Interview with Steve Liggens
Fitness Pro Steve Liggens is a Dog Trainer in Michigan. His operations background and passion for training makes him a great asset to our PocketSuite Pro community. Steve talks to CEO, Chinwe Onyeagoro and Managing Editor, Sean Litteljohn about going out on his own and the opportunity for marketing.
What do you do, and how did you get here?
I’m Steve Liggens. I run Motor City K9 Solutions. We’re a dog training company. Before I went full-time with dog training, I was a director of operations for a company. My background is operations, it got to the point where I was like, “Okay, I’m seeing P&Ls, I’m seeing all this money I’m making for these companies. I know I’m very expendable at the end of the day. I’m only as good as my numbers. I have a skill and I’m going to step out on faith and see what happens.”
I was in a similar camp, and we’re kindred spirits in that regard. At some point, you’re just like, “Look, I want to go out and see how far I can take this.” Was there a triggering moment?
I used to work at Taco Bell. I was a district manager and I managed in the area of six or seven stores. I left that company to become a director of operations for a doggy daycare company. With my background with management and my experience with dogs, we thought it would be a great fit. To be honest, I was never a director of operations. I was more of a task manager. The person who owned the company, I get it, especially now being an owner, she never allowed me to do my job – if you will. If I woke up at 6 am, she would wake up at 4 am.
I had tasks that I needed to complete and I had my days planned out. I would wake up to literally 10 to 14 emails of things she wanted to be done that day. I was a high paid task manager and it just was not allowing me my sanity. She paid me well. She gave me $90,000 to start, but I just was like, “This is crazy. I can’t do it.”
What’s interesting is that you were working for an entrepreneur and then became an entrepreneur. The pivot from food service to dogs, what was that like?
A mutual friend. He was a mentor of mine. He knew the lady that ran that particular company. He was very influential in Detroit city and he tried to be a matchmaker. “This will be a great fit.” It was not. I wish her the best. There was some opportunity in my mindset. I knew I wanted to go full steam ahead with Motor City K9. I knew I wanted to have a dog daycare. I knew I wanted these things. I’m like, not only will I help her company, but I also will get some education was my thought process.
When you’re an entrepreneur, it’s not that way. You have to get up every morning with a mindset of, “I got to go get it.”
Doing these Lounge interviews, I’ve now seen four people come out of corporate and go into dog training. Is it a more accessible industry?
I think so, it’s really about word of mouth and how you market yourself. For me, Motor City K9 was already a company, but I treated it like a side hustle. I didn’t treat it like a business. I was a director of operations at Taco Bell. I ran group classes on the weekends and I trained people’s dogs. I was the director of operations at the doggy daycare. I worked for her and when I was off work from her, I did my thing. For me, I was already established. I started training dogs when I was 14 years old. I had a lot of background and then I did a sport called Schutzhund. I think you guys had Kristofer Taylor on here.
He’s one of my big Bro’s. He’s a part of that sport. When I joined that sport, it made me a better dog trainer. It’s more of a hobby, but you can create opportunities from it.
Can you break down Schutzhund? Is it an agility thing?
Schutzhund is an international dog sport. It’s a protection sport, but we have the dogs compete. They do tracking, obedience, and protection training. It originated in Germany as a breeding program for German Shepherds. To breed a German shepherd, they had to pass these three tests to have German Shepherds’ quality lines. Since then, it’s become an international sport. It’s an all-breed sport. German Shepherds are still the cream of the crop when it comes to the sport.
I’m excited that you and Kris know each other. I love it when our PocketSuite community connects.
I didn’t know he used it.
That’s crazy. I thought he referred you.
Actually, another dog trainer referred me. I don’t know how often he uses PocketSuite, but he told me about it.
Can you just share the good, the bad, and the ugly? What were those first few months like, now that it was your sole source of income. How did you pay the bills? How did you manage?
My Mom didn’t know what my salary was at my last job, but she knew I made decent money. I told her I was going to go for dog training full time. She was like, “You have kids. That’s not smart. I don’t understand.” My Dad, on the other hand, was like, “Hey, son, bet on yourself. You fall. I got you.” I’m not spoiled, but he is in a position to help. He’s like, “I got you.” So what happened when I decided to go full time, I’ve always been decent at marketing. I put it out there on social media that I was going to be doing board and trains. Once I put it out there, I got four people to sign up within two weeks.
I was like, “Okay, God, I guess you are showing me. I’m okay.” I was super cheap at that point. I was half of my rate that I am now, but it still was enough to pay the bills. December was good, January was good, February was scary. February was like, “I might need to get a job.” I was doing $1,500 per dog and I would do four or five dogs a month. I think I may have had two dogs in that month.
Everyone hits their lows, but for me, in 2020, I didn’t have that problem. I also know my industry a little bit now, coming from operations. I thought, “Okay, if this is a trend, let me get ahead of it.” Like Taco Bell, if you pay attention around December or so, they always come up with many dollar things. Everything’s a dollar focus because they know the economy will be suffering after Christmas, etc. I use that same mindset. I take 20% off and book people out to get ahead of it.
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Coming out of Detroit, people want to see the value of their dollar. Has that shaped your business and how you deal with people? Are you more direct and straight up? Do you offer better bang for the buck?
Transparency, I’ve learned, is my key because people think a dog trainer is a magician or a mad scientist. They think that they take this animal and then change it. At first, I went with that. As I grew, I’m like, “No, your dog is going to do things. Your dog is a living creature. My brother and I do the business together, and I always say, “If you never come back for a follow-up session, you just donated to the Steve and Vincent Ferrari fund.” I just make it personal that way. They’re like, “What?” I’m like, “Yeah. If you don’t come for follow-ups, your dog is going to be an opportunist and they’re going to act as if they didn’t learn anything.” That’s gotten me a long way. Humor works in this business, your personality, and bringing who you are to the table keeps people coming back.
You are a millennial and something of a social media master.
Being younger, I know how to use Instagram as far as in my brand. I know how to connect with the local fashion artists, the rappers, the clothing store owners, and restaurant owners. I’ve made connections with all those people. Many people, when they see one person do it, they follow suit. It’s just like anything else. We have a Detroit Lions player, an NBA player, and they see those people, and they’re like, “Oh, well, they’re doing it. I should do it.” I just know how to use those angles to reel them in.
You’re essentially showcasing your clients on Instagram. It’s creating that lifestyle.
To be honest, I sucked for a while. When you’re an entrepreneur, you’re the janitor and the manager, you’re everything. I do have a team, but it’s still, ultimately…a lot of things fall on me. I’m the innovator of the group. I just wouldn’t post. I have videos and quality pictures, etc. and I was listening to Gary V recently. He was talking to a girl from Villanova. I forget the girl’s name. She graduated there, she played ball, and she created her social presence. He was saying, “If you’re only posting on your story, you’re a coward.” He was like, “Why not post it on your feed?”
He was like, “You’re posting on your story because you’re afraid you’re not going to get that many likes. “Who cares?” He said, “It’s content, post it!” If you paid attention to my Instagram over the past couple of weeks, there hasn’t been a lot of training, just pictures. I’m just taking quality pictures and posting them on the page. Believe it or not, we’ve gained a hundred followers in two weeks only from doing those small things.
You stand behind every single post.
Now I do. I was a coward as well, but when I heard him say that it hit me, I was like, “I do just post a lot on my story. I don’t post enough on my feed.” I have an iPhone. I’m not a videographer, but even now I told my brother, “Let’s post our training, let’s throw some music behind it. Let’s start putting more things out.” Much of our business comes from Google and word of mouth, but we could be so much further along if we just made content, content, content.
What are the top two or three marketing strategies you’ve used that you feel like, “Gosh, this made a huge difference, and it’s still making a difference.”
One that I never gave enough credit to until recently is Google. Paying for Google Adwords, I pay $110 a month. Every blue moon, I’m like, “Why am I paying it? It’s not working, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” I got a phone call last month. It was a California number. I picked it up, and I wasn’t even going to answer, I know, shame on me. I’m like, “This is a voting call or something weird.” I answer, I’m talking to the gentleman, he’s telling me about his dog. I ask him his name. He said, “Marvin Jones Jr.” I was like, “Marvin Jones of the Detroit Lions.” He’s like, “Yeah. Yeah.” I’m like, “Oh, okay.” I continued the conversation, and then I said, “How did you hear about us?” He says, “Google.” I said, “Okay. Lesson learned.” Instead of $110, maybe I need to go to $220. Another one for me is Facebook. I only do it when I need to. I’ll be honest and I get lazy. I get calls without trying, to be honest. If it’s not a steady enough flow, I’ll run a Facebook ad for $50 or $100 bucks, which works pretty well.
One to one. You’ll get one or two new clients just from doing that.
You can turn the dial. If you spend more, you’re going to get those clients in. It’s just a question of whether you have additional capacity to meet the need.
I told my brother for the rest of the year, we’re just going to go full steam ahead. We were focusing on trying to get into this pitch contest and we didn’t get picked. I’m like, “Okay, now it’s time for us to just focus on input and output for the rest of the year.”
So how did your brother get involved in the business? Is it a family business now?
He was working a job. He was in injection molding and he was a supervisor. He said, “I’ll come to help you train the dogs.” I’m like, “Okay.” He would come up and he worked nights. He would come up around 10pm, 11pm after he got some sleep, and train some here and there. I said, “Man, if you came on board full time, we could kill it.” He was like, “Man, okay.” He was thinking about it, thinking about it, thinking about it, and he did it. I respect him the most because they offered him $35 an hour to stay.
I know I can’t give him that at this point. He was like, “I believe in you. I believe in what we’re doing. I believe in my freedom.” Don’t get me wrong. We’re not killing it. You see the revenue we’re making money, there are steps, but he’s like, “Hey, I’m doing something I like. I’m not answering to these people.” We’re coming along.
Now tell me the truth: how does your Mom feel?
She doesn’t say too much now. That sport I was telling you guys about, Schutzhund, I took 13 stitches to the face this weekend. So I’m sure when she hears that, she will have words.
You’re lucky you have a beard man. Would you recommend to people that they work with family, or do you think, “Well, you know that could be a bit of a risk?”
It depends on the individual. I’m not trying to be harsh, but I hired people I knew and family when running Taco Bell, but I fired them just as fast. I feel like at the end of the day, if it’s the right family member or friend, they’re working hard because they want to better themselves and better you and your company. If they’re looking at it like you’re supposed to give them a handout, you shouldn’t hire them in the first place.
How much does where you come from shape your marketing. It’s excellent—Motor City right in your title. I’m thinking, “Do I want to get a protection dog from Motor City, Detroit? Or do I want to get one from Maine?” I’m going to go with Detroit. Is that all very deliberate, or it’s just who you are?
It was very deliberate. When I started the company, we’re not in Detroit, we’re outside of Detroit, but the goal is Detroit. My goal is to get a 10,000 square foot building in the city of Detroit.
How much does that go for right now?
It all depends on the area. I am looking at a building right now on Livernois. I haven’t called them yet, but I’m sure it’s a pretty penny.
I still hear Detroit is on the come up. There is lots of opportunity and property values are low. You can buy houses for $5,000. Is this true?
That is very true, but I can’t just cater to Detroit’s hardcore hood because my suburban clients won’t be comfortable. I have to be very conscious of where I put a location to be successful. My goal is Grand River, Livernois, somewhere like that caters to our client.
What are the most challenging parts of your job? Give folks a reality check when they think about being an entrepreneur, whether specific to dog training or just being an entrepreneur full stop.
I talk about entrepreneurship more than dog training because I think no matter what the industry is, entrepreneurship is still going to be the key. For me, it’s about hitting those walls, and you can’t quit. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had some great months. I’ve had some months where I was like, “Oh my God, I hit the PocketSuite platinum or gold VIP status.” I was like, “Oh, I’m raking it in.” I’ve had other months where it’s not like that. It’s very easy to work a job and people think, “I can do this myself.” The thing about a job is, you know, no matter what, as long as you clock in and out or if you’re on salary, you’re guaranteed that income – for the most part.
When you’re an entrepreneur, it’s not that way. You have to get up every morning with a mindset of, “I got to go get it.” I have said I don’t seek the business sometimes because it comes to me. At the same time, I’ve still created other things to help it come to me. I still have to answer the phone; I still have to seal the deal with the client; I still have to finish the product and show them that their money was well spent. To me, that’s one of the most significant issues. People think I’m just going to start this, and I’m just going to do it. They don’t think about the groundwork. They don’t think about how many years it took that person to get there.
They just see Instagram or Facebook and YouTube and success. I have a new client, and her name is Mia Ray. She was on CNN. She has these bags, Glam-Aholic. A lot of people are like, “I can do that too.” It took her ten years to get to that point. You look at Cesar Milan, and everyone knows who he is. He was homeless. It takes time, and you have to remember not to quit. I think that’s the biggest thing, you’re going to have struggles, and you’re going to have to sacrifice. You’re going to have good months. You’re going to have bad months. You’re going to have times where you’re like, “It’s time to get a job.” If you believe in it, you got to stick with it.
Is it more challenging dealing with dogs or people?
People all day. Our primary business is to board and train. What that does is allows us to take your dog. We’ll see you in four weeks. We’ll see you in six weeks or see you in two weeks, which helps a lot. I do offer group classes. I do offer one-on-ones. I do do some protection training, etc. It’s always going to be the people. Luckily for me, coming from operations, I’ve dealt with people forever, but that’s the most challenging piece. My advice to entrepreneurs is every upset client is a lesson.
That’s what I’ve been telling myself. Suppose I get an upset client, who’s not happy with something, whether it was our fault or they’re just trying to get over on us. I still take that and learn from it—my contract changes. I even put a clause in there now that we can post your dog. I didn’t get that complaint yet, I’m like, “That’s next.” Someone’s going to be like, “Well, you posted my dog on your Instagram.”
What’s the most heartwarming story you have? Something that reminds you why you do this.
I can give you a few: Last year, and I made no money on this, I did a free pitbull class in the city of Detroit. There was a young lady who was killed in Southwest Detroit by three pit bulls. She was mauled to death. When I saw that, I was like, “Let me try to do something.” I had a free pitbull class. It was for four weeks. Four weeks, once a week, I can’t do a lot, but I taught them how to get their dog to walk correctly on a leash, how to be reactive when they see other dogs or people, how to sit, and lay down, just some basics.
When we were at the end of it, what made me feel good is that two ladies in the class would have had to put their dog down if they didn’t get them under control. They were able to and all those people walked away happy. They were able to keep their dogs because pit bulls have the worst reputation in Detroit.
They are banned in many places, and it’s sad because it’s not the dog. I was featured on the news when I did that. Like I said, if a dog lacks enrichment, what do you think they’re going to do? That little girl was riding her bike back and forth, back and forth. She wasn’t taunting the dogs, but to three dogs chained up in the backyard every day. She’s looking like the rabbit that’s just going back and forth, back and forth. I talk about the importance of walking dogs. I talk about the importance of playing ball with the dog. If you get a dog and you just want to put it in the backyard. You don’t need one.
Can you share a little bit about your experience with PocketSuite for folks who are just getting started?
I love PocketSuite. I was successful in the corporate world. A lot of it’s laid out there for you. You pull this report to get this and you click on this to see what this is. Everything is laid out. When I started Motor City K9, I went full time. I was doing everything by paper and I would slip on some things because it was no longer all laid out. I was using Stripe for payments, and my buddy, his name is Wayne Singleton. He was like, “Hey man, try PocketSuite.” I was like, “What’s that?” He was like, “Listen, bro.” “Your calendars, your schedules, everything you need is on PocketSuite.”
He was like, “Bro, trust me, try this one.” I downloaded it. I started going through it, and I started using it, and I was like, “Okay.” I started only using it for payments. I needed something to process my credit card payments. Stripe had made me mad and I needed something new. I started using it for that and then I saw it had so many other capabilities. I’m like, “Okay, let me try this. Let me try that.” I’ll be honest. Although I use it every day, I still do not use it to its full capability.
That’s my goal before 2020 is over, to use it for everything. As time went on, I started using it for booking classes and scheduling. I have it interfaced with my website so clients can book everything through my website. It’s great. I just sent a dog trainer to you today.
He pulled up on me today. Like, “How do you do it?” I let him see my contract because he was getting a big-name client. I let him copy my contract. “Take this out, put your name on it.” He signed up today.
Are you mentoring the next crop of dog trainers that are coming up?
A lot of dog trainers in the city come to me for advice. It’s not because I’m the better dog trainer. I figured out the business aspect a little better. I know how to market, and I also know how to present my business as a professional business where others struggle with those things. One guy, he is probably a better dog trainer than me, but he’s like, “Man, I suck at the rest of it.” I’m showing him those things. The guy I’ve seen today. He’s like, “Dog training is not my first profession.” He’s a great dog trainer. When he downloaded PocketSuite, he’s like, “Man!…” He called me two hours ago. “Man! this is the best thing ever.” I’m mentoring other dog trainers, just more advice. I advise a lot of guys.
I’m assuming you’re a millennial. We find that millennials are much more open and collaborative and willing to share. There isn’t this sense of, “This could be a competitor of mine. There’s a much more sharing, open, kind of abundance mentality. Is that you? Is that your generation?
It’s funny because I remember when we were graduating, we would hear that we would be the generation that were the slackers and the mess-ups. We’re entrepreneurs. I worked with a guy, trained dogs, and it didn’t work out. It was like an ego thing. I’ll help any dog trainer because I am me, I’m not a carbon copy. No matter what information I give to help you with your business, many people sign up because of who I am and how I present myself and connect with them as a client. That can’t be copied. Why would I look at them as competition? Why not help people? I never know when I might need one of those guys for something, so I share any information I can.
When COVID hit, we heard about a lot of people getting dogs. People were nervous, anxious, weird, at home for the first time, not working, and looking for companionship. So did you see an uptick? Similarly, did you see an uptick where people felt vulnerable, and having a protection animal in the home made them feel better? Did that drive any business your way?
It did and I shot myself in the foot, I dropped my prices. Not only did I lower my prices, but I also came up with a first responders discount. I did all these things to try to get ahead. Dropping my prices, what sucked about that was I was super busy. The phones went nuts and I wanted to snatch it down so bad, but I was like, “No, I put this out here. I have to ride this promotion for a while.” I felt like I missed out on so much money because I was trying not to lose. I didn’t do any group classes or one-on-ones or things of that nature, but my board and train business went through the roof.
That’s a good problem to have. The final thing, as you look up and out at that 10,000 square foot facility, what do you think your days will be like, and what will your life be like when you get to that goal?
I’m trying to lean on my operations background more. Once I get to that point, my team will be essential. For instance, my teaching group classes, not a good idea anymore. Me training every dog that comes through, not a good idea anymore. If we keep getting celebrity clients, that’ll be my focal point. I’ll take the celebrity clients or the pro athlete clients and train those dogs. Rely on my team more for the day-to-day business.
I have one final question. I asked the same question to Kris Taylor. I think it’s great you guys are friends because you’re different characters and you’re across the country from each other.
Literally, across the country.
I said to Kris, “You teach dogs all day. What is one thing you’ve learned from dogs?”
I would say patience and management. My background may have been management, but I travel a lot, just like Kris, because we do the same sport. I’ve got a long way to reach the things he’s accomplished. With that being said, if you’re on a road trip with a dog, your time management is key.
How many dogs do you have?
Three. My Schutzhund dog, “Arson,” I have a Dutch Shepherd Malinois, and I have a German Shepherd puppy. Arson is from Germany. I’ve had him for maybe four or five months now. He was imported and the puppy comes from two imported parents.