The COVID-19 pandemic forced many unemployed Canadians to start their own businesses.
But now, even as jobs come back, the country’s newest entrepreneurs say they are here to stay.
“I could never see myself going back to one of my old positions,” says Kaleigh Herald ,who opened The Shop Skate and Snowboard Supply in Castlegar, British Columbia, after quitting her marijuana-dispensary job in March. The pandemic had closed schools, making her choose between work and staying home to look after her child.
Herald is one of many Canadians who registered for a business licence in a year that saw a historic unemployment rate of 13.7 per cent in May, its highest in four decades.
In British Columbia for instance, over 47,000 new business licenses were granted in 2020, an increase from 44,000 in 2019, according to data from the provincial government.
People in the business of entrepreneurship have noticed this influx of pandemic entrepreneurs. At Futurpreneur Canada, a non-profit focused on turning ideas into successful businesses, this surging interest became apparent in their third quarter, ending in December.
“We saw the most applications and disbursements in our 25-year history,” said Maryse Gingras, vice-president of Quebec, British Columbia and Atlantic Canada at Futurpreneur Canada, an organization that provides financing and mentoring services to those looking to start a business in Canada.
Thinking things through
Herald, who moved to Castlegar in 2019, always knew the town could use a shop selling skateboards and snowboards, but her dispensary job left little time to act on this instinct. She says the pandemic gave her opportunities she didn’t have earlier.
“That’s when I thought, ‘You know what, this is the best time for me to do this. If there’s ever a time for me to sit down and really plan a business and make that idea feasible, this is it.’ ”
That kind of leap is a common one, says Blair Simonite, program director of e@UBC, a university-wide entrepreneurship cell, who points out that the sudden availability of time can help turn an idea into a business.
“I’ve been talking to a lot of friends who’ve been thinking of doing something for quite a while but were always too damn busy. And now they can’t do much, and they’re thinking ‘Why don’t we work on that crazy adventure idea we had?’”
For Catriona Reid and Sophia Seward in Victoria, this is exactly how events played out. Jokes about starting their own online art gallery in March turned into serious brainstorming sessions and efforts to upskill by June.
“I was literally sitting at home taking online digital marketing classes,” says Reid, “and I told Sophie to take the course as well. We were inspired by it.”
Their venture, Sweetpea Gallery, was inundated by submissions from all over Canada and the world when it first launched in June. These newly minted entrepreneurs plan to hold their first exhibition on Valentine’s Day weekend.
Being your own boss
The pivot to entrepreneurship during rising unemployment is not a new phenomenon. A 2011 study conducted by RAND found that the rapid rise in unemployment during the 2008 recession resulted in an increase in entrepreneurship over the next few years in the United States.
Self-employment in British Columbia is already the highest amongst the provinces with 18 per cent of the population registering it as their main source of income, according to Statistics Canada.
Meanwhile, though data shows self-employed people earn about half of what their salaried peers take home, this new crop of pandemic-inspired entrepreneurs say they are now reluctant to go back to their old jobs.
“Even though it’s hard work, it’s all of the things we want to be doing,” says Reid. “Whereas if I was working a nine-to-five, none of what I’d be doing would be for me.”
Gingras says that it’s difficult to identify a trend in how often entrepreneurs go back to salaried employment because of how different individuals behave but points out intangible benefits that make entrepreneurs stay invested in their businesses.
“You want to be your own boss no matter what, right? Some people, when they’ve tasted it, they just don’t want to go back.”
Herald is a prime example of this outlook.
“I’m absolutely loving being self-employed. And even if this doesn’t work out, I can see myself doing something else and being my own boss because I really do believe in it.”