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Here’s How One Guy Turned a “Crappy” Problem Into a $1.5M Startup
“Oh, crap!” That’s how I feel whenever I realize I’ve stepped in dog poop (which happens more than you probably imagine).
As a dog owner, I don't get it. How hard is it to carry a bag, pick up the mess and throw it away? I know I’m not the only one frustrated by this.
Mark Guarino, a serial entrepreneur based in Tampa, Florida, thinks he may have the answer to this gross problem. His company, Mr. Dog Poop Inc., uses FBI technology to track down what he calls “poopetrators” at apartment complexes all over the country.
Here’s how it works: Some apartments require pet owners to collect a DNA sample using a cheek swab from their dogs. When a “poop and run” crime is committed, the complex’s staff sends part of the “crime scene” to a lab to identify the guilty party.
The complex management then decides how to handle the offender.
How Mr. Dog Poop Got His Start
Three years ago, Guarino wanted to leave his career as a computer programmer. He thought of everything from selling gold to running a mobile hair salon. Nothing seemed like a good fit… until his friend suggested picking up dog poop.
At first, Guarino laughed off the idea, but he kept thinking about it — especially when he learned he could make anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000 a year scooping dog poop. As he researched the possibility, one issue came up over and over again.
“Millions of apartment complexes across the country are struggling with complaints, lost income, lost productivity and daily headaches related to dog poop,” Guarino said. “We saw entire countries that had solved the dog poop dilemma by using DNA registrations and matching dog poop with the dogs that pooped it.”
He envisioned a new type of law enforcement — the poop police. However, he soon learned solving crimes is a lot harder than it appears on TV.
“You should have seen us trying to figure this out,” Guarino said. “It was like a funny episode of ‘I Love Lucy’ — except none of us were really laughing after spending tens of thousands of dollars on useless outdated DNA equipment.”
Guarino had purchased DNA sequencing machines used in the Human Genome Project on eBay. He assumed the machines would process the samples, but he didn’t realize they performed a DNA test that was different than the one he wanted.
“‘I am way over my head, I feel like a first grader having to learn the alphabet,’” he remembers telling his wife. “But you just put your head down, start studying and learning from experts. If it was easy, then everyone would be doing it.”
About a year later, he hired three full-time employees with master’s degrees and Ph.D.s in microbiology and built a state-of-the-art DNA lab.
Guarino invested a total of $500,000 out of his own pocket in Mr. Dog Poop in 2016. Last year, he recouped that initial investment, and this year he is on track to make $1.5 million
And he says he’s just getting started.
Turning Dog Poop DNA Testing Into a Growing Business
Mr. Dog Poop services 500 properties in 44 states. Guarino says the company adds 35 new apartment complexes, homeowner associations and property management companies to its roster each month, with hundreds more on a waiting list.
Guarino says the biggest challenge is keeping up with demand.
“The dogs really do the selling for us,” he said. “Most people contact us saying, ‘I'm up to my neck in dog poop. I've had it. I'm done. Please help me.’”
Each apartment complex pays an initial sign-up fee of $100 and receives the lab kits at no additional charge. Residents are then required to swab their dog for a DNA sample when they move in. It’s easier than it looks (I tried it on my dog).
Mr. Dog Poop charges the apartment complexes $35 per dog to create a profile and register the dog in the system. Most of the time, the cost is passed onto the tenant in a form of a one-time pet fee.
Tracking the poopetrators is, well, kind of messy. Someone has to scoop the poop. In most cases, the maintenance staff collects the sample using the kit provided by Mr. Dog Poop. The kit comes with safety glasses, a mask and a poop shaker that homogenizes the dog poop so the DNA is preserved for transport. The whole process takes about six minutes.
The sample is then shipped back to the lab for analysis. If the poop matches a DNA profile, the complex is charged $50. If there’s no match, then Mr. Dog Poop only charges the complex a $35 fee.
“We don’t make money on the dog poop, we make money on stopping the poop,” Guarino said. “If we get a match, we get a little bit of profit. We want to incentivize the property to send in poop.”
Surprisingly, the company doesn’t get a lot of poop in the mail. On average the team tests 10 samples per week. And as for the smell, by the time the poop arrives, it hardly has a scent at all. It’s a testament to the program being more of a deterrent than anything.
Using Dog Poop DNA to Save Dogs’ Lives
The success of the company has Guarino thinking beyond dog poop.
Knowing 1.5 million animals are euthanized nationwide every year, he’s set his sights on a bigger problem.
Guarino has recently started using Mr. Dog Poop’s DNA technology to reunite lost dogs with their owners. It’s called the DOGdex ID program.
“We realized we could solve many issues, save dogs lives and make the world a safer place to live just by eliminating the dog poop,” said Guarino.
Some would say it’s a “ruff” job, but more fulfilling than Guarino ever imagined.
“I get up every day and I don't feel like I'm working,” he said. “So I work seven days a week, 18 hours a day, and I love doing it, and I think that's successful.”
Guarino has turned a literally crappy idea into a profitable business he loves and is proud to own.
“I didn't grow up dreaming to be Mr. Dog Poop, and my wife doesn't like being called Mrs. Dog Poop, but I wear the name proudly.”
Christie Post, supervising producer and host at The Penny Hoarder, is always finding ways to make stories visual. You can see the videos she produces on YouTube. Subscribe and give her a shoutout @christiepost.