Leslie Bradford-Scott: “Accept failure as part of the business”

Become a hiring expert. You will be tired, you won’t want to, but hire every person as if your life depends on them. A bad hire will cost you 10 Xs more money and 10 Xs more grief. The wrong people can literally crush your spirit and bankrupt the company. I swear by the book, […]

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Become a hiring expert. You will be tired, you won’t want to, but hire every person as if your life depends on them. A bad hire will cost you 10 Xs more money and 10 Xs more grief. The wrong people can literally crush your spirit and bankrupt the company. I swear by the book, “Who” by Geoff Smart and Randy Street. I once found myself having to terminate three out of five team members. We had a toxic culture and it would have been irreparable if I didn’t make the decision to replace those people. It was exceedingly painful, and I was depressed for the entire year thinking, “I built this monster, this is my fault.” Had I made the upfront of hiring right, I bet I would be twice as far ahead today.

As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Leslie Bradford-Scott. Leslie is a multiple award-winning CEO and Founder of Walton Wood Farm. Bradford-Scott resurrected a childhood passion for writing and combined it with her strategy for managing stress, crafting kitchen-made products, and building a multi-million-dollar brand. She achieved her goal of creating a job for herself, rural jobs for her community, and saved their families historic C1850s barns in the process.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I’m a high school drop-out with learning disabilities who dealt with some traumatic issues in my youth and early adult life. As a child, I dreamed of being a writer and a pilot, but life unfolded in a different direction.

My father told me, “Girls don’t fly airplanes, and you’ll never make money as a writer. You’re not smart enough.”

Dear Old Dad ended up getting into some big trouble, changing our lives dramatically when he went to prison for organized crime. Then my only brother was killed by a drunk driver when I was sixteen.

Traumatized and feeling lost, I made some poor decisions and ended up in an abusive marriage lasting fifteen years. When I sprouted the courage to leave my husband, I sold cars to support my two young daughters, because it was the only job I could get with an outdated resume and no education.

What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

At the car dealership, I spent countless hours standing outside on the lot, waiting for customers. I wanted to be first to get to the customer — with a pay plan of 100% commission, don’t sell, don’t eat. It was mind-numbing and I felt desperate to achieve more with my life.

I decided to resurrect my childhood dream of becoming a writer, even if it took 50 years. I read books on screenwriting and kept a package of Post-It-Notes in my suit jacket pocket. While waiting for customers, I wrote an entire screenplay on those yellow pieces of paper. At night, once the kids were in bed, I’d transfer my notes onto a laptop. Within three months, I entered the script into the Moondance International Film Festival in Colorado and won the award for Best Romantic Comedy.

I went on to write an animated script and won the award for Best Animated Short Script at the Los Angeles Family Film Festival. I nearly sold both scripts, but neither panned out. I was even a finalist for a Praxis Screenwriting Fellowship at Simon Fraser University, but wasn’t selected.

I decided it didn’t matter. That I loved writing and would keep doing it even if I never achieved success. I would write for the sure therapeutic value.

When I moved to the farm, a dozen years later, I needed to create an income for myself and to earn enough to save our historic barns. My second husband, Peter, was adamant we preserve the grand reminders of our agricultural heritage for future generations. “We don’t really own this land, we’re just the caretakers,” he said.

I knew to create a successful business; I would need to solve a problem. I remembered my coping mechanism to overcome stress while raising my kids. I’d lock myself in the bathroom with bath salts, a candle, and music, and tell the kids, “don’t dare open that door!” After a good soak in the tub, some fresh PJs, and good night sleep, I awoke ready to take on another challenge.

Bath salts were something I could make in my kitchen, but I knew the products would have to be marketed differently to stand out in a crowded space. “How can I make people smile while giving them something useful?”

Enter my screenwriting skills.

Instead of selling lavender and vanilla bath salts, I came up with themes around my struggles and created the perfect gift for that stressed-out person. Week from Hell, B*tch Emergency, Winter’s a B*tch, Fix Almost Anything, Dear Mom, all became my labels. I wrote humorous stories on the sides of the bottles to act like a greeting card and gift all in one. I wanted to make people laugh, and give them something useful, too. The craft of screenwriting made this possible, and my skills learned selling cars gave me the confidence to hit the road and knock on doors.

On a side note, I did get that pilot’s license at the age of 46 and now fly a 1946 Piper Cub on Floats. My husband, Peter, was my instructor.

There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

At 49 years old, I was fiercely determined to achieve my dreams. It was now or never. I made a commitment to myself to put everything I had into the business and become a master using learnings from books and podcasts. My only other option to have an income from the farm was to take a city job and commute. I was not going to make that an option. Peter was 100% on board and has backed me every day. He believed in me, which was completely opposite to my father.

What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?

Take an honest inventory of yourself. Do you have grit? You’ll need loads of it. Are you passionate about what you’re doing? Grit goes so far, but passion gets you to the finish line.

Is your product or service financially viable? Instead of asking people if they would buy it, as them to tell you, “What are all the reasons this won’t work?” Then pick apart each one and see if you can overcome them. Friends and family don’t want to hurt your feelings, but if you ask them to tell you why something won’t work, you’ve given them permission to be honest.

Eventually, you’ll have to take some kind of leap.

You will need to be comfortable with risk. Become a student of the masters. There is no shortage of books, blogs, podcasts, and videos out there for little to no money. Lots of people have done it before and want to share their knowledge with you. We’re so fortunate to have access to the best minds in the world through the power of the Internet. If you don’t have an appetite to learn, you probably shouldn’t start a business.

It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?

I create. That’s my gift. Fortunately, my brand depends on creating new things every day. Products, media, advertising, copy, strategies, etc. I focus on creating things I love. For example, I started my business with women’s products that I’d want to use myself, then I took on men’s fragrance which was so much fun, and now, because of my love of dogs, we have a natural pet line. Each label, formula, and theme were a joy to make and are a direct reflection of my playfulness and humor. I may not be a screenwriter, but I tell stories through products, and that never gets old.

So many times, I’ve been stopped on the street by a customer and they reach in their purse and pull out our hand cream. “This is the best hand cream! I don’t go anywhere without it!” Those moments are golden.

I also have a group of fellow entrepreneurs I meet with regularly to share problems, successes, and inspirations. We have fun, learn from one another, and enjoy a couple glasses of wine. Those times keep me going even when I’m in a trough.

What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?

I enjoy that the business is like a giant puzzle, changing all the time. I must continually find ways to fit the pieces together and get the jump on the next trend.

The downside for me is the amount of processes it takes to build a solid business. I’m not a detail person, nor am I capable of being good at organizational skills. Technology is a foreign language to me, and I have struggled to integrate it into our business.

I hire against my natural abilities and let other people handle that side of the business.

Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I never dreamed how hard it would be to scale a business. I thought it was as simple as; Make something. Sell something. Ship something. I wish! There are mountains I climbed that I had no idea existed, and there is always another mountain over the next plateau. Speaking of plateaus, they last a nano-second. There’s barely enough time to catch your breath.

Then there are the pure moments of joy. It never occurred to me what it would be like to run into my products out in the wild. I remember when this first happened. I was in thousands of miles away from the farm on a business trip to Las Vegas. I was in the Bellagio and bumped into our women’s products. It floored me. “I made those. This little farm gal!” I didn’t even know they bought our products. It’s such a rewarding part of my job, and I never tire of it.

Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?

There have been so many moments of despair. The highs are very high, but the lows are near crippling. My strategy is to decide I only need to get through the next day. I’d focus on that one 24-hour period. At the end of the day, I’d say, “See, you survived. You can do this one more day tomorrow, can’t you?”

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I was testing a formula for a natural deodorant. I had been using it for a month, thinking, “Wow, this really works.” I was excited about getting the samples out to product testers. That weekend, I happened to be at a new 3 PL warehouse unloading a truck and meeting our new warehouse team.

I met my daughter for lunch later that day, and the first thing she said was, “Mom! For God’s sake, you stink like a barn animal!” The deodorant did not work at all. I couldn’t smell my own stench. The new team at the 3 PL must have thought all kinds of horrible things about me. I was so embarrassed.

I learned to make sure I get loads of immediate feedback and a wide variety of people testing new products.

Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?

I am in awe of Caterina Fake. Her commitment to building ethical systems, businesses, and positive, engaged communities inspires me. My money is on her to one day fix the problems with social media.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

We just finished restoring our historic barns to contribute to preserving our country’s agricultural history. They are a landmark in our community and can be seen for miles. These old barns are what makes a field a farm, and they are disappearing in record numbers.

I regularly mentor other start-ups, sponsor entrepreneurial competitions, and speak at events for free. It’s how I give back.

Our products are cruelty-free and vegetarian or vegan-friendly. We grow soybeans and use soybeans in our solid colognes and balms. It’s a way of cycling back the farm into beauty products.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. It’s going to be a lot harder than you think. Picture yourself running uphill pushing a giant rock, in the hot sun with bare feet and no water. Now, put a tiger on your back. It’s that hard. Are you ready? 
    I did not realize how much cash it takes to scale a business, and how fast it floods out the door. You can get into some pretty deep water, quickly. So many times I wondered if we would make it through the week. It’s super stressful.
  2. Have the right bookkeeper from day one. You will think you can’t afford one, but you can’t afford not to have one, and it will save you a lot of pain. Our first bookkeeper was a lovely person but had no manufacturing experience. Two years into the business, our books were a mess. It took 18 months to sort them out and a ton of money and aggravation.
  3. Just because someone is a professional, does not mean they’re good at their job. There are lots of bad lawyers, accountants, consultants, and the like out there. You must really dig in and vet people before you contract them. Make it your business to understand their business. How else will you know if they’re doing a good job?
    With the example of the bookkeeper, I should have realized professionals are not ‘one size fits all.’ Now, I look for specific skills in a professional. For example, there are a lot of ‘consultants’ out there. I use them all the time. My first questions is, “What business did you start and scale?” You can’t believe how many consultants have never even worked at a start-up let alone founded one. They think a business degree is enough to understand my business. Not a chance. You need to be in the trenches to understand the complexities of a start-up.
  4. Become a hiring expert. You will be tired, you won’t want to, but hire every person as if your life depends on them. A bad hire will cost you 10 Xs more money and 10 Xs more grief. The wrong people can literally crush your spirit and bankrupt the company. I swear by the book, “Who” by Geoff Smart and Randy Street.
    I once found myself having to terminate three out of five team members. We had a toxic culture and it would have been irreparable if I didn’t make the decision to replace those people. It was exceedingly painful, and I was depressed for the entire year thinking, “I built this monster, this is my fault.” Had I made the upfront of hiring right, I bet I would be twice as far ahead today.
  5. Accept failure as part of the business. You’re going to make a lot of bad decisions. It’s normal. The trick is to make more good decisions than bad ones and end up net positive.
    I think most entrepreneurs are optimists — that’s why those are the ones that get out of the gate in the first place. Optimism can be a curse sometimes. You think everything is going to work and are devastated when things fail. I’ve learned to take a step back and analyze more of my ideas before executing and doing a post-mortem on each failure. Then I quickly move on and don’t live in the past.

What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I believe there is a rural renaissance going on. People want to opt-out of the city life in favor of a more inspiring one in nature. Get away from the noise. So much of farming has gone corporate because small farms don’t earn enough to supply a decent standard of living. I’d love to see other people start non-agricultural, diverse farm business to create more rural jobs, and save the barns and our history. In my community, we have a wedding venue, escape maze, haunted barn, cricket protein grower, and a very successful theatre all based on farms. Let’s keep the ‘family’ in ‘family farms.’

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Failure is not an option.” Gene Kranze, Director of the Apollo mission. Short and sweet, this is my mantra.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

It would be incredible to have lunch with Timothy Johnson at Johnson Production Group in Vancouver. I still dream of getting a screenplay produced and I write all the time, polishing my craft. My dream would be to have a series on Netflix. In fact, I’ve have nine wildly diverse stories lined up right now. I’d pitch my little heart out.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

So much gratitude for the opportunity to share my story. Thank you, Phil.

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