Many successful entrepreneurs will unabashedly admit to being in the right place at the right time. Many more, however, will credit their ability to recognize an opportunity and to take action, despite significant capital outlay and risk, as a deciding factor that sets them apart from those that simply dream. When Phil and Monica, owners of Ever After Farms, a U-Pick blueberry farm and a rustic barn wedding venue, purchased the property from a struggling farmer, they identified a tremendous opportunity and had a vision for what the farm could become.
"We saw an incredible opportunity in restoring the operations of the blueberry farm, but also in the beauty of the property and using it for other things like weddings," Phil said. A quick Google search of 'U pick farms Florida' reveals over 4.8 Million results. A similar search for 'rustic barn wedding Florida' delivers nearly 8 million results. Both agri-tourism and the U-pick farm industries are booming. For Phil and Monica, the plan was to tap into both, but their first priority was restoring the blueberry farm.
"After we bought the property, we had to pump a lot of capital into it," Phil said. "With farming, once you get behind, you need a lot of money to catch up. In addition to fresh capital, we brought in new ideas and enthusiasm. We made some changes on the commercial packing side and decided to almost exclusively focus on u-pick. We brought in a cool hay ride, reached out to schools for class field trips, increased our marketing efforts, put up billboards and even trimmed the blueberry bushes to give our younger visitors easier access to the blueberries. We also hired the best blueberry consultant in the state. Neither one of us had any farming experience, so we brought in an expert. He told us exactly what to do and we followed his lead. He actually told us last week that we might have the best looking plants in the state."
With the blueberry operation on the right track, Phil and Monica shifted some of their attention to building out the wedding venue. The preliminary research began before they even closed on the property. They discovered that several couples had already been married on the property. This, combined with further customer validation, told them they were going in the right direction. Despite having zero experience in the wedding business, other than a three day training conference that Phil participated in, they got to work remodeling the existing barn and hired experts to help them along the way. The barn needed everything from air conditioning to lighting to sound systems, paint, furnishings and more. No expense was spared as they turned the old dilapidated barn, along with the grounds surrounding it, into a majestic setting for a true one-of-a-kind rustic barn wedding experience.
With the majority of the renovations complete, Phil and Monica are now in the drivers seat and, as Phil shared, are focused on more operational aspects of the business. "My job now is to make sure the people we hired to manage everything are good to go," he said. "We have a farm manager, a marketing manager and an agri-tourism manager. I make sure they've got everything they need to be successful and then I simply get out of the way and let them manage their respective operations. The only thing I do myself is the accounting and the books, other than that, I don't like to micro-manage our employees. Monica plays a large role in the look and feel of things. It was her idea to bring in the 1956 Studebaker Truck, which serves as a very popular photo op for many of our wedding parties."
Phil shared that some of their present day challenges are related to investments and improving all aspects of the business. According to Phil, a big part of being an entrepreneur and owning your own business is focusing on working on the business and not in it. To that end, he's constantly focused on looking down the road and thinking about ways to get more customers on the farm. One project they're pursuing, with an expected go-live in 2020, is a U-pick peach farm. As Phil shared, there are many benefits to growing peaches in Florida. For one, they come in around the same time as blueberries, so they compliment one another very well. Also, while they don't get as big as Georgia or South Carolina peaches, they grew very well in Florida soil and they're often sweeter.
Phil offers up some priceless advice for those pursuing entrepreneurship and for those already in the trenches. "First of all, entrepreneurship is not for everyone," he said. "In the beginning, it's neither safe nor secure. In fact, it's a largely an activity of delayed gratification. If you need instant gratification, don’t start your own business. With entrepreneurship, you're accepting present day pain so that later you will have greater comfort. You also need to be okay with mistakes and failures. We've had issues with drainage which caused crops to die and days that u-pick got rained out costing us tens of thousands of dollars. Failures and bad days will happen along the way. Lastly, you can't have an ego. You have to be okay with being wrong from time to time. I once had a mentor ask me, 'Do you want to be right or do you want to be rich?' Take advice from others and get feedback from your customers. Listen to what they want and adjust accordingly."
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