'Are we nuts?' Meet Canadians who started businesses during the pandemic
From pet services to food delivery and even advertising, many companies are forging ahead with launch plans
Even with the country in lockdown, a number of Canadian entrepreneurs are plunging ahead with new ventures.
Some are focusing their startup on issues related directly to the virus.
Others had begun to put business plans into action just before the pandemic hit and it wasn't possible to pull back.
Still others find that the new, challenging environment actually presents an advantage for their startup.
Here are some of their stories.
Virtual funeral services
Effie Anolik, 30, of Toronto doesn't have a background in the funeral business. She worked for Shopify, the e-commerce platform, for four years. But when her father died two years ago, she was surprised that other than a website, the funeral home offered next-to-no online services.
"You have to go to the funeral home in person to plan a funeral," said Anolik. "My family had to go there to process the credit card payment. It seemed like an interaction that could have happened online."
She figured funeral homes needed new, consumer-friendly technology, and started a company to create back office software.
But this month she's shifted gears, to go direct to consumers.
"Right now, families are really out of options, and don't know how to move forward with some sort of gathering," she said.
Her new company, PlanaFuneral.com, offers a free phone consultation to start, while other services range from $200 to $400. Those services include:
- Customized "virtual funerals" that include full event management, invites, and a recording of the online event.
- A slideshow or video of the deceased family member's life.
- Hosting services for the gathering over Zoom, the conference platform.
- Consultation with family and friends who may want to give a eulogy or make a presentation.
- If there is to be a burial, it can be livestreamed so that family and friends can feel present.
In the few days since the company has been up and running, Anolik has heard from several potential clients — including someone in New York City who has been unable to arrange a cremation and wants help. She expects demand to increase and says her small team is ready to handle it.
She'll have competition. Some Canadian funeral homes have started to organize virtual mourning services during the pandemic as well.
Nonetheless, Anolik is convinced her venture has a future, even when people are once again able to gather to pay respects.
"There will still be a need for virtual gatherings to bring everyone together," she says. "Virtual gatherings can include guests who may have not been able to attend in the traditional sense, due to distance and cost."
She intends to add other services to help bereaved families, such as assisting with the closure of bank accounts and social media profiles, as well as subscriptions and contracts that need to be cancelled.
"There's a lot to navigate," she said.
Telemedicine for pets
Toronto-based Kerri-Lynn McAllister is turning her love of animals into a new business. A founding member of Ratehub.ca, the popular financial product comparison website, last fall she started Pawzy, an online resource for pet health and wellness.
Now she's launching Pawzy Telehealth, a new branch of the business that provides a teleconferencing system designed specifically for virtual visits to the veterinarian.
"A lot of vets have had to reduce their hours and services to emergency care," said McAllister. "And as a result, pets don't have access to the same level of care that they otherwise would."
Pet owners don't pay for the service. Instead, vet clinics sign up and pay a monthly fee, in order to continue seeing customers and their pets, and keep their revenue stream flowing.
"We're doing a free COVID offer during the next two months, but afterwards there will be a subscription fee for the software of $99 a month per clinic," she said.
In the next couple of weeks, McAllister plans to launch a more consumer-focused service, where Canadians anywhere can connect with a vet at any time. "It doesn't have to be a service offered by their own vet, it will be enabled for any Canadian to use."
Chef Eric Rogers of Toronto had been working with a partner prior to the COVID-19 crisis to open Riverside Kitchen, a so-called ghost kitchen, a delivery-only service that would offer four menus of food through apps such as UberEats, DoorDash and SkipTheDishes.
A ghost kitchen is basically a restaurant minus the tables, waiters and diners. It's all about the back of house production of food for delivery.
"We did a lot of research, and the numbers coming out of the States showed the virtual or ghost kitchens were basically doubling their volume of business every year," said Rogers. "It's one of the fastest growing segments of the food industry."
They were planning to launch in April, but that's now been delayed a month due to the pandemic. Rogers and his partner had intended to rent an industrial kitchen, but he now suspects they'll soon have other, less expensive options.
"There's going to be a lot of restaurant failures," he said. "We have approached two landlords to say what we might offer you is a bridge lease. If we commit to six months or a year, while they find a new restaurant tenant, we would pay to cover off their utilities. We won't pay full pop, but they'll get some income."
Meanwhile, he and his partner, Josh Peace, have been making sample dishes of their food lines in order to photograph them for the app companies. Those lines include hand-crafted sandwiches, a BBQ smokehouse, a South American menu, and a family dinner project.
"We've certainly looked at each other every so often and asked each other, 'Are we nuts?' But delivery was already growing exponentially and now it's the only trick in town. No one can go to a restaurant."
He said he believes the home-delivery trend will keep growing, as it may take some time before people are eager to dine out again.
A brand new advertising agency
It's fair to say there's never an ideal time to launch a new advertising agency, given the industry is already crowded and fiercely competitive. But Beverley Hammond and her four Toronto-based co-founders had no idea a pandemic was coming when they banded together to form Broken Heart Love Affair, their unusually named firm.
"We started working on it in the fall," she said. "And my partners, some of the top talent in the country, gave notice at their agencies."
With chief creative officers from big-name agencies such as Cossette and BBDO on the founding team, it might have made sense to turn around and ask for their jobs back, once it became clear the pandemic was about to take a devastating toll on the economy.
But Hammond says that wasn't possible — legal agreements had been signed.
"The train had left the station. We were off and running."
By the time the company launched officially on March 27, the group had to wear gloves and masks, and bring disinfectant wipes to sign the Broken Heart Love Affair shareholder agreement.
The agency has already signed Kids Help Phone, Everest Insurance and Kruger, a paper product company, as clients.
"We are in the midst of eight new business opportunities right now. That's a lot in normal times. It's inexplicable now," she said. The firm even signed a new client on Easter Sunday. "There doesn't seem to be any delineation between weekdays and weekends right now."
Despite that promising start, Hammond admits it's a scary time. In addition to the five co-founders, four employees have been hired and salaries need to be paid.
But as a longtime entrepreneur, Hammond isn't fazed.
"I've lived with that kind of pressure before, like anyone starting a business."