Taking Their Chances
By Shauna Andrews
Vancouver Island is a small nook in the world made up primarily of oceanside communities with a distinctly relaxed vibe. Perhaps that’s why more and more people are choosing it as ground-zero to take on the risks of an entrepreneurial adventure.
The island’s casual, small-town comforts open the doors to new ideas, unique endeavours, and creative business opportunities. As a person who works for a small and successful business just across the Salish Sea in Powell River, I’ve seen the integral role that a community plays in an entrepreneur’s success. A determined founder with a great idea is certainly the first factor in business success, but support from the community is a close second. Vancouver Island’s towns are all about seeking resources within their community; this collective spirit encourages a feeling of independence and makes it the perfect spot to be your own boss.
I went looking for entrepreneurial success stories on Vancouver Island. Here are three.
Anna and Chris Burgess took the plunge last February and started Cove Adventure Tours in Port Hardy. Anna grew up in the town (pop. 4132), and, after spending years abroad, she and Chris decided they would move back to be with family.
With backgrounds in the hospitality industry, both are equipped with a bounty of customer service skills. When they first arrived in Port Hardy, they worked for Anna’s family’s small logging company, but eventually began to cast about for something that better suited their professional experience. In talking with Anna’s long-time friend Kristina, they realized that there was a missing piece to the Port Hardy puzzle – a tour company to show off the area’s natural attractions.
The three joined forces. At first, the idea of starting their own business was nerve-wracking, but Chris and Anna liked the idea of being independent again. “We both have always worked for ourselves,” says Anna. “We had bosses, but we always had some ownership over the quality of our work.”
Just over a year later, Cove Adventure Tours provides visitors with a hassle-free way to visit remote beaches, hiking trails, and provincial parks, organizing transportation, lunches, and custom experiences. “People need easily accessible and stress-free activities while they stay in Port Hardy,” Anna says.
“The tours are so easy because everyone is always so stoked, and the community is so supportive,” she adds. Of course, they have experienced the same “Oh no” moments as other first-time business owners, but that’s just another piece of the puzzle. “There are challenges that come up, but you just have to figure it out.”
Duane Bell, owner of Rhino Coffee House in Tofino (pop. 1,932) is similarly reflective and passionate about what he does. In the entrepreneurial world, he says, “You have to be a risk taker. It gives a lot of stresses, but you’ve got to take your chances.”
Bell chuckles as he remembers his beginnings on Vancouver Island. On vacation from his life as a stockbroker in Toronto, he fell in love with the environment, and next thing he knew was moving to Tofino to live and surf.
Bell worked for a large hotel company in Tofino for many years and made a few investments in local businesses, but eventually decided it was time to branch out on his own. “Tofino has a lot of coffee houses, but it didn’t have that sort of woody, comfortable, community meeting place. So, I did that. In the process, I decided to do gourmet doughnuts as an addition.” He adds that Rhino has started selling their roasted coffee on the side. It’s available at the shop, online, and perhaps soon in local grocery stores.
He recognizes that the laid-back and supportive community of Tofino has been key to his success. Then again, he’s pretty dialed-in to the community himself. “I am part of so many organizations in Tofino, I can’t keep track. In a small town, it helps to foster relationships.”
Bell plans to take his successful brand island-wide, starting with Nanaimo. A new Rhino coffee shop will open up there soon, he says, and he’s gleefully curious about the new city, new neighbourhoods and demographics, and new challenges to come.
Allison Mackenzie fatefully stumbled across an opportunity to pursue her own small business eight years ago when she started working for her sister in-law’s chocolate-making business. A short year later, the business went up for sale. Now she’s the owner of Dark Side Chocolates in Cumberland (pop. 3753) in the Comox Valley.
Mackenzie laughs when recalling the fluke-nature of her proprietorship.“When it came time that she was selling it, I didn’t immediately clue in that I could take over. Then I was like, ‘why would she sell it to someone else?’”
Since then, Mackenzie has become wholeheartedly engaged in her business and community, and with other local entrepreneurs. She’s particularly grateful for the friendships she’s forged, starting with the store next door. “It started off with me and my neighbour, Rusty Rooster, who has been there longer than I have. Her and I actually knocked out the wall between our shops and installed a door, so that customers can go back and forth.” Now, Mackenzie and a few other small business owners have joined forces, calling themselves the Lady Bosses.
“The community helped my business grow,” Mackenzie says, “especially in the first few years. It’s very familial. When I reflect on other business communities, I always think about whether they’re like that too. Do they eat lunch together?”
Just as Anna and Chris Burgess, Duane Bell, and Allison Mackenzie have found success, so have many other daring small business entrepreneurs all over Vancouver Island. Doing what they love has provided them not only with a living, but also with new friendships and opportunities to connect with their community. This is a concept I understand well; the small business I work for has found comfort and good fortune in our own little coastal town, and its owners are equally grateful for the support they’ve been shown. These Vancouver Island entrepreneurs rely on one shared, foundational motto — good people helping good people. You can’t get more successful than that.