Marla Kertzman loves marketing and PR almost as much as she loves horses. For many years, she worked for marketing and communications agencies serving technology and life sciences companies. But, as she rose through the ranks, she found herself pitching new business and mentoring teammates more than doing the work she loved.
She was also becoming frustrated with the agency model — having the seasoned people focused on new business while junior associates serviced the account, sometimes putting the business at risk through their lack of experience. "If accounts are in jeopardy, and you lose them, there’s even more pressure to find new business," she says. "Then you go back to the same cycle."
About five years ago, she founded Thoroughbred Communications so she could run her own show, handpicking her clients, and doing the work she loved. Making that jump gave her time to pursue her other passion: horses.
Limoncello, Olive Oil and Equine Events
Soon she was doing a lot of riding and competing, so she and her husband added an Olympic-size equestrian arena to their La Grange, CA ranch where they lived and planted an orchard including lemons and olives for limoncello and olive oil. "Then we asked ourselves, 'Why can’t we have other people come and use the arena?'"
One thing led to another, and the Mariposa Event Center, an equestrian, canine and livestock event venue, was born. Samples from the events calendar include barrel races, English and Western schooling shows, where beginners hone their skills for competitive showing; and cattle competitions, in which teams of riders sort numbered cattle from one pen to another in the correct order, racing against the clock and each other. They also offer a variety of clinics from veterinary lectures to learning how to compete in various equine sports.
The center has become a community hub for charity and large group events, team practices and serving as an emergency evacuation shelter for large animals. But it almost never came to fruition. It turns out it wasn’t as simple as just letting other people come and use it.
A Fortunate Meeting
There was no playbook for how to set up and run an event center. Marla and her husband, Ken, had to petition the county for zoning changes for setting up a commercial business in the middle of a residential area, and for a slew of building and use permits.
"Some of the things they asked us to do were pretty silly," she says, "Such as putting in a little bib of cement so rigs could drive in or out. Well, we already drove our own personal four-horse trailer, which is almost the length of a big rig, in and out of there just fine. But they said, 'if you're going to be a commercial business, you have to.'"
Up to their necks in legal paperwork and other such onerous requests, Marla and Ken almost gave up. But with a stroke of luck, one person entered their lives at just the right time. Three days after he was sworn in as a Mariposa County Supervisor, they met with Merlin Jones, who also happened to be one of the biggest equestrian promoters on the West Coast. After a conversation about what they wanted to accomplish, he donated his time and offered expertise to help them navigate the system and advocate for the arena. They volunteered the use of their facility as a large animal evaluation center — an offer that is now part of their business permit.
With the project green lighted, Marla and her husband leapt into learning how to be promoters, teaching themselves everything from how to be an announcer to learning what equipment is needed to finding judges and setting up the grounds to be safe for various events.
New Marketing Lessons
There were even new marketing lessons. "Coming from a B2B background, the event center has helped me understand consumer marketing more, through dealings with thousands of people," she says.
While online research helped, customer feedback has been paramount. "What cattle competitors look for is different from what mounted shooting riders are looking for," Marla says, "and dealing with horse show moms is its own art form."
They talked to people about things such as setting levels of difficulty with obstacle courses. Finally, a few advocates have helped get the inside scoop on what people are saying about events, food vendors, or the center itself. "It's a lot of listening and watching," she says. "We have a great network of advocates that have been really instrumental in helping us build a successful business."
Ken maintains the grounds, ensuring the facility is properly groomed and up to code to welcome riders, contestants, and fans. And animals.
All Hands on Deck
During the 2017 Detwiler Fire, they sheltered 28 large animals that had to be evacuated from their homes, and people and agencies were dropping off horses — some that had been burned or injured. With just the two of them running the operation, it quickly became an overwhelming amount of work.
They reached out to friends and event center clients. A lot of great people donated time, and regular riders and contestants came to help clean stalls, top off waters, and feed animals. That really cemented the event center’s place in the community.
"We want the locals to know that not only do we host events, but if there’s ever a fire or flood or if they need to urgently move their horses, that they can bring them here. They already know us and feel comfortable with us. On all of those levels, it's been a really fantastic venture for us," Marla says.
Business has not slowed down despite the COVID-19 pandemic. The center passed county public health requirements for outdoor activities and were able to quickly reopen. With 100 miles of trails backing up to their property, they’re even offering guided trail rides and seeing a good turnout of people looking to get outdoors during California’s stay at home order.
For consultants thinking about starting a side business, Marla has this advice: "If you have a passion or skill that you can leverage as a side hustle, give it a go. The worst thing that could happen is that you have a positive learning experience and meet some great people along the way."