When Epic Indoor Bike Park opened in Ottawa, Anthony Bereznai was excited. The seasoned management consultant and passionate mountain biker had been paying close attention to similar businesses popping up in cities such as Toronto and Cleveland, and was rooting for the first such effort in his own city.
And when Epic closed its doors in 2015 after running for less than a year, it didn’t sour Bereznai’s enthusiasm.
“I knew it could be done,” he says. He felt poised to learn from Epic’s mistakes.
“I went through and did a full business case, figured out why it wasn't working, and what could be changed. I felt that I knew how to make it viable. So I spent the next couple of years working on it.”
Today, Bereznai owns and manages The Yard, which has been open for only six weeks but is already getting plenty of traffic and is generally filled to capacity on weekends. The indoor bike-and-skate park at 265 City Centre Ave. draws a diverse crowd, from BMX and skateboard pros, to high school rollers with scuffed helmets, to parents looking to spend some quality time with their kids.
So, how do you go about successfully starting a business for a niche audience in a city like Ottawa, and especially after others had already failed? Bereznai knew he’d have to take risks, but wanted to be as prepared as possible.
He started by putting out feelers.
“After working out the initial design budgeting, the first public step I took was sending out a survey to my personal network,” he explains. The word spread, and within a couple of weeks he had received 900 responses, and not only from people in the biking community, which is where he had started. The idea had drawn a lot of attention.
“It’s easy for people to say, ‘Yeah, I’ll come, and yeah, I’ll pay,’ but I needed to see that people would actually put money behind it,” says Bereznai.
The next step was a crowdfunding campaign.
“The purpose of the Kickstarter was never to fund the entire project,” Bereznai explains. He used the campaign to get a more grounded idea of Ottawa’s appetite for the business. The hunger was clearly out there, because the campaign cleared its $100,000 goal on schedule.
Having proven that his project had legs – or at the very least, wheels – Bereznai pushed forward by getting some additional funding from the Business Development Bank of Canada and financing the rest personally.
“I leveraged my house. ... It was one of the hardest decisions, but I did the numbers and I believed in them, so I took on the risk.”
“I leveraged my house,” he says. “It was one of the hardest decisions, but I did the numbers and I believed in them, so I took on the risk.”
With the budget for The Yard secured, Bereznai set off to realize his vision for the indoor park and immediately ran into the first unexpected problem: all five buildings he had looked at were rented.
“As soon as the Kickstarter was done, all those spaces disappeared,” he says. “This never happens. Landlords changed their minds; it’s like the market had gotten hot all of a sudden.”
Luckily, Bereznai happened to see a perfect building in his own neighbourhood, which had until then gone under his radar. But the real estate market was not quite finished with him yet.
“People don’t realize this, but commercial real estate in Ottawa is a lot more expensive than (Toronto and Montreal),” he says. “We are probably paying 30 to 40 per cent more than those cities for the same space.”
“If you want to have a place in Ottawa, you’ve got to be on the ball – there’s just no margin for error.”
Going the distance
To make sure he played it safe with his investment, Bereznai also needed to establish in advance if The Yard would be profitable. To achieve that, he had designed the Kickstarter campaign as a sort of dry-run version of his revenue model for the park, which is based around selling day passes.
“There are no subscriptions, not yet. Having a membership option for a flat fee is challenging,” Bereznai explains, adding that from what he had learned talking to similar businesses in the United States, a membership system could “kill a park.”
The venture has a few additional revenue streams aside from the day passes. In the spring and summer months, when The Yard competes with open spaces and the nearby McNabb skatepark, it offers summer camps for kids. Bereznai says the camps have been a hit so far, with the March Break one selling out completely, and more being booked in advance already.
The park’s day-to-day operation is steadily growing too. More than 2,400 unique visitors have signed in at The Yard since it opened its doors, and Bereznai is hard at work putting every square inch of the building to use. He has already introduced a bike and skate shop – by purchasing nearby Airborne Action Sports and relocating it to The Yard’s lobby – as well as a bike rental service.
Bereznai is not done expanding the park’s amenities and is currently building an indoor café on the building’s second floor. The café is designed as a lounge for parents and young kids, and is complete with a party room and a safe area for skateboarders under four to practise with their parents.
“I always wanted this, and it has exactly the feeling we want,” he explains. “There are always parents who come to spend the day with their kids, and they need somewhere comfortable to lounge.”
He added that the café introduces another revenue stream for the business as well.
“It’s not easy to convince people to give money for something that doesn’t exist,” Bereznai says, reflecting on the Kickstarter campaign that made it all happen. “So it’s nice to see it become real and keep growing, to see all these new people every day. We’ve had a really solid start.”