In this video, Tania Isenstein shares her startup story and talks about the challenges of running her business, Camp Canine in New York City, during the pandemic. (Video credit: Sue Williams)

Like many New York City business owners, Tania Isenstein is waiting on the vaccine. And wondering how long she can hold on.

“I can’t even think about what will happen if there’s another shutdown,” says Isenstein, who runs Camp Canine, a doggie daycare, boarding and grooming facility on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “I believe that will break me.”

A former Wall Street lawyer, Isenstein purchased Camp Canine in 2012, and used her business acumen to make capital improvements, change workplace culture and grow revenue 400 percent. At the start of the year, she employed about 50 workers and was on track to make $2.5 million in sales. And then the pandemic hit.

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“We furloughed every single employee,” she says, an “agonizing” decision considering many of her staff live paycheck-to-paycheck. She applied for Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) loans, and ran campaigns on GoFundMe and Kiva. By May, she was able to re-open and hire back about half her staff.

And now, she’s bracing for a brutal winter. The signs are ominous: Covid-19 cases are spiking once again. Mayor Bill de Blasio recently closed the city’s public school system, the largest in the nation, for in-person learning. Tough new restrictions seem imminent.

“I’ve been working until 10 at night, racking my brain on how to get business,” she says. The other evening, she admits, “I just sat here and cried.” While her numbers had been steadily moving upward since her May re-opening, “this month it’s not going this way,” she says. “‘Grim’ is the word I’ve been using.”

Here’s how she’s coping:

In a happy twist of fate, dog adoptions and sales have soared since the shutdowns began in mid-March, as people turn to canine companions to fill the void. Breeders and rescue shelters have reported unusual amounts of interest. “I am looking at ways to reach those new puppy parents,” Isenstein says, especially in her Upper West Side neighborhood, which she describes as “dog-rich.” Recently, she teamed up with Andrea Arden, a pet expert who offers training tips on Animal Planet and the Today show, to host playgroups at Camp Canine for pre-vaccinated puppies (no humans are allowed). Arden invites her client’s pups — “she gets the business, and I get their contact information,” Isenstein says. She follows up by offering discounted daycare once puppies get their shots. 

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She’s staying focused on today — not tomorrow

Isenstein previously worked at Goldman Sachs, and back then she used to take annual whitewater rafting trips with colleagues as a means to “get off the grid” and hit the reset button. (In fact, on one of those trips, she realized that dogs made her far happier than corporate work, and decided to quit her job and run a dog-related business.) “One of the many things I love about those trips is that you’re pretty much always in the moment,” she says. “There are things you have to do — you have to not fall out of the boat, you have to paddle, you have to set up your tent before it gets dark.” When you’re focused on what immediately needs to be done, you can’t get distracted by all the things that could go wrong.  She’s drawing on that right now to stay “in that moment and try not to go beyond that moment.” 

She’s recalling the support she’s gotten since the pandemic hit

In July, Isenstein ran a successful campaign on Kiva.org in just 48 hours to crowdsource a $15,000 loan to cover payroll costs — and got an outpouring of emotional support from former Goldman colleagues, current clients and various friends and family. “People just wrote the most amazing things,” she says, especially about how much Camp Canine means to their pets. She pledged then and there that “on the bad days, I will go back and re-read all of these comments to keep on fighting.” 

She’s spending time with dogs.

“So during the pandemic, I’m sure I’ve changed,” Isenstein says. “People say, ‘Oh, we all have post-traumatic stress.’ No, I have current-traumatic stress. My stress is ongoing. It has not resolved yet.” It helps that she gets to surround herself with furry creatures. In fact, she admits to loving dogs more than people — something she also says is Camp Canine’s competitive advantage. “Every single person here is as crazy about dogs as I am, and you will not find that at some of my competitors,” she says. “The dogs come before the human clients.”

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She’s shoring up cash

Thanks to the loan programs, Isenstein still has funds in the bank, and she’s also used personal savings to keep the business running. “I have other loan sources, but I don’t want to go into a tremendous amount of debt,” she says. So now, like many business owners, she waits. “We have a great, great place, when the world is back in order,” she says. “We just need to make it till then.”

Read Full Transcript

TEXT: In February 2020, Covid began to rip through New York City.

Tania: When we first started hearing about Covid, I personally did not have an idea about how bad it was going to be. People say, "Oh, we all have post-traumatic stress." No, I have current traumatic stress. I'm on edge and much more often sad than I am happy.

Tania: Of course, the one thing that makes me happy is dogs, so that's helpful.

TEXT: Tania Eisentstein – Founder + CEO – Camp Canine, New York, N.Y.

Tania: Camp Canine is a full pet care facility. We have grooming and bathing here. We board overnight your dogs or your cats. We have daycare for your dogs or your cats. And also we've actually groomed a rabbit once, but that's not something we do regularly.

TEXT: Tania began her career as a corporate lawyer in New York.

Tania: When I first started practicing law, I did like it. But mostly I think I liked the lifestyle. It was very important to me to earn a living and to be independent financially and otherwise.

TEXT: In 1994 Tania went to work at Goldman Sachs.

TEXT: After 16 years there, just making a good living was no longer satisfying.

Tania: I was having a hard time getting up in the morning. I was having a hard time focusing on the work and I was ultimately not doing a great job anymore because of all of those things. What became more apparent to me is that I really needed to do something I loved. I figured out what makes me happy: dogs.

TEXT: Tania decided to leave her job and buy a dog-centered business.

Tania: I did have a dog. Her name was Mushu. And in fact, having her influenced tremendously the direction I took with the business. I knew that I wanted to provide all the services someone with a job that’s very demanding would need to care for a dog in the city. So we do pickups and drop-off. We have extra late hours for people who need it. We'll take your dog to the vet if you want us to.

TEXT: Tania found a dog day care facility just two blocks from her home.

Tania: When I visited and looked at it for purchase, I could see that it was a distressed business. But I could see that this place had really good bones.

TEXT: Tania used her savings to buy the business.

TEXT: She renovated the facility.

TEXT: She added day care and boarding for cats.

Tania: When I took over Camp Canine, the total revenues were approximately $300,000. In about seven years, they are well over $2 million a year.

TEXT: By the end of 2019 Tania had 50 employees.

Tania: In January of 2020 our revenues had been in excess of $2 million, and I had a personal goal of hitting $2.5 this year, and $3, perhaps, in two years. And we were very aggressively and successfully pursuing that goal. However, then February hit.

TEXT: When Covid slammed New York City shut, Tania had to close.

Tania: Horrible, horrible time, a horrible several weeks. I didn't sleep. It was just awful.

TEXT: She was forced to furlough her employees.

Tania: I went through some phases where I thought, “It's not worth fighting. It's not worth coming back. It's such a hassle, it's such a fight.”

Tania: But so many clients called me and wrote to me and said how important Camp Canine is for them in their lives. That's what kept me going.

TEXT: Clients sent thousands of dollars to help support Tania’s staff.

TEXT: She eventually received a government loan to cover part of her overhead.

TEXT: At the end of May, the city slowly began to re-open.

Tania: Clients were pretty slow in coming back because people were still out of town, of course, and people are still working from home. The one area in tremendous demand was grooming. Everybody's pets, like the rest of us, needed help with their hair

TEXT: Tania enforces strict hygiene controls.

Tania: We call it “valet barking,” where they're at the curb and they ring a doorbell and we go out, get the dog and bring it in. So the only humans in this building are the employees.

TEXT: But Tania has only been able to re-hire half her staff.

TEXT: Revenues are still down nearly 50 percent.

Tania: Now, it's a good day when we have about 40 dogs for daycare, which was the case when I took over Camp Canine eight years ago. So we're a little bit back where we started.

Tania: My relationship with my dogs, I couldn't imagine it could have gotten deeper, and yet it did.

Tania: I have a lot more fight in me right now. The encouragement from my clients really fired me up.

Tania SOT: Yep! 100-percent discount.

Tania: And I am determined to get this back. And when I'm determined, things do not stop me.

Tania SOT: Good job, Nacho. Stay right here, bubba. Stay on this side. There you go!

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