'Everyone can be a homepreneur’: Home-based businesses booming in Markham

A random search on social media such as Facebook, Instagram, and Xiaohongshu reveals a wide range of home-based businesses in Markham that cover various industries including catering, beauty, and clothing. These workshops have no stores, open hours are not fixed, and service is mostly by appointments, but the business is still brisk.

Helen Yang’s home tattoo workshop has been running for seven years, offering semi-permanent eyebrow tattooing. Yang really likes the home-based model, which has no rental costs, flexible working hours and no stress of commuting.

“Home businesses have been around as long as people have had homes,” said Chris Rickett, director, economic growth, culture and entrepreneurship, at the City of Markham. “We do find that many entrepreneurs do start their businesses in their homes in Markham. This is commonplace in many municipalities, as new entrepreneurs often need time to build their business in order to be able to afford to rent commercial space and hire employees.”

The current customer source is fairly stable for Yang. “I started it as part time, now the job is full time,” she said. “The studio is in the living room of my house, a convenient transportation location in Markham, with no leases or other hassles.” Since Yang is the only one in the studio, she doesn’t have to worry about recruitment issues either.

Unlike a brick-and-mortar store with a living signboard standing there, most mom-and-pop workshops need word of mouth from customers to maintain their business.

“I had to rely entirely on social media for advertising,” said Tina Zhang, who has been running a home-based bakery in Stouffville for the past two years before finally opening a brick-and-mortar store named OhBeluga Cakes in Markham earlier this year.

Zhang took full advantage of government policy support during the pandemic to create her own home bakery by the end of 2020 and early 2021, when the Ontario made regulatory changes to allow more flexibility to sell low-risk, home-prepared foods.

Compared with family workshops, the operation of physical stores obviously has more requirements, from store renovation, hiring the right workers, the fear of being dominated by rent, to pressure of turnover.

In Zhang’s home-based bakery, in addition to being the boss, she plays the role of a triangle — baker, customer service, and delivery driver. It's very, very hard, she said, and working from home makes it difficult to separate work and life, which takes a toll on her personal quality of life.

Tina Zhang owns OhBeluga Cakes Etc. in Markham. She creates decadent cakes and desserts. Her cakes are low sugar and low fat.

Zhang believes that moving into a physical store is the only way for family workshops to expand their scale. “The home-based business model doesn’t allow me to hire more helpers, I often faced more orders than I could do,” she said.

The first challenge that Zhang’s physical bakery experienced was to find a suitable employee. During the preparatory period, the process was delayed for a while, which caused the employees who had planned to join to give up. It took her a few more months to find new staff, and she had to relax some of the hiring standards.

Yang also embraces the possibility of setting up a beauty salon in the future. “If I want to scale up and provide more services, I have to lease a larger space with more equipment.” But at this stage, she is happy with the operation as is and the flexibility with her family and schedule, so she has no intention to expand for the time being.

"Often people start businesses at home and once they’ve built a big enough client base, open a brick-and-mortar store," said Rickett, adding that Markham encourages people to start businesses and the city will support them with its small-business programming so that businesses can be successful.

Meanwhile, he reminds entrepreneurs looking to start a business in their home to be mindful of municipal, provincial and federal rules and regulations. More information is available at markham.ca.

Scarlett Liu, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Economist & Sun