By Leo Valiquette
For Lisa Dickie, the pandemic has proven that a small business owner must always be prepared for those challenging periods that will have them “white-knuckling” their way through.
Dickie’s Cooking School (for ages four to 100+) delivers in-person classes, camps and parties from its own brick-and-mortar premises. This of course left it, like a legion of other small businesses across Ontario, having to endure several months of shut down due to pandemic response measures from March to June 2020.
When Dickie’s reopened its doors, it was quickly back to business as usual. Bookings rolled in as kids, parents and special needs adults alike took advantage of the chance to get out of the house and take part in a fun activity – with appropriate safety precautions, of course.
“I was thrilled to reopen and grateful that the summer has been really busy because parents are looking for activities for their kids,” Lisa said in late August.
She credits what she learned the year before through Digital Main Street (DMS) for helping her to keep Dickie’s Cooking School top of mind during the pandemic shutdown period.
We first profiled Lisa back in June 2019. Realizing she needed to improve her website and ramp up her social media and blogging efforts, Lisa had turned to DMS for help. DMS is a training and grants program that offers funding and free education resources to main street small business owners across Ontario. Digital Service Squads from local BIAs and municipalities also make visits to participating businesses.
With DMS’s support, Lisa relaunched her website in December 2018 to be more user-friendly, navigable and enticing, with lots of imagery to tempt the eye and the palate. But DMS provided more than just a grant for a new web design.
To qualify, applicants must take mandatory workshops and develop a Digital Transformation Plan to demonstrate how they will put those grant dollars to good use. The social media and blogging best practices that Lisa learned through that process proved invaluable to help her grow and maintain her audience.
Through the summer of 2019 and right up until March 2020, business was great. In fact, right before the pandemic struck, Lisa had decided it was time to hire another in-class assistant, as well as someone to manage her social media channels.
The pandemic strikes
Rather than just go dark and silent for three months, Lisa remustered online, still offering tips and advice by social media and email, as well as remote cooking lessons through Zoom.
“Those lessons were low cost and weren’t really to make money, but instead, to give people something to do and remind them that I exist.”
The effort paid off. Dickie’s Cooking School has always distinguished itself by offering hands-on camps, classes and workshops for small groups. A former special education teacher, Lisa had also developed a popular series of classes for individuals with Down’s Syndrome, autism and mild intellectual disabilities. When pandemic lockdown measures lifted in June, provincial requirements to limit groups to no more than 10 fit perfectly with Lisa’s business model. She was able to resume operations at her usual volume and still abide by social distancing and other safety requirements.
Another crucial ingredient in the resiliency of Dickie’s Cooking School has been Lisa’s focus on encouraging customer reviews online, again, thanks to what she learned through DMS.
“You need that social proof,” she said. “Having a review system was huge in growing my business, and I thought that was really excellent advice.”
Lisa also applauds the way in which the DMS application process makes a business owner think critically about how they will use the grant money and what the expected return on that investment will be. This aligned with the way she already viewed any expenditure related to her business.
“With any investment in your business, ask yourself – do you need it, how badly do you need it, is it going to make you money and how?”
On that same note, Lisa offers the following tips for other small business owners:
- “Whether you are flush or struggling, keep your expenses in check. Really evaluate any major purchase. Be cautious when you are spending money.”
- “Definitely have a cushion … Because my first two years in business were so tight, I was terrified of having a credit card bill because of the interest. When I did have money, I continue to pay myself just the minimum salary. It allowed me to survive three months with no income.”
- “Be willing to switch gears. I know a lot of people who have a business that is based on delivering a service in-person who say, ‘I just can’t see how I could do this online.’ It’s not always possible, but you have to be open to what you could”
Lisa’s story is just one example of the more than 15,000 main street small businesses across Ontario that have taken advantage of Digital Main Street. Program funding has been renewed and DMS began taking applications again. Applications will close November 30, 2020.
For information and how to apply, go to www.digitalmainstreet.ca/ontario