Attending to guests: Sturgess at Adogo’s original Minnetonka location

Executive MBA program helps entrepreneur John Sturgess launch Adogo

The luxury-pet-hotel business came to life thanks in part to knowledge gained at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management

By Caitlin Hill
Friday, December 19, 2014

Walking into an Adogo pet hotel, with its clean lines and custom-designed suites, feels a bit like entering a trendy boutique hotel. Such ambience isn’t generally expected when checking a pooch into a boarding facility, but it’s exactly the effect local entrepreneur John Sturgess was going for when he launched his first Adogo location in Minnetonka in 2011.
A second location in Maple Grove opened in May 2014, followed more recently by another in Minnetonka. Having been well received by dog owners, the high-end pooch hotels will, if all goes to plan, also make appearances in other metro areas, such as Chicago and Dallas.
An overnight success? Hardly. Sturgess planned the business for years, combining two decades of hospitality-industry experience with knowledge gained in the two-year Carlson Executive MBA program at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.
Though he had plenty of relevant experience, Sturgess felt it necessary to get his MBA first. “I knew I wanted to start my own business, but I wanted to strengthen up areas like financing and accounting,” he says. “The MBA program at Carlson was really the best way for me to get a well-rounded understanding of the business cycle. You build on your strengths and manage your weaknesses.”
Sturgess got his start in the hotel industry in college while attending Southern Methodist University in Texas. He went through the management training program and from there got into hotel management. He then worked his way up the ladder at a number of hospitality companies, namely Carlson Hotels Worldwide, where he served as corporate vice president of development.
“I knew from a young age that I wanted to be working directly with people,” he says. “I didn’t want to be stuck behind a computer.” Eventually he had the idea to marry two of his greatest passions: the hotel business and dogs. He liked the thought of taking what he’d learned working in the operational side of the hotel industry and applying it to the canine world. “I love dogs, but I love the hotel business, too,” he says.
With the idea percolating in his mind, Sturgess made a pivotal decision in 2006 to enter the MBA program. Geared toward professionals with six or more years of full-time experience and substantial organizational responsibilities, it’s designed so that professionals who already possess a depth of expertise can earn their MBA alongside business leaders from other organizations. Currently, the tuition for the entire program runs $108,000.
Sturgess liked the way the program was tailored to the schedules of busy executives like himself — he was traveling an average of three days a week for work. Throughout the program, he attended class all day on Friday and Saturday, every other week. “My boss at Carlson Companies supported me, but I knew that my production could not fall,” he says.
In addition to classes, Sturgess was also responsible for completing four to six hours of homework every day. Even though the program involved less class time than some other MBA programs, it required no less work, he believes.
He feels he was able to get a well-rounded experience from the program’s breadth of classes. The program exposes students to a number of different topics, such as ethics, entrepreneurship, and organizational business, among others.
Sturgess took every class as an opportunity to mold his burgeoning business concept. For example, he incorporated principles learned in the organizational business class into Adogo. “We got right into the culture of business and how to get engagement from executives and employees to build a strong foundation,” he says.
Sturgess found working with his peers to be just as valuable as the program’s classwork. Group projects and meetings allowed him to get feedback on his ideas and plans from other experienced professionals. “It was great because they would make me think about it differently,” he explains. “They were using their experience and knowledge to help me.”
His classmates ranged from entrepreneurs to Fortune 500 corporate execs, but they all had one thing in common: years of experience. “It’s a program where you’re with the same group of people for two years,” Sturgess says. “I used the executive MBA as a think tank for putting my business model together.”
Treating the program as an incubator for substantiating his business plan was especially important for Sturgess when it came to group projects. For example, whenever he led a project or case study, he focused on his pet hotel model. Whether the class was about managerial strategies or entrepreneurship, Sturgess found ways to pull his business model into each and garner the feedback of his cohort.
“In each different class, if we were working on a case study, I could tie my pet business into that,” he explains. “I worked closely with other successful executives [in my classes] and would open the discussion about different business models. We would challenge each other, but in a respectful way. You learn from that, and that’s what made a huge difference.”
Sturgess was also able to test the strength of his business model while participating in an international project at the end of the program. He joined with Carlson Executive MBA candidates in Europe and China to work on a business plan that focused on developing pet hotels in China and the United States. “This allowed me tosee the international and domestic side [of my business plan],” he says.
He adds that professors were also an important part of the learning process, above and beyond what might normally be expected of them. “Yes, we were their students, but I looked at them as consultants more than anything else,” he says.
Though Sturgess took full advantage of his MBA opportunity, doing so wasn’t without challenges. His wife, Stacy, became pregnant with their daughter halfway through the program. Plus, Sturgess had to juggle a busy travel schedule for his full-time job with the demands of class and homework. He recalls attending an out-of-town conference for work and going back to the hotel to study between events.
Also, it was initially difficult for him to get back into the groove of academia. After being out of college and in the workforce for years, he had to get acclimated to doing homework and being in class again.
But the biggest challenge of all, of course, was launching the first Adogo location. In that effort, Sturgess was able to call upon knowledge learned not just from his professors, but also from group projects and case studies. For example, he could look at a specific company and tie his own concept and model into each scenario. “I began to look at things like decisionmaking, management, and leadership from different lenses,” he explains. “You get to see a well-rounded model. And when you’re going to run a business, you have to be able to understand all those things.”
Sturgess recently shared his insights with an entrepreneurship club at the Carlson School of Management, where he frequently speaks to students. He remains close-knit with his alma mater, often volunteering in mentorship programs, entrepreneurship classes, and student clubs.
“[Sturgess] inevitably shares his passion for customer service and the challenges involved in delivering a consistently superior level of service,” says John Stavig, director of the Gary S. Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship at the Carlson School of Management. “His story speaks to the need to be passionate about the business student entrepreneurs are seeking to create, and committed to see it through the long-term development cycle.”
Recently, Sturgess served as a mentor in the center’s experiential courses, advising students on products related to the pet and hotel markets. By speaking from experience, especially in regards to the MBA program, he’s been able to guide other soon-to-be entrepreneurs.
“John’s MBA experience built upon his prior success in the hospitality industry,” Stavig notes. “It expanded his general managerial capability beyond the development of new business locations, to include the managerial leadership, marketing, and operations capability to finance, launch, and build a scalable business.”
So how well has Sturgess put his business acumen into practice? In Adogo’s first year in business, the original pet hotel broke even. From year one to two, it saw a 50 percent increase in revenue, and then 20 percent growth the next year. He hopes to see 5 percent growth each year moving forward.
Sturgess has been recognized a number of times for his business success. In 2012, for example, he was crowned emerging entrepreneur of the year by the TwinWest Chamber of Commerce for the original Adogo location and his leadership in the business community.
Looking back, he believes participating in the MBA program was a major step in pursuing his dream. “The program,” he says, “helped me validate my business model.”