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Productive pandemic: How this entrepreneur used her downtime to build for the future

Deborah Foster-Stahle found new revenue sources and planned investments that will fuel future growth

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Deborah Foster-Stahle

Deborah Foster-Stahle was like many Canadian entrepreneurs hit by stay-at-home measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lockdown instantly eliminated 65% of revenues at Foster-Stahle’s quickly growing company, OfficeInc! Corp., in Barrie, Ontario, which rents office, meeting and kitchen space to businesses and other organizations.

Much of her income had come from clients who rented the various meeting rooms, including her 550-square-metre space for business and professional events. Indoor events with in-house catering were restricted for several months due to government measures, imposed to control the spread of the virus. “It was pretty lean in terms of revenue,” Foster-Stahle says.

But thanks to a quick pivot to new revenue sources and advice from a BDC coach, Foster-Stahle was able not only to keep her business afloat, but also position herself more strongly for future growth.

Fared better than strictly co-work businesses

She fared better than many similar companies that offered mostly co-working space in shared office environments, which were especially affected by COVID-19 restrictions.

When she started the business in 2017, Foster-Stahle decided to offer both state-of-the-art meeting rooms, 15 private full-time and occasional offices, and very limited co-working seats as a way to differentiate her facility in the market. The decision paid off when the pandemic struck because clients could still rent closed-off spaces for operations.

Foster-Stahle quickly adapted the premises to these clients’ needs amid the new COVID-19 infection-control requirements. Steps included adapting meeting room layouts, installing automated hand-sanitizing stations and directional signage to facilitate physical distancing, shifting from buffet to plated food service, gathering visitor information for contact tracing, and pre-visit online screening for virus symptoms.

It also helped that she was able to hang on to some clients that remained operational since they provided essential services. They gave her business a crucial lifeline as they continued renting office space at OfficeInc!.

Used downtime to think strategically

Fortunately, just before the pandemic hit, Foster-Stahle had started a BDC strategic planning consulting mandate.

She used the downtime to think more strategically about her business. With help from her BDC coach, whom she mostly met online, she honed future plans to expand her office-space concept to other cities, through franchising or licencing. She also examined her gaps as a business leader and thought about ways to increase her entrepreneurial capacity.

“My background is in strategic planning, but quite honestly, it’s hard to do that for yourself,” she says. “Because I had more time, I could focus on important but less urgent projects that I may not have worked on otherwise.”

The reflection also convinced Foster-Stahle to invest in new technologies to help take her business to the next level. And she’s not the only business owner to come to this conclusion. Forty percent of Canadian entrepreneurs plan on investing in new technologies in the next three years, according to a 2020 BDC study. Allowing social distancing, optimizing processes and cutting costs, and improving the customer experience for online clients were the three most cited reasons for deciding to invest in new technologies.

Foster-Stahle for her part decided on the need to invest in new accounting software to get a better handle on her finances. She’s also pursuing another coaching mandate with BDC to improve her financial management, which she believes will help her execute her growth plans more effectively.

Finally, Foster-Stahle invested in new sales and marketing systems to help her team gain sales leads and organize follow-ups.

Coaching provided a sounding board

Her coach also became an important sounding board for thinking about new ways to generate income.

A significant uptick in kitchen rental revenue emerged as a result of the pandemic. Many new food businesses were launched in the area during the lockdown, and they needed certified commercial kitchen space to produce their fare. Foster-Stahle was able to attract these companies into her commercial kitchen space.

Before the lockdown, this space had mostly been used for in-house catering for office clients and events. But the kitchen was now dormant due to COVID-19 measures.

Several business start-ups approached Foster-Stahle to rent the kitchen for food preparation for delivery, a service that could still be offered during the lockdown. Two of the start-ups were led by people who had lost other income because of the pandemic and decided to become what Foster-Stahle calls “foodpreneurs.”

Helping start-ups is a passion

She now earns more per square metres from her kitchen than office rental. Foster-Stahle nurtures the food businesses by offering informal guidance on food handling certifications, marketing and insurance and connecting them with other business services.

“Helping start-ups is part of my passion,” she says. “The ‘Inc’ in OfficeInc! actually stands for ‘incubator.’”

Food was also the inspiration for another new revenue source: A recipe book titled #Yum. Foster-Stahle and her food service manager co-authored the cookbook featuring favourite recipes from the OfficeInc! team, vendors and other local businesses.

Online and hybrid meetings a new opportunity

As lockdown measures started to ease, Foster-Stahle saw yet another opportunity: Offering video-conferencing services in her premises. Now, clients can rent a space to hold online or hybrid meetings, with some participants online and others present in-person. OfficeInc! provides online meeting access and can set up polling, ideal for not-for-profit meetings that require voting.

“This has opened a whole new world of business opportunities,” Foster-Stahle says. “A lot of companies are not reopening their offices for a long time. We’re in the commuter belt of Toronto, so there is a huge market for satellite or occasional offices, or space for businesspeople to meet with their team or clients in a safe, comfortable environment.”

“We’re starting to get a lot more clients of this kind. Many are health-conscious and want to make sure they have a safe office or meeting space.”

Recovered lost revenue

Thanks to all her steps to adapt, Foster-Stahle not only kept her business chugging along; she even managed to recover lost revenue.

By year’s end, she expects sales to match last year’s number even after the precipitous drop-off in income during the initial five months of the crisis.

“I’m pretty optimistic,” she says. “I don’t tend to stay in a negative place. We’re building back stronger right now.”

3 lessons learned

OfficeInc!’s Deborah Foster-Stahle shares these tips for how she managed to keep her business afloat and bounce back more strongly in the pandemic.

Reflect

“Use your downtime really well. Don’t sit back and take a vacation. Work on your business.”

Adapt

“Pivot to find new ways to generate revenue.”

Get better

“Learn from challenges to get stronger. Work on gaps in your business and your skills as an entrepreneur.”

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