Lessons from the North of the Border Boutique Owner
Tara Roberts, founder and CEO of Cold Cactus Boutique, is on a mission to bring quality and unique Western products to Canada and beyond. Photo Credit: Tisha Johnson Photography
The Cold Cactus Boutique. I doubt you can come up with a more perfect name for a North of the border boutique that celebrates western, rural, and farming lifestyles by carrying fashions that allows individuals to express their western-inspired individuality. The Cold Cactus is in Ontario, Canada and yes, you guessed right, it does get a little cold up around those parts. A mother to two young boys, a rancher’s wife, and an active team penner and sorter, owner Tara Roberts talks life, inspiration, and some of the valuable lessons she’s learned about getting into the business of boutiques since launching Cold Cactus in Feb 2018.
Tara Roberts was born and raised in Ontario, “I’m from a really small community in Southern Ontario called Salford. The only reason people know about Salford is because of a small farming equipment operation and a garbage dump. So, it’s safe to say, there’s not much going on in Salford,” Roberts says with a laugh. Roberts comes from an agricultural background, both sets of her grandparents were farmers and her first job as a kid was pig farming. “Castrating, needling, feeding, that sort of thing. Very early on I was immersed in farming and hard work.” Horses were always another part of Roberts’ life, when she was younger she was trained in dressage and then quickly went the hunter-jumper route where she competed throughout her adolescence. “When my husband, Phil and I met we were actually riding hunter-jumpers. My mom knew my husband’s roommate in university, they were working together and they felt we would be well-suited because of our mutual interest in horses. I wasn’t so sure, I said I didn’t know if I could date a guy in breeches but obviously, I ended up dating him! For both of us we knew very quickly we wanted to transition to the western side of things, which more closely suited our lifestyle and interests.” Roberts’ path in life followed her love for agriculture and she went to The University of Guelph where she obtained a Bachelor of Science and Agriculture, with a major in Animal Science. Her career aspirations were to become a dairy veterinarian, but while waiting on vet school applications she began a Masters in Epidemiology and is now working on a PhD that she hopes to have finished within the next year. It was while she was consulting in the field of Epidemiology that the thought of opening a boutique started to surface for Roberts. “For our honeymoon, Phil and I went to Columbus, Ohio and toured the Quarter Horse Congress, which is one of the places (in addition to social media) where a lot of our exposure to southern styles and innovative makers has come from. Over the years, attending Congress and other trade shows and taking in all the amazing vendors, we found ourselves asking why no one was bringing this style of fashion into Ontario. We kept saying, well we like it, so someone else has to like it too.”
Roberts balances being a mother, wife, and equestrian, with being an influencer, entrepreneur and boss babe, all at the same time.
Pen went to paper and from a business plan Cold Cactus was born. A boutique that carries a hand-curated collection of unique and quality western-inspired goods, focusing on handmade items. As Roberts reflects on several months in business and the lessons she has already learned along the way, she laughs, “Well, I definitely expected higher sales - I’m not going to lie, it’s been a slow start and continues to be. I don’t think I anticipated so much of a time commitment - the research, the quality checks, steaming, the photography, editing and the social media presence is incredibly time consuming. I find myself spending a lot of time during the day trying to create valuable and content-rich posts because I fully believe in quality over quantity – there is already so much volume when it comes to social media. I really want this boutique to be about more than clothes. I want it to be about supporting other entrepreneurs and makers, about relationships, about the western lifestyle and helping people express their interest in it through fashion, and also about helping people feel the best version of themselves. This is why I’ve structured Cold Cactus as a lifestyle company and I want to use this business as an opportunity to inspire and educate other people where I can (in terms of fashion, lifestyle, business).” The time-consuming side of social media has been an interesting subject to tackle as a parent, says Roberts. “Being on my phone is a little against what I’m going for with my family. We don’t even have a TV and I’m trying to limit my boys’ screen time, but then they see me on my phone too often. So that’s a challenge, but I’m trying to counter that with doing as much as I can when they are napping, or we’ve put them to bed at night. When I do have to be on my phone or computer during the day I explain to them that ‘daddy goes to an office to work and mommy is currently doing work from home.” Roberts says that despite the sometimes-chaotic nature of parenting, while running a business, she tries to stay focused on balance by prioritization. “I focus on what needs to be done that's going to move things along today, things like packing orders and shipping and answering inquiries, while everyday working a little bit on the business. Then I factor in a little time for me - if I don't ride a horse, or do something physical every day, then I'm just not a happy camper!” Roberts has modelled many of the products she brings in on her social media feeds. “Making myself vulnerable by putting myself out there to model my products has been quite the experience in self-confidence and self-image. In the beginning, a lot of the photos were of me and lately I have been collaborating with influencers and integrating their photos as well - which I feel is nice because I’m not constantly seeing my own face on my page,” she says jokingly From social media also comes feedback, sometimes constructive, other times not, and that’s something that boutique-owners have to learn to cope with, says Roberts. “You have to have the ability to be more receptive and open to positive, as well as constructive feedback. Sometimes it can be very hard because your business is your baby, but I think it’s important to learn from those comments. I’ve had a few conversations with others because I was struggling with certain feedback I received early on, but in the end you should appreciate those constructive comments because if one person is vocalizing it, it probably means others are thinking the same thing. Therefore, you should think of it as thank goodness a gift that one person spoke up, even if it is hard to hear.”
Speaking of things that are often hard to do, Roberts says that despite the fears that come with it, you can’t be scared to take a leap of faith. “I always say, nothing ventured, nothing gained. You can’t prepare for everything and I’ve had to learn some things the hard way since launching this business but I strongly believe that the more you can plan, the more confident and ready you will be to take that leap of faith. I was connected to a group of fellow entrepreneurs through a local small business centre. I could bounce ideas off of those people when I came across hurdles and could get the help I needed. Finding a group of like-minded people that can be that resource to strategize and problem solve with as well as pick you up when you need it is incredibly helpful. Being an entrepreneur can take you through quite the roller-coaster of thoughts and emotions! If your town has a small business centre, I highly recommend that you take advantage of the opportunities there – grants, business plan help, seminars about all sorts of relevant subjects, etc.” As a woman working towards a PhD, it probably comes as no surprise that Roberts highly values research. “I think research is incredibly important. To get confident in starting this boutique one of the approaches I took was to validate my idea by starting to bring in products for personal use that I felt I might want to carry so that I could see how other people reacted to them and how I felt about the quality to see if that’s what I wanted to invest in.”
For this stay-at-home mama, Cold Cactus very much reflects her own sense of style. “I’m a bit of a tom boy, you will not typically find my boutique carrying much pink, unless it’s subtle - it’s just not my thing! For Roberts, her wardrobe is down-to-earth with a western flair. “I rock the cowboy boots or cowhide booties everywhere but I’m pretty simplistic unless I’m heading out to a fancier function in which case I always enjoy dressing up. You’ll normally find me rocking an awesome graphic tee and recently I’ve been hooked on vintage Wrangler and Levi cutoffs, they are amazing! I love pairing a graphic tee tucked into a pair of vintage cutoffs with a great concho or vintage belt. I am kicking myself for making fun of my mother years ago and making her clean them out of her wardrobe. In my closet you’ll find fringe and cowhide, I am definitely not afraid to express myself even if it isn’t mainstream. I have no problem going grocery shopping in my own western-inspired style in a province where it isn’t as common!”
Roberts is passionate about celebrating makers and hand-crafted goods, which is why she has strongly focused her business on collating a collection of unique, quality, handmade items – items that are contributing to supporting other makers and small businesses and quality items that can be enjoyed many times, some of which will even become family heirloom pieces enjoyed by subsequent generations. “I’m personally enjoying the “Meet the Maker” posts I’ve been doing, it gives me a chance to learn more about the people whose products I’m bringing in – how they got interested in their craft, why they love it, and how things are made. To me, it doesn't matter where makers are located but since getting into owning a boutique I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of Canadian and even Ontario-based makers that I’ve come across. I would love the opportunity to work with even more of them, it’s nice to promote Canadian companies alongside their American counterparts.” Cold Cactus has been an adventure, and Roberts says she only wants to grow from here. Plans for the future include attending some bigger vendor events, such as The Calgary Stampede or the Royal Winter Fair in Ontario in 2019. Development-wise, she would like to go to a couple different apparel markets in the United States, “it’s not always economical as a Canadian boutique to make it down there to shop, but I’d love that experience and opportunity. For self-development, I would love to attend boutique-focused conferences as well.” Tara believes the power of networking is key to the success of operating a boutique. “I can’t believe how many amazing people I've connected with through Instagram in mere months. I look forward to building more relationships, and strengthening existing ones, and would welcome the opportunity to meet those people in person.”
Photo Credit: Tisha Johnson Photography
As one of the few western-inspired boutique owners in Ontario, Tara Roberts of Cold Cactus Boutique is certainly worthy of the title – “Influencer and Boss Babe”. Her passion for authenticity on social media, passing on her own lessons from life and business and for supporting and collaborating with other makers, brands and influencers, are just a few of the many reasons that she’s standing out and shining as a boutique owner in Canada. -----------------------------------------------------------------------------
Western Twist Media (WTM) is the creative outlet of professional writer and influencer, Louisa Murch-White. Murch-White is a published journalist, with work appearing in Western Horse Review, Quarter Horse News and features in Cowgirl Magazine and Cutting Horse Central. Personally, she is an avid and enthusiastic member of the performance horse world, and loves nothing more than showing cutting horses. WTM is driven by a passion for the performance horse industry. WTM specializes in assisting brands and companies tell their own stories through impactful marketing and advertising, social media management and freelance writing services. Our popular site also features unique and collaborative advertising opportunities. We'd love to help you share your story: WesternTwistMedia@gmail.com