Run with business idea, but ask questions

Thunder Bay, Ont. — The Thunder Bay waterfront district continues to evolve and is alive with a variety of eateries, boutiques and specialty shops.

Behind the scenes of many of these enterprises are businesswomen.

Maelyn Hurley, owner of Goods and Co., saw potential in the former Eaton’s building and envisioned a “big city” endeavour that would not only benefit the north core but give space and support to many smaller businesses under one roof.

Faced with financing, procurement, renovations and other challenges, she trail blazed a path to her vision.

“I built this business during COVID,” she said. “There were supply issues and there were concerns about how to operate a business in a world with COVID. I did a lot of grant writing.”

She says she had to know how to manage and spend money wisely.

Neighbouring businesswomen, Nancy Tillburg, opened Shine Photo and Inspired Weddings studio last year bringing her professional photography with a “big city” feel to the waterfront. Tillburg says she found marketing a challenge “because marketing has changed so much over the last decade.”

“All the other traditional marketing methods have transitioned to online social media and now you have to be a master of everything including being an influencer and being authentic,” she said.

“Consumers in general, have changed what they look for in a company. They’re looking on social media for proof and they’re looking for vision and mission statements.”

Tillburg says owning a business is “all consuming.”

“People think that photography is easy, or that it’s just pushing the button, but for every minute that you’re behind the camera, there’s equal or double that amount of time spent behind a computer,” she said.

“Then there are all the other aspects of running a business that have to be taken care of, and you have to get good at them. I never realized when I first opened how many things I needed to do and how much I needed to learn in order to run a business.”

Laura Ponka, owner of Portobello Home on Cumberland Street, originally opened two businesses.

“It was my first time starting my own business and I knew absolutely nothing. I turned to Paro Centre for Women’s Enterprise, which helped to get my business plan going, gave me confidence and really believed that I had a good idea,” Ponka said.

“Also the fact that I had young twins at home that were only four years old plus three teenagers was probably the toughest thing with the long hours.”

Ponka says she tried to provide a product and create a look that no one else in town had. She credits her work and good relationships with her customers, along with her unique product, among the reasons for her success.

“Our customers really supported us . . . right from day one and we wouldn’t have grown if it wasn’t for local support.”

Hurley agrees with the importance of customer support.

“Community support has been instrumental in keeping (the Goods and Co.) project going and since opening, we’ve done a lot of amazing networking and collaborations with other businesses,” Hurley said.

For other women looking to start up their business, the three women shared some advice.

“If you have an idea, run with it,” Hurley said. “Talk to people, connect with other women in business, collaborate and don’t be afraid to ask questions . . . don’t reinvent the wheel. If there is no risk, there is no reward.”

Tillburg suggests to start with a passion and research it fully.

“Make sure that you know who your market is going to be,” she said. “Really examine why you want to go into business.”

“Believe in yourself,” Ponka said. “If you have a strong passion for something and believe it’s going to be successful then you should do it. Secondly, reach out and get help with your business plan . . . and don’t forget about the location because that is also so important.”

Tillberg’s agenda for her photography business includes expanding her signature Inspired Weddings program, developing a digital app and continuing to train photographers both in Canada and the U.S.

Ponka is looking to expand her warehouse to a larger showroom and spaces for other business projects, and Hurley has similar expansion plans.

“We are looking at a second-floor expansion right now,” said Hurley, adding that’s happening in the next year. We’re also looking at building more connections with different organizations in the city and through tourism while building out our events component of the market as well.”

Sandi Krasowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle-Journal