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The challenges of running a small business in Saskatchewan

We regularly get 60 kilometre winds and handle an 80-degree temperature swing from winter to summer. With a population of roughly one million people, we cover 650,000 square kilometres. California covers 250,000 square kilometres and has about 40,000,000 people. So, to say Saskatchewan has some unique challenges when it comes to running a small business is an understatement.

When you add COVID-19 to the geography, climate, and population density, it could have been a disaster for the Saskatchewan economy. While the last few years have been brutal, and in some cases fatal, for many small businesses, others have managed to adapt, leverage new technologies, and find new opportunities. “Businesses across the province have had to adapt quicker than ever before due to the increased challenges of COVID-19. But that’s the number one takeaway: Saskatchewan businesses are resilient and have managed through that change at a rapid pace,” says Michael Czemeres, RBC manager of business markets for southeast Saskatchewan.

And the challenges are far from over. Czemeres goes on to say, “I think the big challenge right now is inflation. Business owners see that their costs have gone up, and they need to charge more, or they might not be able to make ends meet. But it’s a hard choice for small business owners because they’re in the community.”

Lip Republic owner Jennifer Uy.

Lip Republic, owned by Jennifer Uy, is a small business that hand makes cosmetics, lipsticks, and lip glosses. She had started her business prior to the pandemic and was just beginning to see traction as the restrictions were legislated. The cancellation of events like tradeshows negatively impacted her ability to reach new customers and the mask mandate tanked consumer appetite for her products. She had to drastically pivot and condense to survive and is now starting to tentatively ramp things up again.

“I come from a business background, with my degree here at the U of R. My work experience up until 2018 was in insurance, admin and office settings,” Uy explains. When the chance to get into permanent cosmetics like eyebrow tattooing presented itself, the idea to run her own business took root. The small business came out of the blocks strong but was obviously hampered by COVID-19, a challenge few could have predicted. Uy credits the ability of her company to ride out the pandemic to the support she received early on. She was able to access funding for her business through Women Entrepreneurs of Saskatchewan and the BDC but she notes that the mentorship that came through the Futurpreneur program as one of her most valuable resources.

“I’m a true believer that everything happens for a reason. It would have been a challenge starting my first business with or without the pandemic so if I can survive the pandemic as a lipstick maker, I can survive anything,” laughs Uy.

For one Saskatchewan business, the challenge of pandemic closures and people seeking space and solitude was perfect for her unique venture.

“One of my challenges was also one of my biggest opportunities,” explains Erin Kinder, of Kinder Surprises Antiques in Davidson, “because I have so much space, I [was able to] provide a safe place for people to tour around. I have all sorts of different buildings and people wander around, no one was in a rush to get back to the city and their crazy life there. It just provided a safe, comfortable environment where people could come and slow down and smell the roses.”

Kinder Surprises Antiques, Davidson. Photo by Sara Langston.

Her business started in 2014 and grew slowly and steadily as she added more products and buildings to her property. Now, Kinder Surprises Antiques is a destination for an afternoon trip where her 20,000 social media followers can make purchases and experience the rural setting like nowhere else. An incredibly tactile business, she does most of her promotion online, but even her online sales are tied to in-person visits.

Online sales account for about 30 per cent of sales, but they weren’t fueling her spirit in any way. While there was a financial gain, it’s the human interaction that gets her excited about her business and helped her grow it to employ two part-time seasonal employees. “It’s grown and evolved and pivoted when it needed to pivot. Now it’s more than just an antique shop, it’s an entire village and a unique tourist destination in Saskatchewan,” says Kinder, explaining where they are now.

North Saskatoon Business Association (NSBA) executive director, Keith Moen, is optimistic about the future despite the challenges coming out of the pandemic and what is taking place globally. “We like to see growth and prosperity, and this is certainly a time for that, growth and prosperity in both Saskatoon and Saskatchewan,” says Moen, “Saskatoon has continued to be a magnet for people because of the opportunities here, it’s been beneficial for employers to have that level of attraction.”

While Saskatoon has managed to continue growing during the pandemic, the NSBA has identified labour shortages as a major concern for their members and the province. Moen goes on to say, “due to the labour supply, people are having a hard time getting back up to speed, they can’t find the workers. People choose not to re-enter the workforce, have become accustomed to a single income, and are taking remote opportunities. There are a lot of factors, but the bottom line is the workforce is not as plentiful as it was. There are help wanted signs everywhere, in all sectors, all skillsets.”

He points out that in addition to the three F’s: food, fuel and fertilizer, Saskatchewan has a mentality of collaboration, which Moen sees as a potential solution to the labour shortage—partnerships that provide access to the Indigenous workforce and increased immigration. “I think immigrants will see Saskatchewan as a great opportunity and for good reason, but we’ll be challenged by the immigration numbers, so we’ll be lobbying provincial and federal governments for our share of international immigrants,” says Moen.

Brandon Fuchs is the owner and operator of North Canadian Construction and he thinks the deep roots of collaboration are a huge benefit to doing business in Saskatchewan. “Saskatchewan is a small market,” he says, “but we’re all about pushing each other forward.”

Not every business survived COVID-19 and the final tally will take months, if not years, before many businesses will be able to say they made it. But the small businesses that did come through it seem optimistic and positioned for some good news.

It’s like that old saying: tough times don’t last but tough people do, or more aptly put, tough businesses properly supported by collaborative neighbours, complimentary businesses, strong industry associations and well-run government programs do.