Do You Have What it Takes to be an Entrepreneur?

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Nate Kelly set up Nate Solutions in Squamish after working with two companies in Vancouver. He moved to Squamish from Whistler with only $100.

By Gagandeep Ghuman
Published: April 27, 2015

THE phone vibrated with a new message and Preet Purewal kept aside her sandwich to take a look. It was a new wrench in the works: She owed $35,000 to Sticky’s Candy, the franchise she had just purchased in downtown Squamish.
It was Tuesday and the company wanted the payment by Friday but it was expense they thought had been taken care of. Purewal remained calm as she turned the phone over to her husband, Harj Purewal. After a few tense minutes, they found the solution: the bonus from his job and more savings would go into paying the unexpected expense. The maxed out credit lines would have to stay maxed out for now.
It was another victory won, but Purewal couldn’t sleep that night as the familiar questions and doubt wormed into her mind to snatch her sleep: How will they pay the rent? How will they repay her parents and the banks? Will this new business work?
A Licenced Practical Nurse by profession, Preet Purewal knew how to change I.V. fluids and help doctors treat patients. Later, as a home support supervisor, she trained, hired and supervised care aid workers in Surrey for 10 years.
But no one and nothing had trained her for ordering products, making payrolls, marketing a business, finding staff and increasing sales—until now.
Purewal moved to Squamish in January 2014 after her husband found a job as the manager of the local Walmart. Unable to find a job at the local hospital, she decided to open her own business. She had always found the flexibility of a business and the freedom it brought an attractive way to live.
She noticed Squamish had three things in abundance: Kids, dogs and bikes. And when her husband suggested a candy store, the idea seemed convincing. Lack of an entertainment venue and lots of kids in town meant birthday parties would invariably mean a trip to the local candy store, as she had done several times for her six-year-old daughter Shey and two-and-a half-year-old son, Carter. She had been to the Sticky’s candy store in the lower mainland and had enjoyed the products and the store’s ambience.
“Once I caught on to the idea, I just didn’t turn back,” she says, smiling.
But not all her friends and family members were as enthusiastic: “How much money can you really make selling candies?” wondered one friend.
“You must be brave to do a business in Squamish,” said another.

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Not all friends and family members of Preet Purewal were enthusiastic about her buying a candy store franchise: “How much money can you really make selling candies?” wondered one friend.

More doubts crept in her mind as she came to know they would have to spend nearly $200,000 in startup costs and it would have to come from family, savings and lines of credit that would need to be maxed out: In a healthy, outdoorsy community, would a candy store work? Who would be the market demographic? What if no one comes?  What if there is a break-in? How would they repay the loans?
She recalls writing a big cheque to the company, hesitatingly, putting the numbers down and looking worryingly at her husband. But when doubts dragged her down, she says, some inner conviction pulled her up. She had been raised comfortably in India with doting parents who were financially able to provide for whatever she wanted. She wanted to build a successful business and pass it on to her kids so they won’t have to want for anything.
“I had a comfortable childhood, and I want my kids life to be better than me,” she says.
In the summer of 2014, despite the lingering doubts, Purewal started researching the business. That meant several interviews with the company’s management, phone calls and trips to other Lower Mainland stores and more research on the location. Finding a location in Squamish was another challenge. They first wanted to open a store in Whistler but it was relatively small with exorbitant rent. But finding a location in Squamish wasn’t easy either, with high rent for the Garibaldi Estates and lack of suitable space at other locations. It took them four months to finalise a location, a process so frustrating that she almost gave up. Once they found a location, there was more research to do. How many footfalls did this area get? How many on the weekend and how many on weekdays? Collecting that information meant finding numbers from neighbouring shops or sitting in the car for hours on weekends and weekdays to discern footfall patterns.
The store opened in March to a good response but the family has to train for thrift. They have had to cut back on eating out and trips to Vancouver. Kid’s demands for new toys are sometimes ignored, and fun trips to Vancouver have been replaced with outings to the local beach. The focus is on paying back the family loan, building up savings and getting the business profitable enough to pay back the line of credit.
The day begins early for Purewal at 8 and ends at 10. She leaves the store tired and depends on her parents and husband for help with household chores. She feels exhausted but she has gained a confidence that keeps her going.
“It motivates me and boosts my confidence, so I’m not quitting,” she says.
Mihaela Boaru knows a thing or two about home-cooked foods. She was 19 years old when she first went to a restaurant to buy the cheapest burger at a McDonald’s in Cluj, Romania’s second-most populous city.
Growing up in a communist Romania, home-cooked food was the only option for Boaru. From soaps to cabbage rolls to pastries, her mother cooked everything at home. Boaru runs her own company, The Schnitzel Snack, from her commercial kitchen in the industrial park where it’s nothing unusual for her to pick up the phone and order 500 pounds of meat. But as a child growing up in the village of Cojocna, food was something the entire family worked to grow in the farm.
She still remembers her father taking her to the farm when she was six and handing her a hoe.
“If you want to eat, you have to work,” she says, recalling his exact words. Boaru helped grow the food and learned how to cook it with love and respect from her mother, but her desire for learning eventually took her to university where she took a four-year degree in English and French and then trained to be a translator. A scholarship took her to Japan, where she met a Canadian, Bruce Steier, who married her and brought her to Squamish. She continued to work online translating patents from Japanese to English, making $70,000 in 2008.

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Living in a male-dominated society had eroded her confidence, says Mihaela Boaru, the owner of The Schnitzel Shack , but it was brought back by food she learned to make from her mother.

And then the crash came. Suddenly, the work dried up but they had a house to pay and were used to a comfortable lifestyle: By 2010, they carried a household debt of $30,000. Mihaela took up a job at $10 an hour working at a local shoe store and a Sushi restaurant, but then she remembered her boss and the commitment she had made to herself in Japan. The boss at the patent attorney office had been mean and dismissive, and she had promised herself she would never work for anyone ever again. But here she was working a $10 job with no contract coming her way and the debt piling up slowly. It was then that a friend, Marylene Descroches, suggested she take Zacusca, a homemade popular Romanian vegetable spread, to the Squamish Farmers’ Market. She applied to the market and was accepted but that meant spending $1,000 on permits, labels, tent, and a beer cooler for which she had to buy a trailer.
It was the summer of 2010, and on good days she could sell up to 25 jars of Zacusca, taking home $250. On worst days, no more than four jars were sold.
The winter of 2010 brought some glow to her very small business. Her husband Bruce suggested she sell cabbage rolls, a popular food in Romania, at the local Santa Parade. It worked. There was a line-up for the cabbage rolls. She sold it at a few winters markets in Vancouver and made $700. Perhaps this was something they could do?
She had been renting out a small kitchen but she would need a bigger one now. She enquired at Brennan Park where they asked for $30 an hour and at the Totem Hall, where it was $40 an hour. She finally found a space in the business park which she could rent for $1,050 but she had to invest more money to put in equipment. They had managed to pay off some of the $30,000 debt, but maxed out their credit cards at $20,000 and put in another $15,000 from savings to buy ovens, water hoses and fridges for the new kitchen.
Just when Boaru was about to start work in the new kitchen came another pleasant surprise: She was pregnant. Bruce and Mihaela didn’t want to have a child so it came as a complete shock, even if now their world revolves around their beloved daughter, Keira. Boaru can’t imagine her life without her daughter now but four years ago, it brought an element of panic in her life. While Bruce was away on work as a commercial pilot, she would have panic attacks alone thinking about the baby and the new investment in the business: What if cabbage rolls didn’t sell? What if she lost her baby while picking up something heavy?
Even as she struggled with emotional challenges, life kept throwing practical ones her way. She couldn’t sell the hot cabbage rolls in a makeshift tent and had to buy a food cart which could cost up to $10,000. The credit cards had been maxed out and they couldn’t find any used carts in Vancouver, Squamish or Whistler. But then one day, they spotted someone selling an old cart for $2,000, which they bought from some cash she had saved selling at the Vancouver winter markets.
The day Boaru bought that food cart was the day she knew she was meant to own this business. She hasn’t looked back since. Sales picked up, from 20,000 in 2011, to $30,000 in 2012, $60,000 in 2013, and finally close to $70,000 last year.
Last year, when she approached the North Vancouver farmers’ market, she was told they could take her as a vendor, but they already had someone selling cabbage rolls. Over beer that day, Bruce suggested another food item: Schnitzel. She ran with it and it’s been another unexpected success. Now her Schnitzel snack business is expanding, with her foot in Squamish, Whistler, Vancouver, North Vancouver and Ladner markets. She has also been granted permission to sell at Fall Fair, the upcoming Bear Festival, and Live at Squamish. Bruce has now bought a food truck and plans to sell schnitzel part-time. They are also planning to package it and sell it at the retail shops.
Living in a male-dominated society had eroded her confidence, she says, but it was brought back by food she learned to make from her mother.
“I used to walk like this,” she says, walking with her head down and shoulders squeezed.
“Now I walk like this,” she brings her chin up on a face that wears the smile of success.

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“The challenge of doing something of my own appealed to me,” says Christine Becker.

If you lived next door to Christine Becker a few years ago, there is a good chance you would have noticed the metal clunking and clothes rustling in the middle of the night.
After putting her son to bed at seven in the evening, Becker would be out working on her boutique truck late until night, sometimes till one in the morning. Her entrepreneurial dream was shaping up right in the driveway: A boutique children’s clothing truck for Squamish. As the racks and the hangers went up on the truck, so did the nagging questions in her mind.
“Will this work? Would I recover my money? Will I be able to navigate the bylaws?”

Two years after she first parked the truck on her driveway, those questions have all been answered. She now runs a successful kids clothing store at On the Farm and is expanding into the next shop, but only after two years of dodging many curveballs that life threw at her.
Becker worked for many years as an adventure travel guide until an injury to her shoulder 10 years ago forced her to change careers. She took an environmental engineering diploma and worked her way to become a registered biologist, doing environmental assessments for a local company. By the time she returned to her job after maternity leave, she wanted to get away from the 9-to-5 grind. She had dabbled in the idea of making T-shirts in her 20s, and the challenge of building something from the ground up excited her.
“The challenge of doing something of my own appealed to me,” she said.
On a run at Alice Lake, she found that challenge. She had noticed a lack of a good consignment store for children’s clothing. She started researching the idea, which took her to Portland and San Francisco from where she bought an old boutique truck. Her plan was to park the boutique at a fixed location and sell clothes, but an obstacle came in the form of old bylaws. She could only get a temporary commercial vendor permit, which allowed her operation from a private land zoned retail for eight days a month. When she found the location, she was told her application wasn’t in compliance with another bylaw which stated that retail is limited to retail store, which is defined as a building.
She was frustrated and worried but she was determined to make her business a success. She found out the bylaw did allow her truck to operate for special events, which she started attending in Squamish and North Vancouver.
“I knew the demand was there because I’d be selling clothes when the truck was open,” she said.
Later that year she got a call from Natalie Pearlman who asked her if she was interested in setting up a pop-up store at On the Farm on Mamquam Road. The response to the pop-up store was so good she decided to rent the space. She has now expanded her store to include the next door shop and employs two people. Becker says she loves interacting with young parents and families and feels she is also offering a service to the community with her consignment store that makes shopping for kids clothes more affordable.
“I feel more creative and I think all the time about how to make my business better,” she said.
Nate Kelly doesn’t recall it in exact detail, but he’s sure a childhood story his mom tell him is true: When he was six, Kelly would cut discount coupons from flyers and sell them to his neighbours in Mississauga.
A few years later, this young entrepreneur was making money cutting grass, shovelling snow, and clearing driveways for his neighbours. He remembers waking up early morning to offer his snow-clearing services to his neighbours. After school, he would be back at his business, offering lawn mowing and snow cleaning services.

“By the end of the day, I’d have $150 of my own,” he says, recalling his early entrepreneurial adventures.
As he works hard to grow Nate Solutions now, 25-year-old Kelly remembers the feeling that earning money gave him.
“I felt valued and important and I just knew that I was going to build a business in my life,” he says.
Kelly’s passion for adventure sports only increased that drive and gave him a restless, adrenalin-fuelled urge to succeed in life as a businessman. When he was 10, his parents brought him to Whistler on a trip and he decided he would move out West first and then establish his business. Eight years later, he moved to Whistler, where he worked at a bar and enjoyed the snowboarding that he so loved.
Entrepreneurial ideas had been churning in his head for all this while, but the push to finally act came from a visitor to the bar where he was working. In 2010, the owner of the bar came to address the employees to thank them for the work they had done during the Olympics. He talked about how their work was helping him build the company. It was at that moment Kelly said he made the decision to quit.
“I said there is no freaking way I’m going to help you build your company,” Kelly says, laughing.
With $100 in his pocket, he drove down to Squamish, walked up to a construction manager and asked for a job. He worked as a casual labourer, making $15 an hour lifting material, cleaning up the grounds and putting nails in the trusses.
A few months later, with an investment of $200, he bought a lawn mower, some tools, and started Nate’s Clean Up and Yards Service from his car. He kept working at the construction site but also offered his gutter-cleaning and grass-cutting services through flyers and word of mouth. He made $5,000 in the summer of 2010. After a failed attempt at a joint partnership in Squamish, he started applying for pressure-washing, window-cleaning and gutter-cleaning jobs in Vancouver. He wanted to start his own business, but also wanted to gain some experience, hopefully from the right mentor.
After working with two smaller companies where he diligently took notes and paid attention to minute details, he was able to save some money to buy an old van.  With a self-designed logo, he started Nate Solutions in the summer of 2011 and went around several west-end neighbourhoods handing around 5,000 flyers from which he managed to make enough to pay the rent and keep his new company afloat.
By the end of 2011, he decided to move to Squamish and set up Nate Solutions in town. Easy access to dirt biking, skiing and living in the country was a big draw, but he was also aware of an unserved market for the kind of specialised service he was offering. There was no one company offering exterior cleaning, only handymen working on individual projects.

“There was a niche market for specialised service that I knew existed and no one was providing that service,” he says.
But Kelly knew to fill that market niche with Nate Solutions would take a lot of work. He started a marketing campaign in March of 2012, putting out lawn signs, hiring a salesman to do door-to-door marketing in town and in the North Shore. Meanwhile, Nate joined the chamber and focussed on getting the word out while
providing good customer service
to clients.
“I was getting the word out about my business but I also focused on providing excellent customer service to all clients,” he said.
It took a few months, but he finally started getting calls from people in Squamish, North Vancouver, Lions Bay, and Britannia Beach. He tallied up the numbers at the end of 2012 and found his new company had managed to make $100,000 in gross sales, which went up to $174,000 in 2013, and has grown to $185,000 in 2014. In the fourth year of his business now, Kelly employs two full-time staff and has two vans and services the Sea to Sky region. The entrepreneur in him isn’t content though. His aim is put 30 more Nate Solutions trucks out on the road and employs as many people in the next few years.
When he came to Squamish from Whistler, Nate says, he had only $100 in his pocket. Yet, he had no fear of how and when he would be able to build up a business.
“I don’t need to rely on anyone to make money so that worry was out of the door for me,” he said.
What can a bar of natural soap do?
For Kirsten French, it put her in touch with her lost feminine self, and it’s a side of her personality she is slowly embracing after having rejected it many times over.
When she was 12, French started having acne all over her body to the point where she couldn’t wear a short-sleeved shirt or a tank top. She tried several things, from medication and vitamin A doses to tanning beds but nothing worked.
Acne first invaded her body—and then her mind. She started rejecting herself and her femininity and unconsciously accepting a more tomboyish demeanour. The acne, she thought, was going to be a permanent feature of her life, something she had to accept as her destiny. And then she met Shone Harcourt, with whom she moved in to discover he only used natural soap and shunned cheap soaps, shampoos and laundry detergent because he was allergic to them. She followed suit and started using natural soap. Three weeks later, she noticed a remarkable change in herself: She was free of acne.

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“I don’t do it for money,” says Kirsten French, the owner of Be Clean Naturally, “I do it because I’m super passionate about the soaps and refilling the bottles.”

“I feel like a pretty girl now, and I had never felt that,” she says, as tears welled up in her eyes.
An acne-free French decided she would like to pursue entrepreneurship with natural soaps at some point in her life. Born and raised in Squamish, Kirsten has worked at the local chocolate shop, Xocolatl, assisted chiropractic Lori Broker and created fire management plans for BC Parks after getting a land-surveying degree. With her partner Shane Harcourt, she operated a construction company called Sxy Custom Exterior which they had to downsize as construction slowed down after the Olympics.
In the winter of 2010, French had to stay at home as Harcourt lived in Pemberton to work on a project. That is when she started making soaps at her home and later selling them at the local farmer market and Kitchen Quickies. With an initial investment of $1,000 in raw material for the soap, she was able to generate revenue of $800 dollars in a few months.
French’s big breakthrough, however, happened when one of her neighbours, Cory Balano, suggested she approach local Nesters market with her product. She was reluctant but with more prodding from Balano she decided to see the manager who agreed to sell her soap.
French felt she would be happy if she could sell more than 10 soaps but she was delighted to see she had sold 35 bars in one week. That first sale fetched her $300. The doubts started to vanish like the acne. She started calling up stores in Lower Mainland and Ontario to sell their products. Be Clean Naturally products are now sold at over 30 stories across Canada. She says in 2010-2011, she made $15,000. In 2011-12, it rose to $35,000. In 2012-13, it further increased to $45,000. She made $50,000 in 2013-14.
By the end of 2014, however, French had realised making soaps from home would mean limiting the growth of her business. She rented a Cleveland Ave location in November last year, investing $25,000 in rent and inventory. It meant cutting back on extravagant spending, but the storefront has given the business visibility which has translated into more revenue. But that is not her only motivation.
“I don’t do it for money,” she says, “I do it because I’m super passionate about the soaps and refilling the bottles.”
Squamish Chamber of Commerce president, Chris Pettingill, feels there is real vibe in Squamish that attracts entrepreneurs, and it’s reflected in the brand but not created by it. “I think it’s the result of our surroundings, the power afforded by today’s technology, and the mix of people who have chosen to live here,” he says.
Pettingill says there are a lot of people in Squamish who are trying to start their own business. A desire to avoid the commute and find the balance between parenting and making a living makes entrepreneurship an attractive option for young families.
Pettingill says the town’s lifestyle brand that celebrates outdoor adventure and extreme sports is very conducive to the risk-taking personality that the town attracts. Squamish naturally attracts the sort of person who is more likely to start their own business, he says. But when it comes to the district’s policies, he says he would like to see a balanced taxation system as higher business taxes and lower residential taxes only reinforce our image as a bedroom community. He said the council should be flexible to new ideas and be more willing to take some risks to promote the entrepreneurial culture.

“I also think that directing economic development dollars towards organizations such as  Startup Squamish, Tourism Squamish, the DSBIA, and the Chamber of Commerce will allow our municipal dollars to go further,” he says. “The District does a great job of promoting our tourism-related business but our local government doesn’t do much to promote other sorts of Squamish businesses yet. The arrival of companies such as Blurr, PinkBike and 7mesh demonstrates that Squamish is already starting to see the benefit of new non-tourism companies aligning with Squamish.
“It may be that Squamish is just now at a point where it can really start to promote new businesses,” he says.
Pettingill says the district also needs to shift its mindset from the one where the primary reason for a local business is to gather maximum revenue.
“We should structure our taxation and regulation to facilitate businesses that give people good jobs that don’t require commuting to Vancouver,” he said.
Startup co-founder Dave Crewson said a big challenge entrepreneurs face is being too early with their products in the market. He advises entrepreneurs to keenly study the market first to see if their product fills an unfulfilled niche.
“The customer should really need that product,” he says.
Squamish faces some unique challenges, one being the lack of discretionary income. Unlike Whistler and Vancouver, there is lack of disposable income, so that the product or business really has to fill an essential need in the community.  Crewson advises entrepreneurs to seek strong mentorship or expert advice on their business before they take the plunge. Competition from national chains who can easily undercut prices is another issue for local businesses even though that might be compensated with a knowledgeable staff.
Crewson suggests a few dos and don’ts for new entrepreneurs:
Find a good mentor and seek expert knowledge on the market before starting a business.
Test your business concept on a smaller scale or with an entrepreneurial community before spending any money on it.
Be enthusiastic but don’t be blinded by it.
Don’t be afraid to negotiate.
Try to take a lean approach first by keeping the startup small, smart and efficient.
Don’t overestimate what you will have to spend before investing in a business.
Separate the emotion from the business. Create emotional distance from the business. If it’s not working, don’t find fault in your personality rather take a good hard look at strategy.
Be willing to take risk and introduce new plans even when the business seems to be working. Don’t be complacent.
Celebrate small successes.