In this episode of the Leadercast Podcast, we had the privilege of talking with Sarah Ford, founder and CEO of Ranch Road Boots, about her leadership journey. Sarah joined the Marine Corps just a few months before Sept. 11, 2001, and served as a logistics officer during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Through this tragic time in U.S. history, Sarah learned valuable lessons that guided her as she started her custom footwear company, Ranch Road Boots. Based in Spain, it is known for producing gorgeous handmade boots celebrating the global gaucho culture and giving back to the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund.
“Even though our business model looks very different today than when it originally started, the Injured Semper Fi Fund donation has always been a part of it,” Sarah says. “Our customers really appreciate the fact that they’re not only supporting my endeavors as an entrepreneur and as a veteran, but also that we give back—and the bigger we get, the more we can do in that area.”
Lessons From the Marine Corps
“In doing logistics, what I was doing mattered a lot because if I didn’t work hard, then it was going to impact somebody at the receiving end,” says Sarah. In addition to a committed work ethic, Sarah mentions that she was surrounded by great leaders of all ages in the Marine Corps. “My time in the Marine Corps was just under five years, but it felt like it compacted 15 or 20 years of learning into this very short time period,” she shares.
Watching and learning from others inspired her to pursue her dreams. It also instilled a sense of urgency. “I came out of that thinking, ‘Gosh, life is so short.’ I had a pretty low tolerance for anything that I felt like was a waste of my life.”
Through her military service, Sarah learned she wanted to spend her life doing something that mattered to her and had a lasting impact. “The Marine Corps made me hyperfocused that what I’m doing year to year needs to matter to me,” she explains. That’s why she’s so privileged to be able to commit to a company whose values include giving back.
Lessons From Family
Sarah has been inspired by two family members: her father and her grandfather. Her father encouraged her to practice entrepreneurship and to not be afraid of failure. When Sarah was 10, she and her older sister started an office-cleaning business that continued through high school.
“Both of my parents have their Ph.D.s,” Sarah says. “My dad’s was in exercise physiology and my mom’s was in education, so they tried to start a phenomenal afterschool program that was 20 years ahead of their time.” Sarah’s father led by example, teaching her to learn how to turn failures into successes through hard work and a willingness to experiment.
Her grandfather, Daddy Tom, was Sarah’s inspiration for cowboy boots. “He was a cowboy in West Texas in the ‘30s and ‘40s.” Though he didn’t graduate from high school, he invested in his children’s education. Sarah’s memories of hanging out with Daddy Tom, his authentic cowboy hat and boots, and his professional knowledge of horses inspired her to buy a pair of custom boots to honor him. “They were close to $2,000 and it took over a year to get them. I was really intrigued about that.”
4 Lessons for Entrepreneurs
Based on her experience launching Ranch Road Boots, Sarah has advice for those who are thinking about starting their own business:
- Seek investors. Sarah says that your financial security shouldn’t come from your personal finances since it’s intended to provide income for your family. Entrepreneurs should also be aware that your income will dip significantly at first. “Raise money when it’s still an idea,” she says.
- Consider your options. Believe it or not, you don’t have to start from scratch—you can buy a business. Buying an existing business with its pros and cons is faster and potentially less risky than piloting your own startup.
- Try a Kickstarter campaign. Ranch Road Boots’ Kickstarter campaign was successful in that it helped Sarah get her first line of boots out—about 150 pairs. However, “running a good Kickstarter campaign is actually a talent,” she says. The greatest benefit it provided her was that it led her to her first group of investors, not necessarily her sales.
- Be persistent. “I’ve failed within my own business at more of these experiments than I’ve succeeded, but nothing’s killed us yet. And we have learned from all of them,” says Sarah. Not fearing failure has led her to great opportunities.
What Makes a Leader Worth Following?
To Sarah, a leader worth following is someone who leads by example, like her father. “Somebody who’s willing to do what they’re asking you to do,” she continues. “The leaders that I’ve really appreciated the most have been the ones that have given me the most trust and confidence.”
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