Coming up with winning business concepts need not be a brain-wracking exercise. There is one simple formula: combine a need with something you love. While you’re at it, you can even add your pet to the business equation. Every day life is full of things and details that could be improved. You and your pet can together offer a solution to a need that could have a large marketing audience.
David Marcks discovered a lucrative business opportunity when he used his dog to solve a problem that he constantly faced working at a golf course – the proliferation of geese. Geese love to inhabit open spaces that provide them with water and plenty of food (such as short, tender grasses). While adding a “natural look” to golf courses, no one would want to play in a golf course where the grass couldn’t be seen under the cover of goose droppings. Imagine wading in the middle of goose droppings to hit a golf ball. Yikes!
David and other fellow golf superintendents tried several approaches. According to David, “We tried everything – sprays, pyrotechnics, flags, fences. Everything worked for a little bit and then it would stop working.” Until he discovered that his dog, a Border Collie, was a natural in driving geese away. As he recalls, “It was so successful that I never looked back and we’ve been doing it ever since.”
David started Geese Police (http://www.geesepoliceinc.com) in 1986, as the solution to driving away unwanted geese from town parks, corporate properties, golf courses, or even front lawns. Using trained border collies, they drive away the geese without harming them. Today, Geese Police has considerably grown and expanded, earning just under $2 million in 2000. David has also begun to franchise his business to a highly selected group of individuals.
How It Started
About fourteen years ago, David Marcks never thought that chasing geese as a way to keep his hyperactive dog busy could become a lucrative business.
David, then 23 years old, was working as a golf course superintendent in Greenwich, Connecticut. As he recalls, “I had a problem with 600 geese residing on the golf course.” They tried several options: goose-repellent chemicals that don’t always work, to streamers or other “goose-frightening” props that altered the appearance of the golf course. Killing or injuring the birds was out of the question.
At the same time, he got his first Border collie. After trying various approaches unsuccessfully, he stumbled on the idea that he could perhaps train his dog to drive off the geese. “I contacted the American Border Collie Association, told them about what I want to train the dog to do and they thought I was a lunatic.”
It worked! As David proudly recalls, “Once I had my dog for 6-8 weeks, I didn’t have any geese on my golf course. Of course my neighboring golf courses suffered greatly because all the geese went someplace else.”
With the geese gone, however, a new problem popped up. David had a new problem: what will he do with the dog?
“What nobody told me when I got my dog was that border collies make lousy pets. Now we had this highly intelligent working breed dog with nothing to do. She was driving me crazy. She was chasing squirrels, rabbits, golf balls, etc. Once I had a little irrigation break on a green, and she was being difficult, more so that particular day, so I put her in my office. I left for 20 minutes, and went down to the golf course and checked on the problem. When I came back, she ate my office – I mean literally — my desk, the chair, the garbage can, and three sets of computer cables.”
While some may have gotten rid of the dog, David thought otherwise. “I know she was a great dog; but she just needed to be kept busy.”
What David did next laid the ground for Geese Police. He offered the services of his dog to herd away the geese in neighboring golf courses, with no charge for the service. After all, it was simply a way to keep his dog busy.
“I asked the neighboring golf course if they had any problems with geese. So I brought my dog and introduced her, and asked if I could possibly stop by every morning before work, during lunch and after work to herd the geese off the golf course. They agreed. So that’s what I did. Everyday, I dropped by before going to work, then came back during lunch break and after work and herd the geese off another golf course.”
Four to six weeks later, the neighboring golf course didn’t have any geese on their property. So David was back to square one. His dog had again nothing to do. “She was being a menace and I have to look around for something for her to do.”
Word about David and his dog started to spread among golf course operators in Connecticut. Another superintendent was playing in the neighboring golf course that David and his dog serviced. With the noticeable absence of geese, he asked the superintendent whatever happened to the geese. The superintendent replied, as David recalls, “Oh you’ve got to see it. This kid comes down and he has this dog. They come down here and drive away the geese.”
The guy called up David and said, “I’d pay you to chase the geese off my golf course.”
That started Geese Police.
While Geese Police started in the golf course sector, David says that, “Golf courses are now just about 5% of my business. The majority of my business now, about 90%, are corporate parks and playgrounds – corporate and township properties.”
Early Days of Geese Police
David continued working as a golf course superintendent, while squeezing in his business on the side. Word soon spread about his services, “Next thing you know, word got out; I never advertised.” He was soon doing 3 or 4 golf courses. However, he was faced with the difficulty in balancing his work with the responsibility to his customers.
“What was happening was that I couldn’t get to all of them during my lunch break. Sometimes in the morning, it was taking me too long to get through them and I didn’t want to be late for my job. So what I started to do was I hired a retired old guy who used to come in the middle of the day and come take my dog for my jobs – going before work and after work.”
Dave then moved down to New Jersey, working in the county park system for the next three years while doing Geese Police on the side. He then had three employees. During this time, the business has been operating without a formal legal structure.
Until someone asked him for insurance.
“I was doing a job at that time for Bell Telephones and someone asked me for an insurance certificate. I said, “Why do I need insurance? I’ve got a dog; I run around your yard.”
David realized that he needed to establish the legal entity of his business and all the attendant requirements including insurance, if he wants to continue tapping big companies as his clientele.
“That’s when it all became a little bit more serious and it became The Geese Police, the company. After several years, I just went from Geese Police the company to Geese Police Incorporated on the advice of lawyers and accountants. Things started picking up, and they advised me that I should really incorporate. So it changed into a corporation.”
Fourteen years after, Geese Police has remained at the forefront of the industry that it pioneered. David proudly announces, “Right now, we have 27 trucks on the road. We own 32 dogs. We service throughout the state of New Jersey and parts of New York — and that’s just for my main office here. We also have franchise offices now in Chicago, Virginia and Maryland, and an affiliated office in Seattle, Washington.”
Dogs vs. Geese
David’s success in the business is the result of his extensive research and knowledge on animal behavior. As David explains, “You have to know the entire nesting behavior of geese. You have to be an animal behaviorist because you have to know those geese; and you also have to know your dog.”
Not every dog can be slated for the work of herding geese: only border collies can be successful in doing this. Border collies use a wolf-like glance called “the eye” that they use to induce the geese to fly.
David puts it this way: “Any dog can chase geese. You and I can chase geese. We run across the field behind the geese and they would get up and fly away. If we jump in the lake and swim after them, they would get up and fly away. Only because you and I are annoying to them. Same as a poodle.”
“Border collies, by using that wolf-like glance called the “eye” — they’re not barking, they’re not carrying on, but they are literally threatening the geese. And in the geese’s little minds, a border collie is a natural predator. They think they’re gonna be eaten so they fly away to somewhere safe. They’re counting them as a wolf, a coyote or as an Arctic fox. So literally what you are dealing with every single day is predatory-prey instinct.”
Like some seasonal businesses, Geese Police follows the nesting behavior and patterns of geese. While it is a year-round job, summer is normally a slow time.
“In the month of June, all the adults go into a molting stage, and the babies born in spring are too young to fly. So anything you have on the ground in June and July, you’re stuck with unless you can walk them someplace else. The only way they can leave is if they walk out because none of the birds are flying. From February to May, they’re setting nests and they become very aggressive; they’re laying eggs and then you have the babies – it is difficult and time consuming.”
“Geese have what you call “imprinting” – once they imprint on a property, they will return to breed and their young will return to breed on that property. They are very resilient about giving up what they think is their home. So you really have to work hard in the springtime to encourage them to go nest someplace else to break their imprinting.”
Preparing the Dogs for Duty
David attributes the success of Geese Police to the quality of his dogs. “We have the best trained dogs. There’s no doubt about that.”
Even compared to other businesses that use border collies for geese, David remarks that “I am extremely confident knowing that our dogs are gonna knock your socks off. When you see the way our dogs work, or handled, or the way our trainers are trained, and our dogs are trained, there’s nobody who could hold a candle to us. The best trainers in the country are at Geese Police Academy, nobody else train them like we do and take the time to train them.”
In addition, Geese Police dogs are constantly being retrained. “You cannot just train a dog and think that he’s gonna stay that trained without maintaining that training level.”
As a result, “The dog never freelances. They do not chase or herd geese until they are asked to. Our dogs are completely remote controlled – they only move clockwise or counter clockwise; they speed up, they slow down. You can put them on the geese or you can take them off the geese when they are asked to do so. They are waiting for you to tell them what to do – whether to move forward, to go right or left.”
To achieve this level, a dog has to be trained extensively before it joins the Geese Police duty. “It takes about 14 to 16 months of training to get them through a program before they ever come to work for Geese Police. So the dogs are between 2 to 5 years old when they come to work for Geese Police.”
For the first 12 or 14 months of a dog’s life, “all we do is to socialize the dog. The dog knows to stay down, or come when it is called. Just manners; let them be a dog.” Dogs are not stock trained until their first year, when they are deemed old enough to handle the stock pressure.
When the dogs are ready, they are first trained on sheep. As David claims, “Every one of my border collies are open-class sheep trained or better. They need to compete and trained to the level of the open-class.”
After working with sheep, the dogs then graduate to working with Indian runner ducks or domestic geese. “We take them to a pond and work with them. Then we eventually put them on actual geese. It is kind of funny the first time ever a stock flies away from them: since the dogs are not used to that, they have this funny look on their faces.”
The dogs are also trained not to hurt the geese. “If a dog comes upon an injured goose or a goose that cannot fly for any reason, the next thing the dog will do is they will get behind and he or she will start herding it to my feet (the handler). The minute we see a bird not lifting off, we just call the dog off and bring them back.”
Since David is working with animals, what does animal protection groups think of Geese Police? “PETA actually recommends us all over the country. The United States Humane Society is one of our big advocates; they call us in all the time. They are always recommending us and we do talks with them. Last year, we did a talk at Geese Peace down in Virginia/Maryland. We regularly run into them in all these conventions and meetings and goose symposiums. So they know us and they actually recommend us.”
Advice to Other Entrepreneurs
When asked what advice he can share to other budding entrepreneurs, David said, “You better like what it is you’re doing. If you’re not having fun anymore and you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it. Because I am still having as much fun today as the day that I started.”
“And talking about growing pains -you may think that you’re the boss; that you own this little business and can do anything you want with it, right? No you can’t. You have the labor board, you have the rules and regulations.”
“When you go from a small company to a larger sized business, you can do one of two things: you can duck your head and stay as a small little company; or you can just come out of it and swing it. Every time there will be somebody who will tell you, “No you can’t do this. No you can’t do that.” Just developing a handbook when you have a so many employees, and you go, “Oh-hoh, we better have the regulations; we better have the handbook. We got to watch certain precedents.” When you want to give a guy a little bonus, you better be careful on how you do it because you might be setting some precedents. There are so many things that it starts to get out of your hands; that you just can’t make those decisions that I did years ago.”
“So you have those growing pains going from a small, tiny mom-and-pop business going to the next level. There’s some speed-humps you’re going to have. And it’s time and money. You got to spend to get to the next level. It’s just unbelievable.”
His outlook for the next five years? “I would like to have ten more franchise offices.”
(Editor’s Note: This article was first published in PowerHomeBiz.com in September 2001).