Small Business Dreams

Myself, as well as millions of aspiring young people, dream of one day being their own boss. Seven years of busting my behind off for my employers, caring deeply how my work ethics impact their business, conscious about product rations and doing a 110% to ensure we have at least 95% client retention, there I was, denied a simple request, of additional time to our pedicures, to ensure a proper clean up of the pedicure basins. I wasn’t asking for much, 10 to 15 minutes between clients, so that the basin can be scrubbed with hot water and soap, and then using an approved disinfectant, disinfect the basin with the time prescribed by the manufacturer of said disinfectant. “Time is money,” as he walks away from me, “finish the pedicure in 45 minutes, you will get the time to clean.” Standing there, feeling annoyed, I shout back, “Then don’t advertise an hour pedicure!”

At this precise moment, I knew I was done. There had always been issues, as you would expect any workplace to have, but in the beauty industry ladies, and gents alike tend to take it up a notch. There isn’t enough time to discuss those issues in this article, those are deserving of a book of their own!

I finished my work day, and set out on my commute back home, about a 30-minute drive, seriously contemplating my next move. Do I leave the industry all together or go out on my own? I have seen the nitty-gritty of the industry, the sheer amount of personal time invested by the owners, and all obstacles facing small businesses in a large city. I was about 90% sure I would go out on my own by the time I reached the off ramp towards my neighbourhood. As I take my exit and head towards the main street, my eye catches a glimpse of a sign for lease. Hmmm… I turn around, not quite sure why and what my intentions are, but I am drawn towards this plaza, slowly driving around looking for the empty unit being advertised. I knew I couldn’t afford anything large but I had this gut feeling something exciting was about to happen! I was not disappointed, as I made the right turn into an empty parking spot, right in front of the empty store front. It didn’t look big. I got out of the car, and looking around as if afraid of being seen by someone that knows me, that could tip off my employer, I sneak up to the window and peek inside, butterflies freely flying around in the bottoms of my guts, it is perfect! The design idea immediately formed in my head as I took mental images of the space. Holding my breath, I carefully slink my way back into my car. I continue to sit there, staring, idea after idea forming. Can I? Could I? Should I? Is there money for this? Business plan!? I don’t have a written business plan. What about my husband and children? Oh, my God…. Get yourself together woman! I courageously drive away with a newly hatched plan that I now must present to my husband. Yikes.

He was surprisingly open and supportive, to a limit I suppose. He had many valid questions and concerns, which I did my best to answer. We made the call to the leasing agent to see the space. Just under 500sq ft, it was a sign. However, it turned out a barber shop was going to go into a bidding war, and the stubborn mule that I am, I wasn’t going to let them snatch away my dreams. Maybe I should have, looking back on it now, regardless, it is what it is and it has helped shape me into the person I am today. Since this isn’t a story about my personal growth I will try to stay on track here. The people going against us offered money up front for the entire year, and my husband and I agreed to sign a 5-year lease, which the landlords liked a whole lot better, so we got the unit. The lease is vast, a sea of small letters and a tonne of legal jargon, but did we have a lawyer look it over? Not. Huge mistake. We thought we could handle it ourselves, it took a few days, and many cups of coffee later, we made quite a few changes, to which the landlords agreed, to our surprise as we expected them to come back with a stern NO. You see, 5 years ago, our Alberta economy was decent, at least for my industry, little did we anticipate massive layoffs and a downturn, where people tighten their purse strings and stop spending.

I had less than 3 months to write my business plan. Piece of cake! Hah, no. Maybe if it weren’t for permits, city hall visits, and construction getting in the way, I would have been better prepared. Don’t get me started on the city protocols, unexpected costs and delays in work permits. What a drag. Landlords expect us to begin operations commencing in 3 months from the day of signing, yet the city isn’t ready to issue a working permit. Thanks to my many loyal clients I would survive the near 4 months waiting for that permit, against the law by the way!

We had drained our money by that point, even though we opted to furnish the spa with great used pieces acquired through various online sales groups, it was manageable. Time had come when we decided a small loan was in our future, a very small one. We mentioned our plan in front of family, at which our relative decided to offer us the loan with no interest, repayable when we are better situated. Sweet deal! That first year was tough, I had enough loyal clients yet my schedule went on empty and sad for months on end. A year into this venture, we had gone out one evening, a great opportunity to advertise as previously discussed with my husband. The evening was great, met some good people, drank, had a good time. That evening on our way back home, hell broke loose, as my husband accused me of not doing a better job of advertising myself. We got into an argument, could have ended our relationship that night, it didn’t.

The following week, I had come up with a different plan. I decided to take on a part time second job, a paying one. Four to five times a week, I would finish up at the spa, and with 30 minutes left rush to the other job. I figured if I brought in any kind of income unrelated to the spa I would count as a productive member of society, of our family unit, but at what cost? Kids began to resent me, I never saw my husband and I have no idea how I managed to pull that off for an entire year, but I did. That last month, my husband also became a journeyman after what seemed like many years of work/study, and so he had secured a nice job and a steady income began flowing our way. It was such a relief to quit the second job. To make our situation even better, business also picked up in its second year, January of that year turned out to be the best month that year and that’s saying something as January in the salon industry is never good. There I was, full schedule months ahead, contemplating hiring someone to help me out.

The following two years, I go through numerous “trained to Alberta industry standards” employees that lack basic human interaction skills, let alone esthetic skills, I would have settled for a great nail technician. Maybe my standards were too high? After all we are only dealing with people expecting a pedicure without getting a fungal infection. (Insert eye roll here.)

The end of our 3rd year, things began slowing down, clients were concerned with impeding and possible lay offs but always assured me with a smile, that they could never give up their pamper time! Let me tell you, that just isn’t the case when given a choice between paying your electricity bill or having your nails lacquered. Some start by cutting back the number of services, choosing between their toes, fingernails or waxing, majority begins to go longer in between their treatments, eventually it will be a year before I see these loyal clients. I can’t blame them, I would do the same.

In the meantime, bills and utilities keep rising in cost, some providers don’t even bother to alert you of price increases. Worst offender is the city of Calgary, each year property tax assessment is sent out for the leased space, (retail tax) which is acceptable and not a major cost, however, our landlord chooses to pass his cost onto his tenants and that is a big pill to swallow. I guess I am lucky as my space isn’t a large unit, but I still end up with extra $294 per month for the year 2014. May not seem like a lot to some, but to put it into perspective, I must pay $250 daily for my space whether I make any money or not. Talk about pressure.  Our landlords’ representative assured us that they have put in an appeal to lower the property taxes, nothing ever comes of it. Guess what? New property tax hike is set for the following year, and it is not small.

To add insult to injury, September of 2016, a major anchor tenant moved to another location, followed by another long-time tenant, both of whom brought my business a lot of foot traffic and income. That is gone, over 60% of clients are gone and the cost of running one of the smallest businesses ever, has been rising drastically over the past two years.

To get to the point, the lease will be up for renewal, at between 15 to 30%, “fair market value” raise in cost per square foot. I think it is safe to say I was not able to afford to keep this business. On one hand, I was torturing myself for not being more savvy or cut-throat and on the other I am relieved it came to an end. It turned out to be a great (expensive) adventure, as my husband calls it, and it was time to start a new chapter of our lives. My failed business doesn’t define me, it was a great learning experience and I use all that knowledge now educating others who wish to try their hand at becoming a small business owner. I was heartbroken for many months however “time heals all wounds” happens to be true in my case. I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

Having had some of the most amazing adventures and career paths since that time, it has been an honor to be a part of some great organizations and have had professional growth as well as had my hand at many great changes within those organizations, it’s safe to say that I am curious to see how the Covid-19 pandemic unfolds and what long term effects it will leave in its path for small business. All I know, it was damn hard then, now my heart aches for small business owners everywhere. I understand all that you are feeling.