Profile of Success: Best in Show
WHAT GOT HER HERE: Childhood ambition. Growing up as a self-proclaimed “horse girl,” Vlietstra had a number of goals in mind for her future. “I wanted a horse-related business, a supply-type business,” she says. “And I wanted to have a catalog. Because when I was a little kid, I remember seeing some horse catalogs. And to me, they were like the Sears Wish Book.”
A teen sensation of sorts, Vlietstra incorporated her company in 1987, while still in high school. She mailed the first catalogs in 1991.
Today, Hobby Horse sells products through its catalog and Web site as well as through 130 retail stores and wholesale outlets, garnering more than $2 million in annual sales.
WHAT WAS HER BIGGEST INITIAL CHALLENGE: A lack of business savvy. “The biggest challenge for me has always been nuts-and-bolts business stuff,” Vlietstra says. “I’m a creative person. So, like a lot of small-business people, I’ve always been fearful about cash flow and employee issues — things that are common to almost all businesses and not unique to cataloging.”
HOW SHE DEALT WITH THIS CHALLENGE: Enlisted the help of others. Vlietstra learned from her mentors over the years, particularly a business partner who bought an interest in the company and showed her the ropes of managing a business.
But this isn’t to say all of her problems are solved. Or that she can look at the past wistfully. “It’s still my biggest concern, to be very honest,” Vlietstra concedes. “I’d say in hindsight, I took too long a time to build my business. I missed a tremendous amount of opportunity by being cautious, simply out of ignorance. I wish I searched harder and worked harder to force myself to go for some outside consulting. I could’ve built this thing a lot bigger — and a lot faster. I chose the cautious and safe route, which is also OK, but I missed a lot of opportunities by doing that.”
HOW DOES SHE PLAN FOR FUTURE GROWTH: Through strategic alliances. Vlietstra acknowledges that Hobby Horse is actively seeking business partners. “We’ve survived a long time as a very small, niche catalog,” she points out. “And there are a lot of challenges out there, more so than any other time in the history of my business. It’s important for me at this point to seek some alliances that are going to help us stay competitive.”
WHAT HAS MADE HER SUCCESSFUL: Customer knowledge and a competition vacuum. “I really know the market because I'm my own customer,” Vlietstra says, adding that she lives on a ranch with 50 boarded horses that she rides.
Hobby Horse benefits from being a recognized name in the small niche of Western-style apparel for horse shows. By focusing on three objectives — style, value and convenience — Vlietstra and her company have managed to deter competition in the market.
“To me, it’s a really obvious niche, but nobody else has really challenged us in it,” she says. “We do what we do really quite well, and people like us for it.”
To read or listen to the full interview, visit CatalogSuccess.com and find Profile of Success (Complete Interview): A Chat with Suzanne Vlietstra.