It’s a bustling and balmy Saturday afternoon at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center. As I enter the entrance gates and walk past the hunter ring I can’t help but notice the bombardment of signage seeking my attention. Everything from high-end real estate opportunities to private jet sales. Every step I take is another exposure to another company, perhaps selling the same service as the last.
It all blends into a wash of logos and colors and seemingly similar messages. Will I remember any of it when it comes time for me to consider a private jet purchase (insert eye roll) or explore a luxury real estate purchase? Perhaps. If done correctly, I will recall the resource I need immediately. If done ineffectively, I will turn to my friend Google, only to inquire with one of the top ranking search results or ask a friend for a suggestion.
I suppose what I am trying to illustrate here is that in order to stand out in a busy mishmash of equestrian brands, you need to be easily differentiated. What does that mean? It means your equestrian service or product can be similar to that of a competitor but your core values, customer service and final product outcomes need to say otherwise. What you aim to sell, whether it be a horse, product or service needs to be different enough to have both an emotional and practical impact (have utility) so your potential equestrian consumers take interest.
To do this, you need to be authentically connected to your equestrian brand. Wholeheartedly and unequivocally being fully invested in your core values, your process and the story behind your brand will help you connect with customers on both an an emotional and practical level. Not “sometimes”, not “part time”; All. The. Time.
Here are five ways to keep connected to what you do so that you can pass authenticity along to your customers:
1. Know your “Why?”. Your journey towards establishing a strong equestrian brand will be peppered with setbacks, challenges and seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Being open to feedback, commitment to process and continual self-improvement are necessary parts of the journey. Try your best to reflect on the “The Why?” of starting your own equestrian venture. If your reason comes from the heart because you have always wanted to pursue this dream then you will have a much easier time seeing it through. “The Why?” is what helps you build core values. Why do you do what you do and how does your passion come through in every customer transaction? Consistency in the process of pushing your core values through every business interaction is an important part of building a strong equestrian brand. Consistently implement your “Why?”; it especially becomes useful when you feel overwhelmed, which is frequently the natural state of every entrepreneur. In fact, if you aren’t reflecting on your “Why” on the daily, it may be time to start asking yourself “Why Not”.
2. Know the job of your brand. Every successful business recognizes there is a job to be done within a certain market. Being creative and identifying what is missing in your target market is what your focus needs to be. Targeting a market that already has a sufficient saturation of goods and services that you are looking to offer can be very difficult unless you are able to differentiate yourself based on doing the job a little (or a lot) differently and of course, better. This can be as simple of having a core value set (see #1) different enough from your competitors that the consumer experience leaves your customers pleasantly surprised. If you are a dressage facility offering full-service care, perhaps you include an additional service that gives the client more value add and comes at minimal cost. Something that is novel, but useful. This can be something as simple as offering a more formal social opportunity once a month; a wine and cheese or an evening out. The added perk of organized social time away from the horses can be all it takes to get people talking about how the morale and environment at your facility is stand-out; an extension of your core values. If you are priced the same as your competitor, or even more, you may find yourself getting more inquiries because word has gotten out that “it’s a great place to board” – not just because of the care, but because you understand there is more than one job that needs to be done when caring for horses; you also need to care for Their People.
3. Have an acceptance for the fact the air gets thinner as you ascend. As your business grows and you take on more customers, there will be more complex relationships and increased pressures. Those who are best in class quickly realize that you can’t make everyone happy and that is a natural function of leading a business. My mentor always tells me that a diamond is a piece of coal that did well under pressure. Liken this to being an equestrian entrepreneur and it still holds true. The business becomes a living, breathing entity that demands attention. While you may still be in charge, you need to listen to what your business tells you; the driving force of decision making becomes more about paying attention to what the business says rather than what you want the business to do. Sometimes it is your employees that bring this to your attention; sometimes it’s your bottom line; sometimes it’s your customers. Maybe it’s time to expand? Maybe it’s time to scale back? Maybe it’s time to take a huge risk? Sometimes, if you haven’t found the success you thought possible in the first three years, it’s time to revisit your core values and ask yourself if your “Why” was for the right reasons? If not, reassess your direction so that you can “re-calibrate” to “differentiate”. Also try and remember that being receptive to the direction the business tells you to go can step on toes when it’s time to grow. You have to be willing to weather that storm. Being an innovator means you take what equestrian consumers know and make it better; that’s bound to ruffle feathers. In the case of innovation, ruffling feathers means that you are doing a good job. Boats are built to be rocked in the ocean; if you are looking for a steady journey in the world of being an Equipreneur then it’s best to stay on dry land. When your “Why” grows into a toddler and it’s hungry, you have to feed it, even if that means making tough decisions.
4. Know Your Value. The race to the bottom refers to a competitive state where a company attempts to undercut the competitions prices by sacrificing quality standards. Good quality work is well worth the investment because you are supporting fair wages and in many cases, domestically made product and skill that has legacy. Legacy could mean multiple generations of horsemanship behind the brand or many combined years of experience and skill. That is worth something. When a company functions on solid process using properly resourced products and pays their employees properly (so the caliber of work stays consistent), there won’t be many promotions. When there are, jump on! It is unlikely it will happen often. To revisit the dressage facility example, if you have stalls with soft stall flooring, bed with quality bedding, feed well and retain your barn staff because they are paid fairly then you should be confident in maintaining your price point and the right customers will pay for the consistency and assurance that comes with a well-run machine. Resist the race to the bottom; when you function on promotions alone, you are telling people what you are worth and going back up to fair market value will be perceived as inflating prices even though they were fair to start. Being connected to your value is one of the most important aspects of being authentically connected to your brand. When you believe in what you do, you believe in what you charge. This is the main reason why luxury brands like Hermes, Gucci and many others are steadfast with their pricing; they believe in the quality of their brand. The byproduct of knowing your value is a connectedness that transcends the distance between you and your customers; meals taste better when the chef really cares.
5. Rome wasn’t built in a day. The organic growth of your equestrian brand is a natural process. Taking shortcuts will set you back and over time and erode the trust you have built within your consumer community. An authentic connection to what you do means you will respect your brand enough not to artificially inflate Facebook likes, make grand claims without backing up your statements or skip important steps in building a strong foundation (like a business plan). Oversights and shortcuts will have negative impacts in the long run. Don’t rush; it is the process on the way to your success that is the most fun and the journey never ends; because if you are a true Equipreneur, once you reach your initial goals, you will have already set more.
Elizabeth-Anne Rhodes is an Entrepreneur and the Founder of Saucy Piaffe Inc., a Company specializing in equestrian branding, servicing customers worldwide. Elizabeth takes a special interest in business strategy and equestrian product innovation. She dedicates much of her after hours time to continuing education including Harvard Business School with a focus on sustainable business strategy and scaling ventures.