A Chat With May’s Profile, Suzanne Vlietstra, president of Hobby Horse Clothing Co.
CS: What was your biggest challenge upon entering the catalog business?
SV: The biggest challenge for me has always been nuts-and-bolts business stuff. I’m a creative person. I’m better at the financial and forecasting end of things, but by no means “shiny” at it. So I’ve always, like a lot a small-business people, been fearful about cash flow, fearful about employee issues. Stuff that’s common to almost all businesses, not unique to cataloging. These have always been the most vexing things for me, because that’s where I’m weakest. I don’t have a problem with product. And I can market the heck out of my stuff because I believe in it and I really know my marketplace, being a consumer of this type of product myself. But just things like, “How do you get people paid?” “Are you going to have enough money at the right time?” “What’s going to happen if you do this and that?” Just the nuts and bolts. Which is why I say I wish had taken more business classes in college. Or heaven forbid an accounting class.
CS: How did you overcome this lack of business knowledge?
SV: It’s still my biggest concern, to be very honest. I’ve had some really important mentors over the years, including a business partner who bought an interest in the company and was just a terrific nuts-and-bolts businessman who tried hard to get me to to learn. But I had to learn. But I’d say in hindsight, I took a long, long, long time to build my business, and I think I missed a tremendous amount of opportunity by being cautious out of ignorance. I wish I would have searched harder, 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 think I missed a lot of opportunities by doing that. And it would still be my goal.
We’re in the catalog business, but we’re really in the manufacturing business because about 90 percent of the products we sell we manufacture ourselves. Which is somewhat unique. And it’s a whole different thing. We manufacture, we wholesale, we retail, we catalog, we play the Internet … what don’t we do. And by doing all of those things at such a small company, I think we’ve hobbled ourselves in all aspects by not being experts at any of them.
My goal to help my company face challenges now would be to partner with an established cataloger who knows the cataloging ropes and needs our fresh and unique product mix. Our income is derived about 50/50 between retail and wholesale. We use the same catalog for business-to-business and retail because the catalog with retail prices printed in it helps our little stores, our mom-and-pop stores that buy our things. They can show it to their customers and special orders. So the catalog works at two levels.
But like most industries, the equestrian industry has fewer independent merchants and our buyer-base is changing. So we need to become more serious catalogers. There’s simply not that many independent tack shops anymore. Or that are sophisticated enough or have the resources to carry a specialty line like ours. Our Internet growth continues to be tremendous without us doing a lot to foster it. Like a lot of people, we’re there and it’s working. I need to become a lot smarter cataloger rather than reinventing the wheel myself. And I think this is something that will apply to a lot of your readers that have small little weirdo specialty niche businesses like this. If you can’t beat em, join em. Find somebody to partner with who’s already either a customer of yours or a competitor of yours or peripherally involved in what you’re doing. Like co-mailing and all this kind of stuff; there’s people out there that are much better at this than I’ll ever be. And yet we have fresh and unique product and an incredibly strong brand name recognition and reputation. That’s an obvious opportunity for an alliance with somebody who’s operations-oriented, where we’re product-oriented.