Published in UT San Diego, February 12, 2013
If you listen to your customer, he will tell you whether you have a business or not. And sometimes what begins as a hobby, project or job can turn into a business if you pay close attention.
In 1984, John Burgun, then working on his family’s Australian sheep and cattle ranch, met a visiting cutting horse trainer from El Centro. This random meeting led him to the Imperial Valley where he learned to become a farrier, a specialist in equine hoof care, until a Belgian horse “kicked me around like a rag doll and put me flat on my back,” he said. To earn money while he recovered, Burgun did a classic entrepreneurial pivot. He went from making horseshoes to making saddles.
“Leatherwork always fascinated me. Growing up, all that I wanted for Christmas was enough leather to make a bridle or repair a piece of tack,” he said.
Looking at the competition, Burgun thought that he could make a saddle with a better fit that could improve horse and rider performance for the equestrian sport of cutting in which a horse and rider are judged on their ability to turn sharply and separate a single cow away from a herd.
For the next few years, he went to college during the day and built saddles in the evening. By 1988, he realized that he had a business, and he formed Roo-Hide Saddlery LLC. “My wife Yvonne and I began Roo-Hide Saddlery one piece of leather at a time. I would make a headstall or breast collar, sell them and take the money to make three more,” he said. To reach customers, he attended cutting horse shows growing the company “from a card table and folding chair in the back of my truck” to a 48-foot trailer that he takes to the events. Just like the professional golf club trailers, he does “on the spot repairs” on the saddles.
Roo-Hide began as a cottage business. Burgun learned that the high-end, expensive saddles sold better than the cheaper ones. His market defined him, and he became the “Tiffany” of saddles.
The price for the most popular saddles starts at $3,500, and the company sells all over the world. Customers include business executives and celebrities such as Joe Montana, Joan Embrey, Michael Keaton and Lyle Lovett. (We have a suspicion that the saddle is the least expensive part of this sport.)
Burgun had the classic problem of a small, successful business. He wanted to scale up by expanding the product line beyond cutting horse saddles, and he wanted to buy equipment to mechanize production. So he turned to the Imperial Valley Small Business Development Center, which worked with him to develop a business plan, financial projections and cash flow analysis. Last year, Burgun received a $250,000 Small Business Administration guaranteed loan from Sun Community Federal Credit Union. He has used the money to hire six employees and purchase machinery for a facility in El Centro.
While he could locate the business anywhere, he has stayed in El Centro because “I like the agricultural environment, the small town feel, and all the help that I’ve gotten from the community over the years. Friends and family were always willing to pitch in when I needed an extra pair of hands.”
New ideas: We are always amazed at where ideas originate. Meet 18-year old Uzair Mohammad, a UC San Diego freshman and winner of the recent UCSD TriNet Challenge for his bio-filter concept that he initially developed two years ago while still in high school. “I was eating a baked potato, and I made a slit in the potato so the butter would seep through. The reason you can’t just slather it on the top is because the starch fibers are so big that the butter won’t fit through.” And then the “aha.” Mohammad thought, “What if I could use the long natural polymers to make a filter that would catch bacteria to clean and purify water?”
You gotta love entrepreneurship — saddles and baked potatoes. What’s next?
Rule No. 155
You all know about lemons and lemonade. Burgun substituted horse manure for the lemons and made his company into the Blazing Saddles of Imperial Valley.
Neil Senturia and Barbara Bry, serial entrepreneurs who invest in early-stage technology companies, take turns in writing this weekly column about entrepreneurship in San Diego. Please email ideas to Barbara at firstname.lastname@example.org