Back in December 2023, as I was over halfway done with my MMS degree at Duke, I co-founded Windy City Dog Resorts LLC, a franchisee of K9 Resorts Luxury Pet Hotels. As CEO, I am committed to opening and operating eight resorts throughout the Greater Chicago Area by 2029. While attending Fuqua was one stop on my journey, my mission to become a franchisee in the pet industry began long before my time at Duke, with a childhood surrounded by dogs and an early exposure to entrepreneurship in the industry through my family’s business.

I grew up in upstate New York with five dogs—one Bernese mountain dog, three huskies, and one golden retriever. My parents ran their own Invisible Fence dealership. For those who don’t know, the Invisible Fence is a pet containment system that uses a combination of underground wires, a transmitter, and a receiver collar to keep pets safely within a customer’s property without the need for a physical fence. At a very young age, I developed a love for dogs as well as an understanding of the pet industry. In high school, I thought about skipping college to immediately enter the workforce and run my own dealership like my parents. After some consideration, I decided against this. I felt I should instead go to college to see what opportunities I could create for myself… pretty funny that I ended up in the pet industry anyway.

Starting My Own Business

I wanted the success and failure of the business I worked for to be my responsibility, not someone else’s. This only became apparent to me as I reflected on my more than two years working as a business analyst at a semiconductor manufacturing company. Everything about the job was perfect, but since it was a job, it was inherently imperfect for me. I realized that I wanted more ownership, accountability, and earning potential than I could get working for anyone.

Knowing I wanted to start my own business, I had two options: either create my own business model or inherit one. Since I had no creative ideas, I chose the latter and began researching franchising. For nearly a year, I have been consuming all the content on franchising I could get my hands on—books, podcasts, and other sources online. I could spend all day talking about franchising. In short, I believe it is a highly underrated career path to building wealth and having a massive impact throughout your career.

My Path to Becoming a Franchisee

I chose a franchisor with a proven business model and a strong franchisee support system, encapsulating the essence of franchising: being in business for yourself, but not by yourself. K9 Resorts Luxury Pet Hotels was an easy choice; it made sense both professionally and personally. I am a dog person who grew up with an inside view of the pet industry, and I believe K9 Resorts offers the best model for dog daycare and boarding.

Luckily, after I signed my agreements with K9 Resorts, I learned that one of the top-performing resorts in the system is in Apex, North Carolina. This resort is a little more than a 30-minute drive away from Fuqua. Since January, I have been working there for over 20 hours a week while managing my responsibilities as a student. My motivation for working there has been to learn first-hand how these resorts are run, with guidance from the franchisee.

As operating manager and CEO, my responsibilities are to open new resorts, manage existing stores, hire and manage staff, set dividend and retained earnings policies, and prepare annual budgets. After their initial ramp, we expect each resort to have 25 employees on payroll. By the time all eight resorts are open, we will have a total of 200 employees. This is the sort of impact I am after—not only creating 200 jobs but also supporting the local economy, enhancing the quality of pet care in Chicago, and providing meaningful career opportunities with the potential for upward mobility.

I am grateful to have partners who, I know, are invested not only in the success of the business but also in my personal success. Without them, this would not be possible.

Zackary Nisbet with three other people

Entrepreneurship Resources at Fuqua

I am not sure I would’ve ever become a franchisee if I didn’t get admitted to Fuqua. Getting admitted is the event that galvanized me to reflect on my time in the semiconductor manufacturing industry and ultimately decide to explore entrepreneurship.

Not only does Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship (Duke I&E) offer resources for aspiring entrepreneurs, but it also provides valuable learning opportunities through clubs like the Entrepreneurship Through Acquisition (ETA) Club. ETA was new to me when I started at Duke, and during our club meetings, we discussed why acquiring a small business could yield surprisingly strong returns, and the role search funds would play in facilitating these acquisitions.

Back in September, the ETA club hosted the Southeast ETA (SEETA) Conference, bringing in more than 400 attendees from different universities. This event has been a highlight of my time at Duke, allowing me to meet individuals I otherwise wouldn’t have encountered and with whom I’ve stayed in contact.

My Advice for Aspiring Entrepreneurs

Do not wait, go for it now! What I’ve found to be true in my life is that there is a direct relationship between responsibility and time. In other words, as time goes on, the more responsibilities I have. If that’s the case, that means now is likely the least busy I will be for the rest of my life, and I bet the same is true for you. Although there is no perfect time to start a business, now is the time to take a risk.

Start by talking to business owners about their experience. Before selecting K9 Resorts, I cold-called many franchisees from various brands, namely those in the fitness industry, and even met a few franchisees in person in Durham. In my experience, they all are willing to share more details about their business than you may think.

When starting my program at Duke, franchising was merely an idea to me. Now, it is a massive project I am thankful to be undertaking.