Taking equine online

Taking equine online

Entrepreneurs Lesley Thomas and Victoria Highfield set up Online for Equine as a start-up e-commerce company in 2011. Today it is a fast-growing business selling all things equestrian…

Stafford-based Online for Equine provides a one-stop-shop for pretty much everything equestrian. 

Entrepreneurs Victoria Highfield and Lesley Thomas launched the business back in November 2011 in a bid to help people make more informed purchases when it came to their horses.

Victoria said: “The aim was to provide an informative and educative equestrian retail site, helping consumers purchase based on informative articles. 

“Unlike other online retailers, we wanted to help educate our customers on how to make better choices for their horse and themselves based on scientific evidence, not just the price and aesthetic of the site.”

Prior to launching the business, Victoria had completed a degree in equine sports science but found herself working for a company in Birmingham selling ICT software due to a lack of suitable jobs on the market.

Lesley, on the other hand, was working as a tax specialist at the time for an accountancy firm in the Midlands but was helping manage Online for Equine’s accounts alongside her job.

Despite having a burning desire to make it a success, the duo had no previous experience of running a business and so it was a huge learning curve for the pair. As with any start-up business, it threw up a series of challenges.

Victoria added: “The first year in business was hard; cash flow for small businesses is always difficult and many of the suppliers in the equestrian sector required large financial commitment in order to obtain accounts and so, the initial outlay to set up the business was fairly substantial for such a small company. 

“We had to self-fund the business as the banks were not very supportive and even getting an overdraft facility proved near impossible. We felt it was a rather large investment and there were days we would just sit looking at the stock wondering how on earth it would all sell! 

“However, the business was lucky to grow a steady local client base which supported the poorer days online; both online and store customers helped to prop one another up during the first 12 months assisting with cash flow and reinvestment into the business.”

Despite being unable to secure funding and having to bootstrap the business themselves, the duo were lucky in the fact that they were able to receive support from the University of Wolverhampton. Victoria was identified by the university as being an ‘exciting entrepreneurial prospect’ and was subsequently offered a place on a graduate incubation program which helped with developing business strategies and identifying optimum business practice.

This helped the duo grow the business steadily and orders began to roll in. “The business started in a small shop of a couple of hundred square feet,” Victoria added. “Looking back, the shelves and rails were very strategically faced to make it look like there was far greater stock than there physically was!” 

The opening of their first retail unit proved a great decision and as Victoria pointed out, it was a huge help in driving sales when the online side of the business was still growing. As both sides started to pick up however, they realised they would have to expand into larger premises to cater for the increasing demand.

Luckily, the pair were finally able to tap into some sort of funding support when they were successful in securing a small business grant from the Staffordshire Business Growth Hub last year. This helped them open up a brand new 2,000 sq ft retail store and storage facility to help drive growth for both sides of the business.

Victoria added: “Five years on, the business is now housed in a 2,000 sq ft store, packed to the rafters with stock which is frequently turning over; ideally, the business now requires an even larger unit with greater storage and facilities to support the online side of the business.

“We’ve sustained growth of between 20-35% year-on-year and the business is on target to do this again at the end of this financial year. What started off as just two of us has now grown to include over five people and we are currently interviewing for further staff members.”

Looking forward, Victoria and Lesley have ambitious plans for the future but are keen to ensure their business model doesn’t change too much: “Due to our recent rapid growth, some of the initial USPs of the business such as providing an informative, educative resource, have not been at the forefront of workflow and have not received the input we initially hoped. 

“We would like to improve the information provided to the consumer at the point of purchase whilst improving the product range available to the consumer to provide a better selling platform. We are also looking at the dog and cat sectors which we hope to explore in the next 12-18 months.”

And when asked what advice they would give to an aspiring entrepreneur looking to emulate their success, she concluded: “Trust your gut instinct and do your market research. You can be incredibly passionate about a business concept but if there is no consumer demand, you are setting yourself up to fail. Fully understand your market, including your competitors and do not let your heart rule your head!”