Sarah Landstreet didn’t set out to be an entrepreneur. She studied engineering at McGill University and landed a job in her field in London, England. But it didn’t take her long to realize that engineering wasn’t for her.
After a little over a year working as a mechanical engineer, she quit her job to start her own business, a cupcake bakery in Northern Ireland.
“No one in Northern Ireland had really tried a cupcake before,” said Ms. Landstreet. She said that while American culture is popular the region, trends are slow to arrive. “There was more demand for people learning to make cupcakes than buy them,” she said. A demand the self-taught baker capitalized on by offering classes.
“I don’t think I was attracted to entrepreneurship. I was not attracted to engineering,” she said After almost three years in business, I didn’t think I could learn anymore,” she said. So she sold the shop and returned to Canada, where she studied entrepreneurship at the Western University’s Ivey School of Business.
Now the 29-year-old is in the process of getting her second business off the ground. But unlike a large percentage of her business school classmates, she’s not trying to build the next Shopify, Thamic Labs or Wattpad. Her new venture is decidedly old school: She’s selling cardboard boxes.
Ms. Landstreet’s not alone. Across the country, many young entrepreneurs aren’t taking the high-tech route of making apps or software or hardware. Instead they’re building small businesses in traditional, and sometimes artisanal, fields.
Ms. Landstreet launched Georgette Packaging in August, specializing in custom printed cupcake boxes for bakeries.
The idea for her business came from her own experience as a baker. “One of the big problems I had was finding decent packaging,” she said.
It’s something she’s seen at other small businesses too. They’re unable to afford – or don’t think about – packaging, she said. Because she orders boxes in large quantities, and then has them printed in batches, her costs are less than those an individual small business would face.
Despite her experience, she still began her business by interviewing bakers about what they needed in a box and how much they were willing to spend. The interview process also gave her a chance to get to meet her potential clients before trying to make a sale.
“You have to convince them that good, branded packaging matters,” she said, and to “go from 20 cent boxes to $1.10 boxes.”
In October, she began selling and began assembling her first order in early December. While her boxes are currently only available in Toronto, she plans to expand to other cities.
Drawing from personal experiences is typical for new business owners, said Rob Mitchell, an entrepreneurship professor at Ivey, where he was one of Ms. Landstreet’s professors.
He said many look to the technology industry, because they’re familiar with it or think about starting bars and restaurants, because that’s where they’ve worked.
“It’s worthwhile looking at traditional spaces,” said Mr. Mitchell. While businesses may get less attention – and face less competition, “it’s is where consumers do spend a lot of time shopping.”
He said that mentorships can be particularly valuable in traditional industries. “They want the next generation to come in.”
That’s what Adam Finn did. He learned how to make shoes by hand as an apprentice at Montreal’s Imperial Boots, where he learned the craft over two winters.
Mr. Finn, 29, said it wasn’t the shoes themselves that drew him in shoemaking, it was the craft of it. He said he likes “making something that’s used everyday.”
After another apprenticeship in Vancouver, Mr. Finn returned to his hometown of Saskatoon in 2012, where he started his own business, Last Shoes.
He said business is already better than he expected. “I didn’t know there was such a need for custom shoes,” Mr. Finn said. “A lot of people can’t find shoes that fit them.”
“I didn’t think I was going to go into business for myself and be an entrepreneur,” he said. “I fell into it.”
It takes him around 25 hours to make a pair of shoes, though that time is spread out over several weeks, since he has to let the glue dry. The starting price is $450.
While he’d like to expand, it’s difficult, he says, since there isn’t anyone else out there with the skills to do what he does.
He also doesn’t take orders from outside of Saskatoon. While he’d like to, without meeting and measuring his clients feet himself – a process which takes roughly an hour – he can’t guarantee that the shoes will fit the way they’re supposed to.
“You don’t really get a good understanding of someone’s feet until you meet them,” he said. “I watch them walk, I look inside of their shoes.”
Even though his work is so traditional, Mr. Finn isn’t opposed to using technology. He said he’d like to use 3-D printing to make the lasts (the foot-shaped molds he stretches the leather around to make a shoe), which could make his manufacturing process faster and more efficient.
While Mr. Finn said he’s still learning, at some point in the future, he’ll take on an apprentice of his own.
“I come from an academic background,” she said. “I never thought I’d be an entrepreneur, it took a while to accept that that’s what I was, a small business owner.”
While Ms. Amir and her business partners had worked in restaurants before, they had never ran one, but when the opportunity to rent the kitchen in a bar presented itself, they went for it. Because they didn’t have to pay for the space or furniture – just buy plates and food – their startup cost and risk was minimal.
“We got to learn without a huge investment,” she said.
A year later, having outgrown the bar, they moved the restaurant into a larger space.
It was only then that Ms. Amir decided to leave school and focus entirely on her business.
“I never had to make a big decision,” she said. “When we moved, I already knew that I enjoyed it.
Five months ago, Ms. Amir, 36, and her partners (who range in age from 29 to 37) started a new business, they opened a butcher shop a few doors from their restaurant.
“For us, opening the butcher shop was a natural evolution from the restaurant,” she said. “It was less of a realization that we could do this and more of a realization that we had these relationships with farmers.”
Ms. Amir describes the business as a bit of a ‘boutique’ butcher shop. The meat is local, free-range and the animals are raised without hormones and antibiotics. It was meat they couldn’t find through other butchers, and began sourcing for their restaurant.
Before opening the shop, Ms. Amir traveled to Toronto work with a butcher. They also hired several experienced butchers.
When Ms. Landstreet graduated from business school, the decision to start a traditional, rather than high tech, business was easy.
“I know these bakeries are buying packaging,” she said. And while some of her classmates were talking about building apps, they weren’t “thinking about revenue,” she said. “That gives me the jitters,” she said.