'Let's do it': How these entrepreneurs braved the pandemic to open new businesses

Opening a new venture in uncertain times isn't as rare as you might think

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Silvina Etchegoyen saw a golden opportunity to open a new enterprise in Toronto even as businesses were shutting down across the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The co-owner of Sientate, a touchless massage chair service, was a self-employed professional who specialized in marketing for therapists and alternative practitioners.

“I saw the stress levels nurses were going through, so I began to research ideas,” she said. “When I saw this chair, I wanted to put it on a trailer and take it to hospitals, but the logistics were harder than I thought.”

Instead, she decided to open a space where people could come use the service. At the same time, she worked out a partnership deal to have the site serve as a working showroom and allow for direct sales of the equipment.

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Opening a business during the pandemic was not without its challenges. For one thing, it was difficult to find a smaller place to rent, and financing options were almost non-existent.

“Everywhere I went, they said no,” Etchegoyen said. “They wouldn’t even increase my line of credit.”

Fortunately for her, friends stepped in to help out.

COVID-19 restrictions also required extra investments in ventilation systems and UV light cleaning equipment. On top of that, there were unexpected extra charges that came with importing the product from China via the United States that added to her costs.

Still, Etchegoyen persevered. From the concept stage in April, she was able to officially launch October 1. Now her efforts are focused on setting up campaigns and generating sales for Christmas.

“There are great opportunities for families, friends and employees, as well as teachers and health-care workers,” she said.

Statistics Canada reported that Canadians opened about 52,700 businesses in June.
Statistics Canada reported that Canadians opened about 52,700 businesses in June. Photo by Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia files

One might think opening a new venture in uncertain times is a rare occurrence, but the numbers say otherwise. Statistics Canada reported that Canadians opened about 52,700 businesses in June, 40 per cent more than the monthly average between January 2015 and February 2020, though it should also be noted that 56,000 closed in the same month.

Business registration service Ownr, part of RBC Ventures, also noted a large rise in new Canadian entrepreneurs, reporting 100-per-cent growth in its volumes since the start of COVID-19. (Ownr has recently teamed with Staples, Shopify and Moneris to award 40 new entrepreneurs with $5,000 in seed money.)

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“There are two things we can attribute to this,” said Shadi McIsaac, co-owner, who has been surprised by the uptick in numbers. “One is the impact on employment and the number of individuals that need or want to start their own business venture. The second hypothesis is the growing demand for digital businesses.”

But even brick-and-mortar businesses are opening. For example, Pamela Wheaton and Mishelle Carson-Roy in Saint John, N.B., didn’t let COVID-19 stand in the way of opening a new quirky giftware and housewares store.

Wheaton, who already had a successful clothing and accessories retail store, got wind of another space opening up the street, and then asked her friend Carson-Roy, who had been working for a candy store chain, to join her in the new project, branded Obscurity Shop.

Pamela Wheaton, left, and Mishelle Carson-Roy, right.
Pamela Wheaton, left, and Mishelle Carson-Roy, right. Photo by Courtesy Pamela Wheaton and Mishelle Carson-Roy.

“We were fortunate in that I already had an online component to my Heartbreak Boutique store when we had to shut down,” Wheaton said. “We knew it was a crazy time. We had a very brief conversation and said, ‘To hell with it, let’s do it.’”

The new location was financed by proceeds from Heartbreak Boutique, and through the city’s Economic Development Agency. Wheaton said they have the advantage of being in a small town where she already had a loyal following.

Even though tourism is restricted, they took the hit into consideration in their planning, Wheaton said.

“Our projections for the first year are lower since we wouldn’t be seeing the 1.5 million tourists that come to the city on cruise ships,” she said. “So our big focus has been on catering to locals, and making sure we had the online component up and running right away.”

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In Vancouver, the pandemic-related shutdowns brought an end to Juke’s in-dining business on March 17, but co-owner Justin Tisdall didn’t give up on the space. Instead, they decided to create an entirely new popup cocktail concept called The Chickadee Room that is fun and engaging — and definitely more in keeping with the times.

Tisdall said they had to re-examine everything they could do around funding, menu design, contactless services and reduced staffing before launching in mid-July.

“We had to put our own funds in this, but, fortunately, we didn’t need assistance,” he said. “We knew there was always a bit of risk with reopening, but we made sure the systems and safety protocols were in place.”

Even when the COVID-19 crisis moves on, The Chickadee Room is here to stay, Tisdall said.

“Initially, it was a stopgap solution, but we would love it to be permanent,” he said. “It’s interesting to see how much more efficient we are. We all have to adapt and figure all this out.”

Financial Post

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