Looking to start a business but unsure where to start? Two small business owners share their experiences.
*Emma Litschko uses she/they pronouns
In December 2020, women-owned Canadian businesses were hit hardest by the pandemic. They took twice as long to recover from financial setbacks compared to male-owned businesses. Even pre-pandemic, launching a small business as a woman was particularly challenging.
When starting a new business, knowing where to look for guidance and support is the first step.
Ambrozic and Litschko are long-time entrepreneurs. Ambrozic is the owner of Mimic: A Print Republic, a Markham-based printing company and Litschko is the mixed Mi’kmaq founder and owner of Forget-Me-Not Jewelry and Apparel, located in Toronto.
The early years and founding
Ambrozic traces her entrepreneurial spirit back to the paper route she acquired at age 12. From that first delve into the business world, Ambrozic’s enterprising gumption transformed into a passion for business.
“I loved my business courses, I loved small to medium businesses and how they ran,” Ambrozic said of her studies in college.
As an adult, Ambrozic took her passion and turned it into a successful career.
Loving it, she went into sales.
When Ambrozic was on maternity leave, a male employee temporarily took over her account base. She was surprised to learn that her replacement was earning more than she had, despite having less experience in the industry.
Shocked, Ambrozic decided she was going to “work [her] butt off.”
She and a fellow sales representative founded their own company. Two years later, they had bought out the owners of another struggling print company.
Having always “believed in the digital side of print,” pre-pandemic, Ambrozic’s team made an important investment to build a new online order system. They started the marketing process last year. In the future, Ambrozic hopes Mimic will open a retail side.
Due to COVID-19, Ambrozic has pivoted to using Bark; an online marketplace for services, to “[follow] up on leads.”
Litschko, who uses she/they pronouns, was another young entrepreneur. They recall convincing a neighbour to create handmade items as a child. They would spend all day selling them from the foot of their driveway, sometimes going door to door.
Like Ambrozic, Litschko’s business acumen flourished around age 12.
Hoping to combine their passion for business with bettering the world, they started a makeshift operation recycling used gift cards, credit cards, and IDs into bracelets, keychains and earrings. The small business was called Picks n’ Pigs.
Two summers ago, Litschko changed the name for a final time. Inspired by their supportive Oma, who had planted Forget-Me-Nots before passing, Litschko renamed the business Forget-Me-Not.
“The name also means old pieces deserve a second life,” says Litschko. This is a fitting name as the company’s business concept includes recycling old objects to create new ones to be cherished.
After taking a break from the business, pre-pandemic, Litschko returned to it at the outset of COVID-19. In the long summer of 2020, Litschko expanded Forget-Me-Not’s inventory by 180 pieces and established the company’s online presence.
Litschko’s business expands monthly, and they said they hope for “slow and steady growth.”
Business plans and financing
Having a business plan is an important tool in helping a company reach its targets and goals. Ambrozic discusses five-year plans in her Mastermind business group.
A Mastermind group is a group that may meet at a designated time each week or month to tackle various challenges. Group members can give each other advice, network and do business together.
Knowing how much can change in a few years, Ambrozic never formulated a formal business plan herself. Instead, she relies on her business documents and financial statements to make judgment calls about the operation of her company.
While Litschko does not have a formal business plan either, they have a general idea of how they would like their business to evolve.
When implementing changes, Litschko usually lets them “sit for a few months [to] see how the changes have impacted anything and if certain aspects need to be altered.”
Once you have a plan for your business, navigating finances is the next step.
In the past, Ambrozic financed herself without the security of financial backers, but she has become open to new opportunities. She has found that being more receptive to economic endeavours has been beneficial to her career.
On the topic of finance, Litschko said, “when starting out, one can expect to spend more than they earn as they invest in building their inventory.”
With a good business plan, both formal or informal, investing in one’s company has a better chance of paying off.
Building a team and a mindset
Another vital step in building a thriving business is assembling a passionate and capable team.
Ambrozic recommends young women surround themselves with the right people. She has a team of six people, including her printer, director of operations, part-time employees and a staff member who has been with her for over 15 years.
On the other hand, Forget-Me-Not runs as a duo, with Litschko focusing on jewellery while their partner, Alex, oversees apparel.
Regardless of how big or small your team is, it is important to establish a shared mindset among coworkers.
For Forget-Me-Not, one of their unique selling points is sustainability, which Litschko said they believe is very important.
“[While] shopping small is more sustainable than buying from a big corporation,” they think sustainability should be prioritized in other ways.
“Even paying attention to where supplies come from is an easy way to make a business more sustainable,” Litschko said.
At least 50 percent of every item Forget-Me-Not sells is sustainable. They try their best to reuse materials they already have and prioritize sustainable packaging.
As a customer themself, Litschko said they “will be more inclined to support [small businesses] who are actively sustainable.”
Branding and marketing/networking
Having recognizable and compelling branding is another important step in building a business.
Litschko went through multiple logos for Forget-Me-Not, looking for “something fun but also professional.” Eventually, their father, who runs a small graphic design and printing business, designed the logo and the business took off a few months after its rebranding.
Ambrozic came up with the name ‘Mimic’ herself and enlisted a designer to create “a very clean [orange and grey] brand.” When the partnership broke, she rebranded to ‘Mimic Print: A Print Republic’ and hired an all-female branding agency to create the new logo.
Once a brand has been established, the next step is making the company known.
Ambrozic recommends scouting new clients at weekly networking events.
She suggests people set a goal for themselves while networking. It could even be “I want to talk to three new people tonight,” Ambrozic says.
Ambrozic sympathizes with younger women who are new to networking events. “I’ve been there,” she said, adding, “what’s the worst that can happen?”
For young women, Ambrozic recommends joining Business Network International (BNI), which is an American-based networking organization spanning over 75 countries. The organization provides a scripted networking formula that she claims works.
Ambrozic explained that BNI is “based in reciprocity”; their phrase being “givers gang.”
According to Ambrozic, her experience with the organization provided her with “really good business,” especially from professionals like real estate agents and mortgage brokers.
Advice for women in business
Ambrozic thinks women need to keep breaking the “old boys’ club.” She adds that her experience as a businesswoman compelled her to teach her daughter the importance of standing up for herself.
Ambrozic also urges young women to trust their gut, ask questions and find the right mentor. She has been a mentor for BNI and would have liked to have had one herself when she was starting out.
Litschko believes small businesses allow women to have “economic autonomy,” and that female-owned small businesses can create safer and more equal working spaces. For Indigenous women and women of colour, “owning a business can carry on [their] cultural practices [and] […] [educate] the larger public.”
When faced with plateaus, Litschko suggests reassessing what you are doing and changing it. They emphasize the importance of giving “your business time to grow” and putting in the work to make it happen.
Visit Mimic Print on their website. Clients can log in to their accounts, send files or click through prints of books, brochures, stationery and business cards. Mimic is also active on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
Resources for emerging business women
Women Entrepreneurship Strategy, Starting a Business, Women in Business Guide and Resources for Women in Business provide helpful resources on starting a small business as a young woman in Ontario and Canada.