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Eight strategies for framing your horse-business start-up

Have you always dreamed about running your own equine business? Do you have empty stalls in your barn that you’ve thought about filling to help pay for your horse obsession? Are you finally at a place in your life where you have the time, energy, and resources to devote to your own fledgling business? Consider living your dream, and start a horse business!

A passion for horses is the foundation of all successful horse businesses. However, passion alone won’t get you where you want to be. Horse-business success happens by design, not by chance. You need a plan of action.

Eight Key Strategies
The following eight key strategies will serve as a framework for the business you’d like to have (or help you analyze the business you’re already running). They’re easy to understand and are based on the fundamentals of operating any profitable business.

Strategy #1.Build a compelling three-year vision. First, define what horse-business success means to you. Does it mean a riding lesson business with two hired instructors operating six days a week? Or do you want a boarding/lessons/training facility with 24 box stalls and an indoor arena with capacity for horse shows? Or perhaps you want to be a part-timer, training clients’ horses for a specific discipline.

Your business vision is exactly that-your business vision. It’s compelling to you and pulls you forward without you having to push, prod, and rationalize why you chose this business.

You can create a business vision by answering these questions:
• Where are you going?
• Why are you going there?
• Who’s going with you?
• How will you get there?

Next, get this vision down on paper. Without a written statement of purpose, you’ll be destined to operate an uncertain and confusing horse business. Your statement of purpose can be something as simple as bullet points and ideas on a single sheet of paper or as elaborate as a 2,000-word narrative describing your business.

Strategy #2. Control the dollars. Your knowledge of your business’s finances helps eliminate cash-flow surprises, allows you to better focus on the profitable enterprises within your business, and helps bring about peace of mind about money.

It’ll be gratifying to be in a business you love, but it would be emotionally draining to lose money every year because of a failure to understand and correct problems with profitability issues.

You don’t need to have a degree in accounting to operate a successful horse business; you do need to have accurate, timely books kept by you or your designated bookkeeper. However, a timely profit-and-loss statement and a balanced checking account aren’t enough. As a business owner, your understanding of the sources and timing of both income and expenses are keys to your profitability.

It’s acceptable to have seasonal cash shortfalls in income that require planned, temporary financing from savings or a line of credit. It’s unacceptable for your business to be ambushed by unplanned expenses or strangled for cash due to stale receivables.

Strategy #3. Make time to plan. You may be too busy focusing on the day-to-day requirements of your business to pause long enough to take a broader view and analyze how your business is doing.

The strategic view from the top of the hill is much better than the shortsightedness from the top of the manure pile. Unfortunately, the strategic view is often deferred until tomorrow, next week, or next month because of urgent-but not as important-daily tasks.

Dedicate and schedule a few hours each week to review the books, your goals for the month, your year-to-date position, and your alignment with your three-year vision. This effort will help keep your business running smoothly.

Time spent by yourself, as the business owner, is important; but also time spent with staff, as the business leader, pays big dividends in progress, less stress, and better communication.

Strategy #4. Lead for success. Even though you may define your work as a horse business, it’s equally a people business. Some horse-business owners are reluctant to take charge of both horses and people, because they prefer to work with horses rather than humans. However, you must be a leader to your staff. Employees may perform poorly when strong leadership is absent. They seek out direction and reassurance from the business owner.

Clients, too, expect the business owner and key personnel to be leaders. Fortunately, leadership skills can be built upon and improved once the decision to lead has been made. Good leaders have a strong set of values, just like good horse trainers and riding instructors. Lead your business based on your sound core principles and beliefs-then success will follow.

Strategy #5. Be a catalyst for customer service. Good customer service is expected in the equine industry. Considering the thousands of dollars clients and customers spend annually on their horses, they deserve it!

Your business can promote excellent customer service and relationships at very little out-of-pocket cost. Examples include returning phone calls promptly, hiring and training a polite and courteous staff, and creating a friendly atmosphere. Such services cost little but yield huge returns.

Establishing a business culture of superior customer service is energy intensive at first, but once in place, it becomes habit and is easy to maintain. The long-term benefits are client retention, referrals, and working with more smiling folks.

Strategy #6. Master the selling process. A wise man once said about business planning: “Nothing happens until something is sold.” Like it or not, all horse-business owners are salespeople.

They sell horses, riding lessons, boarding services, stallion services, horse-show services, training services, and the opportunity to hang out with other people who share a love for horses.

If the term “closing a sale” sounds too pushy, overbearing, or manipulative, then it may be time to evaluate the selling process and how important it is to a profitable business.

The selling process is as simple as helping people get what they want. Your mastery of the art and science of selling helps you solve your client’s problems efficiently and quickly.

Strategy #7. Market methodically. Establish an annual marketing plan. Note that identifying the best marketing methods and timing is a challenge.

Most marketing plans are developed too late, often as a result of lack of clients and a devastating reduction in income. A marketing plan formulated and budgeted annually with a methodical program will keep the income stream steadier to avoid peaks and valleys in cash flow.

Be consistent with your general marketing, strategic with timing of special-events announcements, and dedicated to providing funds for marketing when you create a budget at the beginning of each year.

Strategy #8. Achieve balance between work, rest, and play. The temptation to work harder and longer in pursuit of your dream of developing your successful horse business is difficult to resist.

Unfortunately, an unbridled desire for success often leads to the point of exhaustion. Long work days and short nights month after month are an unhealthy combination.

What benefit is there in owning your own business if you become a slave to it day and night? With no provision for adequate rest (you know, seven or eight hours of sleep each night) and occasional relaxation and play (maybe even something not horse-

related), your business vision may become your business nightmare.

Fatigued business owners, in the spirit of personal sacrifice, lose twice with their denial of rest and play. First, the business loses, because the owner no longer thinks clearly, and second, the owner personally loses the benefits of good physical health and healthy, stress-free relationships with family and friends.

Planned days off and vacations are a must for owners and healthy horse businesses.

Practically Speaking
The strategies listed here work if you apply them. And just like becoming a better rider, trainer, or instructor, dedication to business profitability improvement is a key element.

There’s a tendency for horse business owners to be “herd-like” in business operations and management. As an example, I often hear horse-related business people complaining about the low rates they charge for boarding, lessons, and training. They operate in fear that they’ll lose clients if they raise rates, since the operation down the road is charging the same fees and another local facility is charging even less for services.

The fear of challenging the price structure of the rest of the herd controls thinking and, as a result, profitability is diminished or even reduced to loss.

When questioned at a deeper level about the competition in terms of costs and services, horse-business owners begin to reveal that the services offered at each facility for boarding, lessons, and training aren’t equal at all.

Different feeding programs for boarded horses; less care and handling; inferior arenas, trails, and barns; less instruction time; and yes, poor customer service, are all contributing factors to justification of your price increase for your superior programs. It’s seldom an apples-to-apples comparison between horse businesses. Each horse business is unique in its level of service delivery.

It’s flawed thinking to price your services like a commodity, such as a bushel of corn or a gallon of milk. Boarding, training, and lesson services provided by several businesses can be similar but never identical.

It’s the extra value professionals provide to clients that makes them unique from the competition. Extra value comes in the form of consistent performance success in the show ring, a breeder’s production of top-quality horses year after year, and student clients who successfully move on to the next level in their riding skills.

Owning or leasing a horse is expensive. But people who expect top-quality performances from their horses also recognize that commitment to financial investment in their passion is a requirement.

Just like a golfer will pay a premium for the opportunity to play on the best courses with a top-rated pro, horsemen will pay more for excellent service provided by a dedicated, knowledgeable, and experienced equine professional.

Use the framework of these eight key strategies to build your horse business. Don’t be frustrated if the start-up is slow. Just like training a horse, progress develops gradually; it never happens overnight. But know that you can make your dream a reality.

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