Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/3/2016 (1340 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Helen Staines’ life is a box of chocolates.
That is her business, too.
But like so many of the start-up small businesses, it’s not that you never know what you’ll get. It’s you never know how it’s going to turn out.
That’s the scary part.
Still, at age 45, Helen decided to take a chance by opening her own storefront artisan chocolate location on a trendy — in a Wolseley sort of way — stretch of Sherbrook Street. It’s similar, in a life-changing way, to what happened 15 years ago when the Yorkshire, England-raised woman and her then-partner took a chance and immigrated to Canada with the intention of ending up in Vancouver.
"My ex’s uncle lived here," Helen was saying Sunday, when we happened upon Decadence Chocolates, beside Thom Bargen Coffee & Tea and across from Boon Burger Café. "So," she continued, " he offered us somewhere to stop to do immigration, to have a welcoming face."
Before they landed here, they were so set on Vancouver their furniture had already been shipped there.
"And then we thought, do we want to move from London to another London, cost-wise?" Or do we want to stay somewhere that’s a little bit cheaper and see how it goes here?"
Educated and trained in the hospitality industry in Britain, she landed a job as food and beverage manager at the Winnipeg Winter Club, and then moved onto a short stint at the convention centre and a much longer one as an event planner at the Fort Garry Hotel. Eventually, though, her partner joined the furniture in Vancouver.
Now, years later, Cherie, her new partner in life, is also a partner in her just opened box of chocolates of a business. Where, as with most just getting going personally financed and operated enterprises, both women are working long, bleary-eyed hours.
"It’s your baby, right? " Helen said. "You do what you need to do to get it going. It’s exciting that way, though. I like pushing myself."
Their ice cream maker is symbolic of the effort. They’re having to work those long hours to make and store a supply because it’s a small ice cream maker.
"But it’s all that was in the budget," Helen explained.
So how did she even get the money to create a budget? "The Women’s Enterprise Centre," Helen said. "They’re a fabulous resource. They do a business-plan class. A three- or four-day class. They help you with your business plan."
Then it goes to the loans committee.
"And you're approved or not, basically."
There’s more to the mentoring and help getting started than that, though.
"Even now, when we’re open I can phone them up and say, ‘You know what? I’m having an issue with this. What do you think?’ They want you to succeed. The loan goes through them so they’re backing you somewhat. Even though it’s through banks."
I wondered how, as she enters middle age, after working so long for other people, she decided to take a risk and go it alone. Her answer wasn’t as straightforward as I expected. Helen talked about gradually getting into it, taking an online chocolate-making course in 2010 and making truffles and the like as Christmas gifts. Then, five years ago, it was off to school in St. Hyacinthe, Que., with Barry Callebaut, the brand of chocolate she uses in the store. Still, she wasn’t ready to open a store. Instead, Helen took a part-time events-planning job where she tried to make and sell chocolate part-time, too. Build the business, bit by bit and bite by bite. But the part-time job fizzled.
"And then it was ‘Do I do this? Or do I not?’" So she took the plunge.
I suggested if you’re going to do it — to take the plunge — there’s no sweeter place to land than a vat of chocolate.
"There’s one right over there," she laughed, motioning toward the open kitchen she always wanted for her store, where she can chat with the customers, and they can watch her making chocolate from scratch.
So is she scared about starting up?
"Yeah, it’s scary. But I never thought of it that way."
It was later, when I was relating Helen’s story to a retired small-business pal, he offered a personal recollection of how scary it was for him.
A guy with a Grade 10 education and his life and his business conjoined in bank loans. "It starts off as a very small business," he said. "And fortunately, it grows and grows and grows and becomes pretty big. But every day I go to work thinking I just can’t go broke. Because if I go broke, I’m done. The bailiffs come, they slap a notice on the doors, there’s a guy standing there, he asks for my car keys.
"At that point, I have to ask the guy standing at the door for bus fare. I get the bus. And then I realize I can’t go home, because I signed a personal guarantee on the business. So the bank now owns my house."
On Wednesday I asked Helen if that story sounded familiar. "Yup," she said.
It’s a story that — unlike the big banks that hold those loans — so many small business people have lived. Too small to fail.