The secret to successful small business ownership? Creative problem solving, a willingness to learn and (sometimes) a really funky paint job
It was not, Steve Clerke agrees, the most auspicious way to launch a small business. He and his wife Joanne were convinced they could build a going concern selling Maritime-made fine crafts from a small store-front operation in Moncton’s downtown east end. All they needed was the right attitude and, perhaps, a new paint job.
“So, there we were, looking at this space and we decided that the outside was pretty dark,” he says. “We really wanted to brighten it up, make it more inviting to people. The trendy colours were hunter green and gold. We hired the painters and off they went.”
The effect on foot traffic was so efficacious, the following year the couple decided to tinker again with colour swatches. “So, the new craze was going to be a nice Victorian rose,” Steve says. “That’s what we chose. We called the painters back and, because we had an appointment, we headed out for the day, really pleased with our selection.”
When they returned, anxious to see the result, they found, to their horror, the entire façade coated in a bubblegum- pepto-bismol hue. “It was the sort of thing that would burn out your eyeballs at night,” he says. “I tell you we were going to kill those painters. When we got into the store we swore we wouldn’t pay them until they fixed it; we were so mad.”
But a funny thing happened on the way to what seemed to be certain small-business perdition. Patrons didn’t avoid the place; they came in droves. In fact, the number of shoppers quadrupled overnight.
That was nearly 30 years ago. As he admires the singularly distinctive, hot pink frontage of Gifts Galore today, he grins: “There’s been no turning back. We haven’t had a slow day since.”
All of which may only prove that in the trenches of small business ownership, a problem is not necessarily a problem if one is open to the possibilities of what might properly be called creative anarchy, also known, in some quarters, as the “if-you-have-lemons-make lemonade” school of problem-solving.
In Steve’s case, three decades ago, every fiber of his being screamed out to change the paint colour, but a tiny voice in his head told him to cool his jets and wait and see, even though there was no actual proof that pink pulled in the crowds any better than, say, hunter green. Call it creative problem avoidance, perhaps.
Of course, as veteran small business owners, Steve and Joanne have also taken far more proactive, hands-on approaches to surmounting obstacles over the years. “One of the times we were deeply concerned was in 1991, when both the GST and the Gulf War came about,” Steve says. “I mean, retailers everywhere were panicking. We were sitting at a gift show in Toronto, watching the news and thinking that we were really going to have to do something about this, because the combination of these two events could really dampen consumer spending and really hurt us.”
They put their thinking caps on and did some research. What they discovered was a proven sales approach tailor-made for hard times. “We found that big companies like Eaton’s filled their stores with highquality items that people could still afford and really promoted them during the Great Depression and WWI and WWII,” he says.
The theory is that foot traffic into shops that specialize in charming or quaint items actually increases during troubled times as customers seek affordable ways to treat themselves to a boost. “So, that’s what we did,” Steve says. “We focused on really nice quality stuff and that helped us overcome what could have been a very tough year. As it turned out, we had a great year.”
Steve and Joanne also deploy creative ways to keep their front lines fresh and responsive. “We often have a help-wanted sign in our window and people think that we’re looking for staff,” Steve notes. “But that’s not the point. Even when we don’t actually need additional staff, the sign draws potential employees in. That way, we are always in touch with high-quality human resources. We are constantly looking for those shining stars.”
So is Caley Montague. He grew up at his parents’ knees in entrepreneurship. The Moncton-based coffee-shop owner (Café Codiac, at the corner of Mount Royal and St. George Streets in the west-end of the city) started the independent life when he was barely five, selling mini-muffins from the family stall at the Saturday downtown farmers’ market. In 2002, at age 16, he started his own business in the coffee trade. Today, and since 2010, he has presided over a staff of six and scores of loyal customers who can’t get enough of the coffee varieties his mum and dad roast both onsite and at their main facility in Notre-Dame, N.B.
“You absolutely have to be creative to make it on your own in small business,” he says. “Being inventive comes with the territory. There are always challenges that pop up. And there’s no single way to deal with them.”
Perhaps his first major challenge requiring a creative fix, was at the outset of his café’s commercial life. The premises were once a provincial liquor store – not especially conducive to typical coffee-shop ambiance. Caley tackled the problem by filling the cavernous space with a wide variety of seating options (some better for privacy, others designed to host meetings), giving a bustling, multipurpose effect to the place. He also installed a roaster and opened up the floor plan to an outdoor patio.
He ran into trouble again during the initial phases of the operation when his food supplier went out of business. He reckoned he had two choices: find another one; or learn to prepare his own goodies. “We got a food consultant in to give us a hand,” he says. “Now just about everything we produce is our own.”
For these reasons – the unique layout and sitting spaces; and the bespoke food, coffee and service – the establishment is rarely quiet. Says Caley: “I often find a problem that’s common to entrepreneurs is that you are thrown out of your field of expertise and have to become an expert on the spot… I’ve had to do a lot of watching and listening.”
Perhaps, that is the secret to small-business success: Watching and listening. In any event, creative problem-solving at the low-end of the industrial labour market (which, nonetheless, employs upwards of 85 per cent of the Atlantic Canadian workforce) makes mince-meat of static advice, calcified attitudes and bloated presumption at the high-end, where lenders and economists live, where Dragon-Den hosts fume and fuss.
“You know,” Steve Clerke says, “even my parents said we were nuts to locate our store where we did. I mean, it was a pretty abandoned and rough part of town at that time. But Joanne and I sat there and looked out the window and watched the hundreds of people walking by to go to work, or the bank or whatever, and we figured we actually had a chance.
“We started with selling the works of 10 or 12 fine Maritime crafters. Now, we have more than 300 in our store. So, we’ve come a long way in 30 years to prove people wrong, and what we’ve learned in all that time is if you work hard to create things that are positive, positive things will come to you.”
Well… that, and a good, solid coat of hot pink paint.