REPUBLISHED FROM OUR FRIENDS AT HORSE NATION.
In our “Cool Horse Jobs” series, we chat with professionals from all facets of the horse industry. Today, we’re speaking with Ainsley Jacobs, founder and owner of Ride Heels Down equestrian apparel company.
You may recognize Ainsley’s name from our “Lessons Learned” blog column — every other Tuesday, Ainsley takes a good look at her horse life and reflects on the lessons she learns from each experience, both good and bad. When she’s not blogging or taking care of her horse, Ainsley runs two business: a full-time marketing agency as well as Ride Heels Down, an equestrian apparel company with an eventing bent.
We spoke with Ainsley to learn more about her career, her experience and what advice she’d pass on to other equestrians who want to own their own businesses!
HN: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your “day job.”
Ever since I was a child, I’ve loved two things – horses and racecars. I was never the little girl who wanted to play with dolls or makeup; I only wanted horsepower in all of its forms.
I started working in the automotive industry in ’04 and have built a career from there. I currently own a niche marketing agency, P.TEN Marketing that focuses specifically on motorsports; we offer marketing, communications, PR, graphic and website services for manufacturers of high-performance racecar parts, professional drag racing teams, and more. I write (and shoot) for several popular drag racing magazines, too.
I’ve been riding since the age of 8, and I’ve always wanted to be involved in the equine industry as well. In ’07, I started a website called Riding Resource that was a searchable directory of riding stables and tack stores in the US and Canada.
As my automotive career grew, I didn’t have time to dedicate to Riding Resource, so I sold it in ’15 and used that income to purchase the initial inventory for Ride Heels Down.
HN: How did you come up with Ride Heels Down? Tell us the story about how you got started.
I can actually pinpoint the exact moment I had the idea! It was September 30, 2014, and I had only been riding JJ for about two months. My trainer, Halliea Milner of Go With It Farm in Johns Creek, Georgia, had me jump my very first Novice height course during one of our lessons. I’ll admit that I was a little apprehensive, but JJ took great care of me.
There was one specific jump, though, that inspired Ride Heels Down. As we approached it, I thought to myself, “Oh man, that oxer is pretty big for me… can I really do this? Well, I don’t have a choice since it’s only three strides away now, I just have to trust my horse. Okay, heels down, hold on, and let JJ do his job…”
I survived and went home thinking about my new “heels down and hold on” mantra. I figured it could make a cool t-shirt, but didn’t have time to do anything with it until the following summer. I put together a few designs, bought a domain name, built a website, and officially launched on September 1, 2015.
HN: How do you balance RHD with your marketing business and your horse life? (And your “real” life too!)
It’s HARD! There aren’t enough hours in the day! I spent many years working the cubicle life, but once I started my own business and moved my operations to a home-based setup, it became much easier to manage my time. Working from home is fantastic, but it means I’m pretty much working 24/7 because I’m always accessible and have a responsibility to my clients; they race on the weekends, which means I work on the weekends in addition to the usual Monday-Friday stuff.
Generally, I live by my Outlook and Google calendars. Everything is scheduled, simply because if I didn’t have an organized plan of attack, I’d never get anything done. Honestly, I even have a reminder to do my laundry every Thursday because otherwise I’d be so busy that I’d forget! During the day, P.TEN Marketing gets priority since that’s my “real” job and pays the bills; I have meetings, conference calls, and tons of tasks to accomplish to keep my awesome clients happy.
Ride Heels Down is actually fairly simple for me to integrate. Given that I already do marketing, websites, social media, and advertising for a living, it’s easy for me to manage those aspects of the business. And, since I operate out of my home, all the inventory is easily accessible and I can pack orders very quickly. There’s a post office a few blocks away, so I ship things when I’m out running errands or on my way to the barn.
It’s hard enough running my own business (I have employees, too!) but when JJ tore a collateral ligament earlier this year (five weeks after I bought him), it made it even harder. I used to only ride twice during the week, and maybe once on weekends if I had time. Now, because I have to do his rehab activity to help him recover, I have to be at the barn five days a week, often during normal working hours. He takes care of me when we’re on course, and I owe it to him to make sure I take care of him in return. We’re a team, so if that means I have to take off mid-day to go to the barn to do his rehab and work until 11pm at night to make up for lost time, then that’s what I do.
Speaking of the barn, I also do work for Go With It Farm. I built and manage the farm’s website, do all the graphic design, handle the social media, set up the monthly email newsletter, help out with the IEA team, and whatever else is needed.
Did I mention that I’m also married? Yep – in addition to running two businesses, working with JJ, and having a regular social life, I also hang out with my amazingly wonderful husband and horse show photographer extraordinaire, Erik. Honestly, just writing all of this makes me wonder how the heck I’m able to do so much with so little time!
I think the key to success for me is to be committed and to really want to make it work. I was never happy in the typical office environment, so I know that being busy and constantly working is the trade-off for the freedom and flexibility of owning my own company. It’s often difficult, frustrating, and exhausting, but absolutely worth it.
HN: What was one of the biggest challenges you had to overcome in the development of Ride Heels Down?
Just getting the word out there has been a challenge. I’m a one-woman operation; I do everything from design the apparel to build the website, process and ship the orders, manage the accounting, and more… you name it, I do it. Since I’m relatively small-time (for now), there’s a very limited budget for advertising. I promote online and attend events locally (when I’m not traveling on the weekends to go to a race for one of my clients) and people always tell me how much they love Ride Heels Down’s apparel, but it’s tough to find ways to reach a larger audience and get more exposure for the brand.
HN: What was one of your greatest triumphs or favorite memories so far?
I went to the Rolex Kentucky 3-Day Event for the first time this year (2016) and one of my barn friends who was with me told me she saw someone wearing Ride Heels Down’s “Have A Great Ride” t-shirt. That was SO cool! It makes me really happy when I see people wearing my designs, or when someone posts a photo online of them in their RHD gear. It’s an amazing feeling, and inspires me to keep going. I’m hoping that one day I’ll be able to get RHD’s apparel into an actual tack store, perhaps Dover – I think that’ll be a huge milestone.
HN: What’s one thing you wish you knew before you started?
Ugh, taxes! Having product sales, as opposed to service sales, means I have to collect and pay sales tax on each item sold. Online, it’s fairly simple as the website calculates and collects tax, and I have an online service that handles my monthly sales tax filings in states where Ride Heels Down has collected, but organizing and staying on top of all of those odds and ends is a huge pain in the butt and complicates things way beyond what I ever anticipated. It’s scary. I’m learning a LOT about what to do (and what not to do) in the process!
Also, I expected to be profitable within my first year, because that’s what had happened with P.TEN Marketing. Granted, P.TEN has no overhead or inventory costs, but I believed Ride Heels Down would instantly be a ridiculously huge success – and it wasn’t.
I just completed my first year with Ride Heels Down and while sales were very good, I still haven’t gotten out of the red. All of the revenue the company generates, I reinvest back into advertising or purchasing more inventory and new designs. That means that, despite decent sales, I haven’t actually made one cent of profit or even paid back my initial start-up investment.
Even knowing all of that, though, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. I’m having so much fun with this business that I don’t mind it not being profitable (yet) because I’m confident it will get there eventually!
HN: If you could give one piece of advice to a fellow equine entrepreneur who’s just starting out, what would it be?
There are SO many ways to be involved in the equine industry other than as a professional rider or as a trainer! The horse business is exactly that – a business – and there’s absolutely a need for support services that go much deeper than teaching or mucking stalls.
Find your specialty and figure out a way to adapt it to horses, whether it’s marketing or managerial, logistics or labor, creative or corporate. You may have to work twice as hard to incorporate your passion into your profession, but it beats wasting away in a job you’re not interested in or inspired by.
Check out Ride Heels Down online:
Do you have a cool horse job you think we should know about? Email the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org! To find more Q&A sessions, click the #HORSE JOBS hashtag!