In case you thought I was dead, or that I was so disillusioned by the design industry that I gave up all together, I thought I had better write a post.
Instead, I have been pursuing something I’ve been dreaming about off and on for quite a while.
When I initially moved home from England in 2012, the only thing that prevented me from giving up on life and forever inhabiting my mom’s second bedroom, drowning my tears in various homemade cookies, was the idea that I would open my own bake shop. I sat on the plane home writing my menu and sketching the logos of silly names that I thought were cool at the time. “Maple Sweets” – clearly there was a Canadian theme coming up. Not as clever when you’re actually IN Canada.
The possibility diminished quickly, after investigating a few spaces, visiting the local small business centre and talking to my aunt who had opened her own soap shop. I realized how much effort it was and how little money I had immediately following 4 blissfully gruelling years of university.
When I left my last job after 2 and a half years in September 2015, it was with the intention of figuring out what I truly wanted to do. Then the idea arose again. I thought since in my exploration of this idea, the hardest part has been finding relevant information and struggling to put all the trillions of pieces together, I would share this experience with you.
Plus, it proves I haven’t been sitting in bed binge watching criminal minds this whole time.
So I’ll break down my steps so far. They probably aren’t in the most logical order, but being completely unfamiliar with the process, I’ve just sort of been haphazardly throwing myself into whatever I find at the time that seems even remotely helpful.
I did 2 different types of research. I asked all the crazy talented and trendy people I know where they get their favourite products and what they spend their hard earned pennies on. My best friend is basically my own personal internet. Meaning she knows ALL of the places where cool stuff exists all over the place. It’s really quite astonishing. So between her, my crazy talented friends and my own knowledge, I pulled together some sample products and a list of suppliers I would love to stock in my shop. Almost everything came from the US or the UK.
Here’s what my PDF of samples looked like:
There is always new information to investigate at each stage of the process.
2. TALKING TO PEOPLE WHO MIGHT KNOW SOMEONE
The first person I spoke to was my mother. She talks to everyone, so knowing she’s out there telling all the Starbucks, sales people, dentists and other strangers, she encounters about what I’m trying to do, there’s bound to be a lead. Which is another good point I should make here – FIND HELP! As much of it as you can. I plan on calling on all my male relatives (brothers and dad) to help with the build out and renos when it comes time. They just don’t know it yet :).
One of my friends from my previous job suggested I speak to our super well connected old coworker. So I set a lunch date with him. He was so great to talk to, he was full of advice and he knew a few people he could hook me up with. The most important part of this is to PAY FOR THEIR LUNCH (or coffee, or whatever), then busy people who might otherwise forget feel obligated to help you on your way.
3. START WRITING YOUR IDEAS DOWN / BUSINESS PLAN WRITING
It’s a great way to develop your idea and following a business plan helps you figure out all the nitty gritty details and forces you to think realistically. You also need this for any loans and for a one-on-one with the small business people. Business plans can be a nightmare, if, like me, you don’t like hypotheticals, especially numbers. I still get the heebie jeebs looking at the monthly cash flow document.
It’s also essential to look at what’s important to your business and how it ties in with your concept. For me everything must be aligned, otherwise it doesn’t make sense. For my business, the name is based on the place I credit for the period of my life where I felt most creative, experimental and proud of my work. There was also a lot of learning and hard work that took place. Therefore the services on offer and branding had to reflect this. Colour and playfulness became a big role in the development of the branding. A major focus of what I would offer would be a place to come find inspiration and hopefully facilitate creativity.
4. FIGURE OUT YOUR BRANDING
As a graphic designer, this was the most fun part! I’ve had my business name in mind for a while, so it was only a matter of designing a solid logo that would look good in pretty much any situation. Plus it’s always good to mix some of the fun stuff in when you’re trudging through all the numbers and you need a reminder of why you’re putting yourself through this hell.
I experimented with a few logos then asked my best friend (the design and cool stuff wizard) to make sure it appealed to people other than myself. And that it was legible… I guess that’s kind of important.
There are some great free mock up photoshop templates that you can plunk your logo into so you can see how it will look on coffee cups, billboards, as window vinyls and on various other types of signage. It’s pretty exciting and easy to get carried away with (see below for a small sample of what I did).
5. ENLIST THE HELP OF A REAL ESTATE PERSON
I had worked with an amazing woman called Lina who was referred to me by a very kind gentlemen at a coffee shop I frequented during my old job. She helped me find my dream (at the time) condo and was a real treat to work with. Even though she isn’t in commercial real estate, I would find almost any excuse to work with her again (and she agreed, thank goodness!). At this point I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for, other than within a specific budget, she can send me what’s available so I can get a good idea of cost, location and size. There were also a few unpleasant surprises since I wrongly assumed commercial would be similar to residential.
Things that aren’t always included in commercial leases:
- Property taxes
- Waste disposal
- set increases of rent each year
6. GO TO THE LOCAL SMALL BUSINESS CENTRES
One of the first places I went to was Enterprise Toronto. Now I’ve heard from other people that this has been a great resource for them. For me it was not. Maybe I went on a bad day, when the substitute for the good helper was there, but the guy basically handed me a sheet of paper with a list of licences to get. “That’s all you need’ he told me. If only opening a business was that easy. I did learn one thing though – a music licence is required if you want to listen to music.
7. EXPLORE THE AREAS YOU MIGHT LIKE
After the very disappointing visit to Enterprise Toronto, I went to scout out some possible locations. I did some research to find out which areas in Toronto are “up and coming” and then we drove along and observed what businesses existed there, what the foot traffic was like and what kind of people hung out in that hood. I made notes and most of them just said “industrial” “hardly any people” and “sketchy.” This did not help inform any decisions other than to wonder if it’s better to be the first of awesome businesses in a lonely area, or find a spot where lots of awesome businesses already exist.
8. TALK TO PEOPLE WHO ARE DOING IT
The most common advice I’ve received so far is to talk to people who are doing it already. I’m very intimidated at the thought of trying to pry information out of strangers who might hate me in belief that I am attempting to steal their secrets and then funnel them into my own business. I’m sure the real humans of Toronto would not care too much if I asked them about the regulations surrounding commercial kitchens, or why they opted for their POS system. However, it still makes me nervous. So far I’ve just relied on people who aren’t doing the food thing at all.
I’ve spoken to some really awesome people who were so kind and willing to help. Even if what they were doing was different (food business is a lot more complicated than any others) they still had valuable advice. I’ll summarize what I’ve learned.
- Don’t get discouraged. But be realistic. You’re going to be broke for at least the first couple of years, and you’re going to have to work your kester off and still not make much money.
- One of the biggest business killers is overspending during the start up. Shop around for prices of equipment, POS systems, insurance, etc., and stick with the basics to get started.
- BUT don’t skimp on things you need to make your business run effectively, you’ll end up spending more replacing them with the thing you should have purchased from the start.
- Two things that make opening your business more
- complicated/expensive are: having a kitchen and offering seating. (hoping to learn more about this at the food starter workshop tomorrow).
- One of the best pieces of advice about importing goods came from the absolutely lovely girls at my favourite shop Victoire. They carry lines from the US, subject to unknown duties and taxes, so they have a rule in place. They don’t bring in the product in unless they think it can sell for 3 x it’s wholesale cost.
- If you can find a Canadian distributor, that’s the way to go! Though you may have other shops nearby carrying your unique items.
- Coffee is exempt from tariffs!
- Location is very important. Some people I spoke to said foot traffic was mega important. Others said not so much, word of mouth was more of a deal maker. I would still aim to find something in a relatively busy area.
- Competition is not the worst. Finding an area where there is competition isn’t so bad. As long as you have something else unique to offer, the people will still come.
- This is probably a no-brainer but social media and instagram are your best friends.
- Hire a PR person to try and get some publicity
9. TALK TO AN ACCOUNTANT WHO SPECIALIZES IN SMALL / SIMILAR BUSINESSES
My mom and I had no idea how to fill out the financial documents required for a business plan, so we figured who would know better than an accountant! My mom found a firm who specialized in helping small businesses and we met with them to see if they could help.
They definitely provided a ton more information than I was expecting. With this new information there was a whole new set of costs to consider. Even though it was really valuable info, I was feeling pretty disheartened when we left.
The things I learned about were: The benefits of incorporating vs sole proprietorship (which I am currently) – by making your business a separate entity, you are not personally liable for any disasters (fire, etc.) and therefore are not tarnishing your good name if something did go horribly wrong. Also, the amount of taxes you will pay will be lower.
The fees they gave me for using their services per year for each were pretty steep (SP: $900 vs INC. $2100) but you get a lot for it:
- Preparation of annual corporate financial statements on a “Notice to Reader” basis
- Preparation of the Harmonized T2 Corporate Income Tax Return
- Preparation of the annual HST Return
- Initial Review meeting with your accounting team
- Accounting support and advice through the year on a call in or visit basis
- Annual tax planning meeting
- T4 planning and review
- Bookkeeping and complete document management
On top of that, they offer a bunch of programs, evaluations and access to extra info to help you save and earn more money.
I’ve been paying under $300 to have my taxes done as a sole proprietor and I think I’m pretty good with finances, so I think unless my business is struggling, I probably wouldn’t opt for all the extras.
We have another meeting with them to discuss further, so more on that soon.
10. CREATE A PINTEREST BOARD OF THINGS YOU LIKE
I think I was a little bit late on this one. I just assumed when I found the space, then that would inform my design decisions. Plus I don’t like getting too carried away with details, knowing I have a pretty limited budget. Either way it’s probably good to have some basic design choices set for when you’ve secured your space.
WHERE TO FIND STUFF:
Food is an easy one. I was reminded of the conglomerate COSTCO, which has very limited healthy and organic baking items. And one of the bakeries my mom visited shared her supplier (ONFC). I do all my baking with light spelt flour, which apparently is a ghost amongst the Toronto store shelves. I discovered through a friend who does the ordering at the health food shop I used to work at, that they get their flour from a nearby mill (Grain Process Enterprises in Scarborough) which carries large quantities of local flours for a reasonable price.
I’ve had trouble finding distributors of top quality espresso machines (the internet tells me there is only 1) in Canada, and finding the kitchen equipment seems a pretty daunting task. There’s lots of old rusty, blackened overused stuff out there for cheap (mostly on kijiji and craigslist) but there must be better places to source more sturdy options.
I think that’s more than enough information for one post! More to come after the food business workshop tomorrow!