Starting a small business is risky at the best of times and riskier still during economic uncertainty — but that doesn’t seem to be scaring entrepreneurs in Saskatoon.
There’s been growing interest in starting small businesses in Saskatoon during the last couple of years despite continuous economic challenges from COVID-19, according to Alex Fallon, president and CEO of the Saskatoon Regional Economic Development Authority.
“In these times of economic uncertainty, which COVID brought, you actually see interest go up in entrepreneurship,” he told CBC Radio’s Saskatoon Morning.
There has been “an absolute increase” of people coming to his development agency with small business ideas and looking for help to make them a reality, Fallon said.
The latest available data from the development authority’s economic recovery tracker also seems to suggest people are interested in starting new ventures.
The tracker reported 7,944 active businesses in Saskatoon as of November 2021 — which is actually up from 7,867 in December 2019, just before the pandemic began.
Fallon says the ideas for new businesses his agency is hearing about include home-based startups, restaurants, retail stores and even engineering firms that want to start a smaller company.
“I think most people you talk to would be surprised that entrepreneurship has gone up. But actually, it’s a very common, almost a proven, economic model,” said Fallon.
“You see it not just in Saskatoon. You see it across the world in different economies.”
‘The economy is always adjusting’
There are a few different reasons people may want to start a small business during times of economic uncertainty, according to Fallon.
People might be concerned about losing their job and looking for other opportunities, or someone in the household may have lost their job and needs to find another source of income. It could also be as simple as needing a change.
Regardless of the reason, Fallon said when one sector or type of business struggles, it opens the door for new opportunities.
For example, he said, online shopping became very common during the pandemic. While many brick-and-mortar stores struggled or even shut down, it provided an opportunity for online-based business to flourish.
“The economy is always adjusting. When one thing is up, one thing is down. When something is closing, something is starting because someone sees an opportunity,” said Fallon.
Even though the economic uncertainty may continue for the foreseeable future, especially following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Fallon said he’s optimistic Saskatoon’s economy will continue to rebound.
“We don’t want to underestimate the impact it has had on certain businesses who have struggled,” he said.
But the “overall picture from Saskatchewan to Saskatoon, there’s a lot of positive signs and we do see a little bit of growth in the years ahead.”
Smash the worries away
YXE Smash Therapy — which offers people a chance to smash objects for fun in a safe environment — is one of the small businesses that opened in the first year of the pandemic.
Magen Mercer, who founded YXE Smash Therapy in November 2020, said she worked for Saskatoon Public Schools for 10 years before she decided to start a small business.
“I had been looking for a change for a while,” she said.
“I really love working with the kids, but just the pay wasn’t enough. I was just looking for an increase in income and lifestyle.”
Then, after lockdown measures eased in Saskatchewan, Mercer saw an opportunity.
“I was feeling a little annoyed about some things and I just looked to go and see if there was [a smash room] in Saskatoon that I could go to,” she said.
“I saw there was one in Regina, and I knew that Saskatoon needed one too, so here we are.”
Mercer said she worked at her day job for about six months while setting up YXE Smash Therapy, and then started working at the smash room full time.
She didn’t hesitate to leave her steady job, despite the risks of starting a small business during a pandemic.
“I saw the potential,” she said.
“When weighing a risk, I guess you have to decide whether staying where you’re at is sometimes more of a risk than proceeding with a new endeavor, and I just decided to go all in.”
Mercer said business is going well so far, and she’s very excited about the future.
“We have a lot of big things in the works.”