You’ve got to be a bit of a risk taker to launch your own business. And that wasn’t Lucy Sloan. “I was that person that had the strict budget. I had a savings for when I was gonna have a child….I had that perfect score at the banks. And so I had everything kind of in control. And I liked that.” Then eight years ago, a fall down the stairs upended her entire life. She had no choice but to give up that sense of control. “I think that actually played a big part in becoming an entrepreneur ... you kind of have to be okay, with things not going well, and being broke for a little bit.”
If you are thinking that Lucy knows how to turn lemons into lemonade, you’ve got that right. After that life-altering injury, she turned her farmyard near St. Malo, Manitoba into a one-of-a-kind animal-assisted therapy facility. At Lil Steps Wellness Farm Lucy and her staff work with children, youth and adults experiencing mental health challenges from anxiety, depression and ADHD. And their co-workers include a fainting goat, miniature horses and a pig named Wilbert.
Find out how Lucy built partnerships instead of competing for business, learned hard lessons in setting prices for services, diversified long before COVID called for pivoting, and where her business is headed next.
Here’s How It’s Done is brought to you by the Women’s Enterprise Centre of Manitoba, the go-to place for women looking to start or expand their businesses. It’s hosted and produced by Cate Friesen, The Story Source.
Documentary about Lil Steps https://www.ami.ca/category/our-community/media/lil-steps
LUCY: So I was that person that had the strict budget, I had savings for when I was going to have a child, I had that perfect score at the banks. So, I had everything kind of in control. And I liked that.
CATE: You've got to be a bit of a risk-taker to launch your own business, right? But that wasn't Lucy Sloane, at least not until eight years ago, when a fall down the stairs upended her entire life. She had no choice but to give up that sense of control.
LUCY: I think that actually played a big part in becoming an entrepreneur - you kind of have to be okay. With things not going well and being broke for a little bit, right?
CATE: Welcome to Here's How It's Done. Brought to you by the Women's Enterprise Center of Manitoba, the go-to-place for women looking to start or expand their businesses. I'm your host, Cate Friesen. It's the 10th edition of this podcast. And there is one thing I can tell you for sure. All the enterprising women that have shared their stories here have created businesses that work with the life they want to lead. And they're willing to take some risks because they don't want to compromise that. Sometimes it's because of an expected change, like motherhood. Sometimes there isn't any work that fills the bill for them, so they create their own. And sometimes it's because life has thrown up a roadblock that completely changes the entire direction. That's what happened to Lucy, when a severe concussion left her unable to work.
LUCY: I didn't feel like I could go back into the career I was in before. I wasn't sure what my brain would -- where it would heal. I didn't know what would happen, so I had to kind of develop my new identity and who I wanted to be.
CATE: Lucy figured if she started her own business, she could be the one setting the pace and calling the shots. And that's when she turned her farmyard near St. Malo, Manitoba into a one-of-a-kind animal assisted therapy facility called ‘Lil Steps Wellness Farm. On this episode, you will find out how Lucy built partnerships instead of competing for business. How she learned hard lessons in setting prices for services, diversified long before COVID call for pivoting, and how she defines success in business. Get ready to be inspired and fired up to take your own enterprise to the next level. When I turned into the driveway of the farm, the first thing I noticed were two miniature horses hanging around outside the office that's attached to the family home. Their names are peanut and sweetie. Then I make my way to the small barn at the back of the property. That's where I'm meeting Lucy. I walked by a curious goat, some very vocal geese and chickens and a pig named Wilbert - all rescues. At ‘Lil Steps Wellness Farm, Lucy and her staff work with children, youth and adults experiencing mental health challenges like anxiety, depression, and ADHD. And all these animals are valued members of the wellness team. So keep that picture in mind. You probably won't be too surprised when you find out who Lucy looked up to as a role model when she was growing up.
03:36 – It started with Jane Goodall
LUCY: Okay, so one of my biggest role models growing up was Jane Goodall. I think she's one of the only people in the world that's ever gotten a PhD without having a Master's. So, she gained her education through experience. That struck a chord with me because I was never a super academic type. My brain is just not built to be in a classroom. My brain is built to learn through experience. And so Jane Goodall, she went right into Africa. Everything that she's done is going to be engraved in our history. And she did that just by being in the moment with the chimpanzees and learning about them and watching them. So that's who I wanted to be when I was a little girl. I love that she had this freedom to be nature and with animals, and to just become part of their world.
CATE: But you didn't do that. You didn't go off to the jungle.
LUCY: Nope. I have been to Africa, but that was later on in my life.
CATE: You feel like the classroom is not your best learning space. But you did go into university.
LUCY: Yes, yeah, yeah, so I did. But it's interesting. I lacked a lot of confidence going into university. My averages were always in the like 2.5 to 3 range which is in the C+ to B+ range. That was kind of my max - although when I went into psychology (which is what my major was) I realized that once I loved learning what I was learning about, I did well. So, I kind of learned that when I had passion in what I was learning, it came naturally. But the whole “being in a classroom in a box”, I was very much a hands-on learner, I need to learn by doing. And I really noticed that I loved the counseling aspect, that kind of meeting with people and really having that gift of being part of someone else's world. It's the Jane Goodall piece, right. And learning about them and, and seeing things from their perspective, and kind of helping them grow walking along with them as they grew. I love doing that. I love to learn.
05:39 – The fall that changed everything
CATE: So there's a turn that happened, it's pretty significant. Where were you before this turn that changed your world?
LUCY: I had spent about 11 years as a probation officer. And then I went into community mental health. And I would say that I liked to have a sense of control in my life. So, I was that person that had the strict budget, I had savings for when I was going to have a child, I was never in debt. I had that perfect score at the banks. And so I had everything kind of in control. And I like that - it kind of relieved some of that anxiety piece. And then about eight years ago, I ended up having a pretty major head injury, which pretty much turned my entire life upside down. It took away everything who I thought I was, and basically took away my identity, which was a pretty tough thing to go through. It was just a simple fall down my stairs. I fell backwards, and I hit the back of my head, and ended up going to the hospital later, because I got diagnosed with post concussion syndrome. So that lasted for a good kind of two years, all of these symptoms going on.
CATE: So two years, what did life look like? And how was it different?
LUCY: Basically the post concussion syndrome gave me a number of symptoms. I think one of the hardest (there's a few hard ones), was about a year and a month worth of full migraines. So I had to get special glasses made - I had hit the occipital part of my brain. So I had some double vision happening. Also memory loss (that's still sometimes here). We have an on-going joke with a lot of my clients. I always talk about how my phone is my brain, but I'm constantly saying to my clients and my staff, “remind me, send me a text, remind me”. I've learned to adapt with my lack of memory. And just that it was really hard to multitask. And as a woman, as a mother, multitasking was essential, right? When you're taking care of two really young kids, the house, even just cooking a meal would bring on a migraine. So, the other big symptom that was really difficult was I started developing pretty major anxiety. So I started having random panic attacks in different places. And just going through that whole world of anxiety, which was really tough, because I was a person that liked control in my life. So this really took me for a loop.
CATE: And what kept you going at this point? How did the healing happen? What kept you going?
LUCY: When you're at a loss and you lose, you see things differently. You see the world a bit differently, right? So, I go for a walk in my forest every single day. And I would say, “grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”. And I said that every single day, probably 10 to 20 times a day. And every time I said it, it meant something different. So, I tried to pay attention to it, I tried to really be mindful of “what does my life look like?”. And I was giving up that sense of control. And that was actually fantastic for my life. I think that’s what actually played a big part in my becoming an entrepreneur - you kind of have to be okay with things not going well. That and being broke for a little bit, right? So the other beautiful moment that came in there was I purchased these two miniature horses, Peanut and Sweetie. So, when the kids were off to school, the only thing I could really do is just be with them. So I would hang out with the horses - I'd go into their little shelter, and I'd sit with them and I'd spend hours just being with them. I kind of realized that when you're in the moment, and when you're with horses, there's this peace and this comfort and this nature around you like all of these healing principles - just natural healing principles that happen. So when I started to do research into it, I started to realize, “oh, there's actually some science behind this”. Being around a horse's brain actually shifts your brain a little bit too. It allows you to be more in-the-moment, and changes some of the neural pathways within your brain. So from there, I started realizing, “well, maybe I can integrate this into my world - into my business world”. I didn't feel like I could go back into the career I was in before. I wasn't sure where my brain would be when it healed. I didn't know what would happen. So I had to kind of develop my new identity and who I wanted to be. So I think it was a bit of a gift.
CATE: I can imagine there was that moment that you maybe researched this. And you went, “Oh, there's a relationship between my being with these horses and all these other skills that I have”.
LUCY: Yes. The “helping” aspect, the fact that I just love helping people. I love being part of other people's growth. I think that's fantastic. And that it's so natural. I mean, there's a whole bunch of scientific basis to it. But that whole, just being around animals allows us to be in the moment, it allows us to feel good about ourselves, we're accepted by them, they don't judge. There's just so many pieces to it. That's so therapeutic.
CATE: So you're here with these two miniature horses, you still have two little kids, you're still recovering? How did that lead to a business?
11:07 – Launching Lil’ Steps
LUCY: I started to look at the fact that I had the miniature horses, I have 10 acres on my farm. I just started to think “how can I help other people who experience specifically anxiety, but a lot of other mental health difficulties?”. So I started collecting animals - mini horses are pretty darn cute. So I ended up with I think 10, and two miniature fainting goats, and a pig. So, I created this farm and then developed a business plan, along with looking at different aspects of how I could potentially make money in this area (which most people told me, “it's going to be really hard to”). But I have, so that's great.
CATE: Let’s back up to that business plan. So that can be a really daunting thing.
LUCY: Mm hmm. You know, one of the pieces that was probably pretty intimidating was going to the banks. I got rejected by a couple banks. I know that there were a couple banks that looked at me and said, “this is never going happen”. And you know, I'm sure they laughed at me when I walked out the door. That's how I felt at least. But, then I went to The Case, actually, in my town, and they were so supportive. They thought outside the box just like me, in terms of ways I can make bank finances. So meeting with the bank, and being able to talk about those pieces was very helpful. I happened to have a brother-in-law that was in accounting. And so he has that type of brain that can crunch numbers. So he helped a lot with the business plan. And then what I did is I actually went around to other businesses that do similar things with equine work. And I started to network. So I started to network with people that are in this line of work, and getting a sense of what's working for them. And what do they find are helpful? So I really got my feet wet and started to kind of interview people who had businesses like this.
CATE: When you would reach out to other businesses, and were doing similar things, were people willing to share? Was there any uncomfortable feelings of competition? I’m just thinking about other people who might want to reach out and do something like that.
LUCY: So what I did is I kind of randomly called the business up, asked if I can meet with them, but I always prefaced it with, “I'd love to know more about what you do”. So, I can kind of either compliment it or else… so, as an example, there was a business that does some equine work south of me. And we kind of had this thing after we talked where she would do more work with teens, and I would do more work with 12 and under (originally when I started the business). So, I tried to figure out how I could kind of align myself with the other businesses, so we could actually help each other grow. So that was a piece that I tried to do. So it wasn't this competitive view, it was more like aligning and figuring out how we can actually help people. And I have that same mentality too. I love when people come here and sit down and have a cup of coffee. And I'll give them tons of business advice, because I have this belief system that the more we help others, the more they're going to help us and it's just gonna be a big circle and come around, right?
CATE: So you've got a business loan from your local bank?
LUCY: Yes, yes. Which was fantastic.
CATE: And you are developing a network of support. Think back: was there a moment when you went, “okay, this is gonna work”?
14:30 – How to make it work
LUCY: You know, I just always had that mentality. I probably should have questioned it. My partner, who's fantastic, gets me to question things more now, because I am a little impulsive. I tend to be like, “I'm going to do it. I'm going to do it. 110% and this is it”. So it is good to step back and see. That is something that I would recommend people to do. But, to tell you the truth, I just always thought, “it doesn't matter, it's going to be successful”. So I just went out looking for that. You put it out there, and with confidence, and you look in a direction, and ask how you can make it work. And it just seems to work. That was a huge piece too. I had to ask my question, “what do I do well here and how can I build on that?”. So that's why we've actually moved more in the direction of specializing in the field of anxiety. Because, that's what we do really well. I think a piece is really learning to specialize in what you do and doing it well. Because that's what people end up telling others about, right?
CATE: Right, so you found your niche. And you also made some choices to diversify. Now, there's two ways that that happens. For me, sometimes that happens because someone calls me up and they go, “do you do this thing”? And I'm thinking, “Well... I haven't done that thing, but that thing sounds like it's right down my alley”. And then there's this sort of stepping back and going, “Oh, you know, maybe I should diversify”. Can you talk to me about that decision? Whether that's a methodical decision for you or whether it's more of a spur of the moment?
16:04 – Diversifying business
LUCY: Do you know, I think in the beginning of the business, I definitely intentionally diversified in certain ways. I tried to look at where my funds would be coming in from. If I wasn't getting certain contracts here, then at least I have an income coming in. I remember thinking, I’ll have a bit of a breeding program. I'll breed miniature horses, and I'll breed this. But then I realized with time, there's many, many animals out there - we don't necessarily need more breeding. I started rescuing them, the animals, because they all come with their own stories and their own personalities. And so yeah, it changed as I learned. Being diverse definitely is something that I've done for six years. It is something I think I've done probably 50% consciously and the other 50% like you were talking, where someone brings up an idea and I think “that's fantastic, I'm going to build on that”.
CATE: So when you describe to somebody what you offer, and the diversity of your services, kind of in a nutshell, right? You know, that dreaded elevator pitch?
LUCY: Yes, exactly. Well, I usually start off by saying I provide a number of different services. As a wellness farm, that's kind of an umbrella to a few different services. So I provide animal assisted individual services to kids and teens, a number of different workshops and programs, day camps. Those are my really popular pieces in the summer, they're always super full, usually the same kids coming back, which is always a great thing. More recently, with the whole COVID world and kind of re-looking at things, I've developed some kind of online pieces as well. So, I have a product line of sensory tools that also connect with my children's storybook that I created, which connects with some programs. So it is a complicated answer.
CATE: Between all of them, what's the common thread?
LUCY: The common thread is increasing positive mental wellbeing through the stories of animals, I would say.
CATE: Think to a moment, recently, when you really saw it working - that common thread, or something falling into place for a child because of their time there.
18:17 – The impact is the gift
LUCY: I feel like that's a gift that I've been given, that I've been able to see many children grow and learn. This one child that I worked with, I had worked with him for a number of years, he just turned 18 (he actually has his driver's license now). I started working with him when he was in grade six. He would come to the farm from his school. He had some difficulties in school, he had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, so the classroom was not built for his brain. That's kind of how I say that sometimes. And so he struggled to be in the classroom. But when he came to the farm, the strength, the amazing character that he has came out, and he connected with this one horse Rebel. He's a very sensitive horse. And he kind of comes across like… he’s kind of a puffed-out horse, and he'll be like, “what do you do on my farm” and kind of challenges you. But when you get to know him, he is a loyal, dedicated, sensitive horse. And it was really cool because this kid met him and I shared the story of Rebel, how Rebel was the only horse that came to my farm that bared his teeth, that tried to kick, that tried to bite. And I was like, “Oh, geez, can I do animal assisted therapy with him?”. But then I realized it was actually about me, I was pushing this horse too fast and too quickly. So I wasn't being fair to this horse. So when I took a step back and built a relationship with Rebel, he's the most loyal horse you'll have. And this child was able to identify, “Ah, that's like me, I feel so much pressure when I'm in a classroom and all these things” but yet he realized he has all these strengths, just like Rebel does. Yeah. And he's actually graduated now he's going to become a vet tech. So it's really cool to see how he moved in that direction. So much of it was just building his identity, loving all the great qualities about himself, and realizing he's a fantastic kid with so much strength.
20:13 – How do you put value to a service?
CATE: We talked a bit about how do you set prices when you're doing something that's helping, and you could see how you could help someone, but you're weighing the accessibility versus the value and your actual costs to run a farm, with whether or not you'd have to have enough money to feed your family. So how do you cost your work out or price your work out? How do you make your way forward with that?
LUCY: See, that is a hard one, putting the right value to my service. Part of it was that there's a piece of me that wants to give service for free to everybody, I wish I could do that. A piece as well was probably my confidence. In the beginning, when I started the program, I was like, “Well, you know, I don't want to be charging too much”. But then I looked, and I was charging half of what everyone else was charging. And I remember someone said to me, “Well, you need to charge what your value is, or people are gonna think that you maybe aren't providing a great service, because you're not charging well”. I've had to look at it from different angles and aspects, for sure. A lot of times with this service, people might see it as just an hour counseling session that you're providing. And you might be charging a certain amount for that one hour. But it's not really that one hour, you're putting in like, a lot of brainstorming before and how you're going to help this child, you're doing notes after a lot of collateral contacts and connecting with parents, then taking care of all the animals that are my co workers. So there's a bigger picture to it in terms of the cost piece, I would say it took me a couple of years to learn this.
21:41 – Facing fear of failure
CATE: You have a real force of positivity. It's great. Can you think about a moment when you were just like, “oh, man, this is like, bumping against something that's tough”. Because business can have twists and turns and cash flow problems or, you know, suddenly, you can't get insurance for something. What kind of hit you from sideways, and how did you get through it?
LUCY: So I remember when my children's story (after I'd written it), it was a year to two years in the making (by the time you got all the artwork done, and the story and all that). And I remember, right before it was going to be released, I had this moment of thinking, “what if it's not good enough”? And that really linked back to growing up; not necessarily feeling “smart enough”, I kind of do my quotes, right, as I'm saying that because we all know: intelligence is in so many different aspects. But it hit a chord for me, it really kind of hit a chord. And I was like, “what if I'm not good enough?” The reality is, you're sharing a book with many, many, many, many people. You are going to get some critiques to it. Right? So that was a tough thing that I had to kind of be like, “okay, Lucy, I always say this to kids, just wash it off, like a duck”, right? I had to really go in there and prep myself and say, “It's okay if not everybody's gonna like this book” So that was a bit of a confidence piece. I had to move through. Yeah. And I was able to, which was good.
23:19 – ‘It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle’
CATE: You live and work in the same place, I parked in the front. There's your house, but there's actually a little office. And then there's all the animals and then there's the farm and then you're expanding. Can't forget to ask you about that. What's good work life balance for you, then?
LUCY: I know, you know how they say a farmer is not a job, it’s a lifestyle? I would say it’s similar in my way of work. It is very much a lifestyle. The boundaries that I have to put in are when I'm working with a child that's been through trauma and things like that - I need to consciously be able to either debrief with somebody, or to be able to kind of let that go, and and kind of shut down my day, so I can be there for my kids and my partner. So yeah, it is very enmeshed in so many ways. But I think it's just consciously taking breaks. I say that, but I mean, the animals are a huge piece in terms of my debriefing. My chores every night that I do at like nine o'clock at night, I spent a half hour doing chores. That's probably my best, most mindful time - where I feel like “Alright, my day is done”. Right. But yeah, it's consciously making boundaries, I think.
CATE: How old are your kids?
LUCY: So I have a 13 year old, an 11 year old and one who just turned two on Friday. She's a little monkey though, she has lots of energy.
CATE: How did you balance being in business and having a little one again, after that bigger gap.
LUCY: So I have to admit, pretty much from the moment I gave birth to my daughter, I remember actually being on the way to the hospital, calling parents going, we're not gonna be able to have this day camp today. I was three weeks early. I think within a week after giving birth, I was working. But it was on my own terms. And that's where I think the difference is I didn't feel pressured to work, I was doing work because I enjoy that piece. And it was kind of on my own terms, I was able to create boundaries around it, too.
25:34 – Next big step for Lil’ Step
CATE: So tell me about your dream. About the next step - and you gestured behind the building that we're in. Tell me what your vision is, and how you feel that's going to unfold.
LUCY: It's pretty exciting. It's a little scary at the same time. But I think fear sometimes drives that energy for us, right? My business, the way it is designed, is to always meet and wrap around the needs of the child. That's just how I do counseling. So, I'd love to have this Wellness Center that has different aspects: so it has an occupational therapist, a play therapist, an animal assisted therapist, and has different areas that you can help kids and their needs. I have this red barn vision in the back where there's going to be office spaces. I even have this vision that I want to be able to have some type of window that you can see Wilbert the pig in the middle of winter, and he'll be in his little shelter outside there. So you can still kind of interact with the animals and have that connection, even if it's the middle of winter.
CATE: So there's the vision - how close do you feel you are and and what's the next step towards that
LUCY: I've created a business plan. I also was doing a market analysis recently. I did a little bit of a radius around St. Malo. And realistically, who would drive out for therapy services? How many kids do we have out there? How many kids do we have that may come for counseling services? Yeah, like basically just that market analysis. Who would be my client? That kind of thing. Would I have enough clients to facilitate having three or four staff, professional staff back there? It's that financial piece that's going to be probably my biggest barrier - how do I make this work financially? How do I get the money to create a barn?
CATE: So that's the first step, financing and you've done the marketing analysis. Do you know how far in the future this might be?
LUCY: Well, I have a year set. I want to be cutting the ribbon there next summer. That's my goal. But again, I am (as I said earlier) a pretty positive thinker. So sometimes that could be a little unrealistic, but it drives me. So it's not a bad thing.
CATE: Lots of businesses have to pivot or change or rethink things with COVID. What happened for you?
LUCY: It did allow me to take a step back, and kind of rethink how I provide services. So a lot of my service was face-to-face, and especially with animals. There was certain periods in the COVID world that I couldn't provide that service. So then I started to think, how can I still reach children and teens with the stories of the animals, but not necessarily at the farm? How can I recreate the farm for them? So because I had my children's story, Cindy and Christabel’s Big Scare, I decided what I was going to do is create programs from that. So I created a parent and caregiver program for the Institute of Child Psychology. And then I also created this program called the “Being Me” program. It’s an eight session program, I get to go either into the school, or the teacher or guidance counselor can access the program and teach it in the classroom. But it's very collaborative and interactive. It's not only teaching a child about what is anxiety; when is it normal? When is it a problem? When is it even a disorder? It's about actually teaching the parent and the caregiver about that too. It has a toolkit with all these different sensory tools. And Wilbert the pig gets to teach it, because he's the kind of mindful pig in my story book that teaches the strategies about “piggy belly breathing”, and how to be mindful, and all those great things that increase our mental health.
CATE: Do I get to meet Wilbur?
LUCY: Yes, you do, and he is pretty fantastic.
CATE: Thank you so much. And thanks for inviting me here to actually see the farm and to have this conversation with you.
LUCY: Thanks for coming. This is great.
CATE: That's Lucy Sloane, the owner of Lil Steps Wellness Farm, and she has a tip for you if you were thinking about starting your own business.
29:49 – Lucy’s top tip for launching your own business
LUCY: The biggest tip I would probably give someone launching their own business would be to go in it with the mentality that you will succeed. Don't even ask yourself the question that you're not going to, because it really is about your perspective in it. If you have the perspective and the view that you'll do well and you'll succeed, that's how your brain is going to be thinking. You're going to be always thinking about “how do I fix the problems that come along” (because there will be problems), and how do I just keep moving forward? I think that's a piece; your perspective and believing in yourself to be successful.
CATE: You can find out more about Lil Steps Wellness Farm and the Being Me program launching this fall by heading over to https://www.lilstepswellnessfarm.net. And I did get to officially meet Wilbert the pig, and so can you. Check out www.wecm.ca for pictures, videos and the link to a brand new documentary about Lucy's innovative wellness work with youth. You’re listening to Here’s How It’s Done, brought to you by the Women's Enterprise Center of Manitoba. The center offers a business plan course, financing, and more. And if you are a female entrepreneur who owns a business in Manitoba beyond Winnipeg perimeter highway, Check out the Women's Center’s “Strength In Community” programming happening this fall. You can subscribe to this podcast through your favorite podcast app. If you are interested in more stories about enterprising women who launched their businesses because life threw up an unexpected roadblock, I recommend the very first episode of Here’s How It’s Done. It's called “You’ve Got This”, and also the third episode that features the owner of Evolve Green. Theme music is by Peter McIsaac. Additional music written and recorded by Charlotte Friesen. This episode was mastered by Madeleine Roger and produced by me. Until next time, I'm Cate Friesen. Thanks so much for listening.