Saskatchewan

Pitch perfect: Sask. entrepreneur spreads business pitch skills

Heather Abbey slept on a friend's floor, searched 'business pitch' online, then made her first pitch at a CBC Indigenous business competition the next day. Now she has placed or won at 11 more competitions, and business is booming at ShopIndig.ca.

Heather Abbey's pitch at CBC's Indigenous business competition led to 11 more successful competitions

Business is booming, and awards and accolades are pouring in for Heather Abbey, the Saskatoon-based founder of ShopIndig.ca.

Now she's paying it forward by becoming a mentor for other entrepreneurs. 

But it wasn't always that way. Abbey got her idea for an Indigenous-made online marketplace when she was studying intercultural leadership at First Nations University of Canada in Regina. She earned a large four-year scholarship, but didn't have a vehicle and wanted to make extra cash selling her wares.

She began to wonder if there was a way to sell online instead of in-person at events like trade shows and powwows. 

'I didn't know what business was'

"When I first started, I didn't know what business was. I didn't know that there was Indigenous business out there. I basically started on my Facebook saying, 'I've got this great idea, I think people could use it,'" Abbey said.

That's when her first mentor, and now her friend, Kendall Netmaker of Neechie Gear reached out. 

"He saw that I was asking all these questions, and says, 'Hey, you're an entrepreneur!' and I said 'I don't really know what that is, but OK,'" she said. 

Netmaker shared the poster for CBC's Boom Box competition for Indigenous business ideas and told Abbey to apply. 

Boom box or bust

Shortly before the Boom Box competition in 2012, host and former Dragon's Den dragon, Brett Wilson, made a change to the rules. He included a new position called the Wilson Wildcard, Abbey learned, so he could include her in the competition after she didn't initially make the cut as a finalist.

She said she learned about the wildcard spot with around 30 hours to spare, then got to work. She looked up how to make a business pitch and watched old Dragon's Den episodes, and worked on getting to Saskatoon. 

"So I actually made it up to Saskatoon about seven hours before the Boom Box started, and we had to be there at like 6:45 [a.m.], and I slept on a friend's floor because I had no money for a hotel, and no real cash to do anything," she said. "It's just been kind of a whirlwind of ups and downs, a crazy roller coaster, that would lead me to where I am today."

Mastering the pitch

Abbey said she was nervous in that first pitch, but now she certainly knows the drill, according to her success. Since then, she's won or placed in 11 business competitions, and earned new investors and awards.

In November, she won the Wilson Centre for Entrepreneurial Excellence's Pitch Party, a competition fronted by the same man who judged her first pitch, Brett Wilson. In December, she was named as one of the top 25 ventures by SheEO, and was named the Indigenous Entrepreneur of the Year at the Startup Canada awards. 

She said she owes part of her pitching success to her background in theatre from her time in an outreach program at Common Weal Community Arts in Regina. 

Full circle

Now she's passing the torch and acting as a mentor to aspiring entrepreneurs. 

"It feels like I've come full circle," she said. "Back then, I used to watch Dragon's Den and I'd write down all the business lingo I didn't know. And now I've just accepted a contract to mentor Indigenous women to start their own businesses again."

Meanwhile, ShopIndig.ca offers its own tradeshow and startup challenge, in which aspiring entrepreneurs compete by making their pitch. Each winner receives money to start their own business.

"It is giving back. Life for any of us isn't easy," she said. "So for myself, I try and give back. We really care about next generation of entrepreneurs." 

Business class: Abbey's 5 tips for entrepreneurs

  1. Research in-depth what your business is. Abbey said that the more you know about your business, the better equipped you are to move forward and succeed. She said it's also important to learn business lingo.  
  2. Reach out to people who are already in the business that you want to be involved in. Take them out for coffee and ask how they got to the point you want to reach. That's where the first tip comes in handy, Abbey said, because if you're comfortable with business terms, you won't be asking people to slow down and explain what they mean. 
  3. Don't compare your progress to anyone else's (including the experts you spoke with in the previous tip). Abbey said others might be at a certain level that you're not at, and it's common for that to make people feel down. She said anyone would feel like a failure if they hope to jump from step one all the way to step 45, and it doesn't always work out so quickly. It's not helpful to gauge your milestones against others because everyone is different.
  4. Get out there and go do it. "Basically you are trying to make the world understand something that only exists in your mind, or only in your business plan, and it's tough," she said, adding that can lead to a lot of disappointment, but it can also lead to a lot of successes. She added that you need to keep in mind that the highs and lows are both temporary, but a good business plan actively applied by someone will lead to success and helpful connections.
  5. Believe in yourself. "Walk into a room, learn to network, take an active interest in people; not only in your field but in other businesses as well. Because when it all comes down to it, especially in Saskatchewan, we all help each other," Abbey said. She said she's received many opportunities that weren't right for her, but she knew someone for whom it was perfect, and she's lucky enough that people have done the same for her. "Everyone moves forward when we achieve success together," she said.

About the Author

Tory Gillis

Journalist

Tory Gillis is a journalist with CBC Saskatchewan. She's a reporter, radio newsreader/editor and associate producer with the Morning Edition.

with files from CBC Radio's the Morning Edition