May 2020 - Andrea Equine
Written by by Kim F. Miller
Wednesday, 29 April 2020 05:08
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Young entrepreneur does good while doing well.

by Kim F. Miller

A Craigslist ad, a $25 BLM Mustang and gumption galore have taken Andrea Cao a long way. This month, the Stanford University freshman and member of its western equestrian team celebrates the second anniversary of Andrea Equine, her second venture into entrepreneurship.

Her first venture, the Q-Flex, landed her on ABC-TV’s Shark Tank, where she earned a modest investment and guidance from Mark Cuban and Barbara Corcoran. That was in 2015 when Andrea was 13. The Shark Tankers’ support helped make a success of the Q-Flex, a self-acupressure device Andrea designed to help her single mother, a nurse, relieve tension in the hard-to-reach parts of her back.  

 


With the help of her mom, Hong Cao, Andrea brought the product to market, made door-to-door sales calls, then placed it with retailers in her San Luis Obispo County area. The simple device is now sold around the world with profits that made possible the purchase of the five-acre ranch in Atascadero where Andrea’s four horses live.

 

Her current venture is Andrea Equine, which includes a line of tack and equipment built on “ethical manufacturing, living wages, fair pricing and true quality.”

These are all things “that nobody in our industry was talking about” when Andrea began researching sources and processes for making the rope halters, leather tack and bits with bright turquoise accents that are now marketed around the world.

In addition to her entrepreneurial accomplishments, Andrea bootstrapped her way up from horse crazy kid with no money for lessons, let alone her own horse.

She’s now a seasoned trainer whose horsemanship resume includes starting several BLM Mustangs and other breeds and helping others develop their own.

All of the above was accomplished along with academic achievements required to be accepted to Stanford University, an institution with an acceptance rate of barely over 4 percent.

At home since the pandemic closed most of the campus in early March, Andrea is planning a leave of absence for the spring semester. She’ll refocus on training her own horses and spending more time on Andrea Equine.

A Brilliant “Black Sheep”

“Chaotic prioritizing” is Andrea’s secret for accomplishing all that she has and juggling her interests. “It’s learning what is most required of me at a certain time, and going down the list to get it done, even knowing that I’m never going to get everything on the list done.” Always a self-sufficient and independent kid, Andrea has a passion for her pursuits that provides natural motivation.

An inquisitive nature has served her well. That was helpful when she was “so blessed” to be selected for Stanford’s Intercollegiate Horse Show Association team among an always competitive field of candidates. For all her horsemanship accomplishments, Andrea had no competitive experience. “My position was trash!” she asserts. That opened a new realm of learning called “equitation” or “horsemanship,” the divisions for western discipline collegiate equestrian competition.  Most of her teammates are well versed in these subjects.

“Her internal motivation and curiosity are immense,” says Vanessa Bartsch, Stanford Equestrian Head Coach. The school’s admission policies have the effect of pre-screening prospective equestrian team members for exceptional characteristics, she notes. Even in that group, Andrea stands out.

“Here’s a kid who had, at 13, a business idea and ran with it. She loved horses, so she decided to get a Mustang and figure out how to train it by working with it. As a teenager... who does that?”

Teammates had heard Andrea’s Shark Tank backstory and were “excited to meet this person who was obviously really into horses,” recalls teammate Paiton Gleeson, a sophomore. “Not just the competition aspect, but she was clearly into the whole world of taking care of the horse and building a bond.”

Andrea’s “super bold nature” is what immediately struck Paiton when the freshman showed up at the Stanford Red Barn last fall. “She immediately had this huge presence and was not afraid to try new things. When you first come on campus, it can be a little intimidating, but she didn’t seem intimidated at all.”

Paiton also admires the fact that, even with Andrea’s impressive equestrian accomplishments, she had no problem asking for help with the unfamiliar aspects of competition.

Paiton expects Andrea to have a broad influence on the team. “She is really involved in the D-School (Design School), which has an entrepreneur focus. That is kind of the spirit she brings to the team in terms of wanting to figure out ways to make the whole team, and everyone on it, better.” Upgrading the tack room with Andrea Equine gear is an immediate example.
    

“A PhD in Feel”

Andrea’s earliest equestrian wishes were fulfilled through a Craigslist ad seeking to trade barn chores for the chance to ride somebody’s horse -- never mind that she didn’t know how. “I taught myself how to ride,” she shares. “It’s a miracle I made it on the team.”

“After the first couple weeks of instruction on the team I realized I had no idea what I was doing and had spent 10 years using the wrong position,” Andrea continues cheerfully. “I rode in a ‘chair seat’ -- I sat on my butt when I learned to ride and was breaking colts. Looking back, I don’t know what was keeping me on.”

She approached the process of re-learning to ride “gracefully and playfully,” Vanessa says. The constant catch-riding format of IHSA competition can be humbling enough, but Andrea embraced the extra requirement of revising her position for competition purposes. Learning to use her inner thigh for a secure position and to reach her leg down long around the horse’s side was a big change from the short stirrup lengths that were a habit after starting many young horses.

The end result has been well worth it for reasons beyond the higher likelihood of earning points for her IHSA team. The better position quickly translated to being a more effective rider, a realization that didn’t take long thanks to what her coach calls a “PhD in feel.”

What Andrea lacked in show experience, she makes up for in instincts. “She may not be used to doing hundreds of patterns, but when we put her on a horse that’s having a bad day, she calms them immediately,” Vanessa reports. “She has a supportive temperament that makes her perfect any time we’re having a horse challenge.”

The prospect of making the equestrian team was a deciding factor in Andrea’s college choice and it has brought friendships and sanity to the exciting swirl of freshman life. Andrea jokingly calls herself “the black sheep” on a western squad that includes “someone with a legendary barrel racing record and an Arabian show world champion.” Her own experience with starting horses, ground manners, round penning and other training techniques has blended with her teammates’ experience in the form of “some interesting conversations,” she says. “It’s been really cool to add that perspective.”

Above all, “My teammates are my best friends,” Andrea adds. “Without them, I think I’d go crazy.”
    

Rewards Beyond Ribbons

Lack of show experience has never meant a lack of rewarding experiences. Working with any horse, especially the wild Mustangs and especially her “heart horse,” Spirit, has always produced daily rewards. “Even though there’s no ribbons, no spectators or any kind of public validation, it’s super cool how many small goals and victories there are,” she says of starting horses from scratch. “When a Mustang that was not bred to be trained first gets the confidence to come up and smell your hand, when you halter break a foal, or saddle up a horse for the first time, it’s all so monumental. All of those things set the tone of your relationship.”

The process continues with under-saddle work. “When you get the horse to soften laterally, to collect for a split second or slide to a stop with their hind end underneath them...There is so much reward and fulfillment in those moments.”

The trail is Andrea’s favorite teaching terrain. “You can work a horse in the arena as much as you want, but it doesn’t mean the horse is going to stay with you out on trail. Barking dogs and train tracks are among the interesting journeys to lead a horse on.” Round pen work is another stage for training methods that fall loosely under the “natural horsemanship” heading.  The teachings of Ray Hunt, Tom Dorrance and Buck Brannaman are among the influences reflected in her own mix of methods.

Unique Take On Tack

Getting into the tack business resulted from frustrations over the quality, cost and manufacturing practices involved in existing supply. She found that the ethical and transparent manufacturing processes critical to her definition of Q-Flex’s success were not standards or even familiar as she began investigating tack supply chains.

She was “shocked” to find tack companies not owned by horse people and brands marketed as high quality that sourced materials in countries with poor labor practices. As she began to make inquiries, “They couldn’t tell me much about the manufacturing process in terms of working conditions and what people were being paid,” Andrea explains. “I feel like customers should demand to know that information from companies they buy from.

“I don’t care about being the biggest player in the market,” she continues. “I just want to inspire the conversation.”

Using fair and sustainable manufacturing process while keeping Andrea Equine tack affordable is a challenging balancing act. “Fair pricing does have to reflect what we have to pay to support the family-owned companies we work with. It’s a give and take and a constant conversation.”  

The tack is made by a network of small businesses across America. “One of our first leather manufacturing sources were Amish people,” Andrea recounts. Communication involved emails that were responded to via a hand-written letter that was faxed back. Andrea Equine’s product development phase took a year of “flying around the country, meeting all these people,” she explains. “It was such an adventure.”

Her business management principles and priorities were firm early on. During the Shark Tank opportunities with the Q-Flex, “Mark Cuban told me we could reduce our costs by working with China,” Andrea explains. “I said, Why? Our margin is already great. Why take away business from people who are not only manufacturers, they’re our friends? That’s just how we are doing things.”

Regular donations to horses in need is another firm element of Andrea Equine’s business model.

With sales doing well and coming from around the world, Andrea hopes the next expansion may be into english tack. Newly exposed to the hunter/jumper world through her Stanford Equestrian friends and experiences, Andrea is cooking up some ideas and has plenty of advice and product testers for the next three years.  

Presuming normal school will resume in the fall, Andrea will continue on a self-created course of study she describes as “as close to a business start-up major as you can get.”

Meantime, she’s excited about what the leave of absence may make possible. Along with continuing with her own horses, she’s looking for an opportunity to dive deep into the reining discipline. “It’s really cool having some freedom to work on exactly what I want to work on and see where I want to go with it.”

Extra time will likely to devoted to Andrea Equine. “It’s such a great balance of turning my passion into my career and it’s been such a blessing at every stage,” she explains of the plan to keep that as her career and to train as a not-for-profit pursuit.

“I can use my training experience and time to develop and refine the feel of products, and impact so many more equestrians that way. As a trainer, I can only help six horses/clients at a time. With Andrea Equine, I can help and enable thousands of people achieve a better relationship with their horses on a daily basis.”