Stepheni Norton | Crain's San Diego

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Stepheni Norton


U.S. Coast Guard veteran Stepheni Norton is an entrepreneur who helms several businesses. She runs Tradesmen Pourhouse with her father in honor of her mother. And after medical issues forced a change in her diet, Norton started growing her own food. The project expanded fast and eventually turned into an accredited farming business just outside San Diego. Dickinson Farm now offers a variety of options, including a community supported agriculture box, a Farmacy program, ready-made meals and more.

The Mistake:

We received bad advice that set up a moral dilemma.

When you don’t have a background in your new business, there’s a ton of research that needs to happen. The people that I talked to were giving me the impression that from a regulatory perspective, it wasn’t that hard. The information I was given didn’t seem right, but it was the same information from multiple people.

When I started doing more research to confirm that, I found out how different it was. Then when I circled back to the other people, they said things like: “Nobody follows that” or “I understand, but that’s for those really big farms.” And all of those things weren’t true.

What we found through those conversations is they weren’t following the rules because it was too costly. But more importantly, what would happen if we didn’t follow a rule? What if we have an employee and they break their ankle? Do we want to just throw money at them and say go to the doctor and we’ll pay the bill? No, I want to make sure they have physical therapy and they can take care of themselves, because that’s a general right. We can’t say to the public that we want to take care of you with good, healthy food and then not internally take care of the people who help us produce that good, healthy food.

For us it became a little bit of a moral dilemma. Thankfully we had time to write a business plan and go through that process, but it was a lot of internal dialogue between my husband and I. We thought, if it makes me a disrupter in the farming industry because I offer benefits to my employees, then so be it. I will be a disrupter every day. It’s not really a question of right versus wrong, it’s right versus right.

We thought, if it makes me a disrupter in the farming industry because I offer benefits to my employees, then so be it.

The Lesson:

You have to understand that your “right” isn’t everybody else’s “right” even though a lot of those are regulated. Especially in farming, what we see is that there are other for-profit farms that will categorize everybody that works on the farm as a “volunteer.” They won’t pay them, give them benefits, pay workers' compensation or have general liability insurance. And they do that because it’s cheaper and easier. One of the things I’ve seen in all the businesses that we’ve run is that it’s really easy to compare yourself and question, “Why can’t I get my prices cheaper or be more efficient?” We tend to compare ourselves with people who we believe are doing things the exact same way we are. What I’ve had to realize on my own is that’s not the case in all situations.

From a very altruistic perspective, people run businesses very differently. They have different goals and missions. They also have different ways of getting their prices to something that the market can bear without being able to articulate the value of their prices and the value of their product. So for me, I’ve been able to finally teach myself to step back, stop comparing and understand that we do the right thing because it’s regulated and that’s our background.

Dickinson Farm is on Facebook at Dickinson Farm and Tradesmen Pourhouse is on Facebook at Tradesmen Pourhouse.

Photo courtesy of Stepheni Norton.

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