First off, Sarah has graciously provided a 15%-off coupon for Beyond the Uniform listeners for every product on her website at RanchRoadBoots.com. Just enter the code BTU at checkout and you’ll get 15% off all items, including those on clearance. This is an exceptional interview for aspiring entrepreneurs. We talk about how Sarah successfully raised $28,000 on Kickstarter, and her advice for running a crowdfunding campaign. We talk about marketing on Facebook, Google, and Amazon. We talk about getting out of your comfort zone and being honest about where the need is for your company’s product. We talk about using freelancers to move faster. We talk about how Sarah manages to run and grow a company while also raising two kids… and it’s a beautiful look at the importance of having boundaries. We talk about making your company as self-service as possible, so that you can focus on meaningful customer interactions.and we talk about - if you have that entrepreneurial itch - to do it now, and not wait for that MBA, experience or whatever else you think you may need.
Sarah is the Founder and Head Honcho at Ranch Road Boots, where her mission is to create leather goods with style and quality that can last forever. Ranch Road Boots donates proceeds from every purchase to the Injured Marines Semper Fi Fund and has a program making boots for amputees. She started out at the University of Texas at Austin, and served as an Officer in the Marine Corps for six years, with time in Iraq, Afghanistan and 29 Palms. She earned her MBA from Harvard Business School, and has worked as a consultant at the Boston Consulting Group as well as at the startup, Local Motors. Sarah has offered BTU listeners 15% off all items on Ranch Road Boots, including clearance items, and you’ll find additional details in the show notes for this episode.
StoryBox- People trust each other more than advertising. StoryBox provides the tools and supports businesses need to take the best things customers say about them, and use them to drive more sales and referrals. StoryBox offers a 10% discount to companies employing veterans of the US Armed Forces.
Info about Sarah
Gleam - Sarah mentioned running a contest through Gleam
Transcript & Time Stamps:
Joining us today from Houston, TX is Sarah Ford. Sarah is the Founder and Head Honcho at Ranch Road Boots, where her mission is to create leather goods with style and quality that can last forever. Ranch Road Boots donates proceeds from every purchase to the Injured Marines Semper Fi Fund and has a program making boots for amputees.
She started out at the University of Texas at Austin, and served as an Officer in the Marine Corps for six years, with time in Iraq, Afghanistan and 29 Palms. She earned her MBA from Harvard Business School, and has worked as a consultant at the Boston Consulting Group as well as at the startup, Local Motors. Sarah has offered BTU listeners 15% off all items on Ranch Road Boots, including clearance items, and you’ll find additional details in the show notes for this episode.
What was your transition out of the military like?
I joined the Marine Corps at an interesting time. I was born in 1997 and joined the Marines in 2001. I largely grew up in peace times and joined the Marines in June 2001. So I was in the Marines after September 11th and it was a very busy time. At the time, I was married to another Marine officer and we had done back-to-back deployments to Iraq.
There was a lot I was interested in doing outside of the Marines. I was interested in business school or potentially working at a construction company. I didn’t see the Marines as a long term career so it seemed like a natural transition.
How did Ranch Road Boots come about?
I was working for Local Motors and they were crowdsourcing designs for automobiles. Nike was doing something similar the same time for some of their sneakers. I had just purchased two pairs of custom boots and thought that there could be something in that space as far as crowd sourced boot designs.
I thought it would be fun if people could design cowboy boots and buy either their own boots or boots designed by someone else. So that was the initial stages of what is now Ranch Road Boots.
I sent my paperwork in to the State of Texas in January of 2012.
Was it difficult to take the plunge into entrepreneurship?
Not really. It was a pretty natural step for me.
And what did those first few months look like?
A friend of mine told me ‘Don’t even worry about the business plan. Just try to sell 50 pairs of boots.’ The wisdom in that is that if you can sell 50 pairs of boots, it means that you’ve figured out some sort of supply chain and that there is a market for your product.
At the time I was living in Phoenix and I knew a husband and wife that ran a hot dog food truck. They said that they really didn’t have a business plan but more of a checklist that the had that made sure they were doing everything the needed to. I liked that idea because sometimes you just have to get yourself out there and see if your product will sell.
I don’t exactly remember when I sold those first 50 pairs of boots but I know I started with a lot of my friends and family. That was within the first 60 days that I was selling them boots.
At what point were you able to start drawing an income out of the business?
We’re in the middle of fundraising right now. I tell people that want to start your own business to live as lean as possible. The more you take money out of the business to pay yourself, the less cash flow you have to experiment with different things within the business. I try to take a very small salary out of the business. I’m still trying to run the business as lean as possible and your family needs to be on board with that. Luckily, my husband is completely on board with my business. He’s active duty so we’re fortunate that a lot our expenses are taken care of. That has allowed us to keep as much cash in the company as possible.
I would imagine that you're scrutinizing your finances constantly.
I went from the Marine Corps to business school to working for a few years before starting my own business. Even though I went to business school, I didn’t have an extremely strong financial background before starting the business. So I’ve had to learn a lot of that. I have a bookkeeper and an accountant but a lot of it I’m doing on my own.
How did you finance the different stages of the company?
Unfortunately my first marriage ended in divorce. So I was single and working in Phoenix. I lived pretty modestly and just saved money in order to get the business off the ground. I eventually did a Kickstarter to raise money company. We didn’t raise very much - about $35,000. For Kickstarter, that’s not a smashing success. But keep in mind that the Kickstarter shopper isn’t necessarily looking for cowboy boots.
I ended up getting a call from a couple guys in Dallas that had seen my Kickstarter and wanted me to go to a business battle they were hosting at Rice University. It was all veteran business owners.
So even though we didn’t raise a lot of cash in that Kickstarter campaign, we were able to raise a lot of interest and awareness.
Do you have any advice for people on successful crowdfunding?
There are two great times to raise money. When your company or product is in the idea stage and when you’re company is doing so well that you really don’t even need the money. When you’re right in the middle of it, it can be really hard.
How did you start to build your customer base?
We’ve tried a lot of different things and I think a lot of it will be irrelevant in six months. Kickstarter was a great thing for us in 2012 but the environment at Kickstarter is different now than it was then. Advertisers dollars flood into what’s working best in any given moment but that’s temporary.
We’re about to start wholesale. We sell boots online to people in a digital native manner. So the next step would be to have a storefront. People ask me why I think wholesale is a good idea. I feel that it’s an opportunity to raise brand awareness. The cheapest way for us to advertise is through Facebook and Google ads and then also have a couple boot styles on Amazon. So that’s where a lot of our money goes.
You just have to try a bunch of different things and experiment in order to find economical ways to build your brand and get people in the door.
How do you keep up with the latest marketing trends?
I waited for about a year to admit that we were an online footwear company. I wanted so badly to sell our boots in little pop up kiosks where people would come in and look at our different styles and then they would place an order and we would mail them the boots from a warehouse. We had a couple of horse trailers that we had converted into small boot shops.
I think I was avoiding trying to get good at selling things online because I was much more comfortable dealing with people in person. Selling online is very formulaic. I avoided getting good at that for too long.
You can hire people on Upwork that are really familiar with working with ads online and they can help you put your ad money where it is going to be most beneficial for your company. Each platform is a little different and there are constant changes so hiring a freelancer can be a helpful option.
Can you talk a little bit more about how people can use a website like Upwork to help them?
It’s something where you might have to kiss a lot of frogs to find the right person. You might waste some money with people that aren’t the right fit before you find someone that you really love. It’s helpful to get a recommendation from other people on freelancers they’ve used and had success with.
What is your day-to-day like?
I have a two-year-old and a five-year-old so I usually wake up at 6:30 in the morning. Because I have them, I’m not able to work the hours that other people are. I do take time to work out every day and I try to eat dinner with my family.
In the morning I have breakfast with my kids and then get them to school and daycare. After that, I work for a few hours. Then I’ll work out. I usually talk on the phone while I’m running. Since I work out of my house, I don’t spend any time in traffic which is great. Usually, we’ll have a couple of meetings throughout the day. Sometimes days just disappear. For example, there’s a guy that owns a khaki company in Austin, TX and we had a phone conversation last week. It was a long conversation but extremely productive.
On the factory side, we’re currently redeveloping our entire line. From an operation standpoint, it’s very busy right now. We’re trying to redesign our boxes. I’m always trying to make our company as lean as possible.
In the afternoon, I’ll get my kids off the bus and spend time with them. So between 8:30-4, that’s when I get the bulk of our company business done.
My husband has been deployed for much of the past two years but when he’s not deployed, he’s amazing with helping me out. I’m in Houston this week and he’s taking care of everything at home.
You got your MBA at Harvard Business School. Do you think that helped you in your journey as an entrepreneur?
I believe that most entrepreneurs don’t have an MBA. I think that if you have a really great idea, that can be enough to make a successful company.
The problem with an MBA is that if you owe money after school, you’re going to want to pay that off as soon as possible so it might not be the right time to start your own company.
For me, it was absolutely the right path. And it provides a fall-back. In a worst case scenario situation, I know that I am highly employable and would be able to find a job.
But as far as entrepreneurship goes, you need to be scrappy and determined. You don’t need an MBA for that.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with listeners?
When you think about starting a business, consider the complications and the things that you will need in that particular space.
There was a low cash need to start Ranch Road Boots but I underestimated how complicated the footwear business can be. I like the challenge but those complexities are something you need to be aware of before starting your own business.