'I felt so helpless': A year into the pandemic, local entrepreneurs reflect on lessons learned

Karla Briones
Karla Briones is one of many local entrepreneurs who were forced to reimagine their business models during the pandemic. File photo

One year ago today, Karla Briones was vacationing in Cuba with her two kids, savouring her last few moments of serenity before her life was turned upside down.

The Mexican-born entrepreneur, who now calls Ottawa home, recalls the “mayhem” at the airport when she boarded a flight back to Canada last March 12 as travellers scrambled to get home the day after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.

Less than two weeks later, Premier Doug Ford ordered all non-essential businesses in the province to close their doors in a bid to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Briones, who owns a Freshii franchise in Ottawa’s west end, saw her daily sales plummet to a minuscule $30 after restaurants were relegated to offering pickup and delivery service only.

“That’s when it hit me,” she says. “I remember bursting into tears. I felt so helpless. I realized this was bigger than me.

“For the first time ever, I did not have control, and that was the scary part.” 

"For the first time ever, I did not have control, and that was the scary part."

Twelve months after the WHO’s pandemic declaration – and the first reported case of COVID-19 in Ottawa – local businesses continue to deal with the economic fallout of the virus.

The restaurant and tourism industries have been especially hard hit as wave after wave of government-mandated shutdowns forced entrepreneurs to totally reimagine the way they do business. Brick-and-mortar retailers, meanwhile, have embraced a similar adapt-or-die mentality as many shifted their focus to e-commerce.

Briones, who also runs a pair of Global Pet Foods franchises in Kanata and Hintonburg, says the pandemic was the impetus she needed to up her businesses’ e-commerce game.

“It’s been a blessing in disguise because it forced us to implement something that we were kind of humming and hawing about,” she says, referring to expanding her pet food franchises’ online offerings. “We’d been doing things the same way for 12 years.”

The Carleton University journalism graduate has also begun exploring other new frontiers over the past year. She’s now writing a small business column for a daily newspaper, and she recently created a series of online modules aimed at immigrant entrepreneurs called the Immigrants Developing Entrepreneurs Academy. 

'Extremely rewarding'

“It’s been extremely rewarding,” Briones, who moved to Ottawa with her family at age 18, says of producing the video lessons geared toward helping newcomers to Canada launch their own businesses. “It’s been really cool to provide something that I wish somebody would have provided to myself and my family when we were starting out.”

Briones says she’s felt a spirit of collaboration among entrepreneurs during the past 12 months that she never had before as owners of hospitality and retail businesses began banding together to share their experiences and lean on each other during a difficult time. 

“I don't feel that I'm working alone anymore,” she says. “There is so much support now. We’re very used to putting our head down and just working at our business. With the pandemic, it kind of forced us to speak up about what we were going through. It was the first time that I started speaking up and trying to get my voice heard.

“Even though it was very stressful and scary and it’s been exhausting and it’s been a rollercoaster, I think the silver lining for me is that it’s shown me how much louder we can speak if we raise our voices and we do it collectively.”

David Ross
David Ross is CEO of Ottawa's Ross Video. File photo

David Ross’s business has also had a bit of a bumpy ride since March 11, 2020. 

The CEO of Ottawa electronics equipment manufacturer Ross Video saw his company’s sales fall 30 per cent early in the pandemic as the live sports and entertainment events it helps produce were wiped off the calendar.

But the company managed to rebound, recording the highest single monthly sales total in its 48-year history in October en route to posting its 29th consecutive year of revenue growth.

In addition, Ross has been on a hiring spree as it ramps up its R&D efforts and prepares to roll out new products. 

The company has boosted its headcount from 800 to nearly 1,000 over the past 12 months. With most of the firm’s North American offices still shuttered, the vast majority of those new hires have never met their bosses or colleagues in person.

Yet Ross says employee satisfaction ratings at the firm have actually risen over the past year, a finding that initially surprised the firm’s longtime chief executive. But he thinks he might have an explanation.

Atmosphere of trust

Early on in the pandemic, the company pledged it would not lay off a single employee. The firm stayed true to its word, briefly instituting four-day work weeks as a cost-cutting measure but keeping everyone on payroll.

“I think that created an environment where people knew the company had their backs and that we were all in it together,” Ross says. 

The CEO says the pandemic has proven to him that companies that demonstrate a commitment to their employees can build a successful culture even when they aren’t able to go for drinks with their colleagues on a Friday afternoon. 

“I think having a strong company culture of trust as opposed to top-down control is ideally suited to running a company from home not just in a pandemic, but at any time,” Ross explains. “Our employees didn’t just appreciate that trust, they gave it back. I think in some ways, we’ve been more productive during the pandemic per hour per person than we were before.”

As for Briones, she says that after a year of fighting to keep her multiple businesses afloat, she’s more battle-hardened and resilient for the experience.

“We made it – we’ve survived and our businesses are still standing,” she says. “I think I’m stronger. I know I can do it. It’s just it definitely has been an emotional rollercoaster that I am exhausted to be in. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”