While entrepreneurs are used to uncertainty and challenges, no one could have predicted just how difficult 2020 would be for small businesses. The pandemic presented new challenges that tested the entrepreneurial spirit of even the most successful business owners.
But Canadian small business owners are a tough, resilient bunch. A recent survey by PayPal Canada found 64% believe the pandemic has motivated them to consider new ways to grow their business and the vast majority (84%) say they are already making preparations for future waves of COVID-19.
For business owners who were already transacting online, the mountain to climb was a little less steep, but this year required them to lean into digital strategies and find new ways to innovate and attract customers in a crowded online space.
In partnership with PayPal, we spoke to small business owners in Canada who found creative ways to adapt their online business models for unique pandemic challenges. From sourcing materials from other local enterprises, to providing safe online transactions for customers, here is how these small businesses managed to stay strong and sell smarter through the shutdown.
“I helped them out, they helped me out. I’m keeping it all local, and I don’t have to worry about tracking down suppliers anymore.”
After selling her fitness company in 2010, Nadia Lloyd started painting in an effort to find a relaxing hobby. Pretty soon, she had amassed a collection of 30 art pieces, which she began selling on Kijiji, but after commissioning a friend to create her eponymous website, Nadia had digital portfolio to exhibit and sell her art online.
Over the years, her online store has expanded as she started adding a number of clothing items for adults and children, many bearing designs inspired by the Toronto city skyline. “Toronto is a city that fuels my art, my creativity, and my design, and the CN Tower is my anchor,” she mused. In 2014, Nadia’s products made it on the shelves of the CN Tower gift shop, and in 2017, were featured in the AGO gift shop. She had also started coordinating the Toronto Art Crawl, a series of pop-up markets that exhibit the works of several dozen artists.
No stranger to ecommerce, Nadia has been using PayPal Checkout for all her transactions for the past seven years, be it on her website or for the Toronto Art Crawl. “At the end of the year, when I do my taxes, it’s so easy for me to prepare everything for my bookkeeper and say, all of these transactions came in through Toronto Art Crawl, all of these transactions came in through Shopify,” Nadia said.
Everything seemed to be going well. And then COVID-19 happened.
“Funnily enough, before the pandemic hit I was actually thinking that I have enough stock in my collection to have my own store, easily,” Nadia said, in reference to her increasingly diverse line of hoodies, t-shirts, messenger bags, bedding, art prints, and more. “I was looking at places that were for lease. I even made a few phone calls to gather some information, but, number one: the pandemic hit. Number two: in my heart, I was like, ‘there’s no way I want to do this again.’ I’m just going to burn out again. So, I decided to keep my business to social media and my website.”
With the 2020 Toronto Art Crawl cancelled, Nadia used the time to take a step back, re-evaluate her efforts, and determine how she could move forward in spite of the pandemic. Like she had in the past, Nadia looked to her city and community for inspiration and was moved by the essential service workers risking their lives each day. She began repurposing overstock materials she had on-hand, transforming them into bespoke, hand-sewn face masks. Initially, Nadia gifted the masks to essential workers as a thank you.
“I was making donations to various hospitals around the city, various businesses,” she said. “My intention was never to sell them. But around the six-week mark, I was like, ‘these supplies are getting expensive!’, and people [were also] asking to buy them. So that’s when I shifted to ‘Okay, well, I’m going to put together a collection and see what happens.’” The masks were an immediate hit, with even Toronto’s Mayor John Tory requesting one.
In May, after the tragic murder of George Floyd – and following a difficult conversation Nadia had with her son about racial injustice – she again started thinking about ways she could give back to the community that had continuously inspired her and supported her. Teaming up with her 9-year-old son, Nadia designed a Black Lives Matter mask in hopes of sparking important conversations around racial and social injustice. A portion of the proceeds of the mask sales was donated to BLM Toronto.
A few days after posting the mask on social media, Toronto Raptors’ Head Coach Nick Nurse and his wife caught wind of Nadia’s BLM masks and reached out to her. “Nick Nurse’s wife Roberta Nurse messaged me and said, ’Hey, we love what you’re doing. We love what you and your son have created. We want to support you as a Black female artist with a small business,” Nadia said. She offered to donate masks to the Raptors team, but the Nurses insisted on purchasing them.
After Nick Nurse, Fred Van Vleet, and other notable Raptors were spotted wearing Nadia’s BLM mask throughout the playoffs, the demand increased. Concerns over a potential supply shortage might frighten some business owners, but Nadia once again sought out help from her community. She located an Ontario-based supplier for elastics and outsourced some of the production to a local manufacturer that had previously lost more than half of their business due to COVID-19. As her brand continues to grow, Nadia wants to support other business owners, especially during challenging times.
“I think there’s an opportunity for everyone, whether business or individual, to dig deep and figure out what’s important to you, what you’re passionate about, and find ways that you can be a part of it, whether it’s through donating time, donating money, or donating resources,” she said.
While her work with the Toronto Art Crawl is on hold for the foreseeable future, Nadia continues to use PayPal for transactions on her website, citing the ease of use and peace of mind it gives both her and her customers. “PayPal has been a good friend of mine for seven solid years now. And it’s simplified my life beautifully,” Nadia said.
Nadia’s advice for other small business owners? “If you can’t roll with the punches, it’s going to be a long, hard journey. We are all facing unknowns. At this point, we can speculate to what’s coming. We can make guesses. We can hope. But I think that the first chunk of the pandemic has taught us that we need to keep an open mind and plan our weeks almost on a weekly basis.”
Sapling & Flint
“We’re lucky to be in a place where we had the stability we needed to get through that sort of pause in our production. It didn’t get to a crisis.”
Twin sisters Jesse Brant, a silversmith and Dakota Brant, a regalia maker, became business partners in 2014 when they launched Twindian Designs, a jewellery line sold at festivals and powwows. After obtaining gallery space in Ohsweken, Six Nations of the Grand River Territory in 2017, they launched a brick and mortar storefront and online shop under the name of Sapling & Flint, delivering jewellery designs inspired by Haudenosaunee culture.
The jewellery is meant to act as a conversation piece that shares the story of Turtle Island, a Creation story shared by many Indigenous and First Nations cultures. The brand was growing steadily, until the pandemic temporarily halted expansion plans at their storefront this past spring.
“We were supposed to grow this year,” Dakota said. “We had this plan of hiring five more full-time staff, but then suddenly COVID hit, and [it became] not just a matter of ‘do we hire these people?’, but ‘do we even have a place that’s safe for them?’, because our space is already small to begin with. It’ll be hard to do social distancing of people within a studio together. So we hired one more [employee] instead of five.”
The impact of the pandemic extended beyond hiring decisions, causing a significant disruption in the supply chain that ended up pushing back several new collection launches. Sapling & Flint relies on silver and gold obtained through refineries and casting houses in Canada and the US, which closed in the spring in response to the mandatory shutdown of non-essential businesses.
“I had no idea when the next time I would have access to metal would be,” Dakota said. “While we had collections ready for launch in the summertime, it just didn’t happen because we had to focus more on the supply that we had already.” Thinking quickly on their feet, they recycled the metals they already had on hand to keep up with demand and ensure their sales don’t stop.
The lack of supplies also extended to the packaging Sapling & Flint needed to safely ship jewellery orders. “Because so many people were buying online what you were finding was major retailers were buying up all the packaging decor everywhere,” Dakota said. “So small businesses like me, suddenly couldn’t get something as simple as a bubble envelope.” Sapling & Flint tried to make do with what little packaging they could find, but often found that it wasn’t adequate. “I did have some customers return products because they were damaged in the mail. That was really disappointing to me, not being able to have access to shipping materials that I required,” Dakota said.
For the brand, postal delays also became a major concern during the pandemic. Anything shipped from the US came to a standstill, and Dakota’s orders of fine silver and gold were weeks overdue. Sapling & Flint made supplier purchases using PayPal Checkout as a payment method, which Dakota relies on to ensure her transactions are safe and traceable.
“Knowing that I’m buying fine silver, fine gold, from businesses, I’ll choose refineries that offer PayPal as an option because of the security that comes around it,” she said. “You never want to be the person with gold lost in the mail.”
While many of the pandemic’s tangible impacts have since dissipated, the brand continues to find ways to innovate in order to reach customers.
“Now that we’re reopened, my concern right now is Black Friday and the holidays, because the supply that I had relied on that we were manufacturing through the summertime ― which should have been for Black Friday ― we were selling in the summer,” Dakota said. “[The pandemic] has impacted the long term of our schedule as a production and delayed releases of new collections.”
Throughout a difficult year for the business, the Brant sisters’ reliance on PayPal helped give them peace of mind. “PayPal offers the security that I can have if a product is lost, or if a product doesn’t get shipped at all when I needed it. I know that my money is secure, and that my end of the payment is safe,” Dakota said. “That’s the confidence I get from PayPal’s commitment to making sure transactions happen securely.”
The brand’s quick pivots helped Sapling & Flint address challenges head on during the pandemic, but for Dakota, the most important thing that saw them through those obstacles was customer communication. “Communication has been the biggest thing for us, and it’s the thing that got us through all this,” she said. “Even through COVID-19, we could still create a good brand experience for the people who are purchasing from us.”
Regardless of what issues Sapling & Flint were facing, they always made sure to keep their customers in the loop, maintaining transparency about every aspect of the business that affects their clientele. “That’s the real reason why ecommerce is a success,” Dakota said. “Call it the 21st century version of fan mail. There’s an engagement between a brand and a client that has never existed before social media, where suddenly they feel like they’re being responded to by people.”