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Off the leash: Former Marine turns passion into profession

Jul. 22, 2013 - 01:10PM   |  
Nick White MWM 20130402
Former Marine and Secret Service agent Nicholas White works April 2 at his business, Off Leash K9 Training, in Woodbridge, Va. (Mike Morones / Military Times)
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Can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

That’s a bunch of bull, says former Marine Nick White. And while he proves that every day with his million-dollar dog training company, you could say his life is living proof, as well.

In 2005, White transformed himself from a junior enlisted grunt from rural Ohio just back from Baghdad to an exclusive bodyguard for an A-list celebrity in Santa Barbara, Calif. (He still can’t say who.)

Within two years, he was at the White House, working as a Secret Service agent guarding President Bush and later President Obama. Then, about three years ago, without a business degree or any formal training with dogs, he left his high-powered government job and started his own off-leash school for canines.

An expanding hobby

“The thing about the Secret Service is that they work you a lot; 70- and 80-hour workweeks are not uncommon,” White says. “You go weeks without a day off, there’s constant travel, and then days off and vacation are routinely canceled with little or no notice.”

In other words, it was a lot like being in the military. And, also like the military, it often looks a lot more exciting from the outside than it actually is, he says.

“When you see the Secret Service running next to the president’s limo or ducking in and out of crowds, that’s maybe like one hour out of the 80 hours that you work that week,” he says. “A more typical day was standing in front of some door in the White House and not letting anyone in who didn’t have the right pass.”

Those endless hours of boredom, however, were broken up by getting to know the Secret Service working dog teams.

As a kid, White had trained the family German shepherd to do a few tricks, but he grew a special affinity for the bomb-sniffing K-9 teams while downrange in Iraq.

“I can’t even tell you how many times they saved our lives over there,” he says. He had his own dog, a Belgian Malinois named Duke, the breed favored by the Secret Service and special ops teams, including the SEALs who took down Osama bin Laden.

White kept picking the brains of the Secret Service handlers for training tips until Duke had mastered more than 30 commands.

“Once I got him trained, I started taking him to dog parks by my house and started doing demonstrations with him, just showing him off,” White says. “People were like, ‘That’s amazing, how do you get your dog to do that?’ ”

Before long, he was offering dog training lessons for $20 a pop.

“I was just doing a little moonlighting on the very few days I had off, but it very quickly started snowballing from there,” he says.

He was working the swing shift at the White House, so he could get off work, train a few dogs, get some sleep and then start all over. Five clients a week soon turned to 10. He printed some business cards and hired freelancers to design a logo and build a website. His part-time hobby was turning into a full-fledged business.

“Soon I was training 20 dogs a week at this park by my house,” he says, “and losing a ton of sleep.”

Of course, catching catnaps at the White House wasn’t an option.

Plus, the unpredictability of his Secret Service schedule was making it hard to keep things moving.

“I’d schedule six or seven people on a day off and then that day off would get canceled,” he says. “People were understanding, but it’s not good for business when you’ve been waiting two or three weeks for a lesson. That was happening a lot.”

Something had to give.

Taking a big risk

“I came to this crossroads where I had to decide between my government job, that I didn’t really like that much, and this new business, which was starting to do pretty well and I loved doing,” he says.

He decided to go to the dogs.

Everyone thought he was crazy. He was making good money in the Secret Service — about $90,000 a year — and had stable employment in a tough 2010 economy. Plus, there were more than a dozen established dog training companies in the D.C. area.

“Everyone I knew, 100 percent of my friends and co-workers, said I was an idiot,” he said. “Even my parents said, ‘That’s pretty stupid.’ ”

But he’d heard it all when he’d decided to leave the Marine Corps.

“The higher-ups almost try to intimidate you into staying in. That drives me insane,” he says. “The best decision I ever made in my life, unarguably, was joining the Marine Corps. And the second-best decision I ever made was getting out.

“If you really want to do something different and you have a passion — whether it’s working on cars, or training dogs, or whatever it is — don’t let people try to scare you into staying in the military.”

His passion was dogs. But just because he’d developed a knack for training them didn’t mean he knew how to manage a quickly growing business.

Studying up

As White launched off on his own, he started devouring everything he could about running a business.

“Every few weeks, I’d go to Barnes & Noble and spend $20 or $30 on an audio CD or books like “Marketing 101” and “Running a Business for Dummies.” I figured people spend $80,000 going to business school, but I could listen to a five-hour CD from the guy who’s in charge of marketing at Google for his best tips and insights.” And then move on to his next teacher.

Over the past three years, he’s spent about $2,000 on his private Barnes & Noble Business School.

“And not to pat myself on the back too much, but I now run a bigger and more profitable business than anyone I know who went to college for business,” he says. “I’ve got no student loans to worry about, either.”

He also credits a lot of his success with listening to motivational speakers like Les Brown and Eric Thomas.

“I still watch their videos on YouTube all the time. I try to get some daily dose of motivation about business or success every morning,” he says.

Smart moves, big business

Over the past three years, White has grown Off-Leash K9 Training into a thriving business with several full-time employees training more than 150 dogs a week at his northern Virginia facility.

He’s leveraged free advertising on YouTube by creating nearly 400 before-and-after videos of dogs and owners who have come through his program.

“That’s been a huge seller that’s really helped us get a lot of business. So, you’ll see a 140-pound Great Dane who’s dragging her owner down the street. ... Once we’re done, that same dog is heeling off leash with distractions everywhere and taking commands from 80 yards away.”

Meanwhile, he’s expanding his brand while helping others build their own businesses, as well. For $20,000, he trains and certifies new trainers in his system. In a business model similar to CrossFit licensing, they then get to use his company name and logo, as well as a website and other marketing tools.

With 11 locations and growing, “everyone has made back that initial investment within six months,” he says.

“You’ve got to have good people skills, because you’re training them as much as the dogs,” he says. “Still, as I tell my trainers, the customer is never right. If they already knew how to do this, they wouldn’t be here. That’s why they’re paying us.”

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