Teresa Matsui Sanders overcame the end of one business by launching DogWonderful.com, a dog-friendly travel site.
Saying goodbye -- to her aging dog and her struggling hospitality management company -- certainly wasn't easy for Teresa Matsui Sanders.
The dog was Kendall, a cranky but beloved 17-year-old standard poodle. She and her husband, Ken Sanders, had adopted the dog seven years earlier from a rescue organization.
The company was InnWorks, a Roseville-based hospitality management and consulting firm that the couple founded in 1990. She shuttered it last year after a frantic turnaround effort that proved both fruitless and exhausting. The yearlong, last-ditch push came as Sanders, now healthy, was receiving radiation treatment and chemotherapy during her second bout with breast cancer in 12 months.
"It was really hard letting go emotionally for me," Sanders said of winding down InnWorks. "But when financial and business reality is clobbering you in the head, you just have to make the decision. You've got to figure out something else to do."
That something else turned out to be specialty travel website DogWonderful.com, which Sanders launched in October. The idea came in a flash of inspiration last June, Sanders said, the morning after Kendall's death. Visitors to the website can research and book pet-friendly lodging while reading about dogs and potential travel destinations.
The Harvard-educated Sanders, who grew up in a family-owned commercial flower business outside Salinas, Calif., serves as a volunteer business expert with the Metropolitan Economic Development Association (MEDA), a Minneapolis-based nonprofit offering consulting, training, planning and financial assistance to minority-owned business. In starting her new venture, she also has become a MEDA client, receiving advice on her website and other issues.
With DogWonderful.com, Sanders has combined her passion for dogs with the hospitality industry expertise she gained at InnWorks. At its peak in the early 2000s, the management company had stakes in 21 hotels in 10 states, a group that generated up to $12 million in revenue.
In recent years, however, industry changes, the credit crunch and the Great Recession had dealt serious blows to InnWorks. Sanders, whose husband had retired from the company, began selling off hotels a few years ago, parting with the final one last month.
Sanders finally ended her turnaround efforts in the middle of last year. She was on her cell phone in a cab in Manhattan, rushing to an airport, trying to nail down some new business for InnWorks when she finally told herself: "I cannot do this any more."
She spent a couple of months exploring a possible website-based business in an industry other than hospitality. That project didn't work out, Sanders said, but she learned a lot about how to monetize websites.
Sanders hired a marketing and design firm to produce the DogWonderful.com website, hired freelance writers to produce content and began using a private-label version of a booking engine from a major online travel website.
The site generates revenue primarily from commissions and fees on travel purchased through DogWonderful.com, Sanders said. She donates 10 percent of her revenue to two dog-related nonprofits, a strategy she hopes will broaden the site's appeal to business travelers and others not strictly looking for pet-friendly hotels.
Sanders plans to begin paid search advertising. She said she would be content if DogWonderful.com got $50,000 in bookings this year. She has ideas for other niche websites that she may consider launching in the future.
"I've made a significant investment in getting the site up and running. I don't want to squander that by not investing in [paid search advertising]. I want to give this a fair shot. I need to tell the world that DogWonderful.com exists."
She is doing that already through the company's Facebook page, which features frequent updates on Gunner, the standard poodle she and her husband adopted in May 2010, just as her chemotherapy began. "I wanted a spare dog because I knew Kendall was getting old," she said. "We didn't want to be a dogless household."
Hoyt Hsiao, CEO of Shaw-Lundquist Associates, a general contractor in St. Paul, said Sanders has provided valuable insight into marketing, finance and operational issues as a volunteer on the advisory counsel working with his company through the MEDA Entrepreneurial Leadership Program.
"She's definitely well-educated and has a well-rounded experience," Hsiao said. "I find her to be a very thoughtful and intelligent individual who provides advice related to her experience and is willing to help us make connections."
"She doesn't take much because she doesn't need much," Rodriguez said. "She has the resources, she has the intelligence and likes to be an entrepreneur. She is a great asset to the community. She's already doing very well."
The expert says: George Lee, president and CEO of Plymouth-based online retailer Probus OneTouch and digital marketing company Snap Social Media, said DogWonderful.com scored 94 out of 100 in his staff's review of key elements.
But the site doesn't get the benefit of that high score because of technical issues, he said. Better use of links, page descriptions and keywords would optimize the site for search engines.
While Sanders is active on Twitter and Facebook, adopting social media engagement strategies likely could build her brand and drive traffic to DogWonderful.com, Lee said.
"She appears to be in a very good vertical online business," Lee said. "With a little work, she might generate a significant amount of additional revenue."