Q&A: Jolene Laskey, founder of Wabanaki Maple, is adding a twist to an Indigenous tradition.
Here’s how she managed her business through the pandemic.
Jolene Laskey is the founder of Wabanaki Maple, a maple syrup company based in Neqotkuk (Tobique) First Nation in New Brunswick. In 2018, inspired by her Wolastoqey roots, Jolene began her journey as an entrepreneur, sharing and reconnecting people and communities with a piece of Indigenous culture through Wabanaki Maple’s syrup products. For centuries, Peoples of the Wabanaki Confederacy (Wolastoqey, Mi’kmaq, Penobscot, Abenaki, and Passamaquoddy) have harvested the sap from the sugar maple tree — Jolene is carrying on the tradition with a twist, by providing signature flavours of barrel-aged whisky, bourbon, and toasted oak maple syrups.
How have you managed your business finances through the pandemic?
Initially it was scary and challenging to face the onset of this pandemic. I was very skeptical about how we would survive financially as a new company, especially since one of our biggest barriers as an Indigenous business located in a First Nations community has been securing funding for working capital. It hasn’t been easy to manage financially, but fortunately, I’ve been able to bootstrap over the past couple of years. I’ve also sought out other opportunities for securing business grants and financing for things like capital costs, which was very helpful in managing cash flow for the business.
Similar to many businesses throughout our nation, we were negatively impacted by this pandemic. Though the Government of Canada reacted quickly by providing various funding opportunities and programs like CEBA, there were still barriers for businesses like Wabanaki Maple. We discovered too often that for one reason or another, we did not meet certain criteria or eligibility for these programs. lt felt hopeless at times, and I often wondered how we could manage financially. Thankfully, these gaps were addressed for small businesses, and eventually we were successful and qualified for financial assistance through a program called the Regional Recovery Relief Fund (RRRF). Receiving this funding allowed us to face the hardships of COVID-19 with more resistance and resilience! l’m happy and proud to say we are now a thriving, young company looking forward to more success in the future.
Has your approach to sales and marketing changed?
For the most part, our sales approach has remained the same throughout the pandemic. Since we already developed a great customer base and were very familiar with who our target segments were for both B2C and B2B, we thought it best to put more focus on our social media content on platforms like Facebook and Instagram. However, in some ways we were required to transition and shift our sales approach, since one of our main revenue streams was our in-person sales at various trade shows and events. Additionally, we had to pivot some of our marketing strategy and focus more on online opportunities.
Normally, we would have been participating at various trade shows and special events across Canada, but with the COVID-19 cancellations and restrictions, we had to adapt — so we moved to signing up for online virtual shows and venues. This really worked out well for us; we gained some traction and generated more sales through a lot of organic reach. lt also proved to be beneficial in other ways; it decreased some of our business expenses like travel and accommodations, and for the most part, the cost of fees and registrations were lower at the online events versus in person. On another note, I do believe having developed a website with a user-friendly e-commerce platform was a significant factor for our continued sales and overall growth of the company during this pandemic.
“If I were to only choose one important piece of advice to give to any entrepreneur in any industry, it would be to surround yourself and build meaningful relationships with like-minded, positive people.”
How has technology played a role in your business during this time?
Since starting this company, technology has played a very important role for us. For pretty much everything we do in our daily activities and operations, we rely on technology. I have a small but mighty team who work remotely, so in order to communicate effectively, we started adding more digital tools to our operations. We use tools like Asana and Trello which help us stay organized with various projects and events. We also use digital tools for tracking, traceability, and inventory, just to name a few. I’m always willing to try new things that may help with organizing and managing the company!
It’s been extremely important to utilize what we have in place for Wabanaki Maple, such as our website, online store, and our social media platforms. With these tools and platforms, we can take a quick glance at any given moment to check out our analytics, financials, or any other important information. The use of technology has been a great way to communicate with both my team and others outside the business. Web meetings have helped bridge the gap throughout the pandemic. In the beginning stages of starting this company, I wasn’t much of a fan of digital tools, due to a lack of use and knowledge. I’ve definitely had a change of mindset in adapting to the digital world. Overall, incorporating various digital tools into my daily practices and managing the business has been of great value for me, the team, and the company.
How have you managed your mindset (and that of your team)?
For me, staying positive and productive on a daily basis can often be challenging. Personally, I’m one who appreciates routine in in my life, but operating and managing a business is just the opposite! With having to address so many different business matters both internally and externally, I’ve found that shifting from one role or another can be exhausting at times. However, I still try to maintain a certain level of routine throughout my day.
l tend to start work very early in the morning — usually at 5:30am — because I know I’m most productive during the first several hours in the morning. And if I’m experiencing a difficult or challenging day, I remind myself, “this too shall pass.” I’ve realized that stepping away and taking time for myself to reset and recharge is what works best for me. Stepping away for me often looks like taking a long walk or hike through our nearby forests and trails with my four dogs, or simply working in my flower and vegetable garden, which I love and consider my own ‘therapy,’ so to speak. Connecting with Mother Nature helps to keep me grounded, energized, and is my self care.
We are a small team at Wabanaki Maple, but I think that communication is key when it comes to managing our mindset. We use a number of communication tools and meet on a regular basis so we can have important social interaction with each other. We try to keep our conversations open and often have fun with them, and I also encourage my team to reach out to me if ever they need to chat. I think it’s probably been the most challenging to not have daily, in-person interaction with each other throughout the pandemic. Thankfully, we are now moving towards business as usual with many of the restrictions being lifted in our area!
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to all entrepreneurs in your industry today?
If I were to only choose one important piece of advice to give to any entrepreneur in any industry, it would be to surround yourself and build meaningful relationships with like-minded, positive people. In other words, a strong network of friends, mentors, coaches, or other business owners that will support you — and vice versa. They can be an invaluable asset at any stage of your business. I personally have a wonderful circle of friends, family, and mentors who I know I can count on to share their knowledge, guidance, and experience with me. There’s been countless times I’ve connected to them for their support in finding solutions or navigating through a business obstacle. Sometimes, through my experience of simply just having a conversation, I’ve gained more insight, perspective, knowledge, and confidence about entrepreneurship and business practices as a whole.