Downtown Peterborough entrepreneurs who won storefronts share personal stories of anxiety and growth
By Taylor Clysdale
March 8, 2019
Tina Bromley says building up her business and opening her own storefront became a personal journey, finding success despite losing a cornerstone in her life
More dilapidated and empty storefronts in downtown Peterborough have been reinvigorated in recent years with youthful energy of new businesses starting up.
In part it’s due to the Win This Space contest, an annual challenge hosted by the Downtown Peterborough Business Improvement Area where new-business owners flesh out their plans for a chance win a downtown storefront with free rent for a year.
But ask either of the previous winners and they’ll tell you their stories don’t begin or end with the contest. Being a small-business owner has required more effort, stress and self-challenging than anyone could anticipate. It’s a deeply personal journey where self-improvement has been a constant focus.
Winning the contest? Both victors say that was the easy part.
But learning how to run a business, growing and maturing as you go? That’s the real test.
Nadine McCallen fills bottled with oils in the back of her shop. She walks customers through her products in her storefront which smells like a spiced forest.
Her business, Ritual Apothecary, sells herbal remedies, organic skin care products, bath bombs, soaps and more. Much of it is handmade by McCallen.
In 2018 she won the Win This Space contest and launched her homegrown business into a storefront on Charlotte Street.
McCallen says she loves her work and enjoys learning, but the past year she’s aged a lot. She says she never really ever stops working nowadays.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been this tired or unhealthy,” she says. “You can actually see the amount I’ve done in such a short time on my face, and I’m not upset about that.”
Every day her anxieties are provoked when she wonders if she’s going to get enough walk-in traffic to cover her costs. She deals with it in different ways. Some days she cries.
But through her exhaustion she’s felt energized. She’s met new people and been involved in a community, and that’s given her a place to belong.
McCallen started Ritual Apothecary about four-and-a-half years ago, making products in her kitchen and selling them at markets and gift shows.
Over time she managed to get some wholesalers on board with her business and it began to generate enough income that she quit her day job to dedicate herself to her passion full-time.
In 2018 she entered the Win This Space contest. Once she was announced as a finalist she spent three months doing the required programming, part of which is designing a business plan.
“It gave me the confidence and the numbers to see something like this could be profitable and the confidence to work my ass off,” she says.
When it was announced she had won Win This Space, he was shocked and admits she doesn’t really remember what she said on stage despite having a speech prepared just in case.
“I was incredibly stunned, I didn’t think I would win,” she says.
But winning the contest was just another step and the next one, preparing her new storefront, was a different kind of challenge.
She and her partner renovated the space themselves and used recycled materials. Her partner learned how to make tables and shelves by hand.
“Building the store was expensive but it was easy and it was really thrilling to be here 16 hours a day doing it,” says McCallen.
To renovate the space cost $30,000, which was money she didn’t have. It was such a rush to get ready she didn’t realize she had to prepare products to line the shelves.
And even when the stress of opening passed, the pressure to perform day-to-day has become consistent. The worst part of her day is wondering whether any customers will show up.
“You are in complete anxiety that anybody will come in,” says McCallen.
But in the end customers continue to show up and support her business, relieving those tensions.
“You leave going, ‘It’s OK, it’s OK, people still like me,’” she says. “There’s not a single day you escape that feeling.”
Despite that pressure consistently pressing down on her she says there’s an energy to her work. She says she continues to make it through each day, even though some days are harder.
And her experiences as a small-business owner have changed her. Throughout this process she’s lost family members, moved into a new house and lost friends while gaining others.
But it’s given her a place to belong and she’s satisfied with that.
“I’ve never really had a place before and that’s nice, and emotionally that’s made me feel very good,” she says.
Soon her period of free rent granted by the Win This Space contest will end, and she says she’ll make it through. She’ll have less money in her bank account each month but she’ll figure it out.
Talking to McCallen it’s easy to see that it isn’t a simple path for startups to find success. It's a complicated, but ultimately rewarding path.
Tina Bromley, owner of Tiny Greens Plant Café, knows that feeling well. She sits in her storefront, surrounded by miniature potted plants and workshop tables.
As she sits down for her interview a customer walks in. She’s a regular, and was also Bromley’s 10,000th customer which earned her a lifetime 10-per-cent discount.
Turning Tiny Greens into a downtown business was a process that involved her going down a path without her mother, who was one of her most important supporters. But she says she’s proud of what she’s managed to create and how she’s managed to change herself throughout.
“Being an entrepreneur, it’s not just about business. For me it’s like an exciting journey of the self,” she says.
Bromley was raised in a family of entrepreneurs and began working with microgreens after having her first child, to try and improve her health.
While it started as a hobby, people around her started offering to pay for her microgreens so she began to consider expanding it into a business.
After her third child she says money was tight and she wanted to help pay the bills, so she started taking her microgreens to the farmers market. She began to see success at the market and was even taking special orders.
But about seven months after starting at the market, her mother died.
“My mother was my biggest supporter, my cheerleader, my safety net,” she says.
Bromley spent a year in mourning, where her supportive husband went to the markets in her absence. She took that time to grieve over the loss of someone she considered to be her best friend.
Bromley says she had to learn to move on, and run her business, without her mother, to create a better life for her family.
In 2017 Bromley applied for the first Win This Space contest. She says going through the process for the contest “challenged every part of me” and doing it without her mother “was painful.”
But she also says she might not have gone on the journey if her mother was still alive, because of the amount of unknowns and risks.
“I think she would have lovingly encouraged me not to do it,” she says.
For her Win This Space wasn’t just an opportunity, but it gave her a chance to grow as a person. She says at the time she was going through the process to win her storefront she was feeling so much loss.
But the hole in her chest was filled with purpose.
“I needed the community to pull me up and they did it without even knowing what they were doing,” says Bromley.
Like McCallen starting her own storefront offered its own challenges, but ones she was eager to take on.
She says she had to find ways to get people to come into the store, and throughout the Win This Space process felt like she had “niched” her business.
Her business had to expand and be more multifaceted. Win This Space gave her exposure and a community but she had to create a business where people would walk through her doors.
“Through that our business model changed,” she says, adding beforehand she “didn’t have the experience to know what was required to run a successful bricks and mortar store.”
She added an interactive plant shop to her storefront so people can design their own arrangements. She also focused more on the storefront and customers rather than the wholesale side.
The image of her store has tightened, she says, and her business’ focus has changed and adapted. It’s felt satisfying to create positive changes in people’s lives.
“We want people to feel like this is a social enterprise,” she adds.
Through mourning and learning she’s managed to shape her business into something she’s proud of, and something she knows her mother would be proud of too.
She also notes how she’s managed to do so while being a “mom-trepreneur” and how mothers make up a relatively small number of startup business owners.
Win This Space is sentimental to her, because it helped send her down a path of personal growth.
And that’s something McCallen, Bromley and many other entrepreneurs share in common. Ideas are conceived, scrapped, improved and challenges no one can see coming have to be dealt with.
But you deal, you overcome and you grow.
“Everything I’ve worked for, when I see how it comes out of it, I feel really good and it’s actually how I stay happy,” says McCallen.