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Roman Kremnev, owner of Pasta Mercato, wanted to expand his business but wasn't sure how. He applied to My Main Street, a federally funded organization that produced a market research report for their neighbourhood. He learned from the data that their customers were interested in higher-quality product – and had the budget to spend on it.Nick Iwanyshyn

In the fall of 2021, Roman and Melanie Kremnev started their first business, a grocery store and takeout restaurant called Pasta Mercato in Hamilton’s west end.

As the couple approached the shop’s first anniversary last year, they wanted to expand but weren’t sure how. So they applied to My Main Street, a federally funded organization that produced a market research report for their neighbourhood.

The Kremnevs learned from the data that their customers were interested in higher-quality product – and had the budget to spend on it. So they invested in better coffee equipment and ingredients, and their consumers responded by spending an average of 15 per cent to 20 per cent more per cheque.

With the extra revenue, Pasta Mercato is now expanding into the storefront next door, a business risk that Roman says he is willing to take because he now has the data to support it.

“I’m willing to spend a little more money on an espresso machine … and I know that I need to focus more on buying better produce and spending a little extra, because people are looking for that,” he said.

For business leaders, data have always been a key factor in making decisions. But it can be a major challenge for small businesses, who may not have the same access to data, or ability to analyze it, as do the big enterprises against which they often compete.

Some non-profits and business organizations are trying to change that and support local communities by providing data to small businesses.

The program My Main Street helped the owners of Pasta Mercato by conducting market research in their neighbourhood. The insights led to some new investments for their business, such as an espresso machine and expanding into a larger space.Nick Iwanyshyn/The Globe and Mail

My Main Street, for example, was launched by the Canadian Urban Institute and the Economic Developers Council of Ontario in 2021. The two-year program aimed at revitalizing cities’ economies was launched with a $23-million investment from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario. Eligible small businesses have access to market research about their neighbourhoods, as well as up to $10,000 each to fund actions taken as a result of the data.

Likewise, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, or CCC, launched its Business Data Lab earlier last year in partnership with Statistics Canada to make economic information more accessible for small businesses. One of the BDL’s projects is a quarterly survey of business conditions, which allows owners to see how competitors are handling challenges such as labour shortages. The most recent survey, released Dec. 14, showed that most businesses still lag behind in adopting new technologies: For example, only 6 per cent are planning to try new ways to automate tasks.

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This kind of result has often been cited by economists as a reason why Canadian productivity is lower than in many international peer countries.

Patrick Gill, senior director of the BDL, said the lab is part of the CCC’s plan to “democratize” data by giving small businesses and local chambers of commerce the same tools that large corporations have.

“Not every bakery has a data scientist on staff,” Mr. Gill said.

Penny Wise, president of 3M Canada and co-chair of the CCC’s women advocacy council, said data democratization is important because small and medium-sized businesses are an important part of Canada’s economy, and suffered disproportionately during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We hold data very tightly,” Ms. Wise said. “But I think data really is meant to be shared.”

Pasta Mercato is now expanding into the storefront next door, a business risk that owner Roman Kremnev says he is willing to take because he now has the data to support it.Nick Iwanyshyn

But some leaders are also working to broaden the wider understanding of what data are, who owns them and what can be done with them.

Jeff Ward, chief executive officer of Animikii Indigenous Technology and recent winner of the Mastercard Game Changer Award at the Indigenous Entrepreneur Awards, said one form of contemporary colonialism has been the way that governments and corporations have built databases of people, places and resources in Indigenous communities.

“There’s a term, ‘data is the new oil,’” Mr. Ward said. “It’s thought of as a commodity, something to extract, something to protect, something to hold close and maybe not share as a resource.”

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His company – a certified B Corp based on Lekwungen territory, which includes Victoria, B.C. – builds software and websites for Indigenous-focused organizations. One of its newest projects is Niiwin, a software product that promotes the concept of Indigenous data sovereignty by helping clients build and analyze their information in an accessible way. One of the public-facing uses of the software was to underpin the website for The Witness Blanket, a national project that sought to memorialize the stories of thousands of residential-school survivors.

Mr. Ward said the idea of data sometimes is thought of too narrowly. Relying only on quantitative data can give the illusion that there is a perfect decision to be made, he said, while other forms of information – such as intuition and stories – can be just as valuable.

“As entrepreneurs, we sometimes look for patterns or connections where there may not be obvious connection. Through this, we see opportunity to make a business case to venture into new areas.”