8 Small Business Owners on Navigating the Coronavirus Pandemic
By Ishani Nath
When the coronavirus pandemic hit Canada in March 2020, it changed everything — including how to operate and succeed as a small business.
A CIBC study released in May found that a majority (81 per cent) of Canadian small business owners said COVID-19 negatively impacted their operations. More than half saw a drop in sales, and nearly one third of entrepreneurs surveyed worried about whether their business would survive the remainder of the year.
As provinces entered Stage 3 of reopening in August, businesses showed signs of bouncing back. A recent survey of 12,000 small businesses found that 58 per cent of respondents who laid off staff due to COVID-19 plan to rehire this fall.
From staffing issues and significant supply delays to pivoting to selling products online, COVID-19 brought unique challenges to small businesses. According to Calgary’s Giovanna Serauto, co-founder of RemarkaBall protein snacks, overcoming obstacles is just part of being a small business owner.
“There are always going to be hard times as an entrepreneur, you have to be aware of that,” she says. “It is up to you to understand how you can navigate uncertainty, how to remain calm and focus on what is really important.”
Here is how the 2020 Startup & Slay honorees, including Serauto, have managed their small businesses during the coronavirus pandemic — and what they learned along the way.
Christine Yee, House of Yee Fine Foods
Premium, handcrafted gluten-free cooked and frozen dumplings.
At the outset of 2020, small business owner and chef Christine Yee opted to replace House of Yee Fine Foods’ equipment. “Our old equipment was on its last legs and our technician gave us a heads up it would not last for very long,” she says, explaining that she had put in an overseas order for specifically customized products to produce the company’s gluten-free dumplings. The new equipment was meant to arrive by the end of April, at the latest — but that didn’t happen.
“Due to COVID-19, there were shipping delays because of labour shortages and it was also stuck at the border waiting to be processed,” says Yee. “Our equipment didn’t arrive at our facility until mid-May.” The six-week delay put House of Yee out of production and forced Yee to pivot.
“We sold the last of our stock via home deliveries and I also added other items such as stews and ready-to-grill meats,” she says. “Offering home delivery was second nature. That was how I started the business when we didn’t have any retail outlets carrying our dumplings. Square also offered a free subscription to set up an online store. It was really user friendly so it was easy for me to set up. Along with my community on Instagram, I also posted my online store on local Facebook groups and received a great response!”
Yee also worked with local women entrepreneurs to sell their products on House of Yee Fine Foods’ online store — and encourages other small business owners to do the same. “Reach out to friends in the same industry to either offer help or ask for help,” she says. “If you have information that you think can help others, share it! It’ll come back 10 times for you!”
Sasha Senior, Bliss Skateboard Shop
Skateboard equipment and accessories.
Sasha Senior, founder of Windsor, Ontario’s only local skateboard shop, had to reimagine aspects of her business due to COVID-19. After opening Bliss Skateboard Shop in March, right at the onset of the pandemic, the Windsor-based entrepreneur quickly had to figure out how to move sales online.
At first, maintaining an e-commerce platform was easy because the province had mandated the temporary closure of in-person businesses. “Because of this, I only had to pay attention to the online sales and inventory,” says Senior. However, when the province allowed stores to reopen, Senior struggled to sync her in-store stock with her e-commerce platform.
“That was very stressful because I was manually removing products from online that were selling in the shop,” she says. Senior opted to briefly halt online sales, giving her time to figure out what she wanted out of Bliss’ website.
“I originally only wanted the online store to have Bliss products and apparel. However, I quickly realized that not everyone wants to drive to Windsor to see the shop, and then be disappointed at what we don’t have,” she says. “So I decided to put all the products that we have online. This makes it easier for people to view some of the inventory before they decide to make that long drive to the shop. This also helped me learn how to sync the products even though it took a few days as well as some help from my employees.” She adds that she is planning to start using barcodes and scanners to keep better track of inventory.
Her advice to entrepreneurs facing COVID-19 related challenges is to “adapt and overcome.”
“I realized that with the lack of supply from the distributors and the border shut down I had to find other means to get products,” says Senior. “I have to constantly adapt to the situations thrown at me and find a way to roll with it, get over it, go through it or go around it until I get to the outcome that I want.”
Diana Frost, Colouring It Forward
Colouring books made with Indigenous art and elders’ wisdom.
Diana Frost really noticed the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in her sales numbers, both online and through her retail partners.
“Sales were down significantly in the last few months because most of the stores that were reselling my products had to close and many stores lost out on the tourist season especially in the Rockies,” she says. “Online sales also took a hit as there were more and more people selling online and people just generally did/do not have as much money to spend on books and paper products.”
In response, she worked on developing a social media strategy, building an online following and online sales. Colouring It Forward also focused on providing value by partnering with Staples, which already carried our products in more than 70 locations, to offer free colouring pages and a colouring contest.
In addition, Frost looked into business supports and new ways to bring in revenue. “I registered as an Indigenous Business with the Federal Government and am currently looking into becoming a supplier of office goods, promotional goods, printing and publishing,” she says. “We are also about to publish a new product: our first full colour coffee table art book and we are currently doing pre-sales for our Indigenous art wall calendar.” (will clarify if this came out already)
Giovanna Serauto, RemarkaBall
Healthy protein energy balls.
Earlier this year, Giovanna Serauto was gearing up to launch new branding and packaging for her RemarkaBall energy snacks, specifically a family pack and a grab-and-go version. But when COVID-19 hit, sales dipped and her team had to rethink.
“We decided instead of asking for more credit, use the little money we had available and work with that,” says Serauto, explaining that her team opted to only launch the family pack and put the grab-and-go packaging on hold. Serauto says staff also learned about SEO, and two employees took social media courses to improve their digital marketing.
Beyond finding new ways to keep the business going, it was also important for Serauto and her team to give back to the nurses and doctors on the frontlines of the pandemic.
“We realized health care professionals were not eating properly, and they were working longer shifts due to COVID-19, so we thought helping them by providing a healthy snack would mean doing our part with the resources we had,” she says. “We raised $2,000 and we donated a lot of products to different hospitals in Calgary.”
Deanna Henry, Garden Health
Community health and wellness store.
Garden Health is considered an essential service so the business was able to stay open, but it was far from business as usual for owner Deanna Henry. Deanna saw how much her customers were struggling with the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic — at times, even breaking down in tears in the store — and she was determined to use her business to help.
Throughout the pandemic, Henry worked closely with her financial advisor. “CIBC supported me through COVID-19 by giving me a loan to help me protect Garden Health if we needed money for rent, to pay employees or any bills that needed to be paid,” she says.
The community health and wellness store began offering local delivery, curbside pickup and created an online store. The retailer also reduced its in-store hours and implemented COVID-19 restrictions like limiting the number of customers in-store, installing plexiglass barriers and having staff wear masks.
“Our success through COVID-19 was keeping a safe place for customers to still shop, and having the products that customers needed to get through each and every day,” says Henry.
Sage Lovell, Deaf Spectrum
One-stop source for the Deaf community’s needs, including sign language services, vlog production, grant writing, workshops and training.
Before the pandemic, Sage Lovell planned to grow their business by traveling and reaching out to the Deaf community across the U.S and Canada. Instead, they’ve had to find alternative ways to connect.
“With problems, we just gotta seek solutions,” says Lovell.
Since the pandemic, Deaf Spectrum has moved more of its business online, using Zoom and creating online alternatives to physical spaces. It wasn’t the original plan, but this approach helped reach new consumers.
“We’ve been able to expand our audience and bring more visibility to our business, as much more people have an online presence,” says Lovell.
Rachael-Lea Rickards, Real Talk Candles
Vegan, cruelty-free soy blend candles meant to start a conversation.
Before COVID-19, Real Talk Candles was a way for Rachael-Lea Rickards to relieve stress. She had no idea that a global pandemic would cause her business to expand faster than she ever imagined. With health experts advising Canadians to stay home, Rickards had time to explore the world of online sales — and it paid off.
“My business has benefited from the pandemic,” says Rickards. “People need comfort, and —pardon the pun — ‘light’. I’ve been able to reach women who really need that comfort.”
Rickards built off that momentum by expanding Real Talk Candles’ offerings.
“We continue to connect with our audience, and most recently have started private labelling and customized candles. When we aren’t doing our regular line of candles, we take the time to create a one of a kind candle for customers,” she says. “In the next coming months, we will be working on a social distance candle making class to increase our revenue.”
Jolene MacDonald, Accessibrand
Accessible branding for organizations and companies serving the disability and accessibility community.
Joelene MacDonald considers herself fortunate. The Accessibrand owner hasn’t lost any work during the coronavirus pandemic. However, she says with more freelancers and businesses entering the online market, the industry has become more competitive and pricing has become less consistent. Plus, Accessibrand unfortunately doesn’t qualify for government funding.
With those factors combined, the pandemic presented numerous challenges, but also unforeseen opportunities. For instance, due to COVID-19, the Venture Lab at Conestoga College opened its doors to alumni — and MacDonald enrolled.
“I went from feeling deflated and defeated and almost applying for disability, to seeing the possibilities of my business and how it can benefit others on a larger scale,” she says, adding that she’s been able to focus on growing her company with the help of her business coach. “Accessibrand was just me for the last two years, but now I have a team of 10 freelancer professionals (writers, designers, etc.) helping me. What was just a little thought almost 10 years ago, is now becoming real and very promising, even in the midst of a pandemic.”
Her advice to other small business owners is to keep pushing. “There’s always got to be a solution,” she says. “If you remain comfortable, there’s usually no growth.”
RSVP to join live streamed events with these entrepreneurs online every Wednesday at 8 pm EST in October for the Startup & Slay digital series. Presented by How She Hustles with proud sponsor CIBC and partners Rogers Sports & Media and Shopify.