Taking The Helm At An Existing Company With Olivia Lefto Of Muddy Paws Play + Stay

To say that Olivia Lefto was born to work with dogs isn’t an exaggeration.

When her parents brought her home from the hospital as a newborn, they already had a small dog named Maggie. And while some dogs are wary of babies, Maggie took to Lefto immediately. 

“She would sleep under my crib all night and as I got older, she followed me everywhere,” Lefto recalled. “I would do things like dress her up and throw birthday parties for her and invite other dogs over. We were attached at the hip.”

When Lefto was 13, Maggie passed away and the family was devastated. After a year, though, they decided they were ready to open their hearts to another dog and Bailey the Golden Retriever puppy joined the Lefto clan. 

It was also around this time when Lefto walked into a place that would end up changing her life – Muddy Paws Play + Stay, the Columbus-based dog daycare and boarding facility that Bailey attended. 

“I wasn’t old enough to work yet, but every time I would walk in and drop Bailey off, I would ask ‘when can I get a job here?’” Lefto said. “They told me I had to wait until I was 16.”

Unfortunately, Bailey died at age 2 of kidney failure, but this time, the Leftos didn’t wait long to adopt a new dog. They found a five-year-old Golden Retriever named Murphy and brought her home. Just like with Maggie and Bailey, Lefto and Murphy were inseparable from day one. And Lefto was finally old enough to get her dream job at Muddy Paws, where Murphy was able to go to work with her every day until she got expelled – but more on that later!

When it was time for college, Lefto knew she couldn’t be without Murphy so she brought her along to the University of Minnesota Duluth where she was studying business. During the school year, she worked at a kennel near school “because I couldn’t handle not being with dogs.” On summer breaks at holidays, she would come home and work at Muddy Paws.

Before she knew it, it was almost time for Lefto to graduate and she began looking for 9-5 jobs in sales and marketing. Then she got some interesting news – the owner of Muddy Paws had put the business up for sale.

“I called my parents right away,” Lefto said. “I knew it was a super long shot, but it had always been a dream of mine to open my own kennel one day.”

Knowing their daughter’s passion for dogs, her parents got on board with the idea of purchasing Muddy Paws. And suddenly, before she’d even earned her degree, she was a full-fledged business owner at a place that had always held a special spot in her heart.

“It was kind of a weird transition between being a worker and being an owner,” Lefto said. “I knew that I now had the ability to make changes to processes that weren’t working well and implement some of the things I’d seen through my work at other kennels.”

The previous owner had wanted to shut down Muddy Paws while the changeover was happening, but Lefto was committed to keeping the facility open, even though it was short staffed. She found herself driving back and forth from Duluth to work shifts and even ended up taking her finals online from Muddy Paws.

“I knew it would look bad to customers if we shut down so I was doing everything I could to not let that happen,” she said. “It was a really busy time for me, but it helped me learn ‘OK, this is a 24/7 job. It’s not just like working a shift here and there. It’s a constant.’”

Fast forward two years and Lefto couldn’t be happier with her decision to dive headfirst into business ownership. She’s built her staff back up and is constantly looking for ways to improve upon the services she provides to her customers. For example, she’s added more specialized spaces to Muddy Paws, including staff-only areas for dogs that aren’t great with group play, a section that’s designed for small groups and an indoor “senior citizen” center for older dogs with plenty of couches for napping.

And Murphy, now 14, is once again able to come to work with her every day, enjoying her time in the small group area that didn’t used to exist before Lefto took the reins.

“The reason she got expelled when she was younger was because she would get so territorial of me when I was around other dogs,” Lefto said. “It made me sad when that happened because I feel like everyone’s dog is their baby and part of their family. I want Muddy Paws to be an option for everyone and I never want to turn anyone away.”

Thanks to all the new changes and the dedication of her team, business is thriving at Muddy Paws. While it may seem easier to take over an existing business instead of starting one from scratch, it does come with some challenges. If you’re looking at going this route, here are a few of Lefto’s tips and suggestions on ensuring the transition goes as smoothly as possible along with her thoughts on how to make the business your own:


  • Understand what you’re getting into: Before you purchase the business, it’s important to take a long, hard look at how it’s currently operating so there aren’t any surprises. Find out if there are any permitting issues that need to be addressed and how they could impact your plans. Lefto also suggests doing research on the overall industry and checking out other businesses that are in the same field to see how they’re doing things. Then, once you’ve taken over, continue your education by attending trainings and conferences. You might get some great ideas that can be incorporated into your business model.


  • Be transparent: Even though Lefto had a relationship with many of the Muddy Paws clients and they knew she was taking over the business, she also went the extra mile to keep everyone in the loop. She shared updates about the ownership change on social media along with information on the new spaces and services being offered. This way, people who may have been customers in the past could see that there were new options that might be a better fit for their dogs and bring them back. “I wanted to be clear that we are now accepting all dogs,” she said. She also did an interview with a local newspaper and changed her logo and signage, which also attracted new clients. 


  • Use social media to build connections: In addition to posting on social media to keep clients aware of what’s happening at Muddy Paws, Lefto also uses it to share the fun stuff, too. “It helps us connect with our customers, and they love seeing their dogs playing and doing fun activities when they look at our social media channels,” she said. “The customers aren’t allowed to come in the back area because the dogs can freak out with strangers, but sharing pictures online helps confirm they trust they put in us to take care of their dogs. It’s really made a big difference for us.”


  • Commit to being all in: Owning a business can be stressful, especially when your doors are open 24/7/365 like Muddy Paws is. That’s why it’s critical that you have a true passion for the work that you’re doing – it’ll keep you going on the toughest days. “You won’t have that drive to make things better for your business if you’re not fully invested,” Lefto said. “These dogs mean everything to me and I want to be the best I can for them.”


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