Amber left Broadway to be closer to her family in Colorado. She moved without any real idea of what she would ultimately do there. When she arrived she got a job at a regional theater and began exploring other options. When she happened across an alpaca farm she was very quickly hooked. She bought her first alpacas within a month. Two years later Amber lost her job at the theater and decided she would work full time with her alpacas. Within six months she had made more money than she had in the last two years.
Here is a bit of her story.
How did you go from Broadway to alpacas?
I moved from New York to Colorado to be closer to my family. I had been in New York for 13 years. I had no idea what I was going to do for a living. I knew I could not make a living doing theater out here. I figured I wanted to do something with animals. I had done a lot of work with rescue animals in New York. I looked into getting horses, but I figured they would be expensive to feed. I also did not want to do something with animals where I would be bottle feeding them this year and eating them next. I had never heard of alpacas. I was driving down the street with my step mother and she pointed out an alpaca farm and I thought, ‘That is it!’
There happened to be an alpaca show the following weekend. There I came across the Suri Alpacas and stopped dead. I knew that was what I wanted. I owned my first two Suri Alpacas within a month. I moved to Colorado in June of 2007 and found the alpacas in November of 2007. I then found a property and bought it. By July of 2008 I had five alpacas, three girls, a herd sire, a gelding companion and a ranch
What is a gelding companion?
Alpacas are herd animals, so you cannot have one alpaca by itself. At the same time if you put the boys and girls together things happen, so you have to separate them. I had three girls and one boy, so I could not have the boy be by himself. The gelding sire has been fixed, so he is not going to be assisting with babies, but he is a companion for the herd sire.
He is the wing man.
Yes, he is the wing man.
How do you make money from alpacas?
I always recommend people do multiple revenue streams. The alpaca’s end product is their fiber. Their fleece is seven times warmer than wool and softer than cashmere. I got into alpacas because I love animals. I sell fleece to fiber artists. What I focus on is a breeding program. The Suri Alpacas were almost extinct 30 years ago. We are trying to get more Suri Alpacas in the US, because we want to mass produce the fiber. What I mostly do is I breed alpaca babies and I sell them to people who are trying to raise alpacas. I sell pregnant females and my boys graciously offer their services to other ranches. I do some boarding for new clients that do not have their ranches yet or for people who have not found their own place yet. Most of my money I make in selling animals. I have sold two this week and I have someone else looking at a package of six to eight alpacas.
What is the learning curve like in all of this?
Most people who get into alpacas quickly learn there is no place to take classes, so most people do a mentoring system with someone who is currently raising them. I have someone who is interested in learning more come up to my ranch once a week and we talk about something different every time to help get them educated. When I got started that is what I did. There is a base of what you want to learn up front and then there is always learning as you go. You will never know everything.
How many is the most you ever had at once?
The most I had was about 50 alpacas where some were boarders. When I first started I thought 20 would be a good number. But when I really got it up and running, I sold 13 in the first year, and then I ran out of animals to sell. I realized that 20 were not enough. Fifty is still very manageable, but at the same time when clients come up I do not just have one of every color, so I have two or three of every color. This keeps it much more versatile for meeting what clients want.
How long do alpacas live?
About 18 to 20 years on average, kind of like a cat.
What are their personalities like?
They all have their individual personalities. They are at the bottom of the food chain, so they have a highly developed flight instinct. If you have someone that goes right up to an alpaca to hug it, it will very likely move away. If you are standing their talking the alpacas very likely will come up closer. They are very curious. They are also very smart. They love routine. Some do not want to be touched at all and some will come right up to you.
How do you market alpacas?
Anyway I can. That is what I tell clients. If you put the alpacas in your backyard and wait for someone to come bang on your door it is not going to happen. I have my own website. I have two Facebook accounts. One is for my ranch and one is for my main herd sire who has won six championships and who has his own Facebook account. He goes on Facebook groups and comments and he has quite his own personality online.
I had a couple of ranch visits from people I met on Facebook. I do a lot of advertising on Craigslist especially in Colorado where there are properties with acreage with people who do not want to get into cattle or pigs but want something more manageable. I have a client who had never heard of an alpaca before she read my ad and now she has 20. I do a lot of local shows. I do not travel around the country because my goal with having alpacas is to be home. One of the largest alpaca shows is right here in Colorado. I bring a guest book. Anyone I speak with I have them sign my book, and then I later invite them up to the ranch.
I also do Meet the Public shows put on by 20 alpaca breeders. It takes place at the local county fairgrounds. They advertise it like crazy and get about 400 participants. I usually have a follow-up open house the next weekend to get people up to my ranch. It is not a show per say, but it is a way for the public to learn more about the alpacas.
I got an email from CBS News Sunday Morning and they came to visit. It was out of the blue. I can’t take credit for it, but it helped. They re-ran the piece a few weeks ago. When I found out it was going to be back up I sent an email to about 50 local news organizations to give it an extra push. My whole thing was the alpacas were going to be my full time job. Doing the morning barn work is an hour, so for the other seven hours I have to find something else to do. I have to be creative.
What are the challenges of this?
I do this on my own, so there is no division of labor. That is a challenge, but it is also a benefit, because I do not have to run anything by anyone. The other challenge is some people do not know what alpacas are. I have a problem coming up with challenges because I enjoy it. When you are doing what you love it is hard to come up with things that are challenges.
Do you have a typical client?
New breeders are where I focus my marketing, but I also work with existing breeders. I really enjoy helping people get started. I was so thrilled to do this I wanted to share it with everybody. Most of my clients are local, but my alpacas have been sold all over the country. I have a very nice client base in Colorado for people on four to eight
acres of land. They say the average person who gets into alpacas is retirement age because they are looking for something more fun than their office job, but I am finding people in their 30s or 40s getting into it as well. I think people are looking for something a little different. They want to do something for themselves and they decide to check out alpacas. Alpacas are 150 pounds, so they are easy to manage. Most of my clients have easy access to Denver and Boulder but want more of a rural life doing something different with a bit more flexibility where they can enjoy what they do.
What is the difference between an alpaca and a llama?
I am going to be in big problem if you print this, but I always say alpacas are smaller, cuter and nicer. I think alpacas are much more fun, but I have never had a llama.
I am curious if there is anything you miss about your old life in New York and on Broadway?
Number one is the people. Anytime you move you start making new friends which is a wonderful adventure, but you miss the people who have known you for a real long time. I was a dresser in the wardrobe department which means I did quick changes and I loved it. When you work on Broadway you work on the top. Every once in awhile when a national tour comes to Denver I work on it or I think about shows that would be fun to work on, but then I sit and look at the alpacas and I look around my house and I can see Pikes Peak from my desk and I don’t think I could ever go back full time. There is always something that you love about where you have been and something you love about where you are.
You are always nostalgic about what you have done, where you have been, who you don’t get to see every day now, but you cannot really stay stagnant in life either. I am thrilled that I get to start a whole new chapter and get to say I did a variety of things in my life. If I moved back to New York I would miss my alpacas and then be nostalgic about that. There will always be things you miss, but it’s the stuff that you gain that makes it all an amazing accomplishment.
Now that you have had a business for almost five years do you have any advice for people who are just starting out with their own businesses or are thinking about starting a business?
The first thing is that it is up to you to make it happen. Whatever you are doing it is not like you can be, ‘Ok, here it is. Let’s see if it works.’ It is always fluid. You are always trying new things every day and working on it every day. I see a lot of people complain about the economy and say, ‘Hopefully things will pick up when the economy does.’ I started this business right before the economy crashed and in two years I was making money. With every business you start there is always start up time.
In business school they say three to five years and I did it in two years in a recession and have been going crazy since. I lost track of how many alpacas I sold last year, but I still hear people saying, ‘When the economy picks up hopefully sales will happen.’ You have to make the sales happen. People cannot buy from you if they don’t know you exist. The main thing is be proactive, be a self starter and be creative. If stuff has not worked for you, try something new. If you did everything you needed to do this week and you still have time left over do something else. It is not forcing something in someone’s face. It is making sure that the people who want to find you, can and then offering the information they need. It is up to you to make it happen.
What is the range in cost of an alpaca?
It depends on a number of factors such as quality, age, gender, breeding status and show records. You can get geldings for a couple hundred dollars. If you really want to do alpacas as a full time business I recommend you get a breeding stock. At that point my cheapest pregnant female is listed at $2500 and that is because she is 12 years old.
I have a baby who is the most gorgeous thing that I have listed for $12,000. The highest selling herd sire was $675,000 for one boy. You can really get a range out there. When I first purchased my alpacas you could not find a female for less than $15,000. My four females were between $15,000 and $40,000 each. I bought them right before the recession and the market crashing, so things are much easier right now for people wanting to get started. What I recommend is people to buy the best they can afford and the goal is to always make better and better alpacas. If you buy cheaper alpacas you still have a way to go to get a good herd. It is quality versus quantity. I put together packages with a couple females and a male that are pretty reasonable. Girls are between $5000 and $8000, boys are between $2000 and $3000.I have a couple of herd sires I would not let go for less than $100,000, if they were even for sale. It is really a wide range depending on what you are looking for.
What makes that alpaca worth $100,000?
Every time he walks into a ring he wins a championship.
Do you have any you would not sell because you consider them a pet or a part of the family?
I do not like to play favorites, however, my guy Maxx I would not sell for under $100,000. We snuggle every morning. If he is out sunbathing I go out and stroke his neck. He is my guy.
Do they all have names?
Yes, I name all my babies after theatrical names or something that relates to New York or my time there.
Is it terrifying to spend that much money on something when you have no idea how successful it is going to be?
It is, but I think it was more terrifying for my family. I think my dad thought I would get an office job out here and do something safe, but of course I am the one who dropped everything and moved to New York to work on Broadway, so I don’t think he was completely surprised. I think he was scared. I wasn’t. I saw my first Suri Alpaca and I knew
this is what I was going to do. The good thing is I sold my apartment in New York, so I had money to pay for them. These days affording alpacas is much easier than when I first purchased them.
What is the daily expense of an alpaca in relation to a horse or a cow?
Because they are camels their bodies are made to be very efficient, so they do not need to eat nearly as much as horses or cows. A horse will probably eat half a bale a day. I probably go through two and a half bales a day with 50 alpacas. Feeding an alpaca is like feeding a big dog. Alpacas drink half a gallon to a gallon of water a day where as a horse drinks 10 to 12 gallons of water a day and then of course we can talk about how much poop horses produce. Alpacas poop in a pile. They all poop in the same area. It is very considerate of them.
I found alpacas and in an ironic twist of fate they have supported me. I have done this for four and a half years and for the last two and a half years they have completely supported me.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
A successful alpaca business involves a combination of caring about animals and considering it a business. When you have alpaca babies they are the most adorable things on the planet. My default is that the babies born here are sold, but at the same time you want to care about the animals enough that they go to a good home. You do not want to get so business oriented that they become products, but you do not want to get so attached that you do not sell anything. It is about striking a nice balance.