Dear Mr. Casey of The Financial Post,
I tried to ignore the article you wrote about entrepreneurship in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia because it upset me, but it just keeps popping up on my Face Book feed. I have decided, instead, to face it.
I’m responding because I feel that if one is considering investing their life savings into Lunenburg or any other small town in Nova Scotia, they need to be doing so with eyes wide open and a good, solid plan for how to survive here.
In 2012, I had the honour of being featured in a beautiful promotional video to encourage entrepreneurs to move to Lunenburg. It is called Live Well in Lunenburg. I had no idea that this video would be viewed over 40,000 times and I found myself becoming something of an ambassador for this town. This is a job that I took on with pride and joy. I sat down with a number of people wishing to move here and had no problem saying that Lunenburg is a wonderful place to live, with unprecedented beauty and a great community and that you really can make things happen here. My last call from a family of four in Alberta came a couple of months ago and my answers have become a bit more complex. Overall, I still believe all these things to be true, but not in the simple way that I believed it when being filmed for the video.
I have two perspectives to add to your article. The first is from someone that ran into what is commonly known here as “red tape” and challenged her local government on the interpretation of its land use bylaw. In the interest of my own mental health, I can’t go on too much about this. If you want to read more, you can start reading here and probably keep yourself entertained for quite some time by scrolling through my documented experience. In short, when I encountered an error that was preventing my own business growth and this same error was the cause of other home-based businesses leaving our beautiful town, I was not supported by my local government. I was fought tooth and nail. It was one of the ugliest experiences of my life. Had I not discovered how truly supportive the community of Lunenburg is, I would have slinked away with my tail between my legs. This issue is now in the hands of the province and I think there will be resolution one day, but for now, anyone wishing to legally open a home-based business in Lunenburg will be told to make unnecessary and costly, commercially applicable renovations to their homes. The understanding as to how to fix this simple problem exists in Halifax, but our council insists that their hands are tied. The IvanyReport has told Nova Scotians that there is resistance to change and I can tell you, from my own experience, that this is the God’s honest truth. I think it will improve over time, but right now, it’s very real.
My second perspective is from my own success. I know that sounds very arrogant. There is no arrogance behind those words. I am a full time crafts person. That is a rarity. I make hats for a living. My husband is a woodworker who also runs his own business. We have an eleven year-old son. We are living the dream. We have figured out how to pay a mortgage and feed a child while living in paradise. I will not lie to you and say there is any money left over at the end of the day or tell you that we have retirement savings or dental insurance, but we are happy, live in a truly beautiful province and we earn an honest living. This to me is success.
Here’s what I have to offer from my 21 years as a small business owner. Diversify and be prepared to work all the time. I know that if you come to visit Lunenburg in July or August you will see a happening little town, with so many great shops, restaurants, festivals and sidewalks full of happy tourists snapping photos of colourful buildings. You will also see one of the best and busiest farmers markets in the world. Come back in January and you will see the same beautiful buildings, but most restaurants will be closed for a few months. Many shops also close up or reduce their hours and those that stay open know very well that they will not make more than the cost of heating the building for the day. Although the customers have disappeared for the winter, the electric bills, heating bills and rent or mortgage and commercial taxes remain. Businesses in the commercial district have less than four months to earn their living for the year. For this reason, most new businesses do not survive. They come and they go. But some, including myself, do survive and even thrive.
There are countless Face Book pages singing the praises of Lunenburg, but the reality here is it’s bloody hard to make a living and there are almost no jobs that pay more than $12 an hour. If people want to come join us here, in Nova Scotia, and I hope they do, then we need to start writing articles about reality. We need to understand why most businesses fail and we need to understand how those that succeed do what they do.
When I first came to Nova Scotia in 2008, I supplied over thirty stores throughout North America with my hats. I had three sales reps. It was insane. I also sold my hats online. I never stopped working. When I did, it was to read my son a story or tuck him into bed. I set up at the Lunenburg Farmers Market, The Hubbard’s Farmers Market and The Halifax Seaport Farmers Market. Doing the Halifax Market meant waking up at 3:45 a.m, being on the road by 4:45, driving an empty highway before the snow plows were awake and returning home in the dark at 6:30, only to be greeted by a pouncing puppy, eager for his walk and a pouncing young boy who missed his mom. I would spend all of Sunday recovering. At the Seaport Market, I would chat with fellow Lunenburg entrepreneurs, Pierre and Lynne from IronWorks Distillery and Deborah and Steve from The Laughing Whale CoffeeRoasters. Among other things we shared stories of how we kept ourselves awake on the 75 minute drive in the dark. Our weekly conversations taught me that we are all in the same boat. There is a price to pay for living in Paradise. You need to do the markets, wholesale, retail, do craft shows, sell online, and promote, promote, promote.
I’m happy to report that my business continues to grow. At this point, my online sales have grown. I cut down the amount of stores I supply and instead just focus on a select few. After years of promoting this beautiful town, people now come to seek me out in my little studio or at our local farmers market. I no longer need to drive into Halifax. I have found balance and I can work regular hours and make a respectable living, but it has taken me years to get here.
Mr. Casey, your article helps with promotion, and for that I thank you, but we also need to remember that people will read these articles or watch these videos and based on what they read or hear will make decisions that will affect their lives. The cost of picking up a family and moving is very expensive. These people need to understand what it really looks like to have a successful business in rural Nova Scotia. It is not all rosy. There is sacrifice involved and many things that would have been easy in a large city will be infinitely more difficult here. Is it worth it? Hell, yes. But if one is going to attempt living the dream they need to proceed with eyes wide open.