Starting a Business in the Pandemic: EcoFillosophy

Hear from Thanh To, co-owner of EcoFillosophy, who, along with business partner Renata Darling, opened a retail storefront in July 2020. It’s one of Bronte’s new businesses that have successfully navigated through the pandemic despite the barriers.

What was it like starting a business during COVID-19?  

“It was hard!” she says. “We signed our lease at the end of February 2020, just as COVID-19 was making its way across the ocean; there were so many unknowns. We had planned for a grand opening in late April with a busy Summer season in mind. But our world as we knew it changed with the first shutdown.” 

Thanh explains logistical problems, like finding a contractor and materials, made it difficult to start their business on time and more expensive. They opened at the end of July, then only had a few months to build brand recognition, supplies and clientele, with limited foot traffic, before the second shutdown hit just after the holiday season.

The worst news was, as a new business, they didn’t qualify for any of the financial support the government was offering small businesses who were forced to close down, except for one small (Digital Main Street) grant to help with their online presence. 

Despite these difficulties, Thanh and Renata were still able to see a silver lining. “The best news was we have had fantastic, like-minded customers from the beginning and the neighbourhood has been so supportive.”

How did you navigate your business strategy to deal with the times?

We’re small enough to be nimble and were able to pivot to meet the changing environment, says Thanh. Before opening the brick-and-mortar store, while still in the construction phase, they opted to change their model from a traditional self-serve model to a full-service, low-waste boutique and ‘refillery.’ “We redesigned our space to accommodate different ways of interacting with customers and selling our products. For example, our front counter can be separated into two pieces so we can potentially open up the refill area in the back of the store, if we ever decide to do so.” 

Thanh further explains that new safety measures meant finding new ways to operate their business. “We opted to keep saleable products behind our counter, leaving the front for display and samples. This helped as the pandemic evolved and our customers appreciated knowing the products they were buying hadn’t been handled by other shoppers. We also allowed for private, after-hours shopping by appointment for customers who were immunocompromised. Both opportunities ensured customers could shop confidently, while allowing for easier disinfection that kept both our team and clients safe.”

Thanh and Renata knew that there needed to be new strategic ways to operate their business to respond to the new pandemic world. Thanh says that in addition to changing their physical space, the bumpy start and unknown aspects of the pandemic, it had them reassessing things they couldn’t have predicted, like a sustainable and reliable supply chain, procurement and buying processes before products made their way onto shelves. “This meant our budget would have to be spent wisely. We opted to divert valuable marketing, advertising and events dollars to address essentials and timely requirements – like rent!”

With businesses experiencing both limited customer capacity and a full lockdown, Thanh and Renata knew that they could not rely on brick-and-mortar sales to stay in business. “The second shutdown expedited the launch of our e-commerce site. This included our HomeFill offering, which allowed people to shop online for larger refill sizes for delivery or curbside pick-up, when we were prohibited from accepting their containers or allowing them into the shop,” she says.

What advice would you give to other business owners looking to start a business during these times?

“We would encourage people to go for it, but be prepared to be flexible and agile. The future is still unpredictable, and while opening your own business can be challenging at the best of times, we’ve been so encouraged by the community support, the small business sentiment and the coming together we’ve seen through these unprecedented times.”