mix.

Where do they stay when you travel?

I leave them at a Camp Bow Wow near my home in Denver. But now that I have a newborn baby, I have someone come to the house to watch the dogs and the baby.

You also run a foundation called Bow Wow Buddies?

Yes, part of our success has been because we have chosen to work closely with local dog charities and rescue programs. We want people to feel good about coming to us because some of their money is going back to the dogs.

Entrepreneur Spotlight

Name: Heidi Ganahl
Company: Camp Bow Wow
Age: 44
Location: Boulder, Colo.
Founded: 2000
Employees: 1,700
2009 Revenue: $40 million

The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 5/11/10.