Amy and Jeff Nachtigall of Sugared & Spiced (photo: Cooper & O'Hara)

Pioneer Spirit: Alberta Small Business Success Stories

By Robin Schroffel and Sandra Sperounes

Small Business Week is observed across the country from October 21 to 25, and Alberta has reason to celebrate. Entrepreneurship is in our blood. A whopping 98 percent of the province’s 163,584 companies are small businesses, and they employ 74 percent of the total workforce.

For many Albertans, starting a business is a lifelong dream. Whether you want to be your own boss, bring an idea to life or make a difference in the world, stepping into entrepreneurship can be an exciting, rewarding experience.

But building a business also requires hard work and innovation—plus money, time and the ability to manage increased stress and challenges to work-life balance. And even with all that, there’s no guarantee it’ll last. In Canada, slightly more than half of businesses that started with one to four employees are still operational after five years; that number drops to about 40 percent after a decade. Fortunately, there are resources—including Small Business Week events and workshops, government programs and incentives, startup incubators and AMA business services—that help entrepreneurs kick-start, grow and protect their companies.

While there’s no foolproof path to success, these three Alberta businesses have managed to thrive.

SUGARED & SPICED
Edmonton’s Sugared & Spiced, set in an Old Strathcona alleyway, doesn’t quite fit the mold of a bakery. With its five-seat front-of-house, subscription-based cake service and uncompromising focus on made-from-scratch quality, it rides the line between bakeshop and sit-down café. Owners—and AMA members—Amy and Jeff Nachtigall wouldn’t have it any other way.

Opened in 2017, the offbeat brick-and-mortar space is the latest chapter in a tale that began in 2012. When the couple’s two children started school, Amy began selling cookies at a farmers’ market. After witnessing the joy she brought to people through her sweet treats, she decided to expand her skills at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. She then baked for a local café while renting its commercial kitchen to pursue her newfound passion: custom cakes. Amy baked and Jeff delivered—while also working full-time at a post-secondary religious institution.

Business grew, but unstable rental spaces meant hopping from kitchen to kitchen, often sharing substandard facilities. The constant disruption was stressful and made it challenging to keep commitments. It finally spurred them to seek their own space.

In 2016, the Nachtigalls launched an ATB BoostR crowdfunding campaign, aiming to test the viability of their business and raise funds to secure a permanent location. It was an overwhelming success; they reached their $20,000 goal in just over 24 hours, ultimately raising almost $57,000).

Jeff quit his day job. They were all in. With everything on the line, the couple was determined to succeed. “I saw the stats on food-based businesses and how many close within the first few years,” Jeff says. “We knew we had to be one of the other ones. Failure would’ve meant losing a lot of what we had. It made us test so many different scenarios—and then just go.”

And off they went. No preservatives. Fresh ingredients. Every detail made by hand, from the cookies, tarts and pies populating the display case to the bright macarons floating atop Amy’s signature Epic Cakes. The marriage of artistry and quality quickly set Sugared & Spiced apart. “I don’t like to do things halfway. That’s the difference, and I think you can taste it and see it,” Amy says.

According to Jeff, expansion isn’t on the menu. Instead, they’ll do the best they can with what they have, and enjoy it—hosting fun events like High Level Bridge Streetcar dessert parties and launching cake-decorating classes. Amy agrees: “By staying small, we can do a really great job where we’re at.”

Small business success stories paris jewellers
Chau Lui and Trang Wong of Paris Jewellers (photo: Cooper & O’Hara)

PARIS JEWELLERS
The most valuable lessons in life often come from our parents. For sisters Chau Lui and Trang Wong, early lessons in gratitude and celebration also proved invaluable in business.

When their family immigrated from Vietnam to Canada in 1984, Chau and Trang were little girls. Their parents worked various jobs until the opportunity to train as goldsmiths changed their lives. In 1987, the couple opened a small jewellery repair shop in the St. Albert Centre shopping mall, working 9 to 9 each day, with a Vietnamese-English dictionary nearby to help them communicate. “Customers kept coming back, and I think it’s because our parents really, truly celebrated every one of their clients’ stories,” Chau recalls.

That outlook inspired her, and Chau joined the company 18 years ago. Trang followed soon after. Today, the sisters are proud owners of Paris Jewellers, presiding over a 250-strong team at 26 stores across four provinces. Chau serves as director of operations and Trang as financial officer.

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Hard work pays off, indeed, but no growth journey is without obstacles. In 2010, the company opened an ambitious five stores; the rapid expansion took a toll as the company drifted away from its values. The customer experience suffered and the business began to struggle. In response, the sisters halted expansion and redirected efforts inward by focusing on their team: They launched an in-depth training program, and defined the company’s vision, mission and core values. “There’s no success without failure. We openly say we failed a lot during those years. But it helped us get better,” Chau says.

The company recovered, and with the challenges of 2010 behind them, things have scaled significantly. Initiatives like the AMARewards program have helped them grow by providing new marketing opportunities. Chau considers the decade-long partnership a win-win: “AMA comes up with innovative ideas that we can partner with them on. We can stay very true to our brand, while also benefiting from the AMA brand,” she says.

Still, those early ideals of celebration and gratitude remain guiding lights. Each employee receives a handwritten card on milestone occasions, and sales goals are celebrated daily in company-wide emails. Mornings at the Edmonton headquarters start with written messages on the glass wall of Chau’s office that doubles as a “gratitude board,” while a half-hour every Friday is specifically dedicated to celebrating the week’s wins.

Chau and Trang believe it’s small actions like these that drive success: Not only do they contribute to a happier workplace, they help to make a happier life. And when employees feel valued, that’s reflected in the customer experience. Chau explains, “Our people make up our company. They are at the core of everything we do. If our people don’t feel valued, they’re not going to be inspired to give a great experience to our customers.”

Small business success stories carbontry concepts lethbridge alberta
Dave Marshall works on his latest Carbontry Concepts project (photo: Jaime Vedres)

CARBONTRY CONCEPTS
Dave Marshall started hammering out his future when he was just eight years old.

“My dad was building a garage in the backyard,” he says. “I was watching all the guys helping him out and I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do. I just want to build.’ I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I tried to stay home sick from school so I could help out.”

These days, Marshall doesn’t need to play hooky to do what he loves. As a general contractor, he spends his days doing everything from framing and roofing to tiling and welding—while building decks, garages and houses in and around Lethbridge.

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Marshall started Carbontry Concepts about five years ago after working as a framer in Calgary. He’s the owner and only employee; he says it’s hard to guarantee full-time work in the homebuilding industry. Yet apart from his website, Marshall hasn’t had to advertise to garner interest. It’s all been word of mouth. “I wear a lot of hats as a small business owner,” he says. “It’s not just putting on the tool belt. I do drafting, sales, negotiations—the works.”

To help with his business, Marshall relies on AMA for roadside assistance and insurance. He also registers his vehicles and files his annual return (to renew his company’s status) through Registry Services. “As a one-stop shop, it makes life so much easier,” he says. “I’ve been a member for years. I don’t know how many times I’ve locked my keys in my truck. AMA’s been nearly family.”

Likewise, Marshall uses AMA to cover his business insurance needs, including liability. He says clients should always ask for a contractor’s policy number before starting any work. It’s peace of mind for both parties in case the unexpected occurs.

Even his tools are insured. If they’re lost or stolen, he can replace what could amount to tens of thousands of dollars in gear without impacting his work or bank account. He says AMA’s tool coverage rates are affordable, compared to those offered by many other insurance companies. “I appreciate that,” he says. “I’ve actually told some of my contractor friends about AMA’s tool coverage.”

Marshall’s other tip for contractors and aspiring business owners? Keep learning. He recently got his journeyman welder’s certificate. And, of course, listen to your inner kid. “Do what you love,” he says. “I love to build. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I wake up in the morning and think, ‘This is awesome.’”

IN THE BIZ
AMA’s business services help you grow your company at any stage.

AMARewards Partner Program: Tap into a network of 970,000 members to generate business. AMA business development managers collaborate with you to create targeted activities—from member discounts to special events—to achieve your goals.

Business Registry: Register your business by printing the forms and submitting them at an AMA registry office, or contact us to help with the paperwork. For info about permits and licences, see AMARegistries.ca/BusinessServices.

Employee Benefits: An investment in your team’s wellbeing is an investment in the future success of your business. AMA Insurance can help you put together the perfect benefits package to attract, retain and care for your employees.

Fleet Vehicle Registration: Registration for fleets of more than 10 vehicles can now be renewed directly via AMA, with flexible payment options.

Fleet Training Services: Lower your insurance rates and increase your fleet’s driving skills by educating drivers through AMA’s in-class, in-vehicle, and online safety programs. Learn more at AMAFleetSafety.ca.

In-Person Support: AMA’s partnership with Business Link gives entrepreneurs access to one-on-one support, including market research, regulatory guidance, training and more. Visit ama.ab.ca/BusinessLink to book an appointment with a Business Link facilitator at an AMA centre in Edmonton or Calgary.

PROTECTING YOUR DREAMS
Entrepreneurs have so many things to think about. Insurance shouldn’t be one of them. AMA’s business insurance is designed for entrepreneurs. In one comprehensive package, it includes the main coverages businesses ask for: property, liability, crime and business interruption, plus some optional add-ons tailored to the type of business you operate.

Whether you’re a contractor, store owner, accountant, real estate owner or restaurateur, you’ll find an AMA business insurance option that fits your needs.

You work hard to build and grow your business, so we want to make sure you and your livelihood are protected with the right coverage. An unforeseen loss can have a big impact on even the most successful enterprise.

Having the right insurance gives you the confidence of knowing that you can get back to business as soon as possible. Not sure what your small business needs? Talk to one of AMA’s business insurance advisors today. For more details and an online quote visit, AMAInsurance.ca/Business.