The #Takeoff series is about crowdsourcing issues important to Canadian small businesses. They tell us about their defining moments and we write about their stories, the issues, and strategies for success or how to overcome obstacles.
Tell us your business's takeoff moment: tgam.ca/takeoff
When Jesse Kaunisviita heard about a free workshop in laser cutting at ArtEngine, an artists' collective in Ottawa, he decided to check it out.
"I had no idea what that was, but it sounded cool," says Mr. Kaunisviita, 27, founder of Third Son Laserworks. "I was a laser junkie from that point on."
The Ottawa-based startup makes decorative home products, such as switch plates and coasters, precision cut with lasers and finished by hand. Mr. Kaunisviita launched the business last year in partnership with Gabriela Warrior Renaud, 25. The pair met when they were working for the same small Ottawa communications firm. Both work at other full-time jobs – Mr. Kaunisviita as a Web developer and Ms. Warrior Renaud in freelance video production. However, Mr. Kaunisviita is determined to turn Third Son Laserworks into a full-time business.
Ottawa-based Third Son Laserworks's keyhook switchplate in "Super Block Adventure" design, made of cherry wood. (Gabriela Warrior Renaud/Third Son Laserworks)
"I deal with depression, so one way I can mitigate that is to make my surroundings better with beautiful things," says Mr. Kaunisviita, who designs and makes all the products. "The little details that brighten my day make a big difference. Hopefully, our housewares make people happier."
Third Son Laserworks sells directly online and at craft fairs, and several Ottawa-area shops carry the designs. Mr. Kaunisviita bought a hobby laser for $6,000 – which he says does most things that a professional one can – however the laser he really wants cost about $40,000. But so far, the business has made very little revenue beyond a few thousand dollars.
"We have an online presence with Shopify but we're not getting a lot of traffic or sales," says Mr. Kaunisviita, "Growing that is a big challenge. We need to develop a stronger online following to succeed."
Ms. Warrior Renaud explains that their social media strategy was to keep it local and personal, since most of their customers at the start were family and friends. They continue to treat new customers as if they were family.
"It really goes with our brand of quirky and familiar," Ms. Warrior Renaud says. "We try to nurture our small followers, as we think they're key to the success of our business."
Co-founder Jesse Kaunisviita designs and makes all their products. Products are precision cut with lasers and finished by hand. (Gabriela Warrior Renaud/Third Son Laserworks)
Since Instagram and Pinterest are the most successful for them, they have focused on those, coming up with interesting photos and videos to post. They maintain a Pinterest account with a number of boards that are related to their products as well as to their interests in housewares and home decor. They add pins to it regularly, including pins of their own products.
"Our products are mostly about the small details, so we think those platforms lend themselves better to our brand," Ms. Warrior Renaud says. "It's hard to get people to interact online now, they have so much to look at. But we try to keep our message consistent and authentic to our voice."
After putting money into Google ad words and Facebook ads, Mr. Kaunisviita says neither really paid off short-term for the business – despite getting some likes on their Facebook page.
"I know there's more we should be doing, but I haven't yet because I still have a full-time job," Mr. Kaunisviita says. "I'd like to hire people to help with production over the next year so I can focus more on the business. But the biggest challenge is just to get our name out there and get people to come to the site. When people find us, they like us."
Experts say that while the Third Son Laserworks founders are doing a good job on social media, they could be doing more.
Bhupesh Shah, a professor teaching digital media courses at Seneca College in Toronto, likes their Pinterest activity but suggests expanding their presence. Since they are on Shopify, he suggests they use Buyable Pins to get consumers at the point where they see and like the product. "They need to ensure that their pins are descriptive in a way that customers will understand," says Mr. Shah. "I saw a pin where it said 'comes in cherry or walnut.' It would be good to include 'wood' and perhaps even 'durable.' I also like that they're pinning content from competitive sites. This shows that they're interested in bringing value to the user and not just selling their wares."
Third Son Laserworks's "Cloud Deco" coasters are made of cherry wood. (Gabriela Warrior Renaud/Third Son Laserworks)
While Mr. Shah especially liked their videos showing laser cutting in action on Instagram, he recommends they make greater use of hashtags and content that tells people what they do. The hashtags help them get found and the descriptive content helps in marketing the products. He also advises that they create posts around holidays and cultural events. For example, a #CanadaDay laser cut greeting would have attracted a lot of views and shares or a #FathersDay greeting with the #cufflinks in the background is a nice way of promoting themselves.
While he loved their videos on Vimeo, Mr. Shah wondered why they aren't using YouTube, especially as there is a trend toward video. He also suggests they consider raising money for that $40,000 laser Mr. Kaunisviita wants via a crowdfunding platform such as Kickstarter.
"Given that Jesse is currently working, he could also use his existing network to get more exposure for the business," Mr. Shah says. "To make the transition to running his business full-time, he should think about his appetite for risk and passion for the business. There's a fair bit of government support for small businesses in Ontario via the Small Business Enterprise Centres. Before I quit my full-time job to start my consulting business, I spent the year networking, researching both competitors and potential clients, developing my plan and creating cash-flow projections."
Sam Fiorella, a partner at Sensei Marketing and co-author of Influence Marketing: How to Create, Manage, and Measure Brand Influencers in Social Media Marketing, offers kudos to the company for their storytelling. Telling a story well is the key to social media, he says, but adds he would like them to be more consistent across all the channels. Also, he thinks the video about Mr. Kaunisviita on their website is too long at 5 minutes 44 seconds. "That needs to be under 30 seconds," he says, "Ideally with variations for different things that are around 20 seconds."
He also suggests they create an influence marketing campaign to drive a lot of interest in their product and to differentiate themselves from all the other voices out there.
Mr. Kaunisviita chooses organic cotton fabrics from Fabrications in Ottawa to make the company's Tea Pockets (reusable tea bags for loose-leaf tea). (Gabriela Warrior Renaud/Third Son Laserworks)
"I'd put together a campaign of five to 10 local celebrities – or reach out to people from across the country – and provide them with free custom products for their home," says Mr. Fiorella. "Ask them how would they use the products in their office, home or cottage. They need to be interesting offbeat people because their products are offbeat. They could include a tattoo artist, rock musician, somebody from the symphony or a sports personality, just to name a few.
"Those people would then share their final product and that content would go on their website. It brings the celebrity's following and their audience to Third Son. Whether it's a sports star or symphony conductor, their followers might want to emulate what this person has done. Plus, it's not expensive to do."
Brent Barr, an instructor at Ted Rogers School of Retail Management at Ryerson University in Toronto, says the transition is always difficult when people move from a paycheque to an entrepreneurial venture. He cautions Mr. Kaunisviita about the timing of that move. He recommends having two years' worth of salary in the bank so that Mr. Kaunisviita would not be desperate enough to make harmful business decisions simply to bring money in.
"Having that money allows you to stay true to your vision for the company so you don't have to take on jobs or projects that maybe you wouldn't otherwise do," Mr. Barr says. "They should focus on top-line growth now and for the next few years. They need to drive sales first and get their numbers up. Then grow their business and distribution so when they switch over, they know they can survive and that the business is going to survive through the money it's going to be generating in ongoing cash flow."