When you run a small business, you know how important it is to connect with your customers. In many ways, it’s everything. But in the time of COVID-19, entrepreneurs have faced a number of challenges — problems most could never have anticipated at the beginning of this year.
The global pandemic has fundamentally changed how businesses operate and how consumers shop. From shutdowns to social distancing regulations to the drastic growth in digital payments and ecommerce, small businesses have been forced to re-evaluate what they know to survive and thrive in the new business environment.
But at their core, small business owners are adaptable. In partnership with PayPal, we spoke with two Toronto entrepreneurs on how the pandemic emboldened them to make stunning digital transformations. From virtual calls with customers to a larger focus on ecommerce, here’s how they have reinvigorated their businesses in order to thrive in the face of adversity.
The Tidy Moose
“People are too hard on themselves. Often times what they perceive as a mess, is simply just life. What’s important is to have the systems in place to reset the space. I’m really trying to encourage my clients not beat themselves up over the little things, especially during these trying times.”
The Tidy Moose owner and organizational expert Ivanka Siolkowsky has been helping customers reconsider their overflowing closets, disorganized offices, and cramped kitchen spaces since 2016. Trained in Marie Kondo’s Konmari method, she’s served countless clients around the Toronto area — even traveling to parts of the U.S. and the U.K. — with goals of de-cluttering not only their homes, but their minds.
Coming from a background in education and child psychology, Ivanka understands the impact of a cluttered space on a person’s mental health, and how an organized home can result in a positive environment. Before the pandemic, she would visit customer’s homes to understand how they live, what specific challenges they face and what the best approach to organizing would be. Understandably, COVID-19 precautions have made her usual, up-close-and-personal house calls difficult — impossible, really.
“From March to July, I did not leave my house,” Ivanka said, recalling how the pandemic affected her business. “We weren’t allowed in people’s homes, and... I don’t think I would have felt comfortable going into such close quarters with clients.”
Digital consultations had always been an option for The Tidy Moose customers, but Ivanka had thought of her online services as complementary to her in-person services pre-COVID. However, virtual meetings have since become Ivanka’s primary way of connecting with clients, as it offers a safe — and less expensive — alternative to in-person visits.
It’s a good thing, too. As millions of Canadians have gotten used to spending more time at home, they also realized that they need more than a few pointers on how to keep things neat. “July, August, September, were very, very busy, because people wanted to fix everything that had been bothering them throughout their lockdown experiences,” Ivanka said.
The Tidy Moose has seen a significant increase in online appointments since the spring, with clients reaching out over FaceTime and WhatsApp to show Ivanka their pantries, closets, and even underwear drawers in hopes of learning how to de-clutter. “In a way, it’s sometimes an even stronger connection, because I take a little bit more time at the beginning to get to know the client,” Ivanka said, adding that she happily responds to follow-up questions over text, sometimes days after the initial appointment took place.
Ivanka also briefly set up an e-commerce platform in the summer, selling everything from eco-friendly compostable cutlery to The Tidy Moose-branded merchandise (sales of the latter raised money for Kids Help Phone). Ivanka is currently reconfiguring her online store and seeking out sustainable items, including bamboo storage bins.
From the very start of her business, Ivanka has been using PayPal as a primary service for customer transactions as well as business invoicing. “It’s definitely a great tool to have on both ends,” she said, as the online payment processor gives her customers easy payment solutions and provides Ivanka with tools to help keep her business expenses organized. In fact, her customers often specifically ask to complete their payments via PayPal.
Since the summer, Ivanka has safely taken on a few on-site consultations — distanced of course, while wearing masks and gloves — but knows that right now, online conversations and customer support are key to growing her clientele. With people continuing to work from home, and many children still doing virtual schooling, she finds that it’s more important than ever to have a seamless, functional environment.
“In order to properly learn, work, and do what you need to do on a day-to-day basis stuck in that home all day, organization is key to make it flow and to create a positive energy within the space,” Ivanka said. “It’s silly how something as seemingly trivial as having an organized fridge or an organized desk drawer can diminish the arguments in the home.”
Looking ahead, Ivanka knows that the best step forward is to keep focusing on the virtual aspect of her business. “It’s going to be a lot more of the online, one-on-one consults through the phone than it [will be] in person, which is fine,” she said. “The clients still get the same results [spending] half the money, and we’re all staying safe, because that’s what’s important at the end of the day.”
Lemon & Lavender
“When you’re an owner, you’re involved every day, every minute. Everything is on your back.”
Lemon & Lavender is technically the second Toronto-area business venture between Christina Kotiadis and her mother Antonella. When Christina was a child, she helped her mom at the Victoria Garden Tea Room, a tea room and gift shop that Antonella founded and ran.
Watching her mother be at the front of her own business inspired Christina, and showed her just how strong women can be. She soaked up the knowledge that her mother taught her about running a business and carries it with her today. “She did what she had to do and she made an incredible life for my brother and I growing up,” Christina said. “Her hard work has stuck with me my whole life.”
Years later, the mother-daughter duo decided to go into business together, opening Lemon & Lavender, a curated boutique selling anything from bourbon-vanilla candles and wild ginger and agave body butter, to postcards and, naturally, countless fragrant teas.
Lemon & Lavender moved from its original location on the lakeshore to the busier Bloor West Village to bring in more foot traffic, and it worked. For a while, the mother-daughter duo was finding a lot of success. They built close, personal relationships with their customers, who knew them both by name.
But by the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and social distancing measures and business closures became the norm, all that traffic came to a screeching halt. “I was looking on the street and it was like a ghost town,” Christina said. “It felt like a zombie apocalypse to me. There’s no one out here and we’re not making any money.”
Though Lemon & Lavender had a website and a significant social media presence (with more than 20 thousand Instagram followers), the pandemic drove Christina to finally create the boutique’s own online store, something they’d been putting off since their founding in 2016. She launched an easy-to-navigate platform for Lemon & Lavender, which has made an increased effort to source products from other small Canadian companies. She also quickly learned how to set up a PayPal Business Account, offering a reliable and secure network that will give her and her customers peace of mind.
“We partnered with PayPal, which is an incredible way to get shoppers who are not used to online shopping,” Christina said. “A lot of times the older clientele, they’re nervous about their security online, and PayPal made it super easy.”
Following the crash course in e-economics, Lemon & Lavender officially began selling their products online in March. They continue to market in-store favourites like bespoke bath bombs, but have also adapted to the times by selling cloth facemasks for kids and lavender hand sanitizers. They also offer an online chat function so that they can continue providing that personal touch to their customers. “I talk with people about questions that they have,” Christina said. “Sometimes if there’s confusion on a product, or they need a recommendation, I can send them a direct link.”
But getting customers to check out from an online store is one thing, and getting their items delivered to them is an entirely different ballgame. “You need to weigh every item, measure every item, make sure you’ve got shipping boxes. If you weren’t prepared, you wouldn’t have this stuff on hand,” Christina recollected.
The mother-daughter duo didn’t want their customers to wait weeks before they got their packages, so they worked around the clock to hand-deliver orders. “We would go in the morning around 8 a.m., fill dozens and dozens of orders, and that day we would split up between the east and the west end, or we would tag team together and we would hand-deliver all day and all night,” Christina said.
For Christina and Antonella, the pandemic showed them the importance of working with local vendors, having an online store and working tirelessly to ensure they can compete with big brand shops. “We want to show people that your small businesses are willing to hand-deliver it to you today.”
Despite the initial fright of closure due to the pandemic, the pivot to digital sales has been incredible for Lemon & Lavender, not to mention their customers. “It saved my business — everything that I’ve built was saved by online [sales],” Christina said. “And it’s taught me [to] never, ever give up or think that it’s over. Because you never know — one door may shut, but that next door might be the jackpot for you.”