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Q&A: Colleen Imrie, founder of The Nooks, is reimagining retail for Canadian artisans.

Here’s how she managed her business through the pandemic.

Colleen Imrie

Colleen Imrie is founder of The Nooks, a retail business incubator for Canadian artisans and entrepreneurs. Colleen created her business to help others build their own successful creative businesses and follow their dreams. With eight retail locations and an online marketplace, The Nooks is one of Canada’s go-to shops for handmade Canadian goods for customers, and with continued, community-based business support, it is also one of Canada’s go-to retail spaces for vendors.

 

How have you managed your business finances through the pandemic?

COVID-19 provided me with the opportunity to re-evaluate our budgets and where the leaks were in the business — leaks we possibly might have not known existed. We dug deeper into the data of the marketing, social, digital, and operational costs it takes (and does not take!) to not just sustain, but to substantially scale The Nooks business and our vendors during a global lockdown. 

I decided early on that The Nooks was not going to take on any government funding, line of credits, or debt to sustain itself during the pandemic and beyond. Instead, I looked at our cash reserves, our growth strategy, and where money could be cleaned up and budgeted for two years without compromising what we stand for, or taking on money we did not raise ourselves. I released a formal COVID-19 response immediately to our customers and vendors, outlining how we are protecting our vendors and their participation with us no matter what — and the steps we were taking to do so. We protected our vendors and their investment in their business with us. No one would be burdened with paying membership fees during lockdown, and no one was going to be left behind. 

I took our 18-month growth plan and condensed it into eight months, and this was the best thing for my business. Collapsing time tested and strengthened my vision, trust, and leadership. COVID-19 challenged the business to either step up, or step aside — and we’ve successfully positioned The Nooks to be in a league of our own, dominating and leading our retail industry. 

Part of collapsing the growth plan timeline was building systems and technology, and focusing heavily on the relationships within the business. We increased membership prices by 10 to 15% before 2021, implementing both paid and free programs for my internal vendors to help continue to grow their business with us while our stores were closed, and we also hosted a virtual music festival. I continued my commitment to showing up daily for my vendors via email, phone and through our private Facebook group. The business strategy changed during the pandemic —  our integrity did not. 

 

Has your approach to sales and marketing changed? 

Our stores have always been a social hub for customers and vendors to connect as well as a retail experience, introducing our communities to the local, handmade businesses we represent. When COVID hit and our eight retail locations were closed for months, we quickly turned to our newsletters, our mobile app, website, and of course, our vendors, to keep the connection alive with our customers. We didn’t add any new channels, just enhanced our efforts towards existing digital and social outlets! We saw COVID as an opportunity to also share elements of our business that weren’t as known, and share our expertise in other areas beyond retail — like our nookSTART business program. 

 

“The biggest shift in my business has been the practice of alignment. Doing the work of understanding my Human Design, the blueprint of who I am, and how I “work!” I encourage anyone who feels the only way to success is with hustle, sacrifice, and “working harder” (and maybe not getting anywhere doing all those things!) to connect with their design.”

 

How has technology played a role in your business during this time?

Since December 2019, the development of our custom software to automate our business had been in the works. When COVID hit early March 2020, we had some components of the development ready to “test” internally with our vendors, while our retail stores were closed. While the development of our software continued, we launched The Nooks mobile app in December 2020. This allowed us to further connect with our customers and share our makers’ products, stories, and promotions in an entirely new way! Over 300 of our vendors now live on our customers’ phones countrywide! 

We had plans for an app, but the timelines didn’t make sense anymore, and we saw the opportunity to launch it during holiday, while “shipping” was the norm for getting anything — especially during the biggest gift giving month of the year. COVID helped us cut to the chase with Beta testing for our software — we did not wait for it to be perfect and pretty until we moved on to the next phase and strategy of development. The Beta testing and building co-existed at the same time. Using the “down time” some of our vendors had supported the testing, and getting quick feedback helped make adjustments and carry on without some of life’s pre-COVID distractions. 

 

How have you managed your mindset (and that of your team)?

I have been studying Human Design, my energy type, and other self-development methods for over a year and experimenting with how I work best, lead, and how I am to be “seen” by others — and how I see myself. This practice and alignment has helped me put my needs first so I can show up best for my relationships, my community, team, and business. 

To recharge and reconnect I have early morning quiet time by myself in my home office with a coffee. This quiet time involves a mix of reading a chapter in a book, listening to a podcast, spiritual reflection, catching live lectures from some coaches I work with, researching new ideas, and playing in Canva! I take time to reflect and journal out my thoughts and feelings so I can read the wave of my emotions and get clarity on my next step. I do not need hours at the spa or “days off” to rest — I have daily, mini practices that work best for my life and business, and allow me to carry on doing what I love, no matter what comes up! 

 

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to all entrepreneurs in your industry today?

The biggest shift in my business has been the practice of alignment. Doing the work of understanding my Human Design, the blueprint of who I am, and how I “work!” I encourage anyone who feels the only way to success is with hustle, sacrifice, and “working harder” (and maybe not getting anywhere doing all those things!) to connect with their design. Not only does this practice and learning of Human Design continually blow my mind, it’s had a huge impact on my energy and clarity, and showed me the best way to lead myself and others. I’ve grown and continue to grow a wildly successful business for myself and for others to succeed. 

Looking for more advice, stories, and inspiration from fellow entrepreneurs? We’ve partnered with Cisco Designed and the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) to bring you What Next — a resource to help you plan your next step in every aspect of your business.