3 Edmonton entrepreneurs on the ups and downs of launching ventures during pandemic
Expert says flexibility more important than ever for new business owners
When Kareema Batal planned her new coffee shop, she imagined events like live concerts would fill its extra space with people.
She received the keys to Cafe Neo in March and planned for an April opening.
Enter: the COVID-19 pandemic.
The cafe's spaciousness was suddenly a blessing for physical distancing, but events were off the table and there were delays in receiving supplies. Opening on time became impossible.
"We had to wait this out slowly and hope that we could open," she said Friday during a panel discussion with other new business owners on CBC Edmonton's Radio Active.
Like many other business owners, Batal had to pivot, changing the cafe's entire business plan and menu. She eventually opened the shop in Jasper Place, just off Stony Plain Road, on June 29.
According to Statistics Canada, more businesses closed between March and May in Alberta than opened.
In May, 5,488 businesses opened in the province — a decrease of nine per cent compared to the same month last year.
The COVID-19 pandemic coupled with a drop in oil prices has led to a sharp decline in consumer spending, and the provincial government expects the economic recovery to be gradual.
A recent survey of small business owners in Alberta by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business showed six in ten respondents feared consumer spending will remain low after the pandemic ends.
Despite the uncertainty, new business owners told CBC News they are optimistic about the future and have changed key parts of their business plans to succeed in a tumultuous time.
Harnessing social media
Kristyn Carriere, the chief operating officer and co-owner of 7 Summit Snacks, said the pandemic forced her company to completely rethink its "validation strategy," the process of testing its chocolate snacks with potential customers.
Instead of giving out samples and gathering pre-orders at large athletic events like the lululemon 10K and the Gran Fondo Jasper, the company launched a crowdfunding campaign and raised more than $10,000 to meet its sales targets.
The company recruited runners and cyclists to test the chocolate snacks they received by mail and fill out online questionnaires about them.
The strategy has been working, Carriere said, as athletes post about the chocolate on social media.
"People are starting to recognize our brand and give our product a try," she said.
Instead of getting products in stores first and selling directly to consumers later, the company reversed its original strategy and opened its online store this week.
For Brandi Morpurgo, the economic downturn in Edmonton was a blessing that allowed her to accelerate the opening of her first brick-and-mortar bookstore.
Morpurgo snagged an ideal location for her shop on High Street after another business closed due to the pandemic.
"We wouldn't have been able to do it otherwise," she said.
The bookstore, Daisy Chain Book Company, is modelled after her successful mobile book truck business and opens October 1.
The pandemic also brought an unexpected boost to 7 Summit Snacks.
Carriere said because of COVID-19, her company applied for government funding and received a loan it might not have otherwise.
Morpurgo and Batal said they have been flooded with applications from people hoping to work for their shops.
But that doesn't mean hiring has been a breeze.
Qualified candidates have been difficult to attract, Batal said, perhaps due to people feeling reluctant to return to the workforce.
"When we do interviews, some people don't show up. Some people don't even show up to work after being hired," she said.
Expert advice: network and be flexible
To succeed in a volatile time, new entrepreneurs would be wise to focus on networking, building a support system and opening themselves up to new opportunities, advises Deborah Cox.
Cox is the managing director of the Microbusiness Training Centre, which, among other services, delivers a government-funded self-employment training program.
"Tenacity and perseverance is probably one of the key ingredients that any entrepreneur or business person has, and it's even more relevant than it ever was before," she said.
Her centre's training — now delivered online — teaches budding entrepreneurs how to sell themselves, get over fear of approaching strangers and adapt to new ways of doing business.
"So much of everything that we do now has changed dramatically in the last six months," she said.
"Flexibility is important and being able to pivot is a fundamental thing we like to see ingrained in people."