Helping small business score success

The 20 colourfully iced cakes lined up on the island in Sheila Comer’s kitchen told her it was time to start her own business.

But the prospect of taking her cake baking out of her home kitchen and into a storefront was daunting. She already had a job she loved.

But she loved baking and decorating cakes even more.

So she made the leap.

“My customers were getting to the point where they wanted to sit down and have consultations,” says Comer. “They wanted to come and try what I had to offer.”

Comer signed a three-year lease in a new commercial space at the base of a condo tower on Sixth Street.

But even as the ink of her signature was drying, she says she had no idea what she was getting herself into.

There are more than 3,800 open business licenses in New Westminster; 3,344 can be considered small businesses with fewer than 50 employees, and 2812 of those have less than five employees.

“Having a diversity of businesses is important for the economic health of the city,” says Blair Fryer, New Westminster’s communications and economic development manager.

Providing the resources and knowledge to ensure those businesses survive and thrive is in the community’s best interest, says Fryer. “Residents continue to show strong support for small, local businesses and are proud of the unique character and offerings they bring to New Westminster.”

The road to success often starts with the city’s licensing coordinator, who can work with business owners to ensure their plan and proposed location conforms to zoning regulations. The licensing coordinator can also work with various city departments to help move a business application through the licensing process.

Another valuable resource is the Self-Employment Program at Douglas College.

Since the program was launched 20 years ago at the college’s New Westminster campus, and then added at its Coquitlam location, it has helped 4,000 individuals gain the skills they need to develop a sound business plan and implement marketing strategies.

“The program forces you to think about things you may not have thought of,” says Travis Moss, an instructor in the program and an experienced business consultant. “It forces you to think before you buy inventory or even register your company name.”

Comer already had a name for her bakery, Pink Ribbon, in honour of her grandmother’s battle with breast cancer and her own commitment to pledge a portion of her sales to breast cancer research.

But that’s about as far as her business acumen went.

“I just decided to go ahead and do it,” says Comer.

She did research on YouTube. Conversations with Fraser Health enlightened her about the health and safety requirements for her bakery, like the need to install three sinks. She had meetings with people from the city’s licensing and planning office to learn about city regulations and bylaws.

“I didn’t even know I needed a business license,” says Comer. “Everybody that I dealt with was extremely helpful, willing to give me any info they could.”

The City of New Westminster’s newly redesigned website offers a wealth of resources for prospective business owners including demographic and employment statistics, economic indicators and snapshots as well as links to the licenses required by various types of businesses, online application and renewal forms and even information about bylaws governing signage.

Fryer says his department is also available to help by improving processes, finding solutions and making connections with potential resources and partners.

Moss says launching a successful business starts with researching and writing a good business plan.

“(It) gets you to think about potential pitfalls, have a road map to follow.”

In their excitement and enthusiasm to launch their own business, Moss says many entrepreneurs neglect important considerations like time management and hidden costs like printing business cards, developing a marketing plan that will generate a steady flow of revenue, hiring staff.

“You can spend a lot of time on the operational end but neglect key things to get your business out there, make sure you’re developing a client base,” says Moss.

For the first few months on her own, Comer was a one-woman band; she baked and decorated all the cakes, closed up the storefront to do deliveries, even slept on a mattress in the back.

PHOTO BY MARIO BARTEL Sheila Comer decorates cupcakes in the kitchen of her Pink Ribbon Bakery. Her creations have found their way to celebrities like Matt Damon as well as a number of musical acts as they pass through Metro Vancouver.

“Everything was pretty in the moment,” says Comer. “Everything was just about baking cakes.”

In addition to giving entrepreneurs the tools they need so they won’t be overwhelmed by the challenge they’ve taken on, the 48-week program at Douglas College also connects independent business people to coaches and mentors. They check in regularly as projects are actually launched.

“We give them the tools, but it is the confidence and commitment to execute on it that leads to success,” says Moss.

And having successful small businesses in the city breeds even more economic success, says Fryer.

“A variety of retail and commercial services allows residents to meet their day-to-day needs,” he says. “(It’s) also important for employers who consider the provision and type of services for their employees when they consider locating their businesses.”

Comer says a major turning point on her path to entrepreneurial success came when she started hiring staff.

“My biggest fear was letting go of some control,” she says. “I was worried about bringing someone into my world that I had so independently grown. But I know you can’t have a successful business without a successful team.”

Comer now has three employees working for her. That’s freed her up to spend more time with her young daughter.

And think about new ways to grow her business beyond New West.

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