The Pooper Scooper

Cara Brown, co-founder of Dirty Work, keeps her iPhone with her on the job to snap photos of hilarious things she finds in the dog poop.

Fifteen years ago, Cara Brown had a “movie moment” revelation: she would switch careers from computer consultant to dog-poop remover. Brown and her business partner, Erin Erman, shut down their stressful tech startup for a different kind of stress: figuring out how to scoop frozen poop without ruining clients’ lawns.

When the two women opened Dirty Work, they were the ones finding, scooping, and hauling away dog waste. Now, they employ four scoopers in order to focus on the business. The windows of Brown’s Toyota Tacoma are plastered with signs reading Got poop? We scoop! and Picking up where your dog left off. On any given day, she’s awake by 4 a.m. and out the door by 5:30 a.m. – and for the next 12 or 14 hours, she checks on the company’s pickup trucks, coordinates schedule changes, meets with prospective clients, and occasionally scoops (hey, a girl’s gotta stay grounded).

Dirty Work has managed to thrive in a down economy; Brown claims the pet sector is relatively recession-proof. “People will need [our services] until dogs start learning to use the toilet,” she says. Reliability is a tenet central to their business model: employees scoop in rain, sleet, and snow. They scoop from sweltering 100-degree weather to frigid 10-degree weather, when they chip away at piles of poop with long metal spades, which act like ice picks.

Age: 39
Based out of: Atlanta, GA
In the poop-scooping business for: 15 years
Graduated from: Georgia Institute of Technology; majored in industrial engineering
Previous jobs: Computer consultant

How did you arrive at the realization that scooping poop was a career path you wanted to pursue? My business partner Erin Erman and I started a computer consultant business when we were finishing school in 1996. After two years, we were miserable; being on call 24/7 was really stressful and exhausting. Then one day, Erin’s stepmother told us about a piece she read on someone who started a pooper-scooper business. We turned to each other, and it was like a movie moment. We were like, “Oh my gosh, that is such a terrific idea.”

Co-owner Erin Erman’s dog, Brady, in one of Dirty Work’s trucks.

I think it’s safe to say: that’s not a common reaction to scooping poop. We’re both huge animal people, and there were only a handful of pooper-scooper services in the United States and Canada at the time.

Amount of poop that Dirty Work scoops per week: Several McDonald’s-sized dumpsters full.

Lead me through the poop-scooping process. We use long metal spades and line pails with trash bags that can just slide off afterward. After double-bagging the poop, we spray it with a deodorizer and transport it in pickup trucks to a service that treats it properly. Then we disinfect everything.

How many clients do you service? Several hundred. We have some that I’ve served literally since our business opened 15 years ago. We cover a sheer swath of Greater Atlanta, including residences, apartments, town homes, and some hotels. In total, we drive thousands of miles per week.

What primarily drives people to hire you? [Our clients] are really busy, or they simply hate the idea of cleaning up the waste. Or perhaps it’s a wife and/or mother that tells us, “My husband and/or kids said they would do it, and now it’s piling up.”

Staff size: Four people in addition to Erin and myself. I’m really involved in the business side of things now, but I still do some of the scooping a few days per week. It’s a good way to keep a feel for how the business operates.

Welsh Corgi puppies are cute. Their poop is not. Photo: pbh2.com

Do you work in rain or shine? Yes – in all types of weather, with the exception of lightening, since we use metal tools. Rain and ice aren’t our friends, though. Frozen poop isn’t fun.

I can imagine, especially when the ground is frozen, too. It’s essentially like taking an ice pick to an ice cube, hacking away. But we’re careful not to take away any grass, since people are very meticulous about their lawns.

Have you found anything valuable in the poop? All kinds of dog toys, especially ones shaped like animals. Once, two beaded eyes from a dog toy were placed perfectly in a pile of poop, so it was as though the poop was staring up at me. I had to take a photo of that. Another time, a client had placed her diamond engagement ring on the counter while washing dishes, and her Labrador Retriever jumped up and swallowed it. You can imagine what we were looking for in the poop that week!

Did you find the ring? Yes. But I’m not sure what her cleaning process was for that.

What do you wear on the job? Rainboots or waterproof shoes, waterproof gloves, and a hat are staples.

No masks to fight the odor? We’re mostly immune to the odor, although it still hits you sometimes, especially when it’s hot and wet outside. Plus, masks are really hot on your face from the hot air you breathe out.

When you meet new people, how do they react when you tell them about your job? Well, people I’ve gotten back in touch with from high school or college thought I’d go on to medical school, so they are quite surprised at the twist. But overall, people are really positive. We like to call ourselves entremanures.

Best part of your job: The dogs.

Most challenging part of your job: Getting the word out about our services. From a scooping aspect, it’s the climate.

An ad for Dirty Work uses imagery of a dog on a toilet with the tagline Until then, call us.
Photo: DirtyWork.net

Do you foresee the day when your services become obsolete? Not until dogs start learning to use the toilet. But you never know – we never thought we’d have cars that drive themselves.

Average fee charged per yard: For a yard with one or two dogs, about $12.50 for weekly service. After paying for gas, insurance, licensing, truck maintenance, taxes, and payroll, it’s a very low profit. In five to ten years, though, I’d like to see the company grow by at least a fourth.

So you’re doing this largely out of love for dogs – not for the money. In a way, yeah.

Do you have pets of your own? Two cats and two dogs, all of which are adopted. Some frogs have also taken residence in my backyard this spring, along with some tadpoles and wild birds.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Do your research. Over the years, I have seen many people try to start businesses but fail because they don’t take it seriously. Don’t take shortcuts; be fair to your clients and employees. Scooping poop may not require hours of training required for jobs like plumbing and carpentry, but it’s still a business like any other.

Read about other animal-centric No Joe Schmos, like the CEO of Lincoln Park Zoo and the bull rider.

Would you pay $12.50 per week for a poop-free yard? Comment below.

CEO Files: The CouchSurfer

"CouchSurfing attracts anyone who is interested in having authentic connections," CouchSurfing CEO Dan Hoffer says.

Couches can speak volumes about one’s style and personality. A leather reclining sofa may suggest luxury and low-maintenance, while a brightly colored sectional may suggest versatility.

In his time, Dan Hoffer has come to know hundreds of people through their couches. Eight years ago, he co-founded CouchSurfing.com, an online network that connects travelers across the globe, allowing them to “bypass the typical hotel experience by staying at the home of a local and learning about their culture.” Once threatened by a database crash that nearly shut down the site for good, CouchSurfing now boasts millions of members in over 230 countries and territories around the world.

Age: 34
Graduated from: Undergraduate studies at Harvard University; MBA from Columbia University
Based in: San Francisco, Calif.
Has held the position for: Co-founded CouchSurfing eight years ago and served as chairman of the board; starting working full-time as its CEO almost two years ago
Previous jobs: Entrepreneur in residence at a venture capital firm; executive at Semantic Technologies, a large software company

What do you do at work all day? As the CEO, I spend most of my days in meetings. I meet with everyone in the company at least once a month, and get involved in certain projects involving project strategy, communication strategy, and fundraising. CEOs need to be generalists.

Inside the CouchSurfing headquarters in San Francisco.

Something people would be surprised to learn about your job: In a leadership position, everyone watches what you do very carefully. I’ve seen people make judgments about visitors to the office based on how warmly I greeted the person.

How often do you CouchSurf? A few times a year. I’ve been to Japan, Korea, Sweden, France, Senegal, Mexico, Puerto Rico…the list goes on.

Is your own couch available to CouchSurfers? Yes, I do hosts on occasion.

Dangers of the process: Cultural misunderstanding is the biggest one, where you don’t get along on a social level with the person you meet. There’s no vetting beforehand to match people socially, but you can look at profiles and photos to get a good sense of people.

Without vetting, how do CouchSurfers know they’re staying in a safe place? It’s like online dating. You can go meet a stranger that you met on the Internet, and you don’t know if they’re going to be a nice person or an axe murderer. With CouchSurfing, you look at profiles and references left by others. We have a vouching system and an identity verification system.

Coolest part of the process: The people and the sense of community. CouchSurfing enables you to find people to meet and activities to join.

Hoffer hosts a presentation at the company's headquarters.

Biggest setback: In 2006, we had a big database crash that threatened to destroy CouchSurfing. We were planning to shut it down, but the community rallied. Thousands of volunteers wrote to us, offering to help restore the website. With their help, we did.

Best part of your job: Supporting our community of millions of members so they can experience life-changing moments. I asked one 26-year-old German CouchSurfer about her best CouchSurfing experience, and she talked about climbing a 150-foot crane in London. She had been staying with someone whose hobby was climbing skyscrapers.

Most challenging part of your job: Balancing conflicting agendas. [The CouchSurfing community] doesn’t want to pay anything, but at the same time, they want an amazing website. To build an amazing website, you need to hire amazing people who cost money.

Target audience: We tend to have more participants in their 20s and 30s, but we also have people in their 70s.

Minimum age to sign up for CouchSurfing: 18.

Best advice for recent graduates: Learning how to think in any particular discipline is invaluable. While at Harvard, I took a semester off to work on a ranch in Texas for a former Marine Corps sergeant. I learned a lot about leadership by hauling hay and building fences for him.

Okay, so it's not quite a couch...

Like what? At the time, I never guessed there would be any professional career applications. But in reality, there have been quite a few, like how to lead effectively, how to listen, and how to deal with different skill levels.

Most memorable traveling experience: I trekked through the jungle in Borneo and hiked through the Virgin Rainforest.

Your indispensable gadget while traveling: Chromebooks.

What’s always in your backpack? A water bottle and flashlight.

If you had all the money and resources in the world, what business would you start? I would focus on African refugee relief.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Focus on learning from the people you respect the most – not necessarily in fields that seem professionally oriented. Pursue a career where you can excel.

Follow CouchSurfing on Twitter at @CouchSurfing. Photo, top: Meredith Hoffer. Rest of photos: Jim Stone, CouchSurfing.com.

PLUS: For more high-powered No Joe Schmos, check out the CEO of Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo and the founder/CEO of Home4Dance