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What’s the best way forward for Ottawa small businesses?

Small business owners chat about opportunities and pain points

Little Victories Coffee Roasters is often filled with patrons grabbing a hot cup of joe or students deep into their work, but in late May a different group filled the local cafe, keen to discuss the state of small businesses in Ottawa. 

Desjardins hosted a roundtable discussion with some of Ottawa’s small businesses who were recipients of a GoodSpark Grant. The financial cooperative awarded 150 small businesses each a $20,000 grant to support their growth, ultimately injecting a total of $3 million into local economies across the country. 

The six small business owners who came to Little Victories were there to discuss how institutions such as Desjardins can help them regain their footing and tackle some of the most pressing challenges that businesses face coming out of the pandemic.

The discussion was led by Startup Canada CEO Kayla Isabelle and Desjardins CEO Guy Cormier.  They were joined by well-known local business champions Michael Wood of Algonquin College, Jesse Card of Youth Ottawa, and L-SPARK’s Stef Reid, who all participated in the dialogue with the entrepreneurs.

As you’d expect, these local go-getters didn’t waste the opportunity to speak their minds.

Isabelle: What do social enterprises and local entrepreneurs need from their financial institutions?

The resounding reply to this question was mentorship, mentorship, mentorship.

Whether it’s developing a new strategy or efficiently managing an influx of cash, they want advice from experts like Desjardins. “We’re at the point where there are different avenues we could take,” said Sian Richard of Bad Dog Co., a vintage clothing store focused on sustainability. ”You can’t Google, ‘What’s the next best step for us?’”  

A woman participates in a discussion at a cafe

Small businesses also need financial advice. Local landscaper Jennifer Glenn of Pick, Plant & Prune got right into the nitty gritty when she asked, “Are there ways to use our money more efficiently while I’m holding it, like investing?” 

Next, they pivoted to the big issues.

Isabelle: What are the big challenges business owners are facing when it comes to running their business?  

Glenn’s biggest challenge wasn’t losing business — the pandemic actually gave her a boost. But supply chain issues could bring her operation to a halt at any moment. “I can scale, but I won’t because the economy can’t support the business going forward,” she said. She suggested that investing in local suppliers could help small businesses feel less precarious.

Cormier sees a role for Desjardins to help local suppliers grow in spite of the complexity of the supply chain issue. “You may have someone in your neighbourhood, but you don’t know,” he said.

The business owners also mentioned difficulty filling employment opportunities and minimum wage increases. “The problem is more systemic than we think,” Cormier said, noting that an aging population, less immigration and a changing work environment are all contributing factors. 

“Something is changing around working,” he added, suggesting small businesses also need to think about how they operate in the current environment. “It goes back to innovation, technology, and different processes.” 

Isabelle: What lessons did the pandemic teach you as a business owner/leader? 

Ian Dudley, who owns Orange STEM education with his wife Julia Dudley, fittingly said, “Don’t be afraid to learn something new.” Their company has been teaching tech to Ottawa kids for 20 years and had to pivot to online instruction to stay alive. That’s now a profitable arm of their business.

The pandemic gave Stef Reid, director of marketing at local startup accelerator L-Spark, the chance to “flex her creative muscle.” Like most businesses, switching to virtual was huge for her team, but they challenged themselves to get creative with their virtual approaches. 

Wood’s lesson from hosting more than 50 roundtables is simple: kindness matters. “When I had 100 small business owners with an MPP or a CEO, everybody knew my one rule,” he said. “Be kind, be polite, and everyone will want to help you.”

For Cormier and Desjardins, weathering the pandemic was about relying on the values the company was founded on more than 120 years ago. In the midst of a crisis, “Quick decisions were easy to make because our values were clear,” Cormier said.

The discussion wrapped up on the topic of inspiring youth to become entrepreneurs.

Isabelle: How can we inspire the next generation to make an impact on their community through business?  

Youth Ottawa Executive Director Jesse Card said the gig economy could be the ideal entry point for youth entrepreneurship. “If it was supported the right way, it could be a sandbox young people could start playing in.”

Glenn is already mentoring former employees who want to go into business for themselves. And by sharing what she knows, she’s helping herself. “You give back consistently and you’re overflowing with good energy,” she said.

A woman participates in a discussion at a cafe

Shabana Ansari of Peacock Press also wants to spread the word that going into business for yourself can be the best way to create a good job. “I assumed toxic workplaces were a way of life,” she said. “I would rather do something that makes me happy.”

In the end, the best way to succeed in business is to do what matters to you. “People want to work for someone with purpose and meaning,” said Cormier. “There’s a glue there.”