Mary and Brian Heffernan went from city slickers to full-time farmers of a thriving direct-to-consumer business. Here's how they managed their money to turn their dreams into reality.

By Julia Malacoff
March 25, 2020
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Before Mary Heffernan, her husband Brian, and their four daughters moved to a small town in Northern California to become full-time ranchers, Heffernan ran seven different small businesses in the San Francisco Bay area. Yes, you read that right. Seven. Her husband? A lawyer with his own boutique practice in Silicon Valley.

Now, life looks a lot different. The family runs Five Marys Farms, a 1,800-acre ranch that sells family-raised, grass-fed, high-quality beef, pork, and lamb directly to consumers. Their days are long—often beginning before dawn and lasting up to 16 hours.

Mary and Brian have also used the farm as a way to teach their daughters—ages 7 to 12—about building a strong work ethic, caring for animals, and the importance of contributing to the greater good. Farm life is a hard life, but they wouldn't have it any other way.

(If you're wondering how they came up with the name for the farm, Five Marys, all four daughters are named Mary, with different middle names.)

How was this family able to trade in their urban living for a ranch and farming lifestyle? Here, Heffernan shares her story and some advice for aspiring entrepreneurs.

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Find a need in the market.

The Heffernan pair previously ran a restaurant as one of their small business ventures. It was in their quest for quality meats that they realized there was a gap in the market. "We wanted something raised ethically and humanely with a great flavor and consistency," Heffernan remembers. "When we couldn't find a small farm really doing this as consistently as we needed, we decided to do it ourselves."

So at the end of 2013, they fulfilled a lifelong dream to both own a rural escape, while fulfilling their more immediate dream of becoming ranchers. The family bought a property in Northern California, where they planned to raise animals and sell their products directly to consumers. Initially, they thought they'd go back and forth from the city to the farm every weekend, but soon, they sold their other businesses and their home and packed up for the ranch permanently.

What helped them take the plunge and invest their money into the operation? They were sure there wasn't any direct competition—they themselves experienced a need for their product in the market.

Shift your priorities.

Starting a business changes things. "Life on the farm has really changed our priorities, especially financially," says Heffernan. The family used to save money for extensive vacations and purchasing a larger house, but those things no longer felt crucial. "Now, we've really pared down to just what's essential, and it's a lot more important to us to save money wherever we can to put back into our business, to continue to build our brand."

Minimize debt.

Along with prioritizing their brand, the Heffernans also aim to be as debt-free as possible. "We're living as simply as we can so that we can realize these big dreams we have for our business," says Heffernan.

Trust your gut about what's worth spending on.

Before the business became profitable, Heffernan and her husband did have some cash to work with from selling their businesses and home. But they recognized how important it was to only spend on what really mattered.

One undebatable essential: a tractor. That ran them a cool $75,000.

On the other hand, when they started getting ready to ship out their first boxes of meat, they designed the boxes themselves.

"I remember looking at custom boxes," Heffernan remembers. "To get custom-printed boxes was going to be a $20,000 investment and meant literally a barn full of thousands of custom boxes." They didn't have the space or funds for that, so she decided to DIY the boxes.

"I found plain white boxes that I could get a few hundred at a time for a lot less investment. And we literally took our cattle brand—the hot brand that we used for our cattle—and we branded our boxes." They immediately had the right look and feel, without a huge expense. Heffernan thought they'd get to the point where they'd order the custom boxes she'd originally scoped out, but the simpler boxes have become a farm signature.

Share what you know.

If there's one thing Heffernan knows—besides farming—it's how to start up a small business. "I've always been passionate about small business, and I love helping other people," she says. "In the past 20 years, I've started over 20 businesses. So I've taken all that knowledge and put it into this course to help entrepreneurs."

Her course, Small Business From Scratch, covers everything from how to build a strong foundation for your business to how to use social media to grow it—something Heffernan has proven herself incredibly adept at.

That, of course, is another revenue stream for the family. The icing on the cake? It just happens to be Heffernan's passion.

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