Forget New York city as the entrepreneur’s go-to success barometer. Making it in the Big Apple is a breeze compared with hanging out a shingle in one of Canada’s northern communities.
“If you can make it in the North, you can make it pretty much anywhere,” says Richard Truscott, Alberta and Northwest Territories director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
The list of challenges facing small business owners in the North can seem daunting. Everything from shipping and transportation costs to communication, logistics and energy are often more prohibitive than anywhere else in the country.
Yet these problematic issues are exactly what Kari Davis says she hopes to address with her new business, Northern Business Creators. Launched in 2011, the Toronto-based consulting company helps entrepreneurs in communities from Nunavut to northern Saskatchewan start up their own small businesses and keep them running.
“It’s a social enterprise,” Ms. Davis says of her company. “We do cover our costs, but any profits would go towards expanding the business and making more services available for customers.”
To kick off the project, Ms. Davis, who has her MBA from the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson, is offering what she calls a “business in a box,” complete with a customized business plan, training and sales support.
The first offering, a customized T-shirt business, also includes start-up inventory including a heat press, a supply of T-shirts and designs. Yet it hardly has to be a paint-by-numbers enterprise where customers simply order T-shirts emblazoned with stock transfers, or pre-made motifs. Instead, company owners can design their own art to be transferred to the shirts.
“The designs reflect the culture and community, as opposed to someone coming in and saying, ‘Hey, this is what we think you will like,’” Ms. Davis says.
The idea for Northern Business Creators can be traced back decades ago, when her parents left Jamaica for Canada. Unable to find jobs as teachers in southern Ontario, they travelled north to teach in tiny northern communities such as Turnor Lake and Deschambaut Lake in Saskatchewan. At one point her father taught his students business skills by helping them start a mini-cafeteria on one side of the classroom. The business raised money for the school – and Ms. Davis grew up hearing about how her father made a difference.
Today, Celia Dunn, Ms. Davis’s mother, who has spent more than 16 years living and teaching in northern Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Nunavut, acts as an adviser.
Still, much of what Ms. Davis learns comes from her interactions with potential clients today. Rather than targeting individual entrepreneurs, she has discovered that schools are a more receptive market. She’s in talks with a few schools in Nunavut interested in buying her business services, shirt press, training video and software so students can design and sell their own creations. The business could be passed down from class to class.
But first steps first. Ms. Davis says she knows that her main job isn’t so much about teaching people how to make shirts, but to launch the business. Although her T-shirt business costs between $12,000 and $15,000, she considers it her job to help her clients find funding.
“The biggest issue for starting up a business is not so much making the product, but the start-up process. People can get very intimidated by the whole thing,” she says.
The money is out there. In December, 2011, the federal government announced an investment of more than $772,000 to support small business development across northern Ontario, for instance.
Even so, running a small business in the North can be tough, Mr. Truscott admits. Entrepreneurs compete for workers with large, industrial operations such as mining, oil sands and diamond extraction.
“The markets themselves are also very small,” he says.
And as Ms. Davis has discovered, a home-based business is a tough sell if running a T-shirt business would result in the loss of subsidized housing. Ms. Davis says she would like to lobby the government to change the rule.
Even with all the challenges, Ms. Davis wants to eventually branch out from Nunavut to other territories and provinces, and offer other creative business ideas, such as Internet cafés, photography and even cake decorating. After all, running a successful small business is important for giving remote communities a sense of purpose.
“Everybody wants to feel like they have control over their own lives,” she says. “We all want to do something meaningful.”