Pivoting During COVID-19: How One Entrepreneur Is Supporting Fellow Business Owners

Kelly Bergeron the creator of Cornwall gift certificates.

Now is a time for resilience and ingenuity. Many of us must now adapt, pivot, and find new ways to grow. In this episode of Shopify Masters, we chat with Kelly Bergeron, a resident of Cornwall, Ontario, who, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, sprung into action to help small businesses in her area. Kelly, with support from Cornwall Mayor Bernadette Clement, built an online store selling gift certificates to over 100 local businesses, enabling her community to find and patronize these businesses. 

At Shopify, we’re committed to doing everything we can to support small businesses during this time. Visit shopify.com/covid19 to learn more and access support resources for independent businesses.

For the full transcript of this episode, click here.

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    Springing into action to help local businesses

    Felix Thea: Tell us about Cornwall gift certificates and how you sprung into action to launch the project. 

    Kelly Bergeron: We’re in almost full lockdown with a pandemic, and everyone is talking about flattening the curve. I work online and understood that many of our restaurants and local establishments would have to shutter within days, knowing the trends that were happening with COVID-19 in China and Italy. So, essentially, I put together a minimum viable product, an MVP, in six hours, and I uploaded a very small list of businesses that I knew would need the support and started messaging people at our chamber of commerce. I learned a lot through hackathons I hosted and the mayor was part of those hackathons as a judge. 

    Felix: When you decided you wanted to do this, what were some of the key things you wanted to focus on? 

    Kelly: I think the circumstances are quite different here, because we just wanted to go live as soon as possible. So I wasn’t thinking too much about descriptions and going over details with each business, because then you start getting into the weeds. I thought, “I’m going to put a product out there. I’m going to tell them about it. I’m going to show the community and just get the word out that we built this and worry about those extra details later.” We wanted to spring into action because restaurants, their margin is so small they would be at risk of closing down more quickly than other businesses with more cash flow. So, it wasn’t about getting to the nitty-gritty details, it was just about getting something out there, showing them what was possible. And the response has been phenomenal. You know, we’re a small city of 50,000 people, a very resilient territory. 

    Bernadette Clement: Yes, we always acknowledge that we are on the traditional territory of the Mohawk people of Akwesasne along the Saint Lawrence River. So, I think that the beauty of this size of community is that you can spring into action, and you actually know the local businesses. We know them by name. And so, when we went into a provincial declaration of emergency here, we heard that restaurants had to close for in-dining experiences and bars had to close. We know these folks. They’re our friends and neighbors and family. So it was really great to see Kelly spring into action, as she describes, and it had to be done quickly because the responses needed to happen right away. People had angst and anguish, and so we wanted to be responsive. And I always appreciate, in this size of community, that we have entrepreneurs like Kelly who can move that swiftly, because this is a rapidly evolving cloud. We know hour by hour that things are changing, and so to be able to respond as quickly has been really impressive.

    Some of the shops on Main Street in Cornwall, Ontario.
    Lou Matera built his parachute as he went when he dove headfirst into launching Youth Sport Nutrition. Cornwall Tourism

    Felix: For some entrepreneurs, it’s not typical to think about involving the government. Let’s break that myth: what are ways that the local government has been able to assist in moving things along? 

    Bernadette: The closest level of government to the people is the mayor and council. And so local entrepreneurs have access directly to us. I mean, Kelly messaged me immediately when she had this idea. That means I can go on Twitter and start to say, “Oh, you know what, the city and the city council are interested in this” and start a quick dialogue so that entrepreneurs understand they have access to us, they can message us, they can tell us what their needs are. And that’s the beauty of a local government. We’re close to the folks and they know how to reach us.

    Kelly: Yeah, definitely. And you run into government officials all the time in the city. It’s just like Parks and Rec.

    How to approach government officials for support 

    Felix: What should an entrepreneur be prepared with when they do want to approach their local government to get assistance or just get access to the community? 

    Kelly: I think you need to have a lot of confidence in yourself in order to do that. And you need to be able to own your ideas. I mean, I just made a presentation to council about two months ago, about city, urban design, placemaking, and how art in the city is so important. I’ve only been back here for four years. I moved away for 20 years to San Francisco. So, it took me a while to build up those relationships and that trust. But you definitely have to build up trust. You can’t just go in and be like, “I’m going to take over, and I have all these ideas, and you have to listen to me.” You have to show people that there’s trust there and that you’re not in it for money. And so this platform is not a business to me. It’s a social enterprise. I’m not taking a cut of anything. I’m all about helping our entrepreneurs and bricks-and-mortar shops get what they need in order to feel supported and to survive during this time of need.

    Bernadette: And the other thing that local officials are looking for, when we’re approached by entrepreneurs, is how much collaboration has previously taken place. So, if an entrepreneur comes to us and says, “Listen, I’ve been working with these three others in partnership,” or 10 others, or “I have a petition,” or “I have a group,” that’s always more impactful to local officials.

    Felix: You mentioned that the chamber of commerce was involved as well. How can an entrepreneur work with their local chamber of commerce?

    Kelly: It’s really funny, because we actually just hired a new executive director for our chamber of commerce here. And he’s very innovative, and he has been in tech and has been a coder. So when he took over the position, he invited local entrepreneurs into his office to meet with them, to find out what their pain points were, what their suggestions were. And so, I really took to that way of doing business, and I knew that in order to get the word out quickly and get as much buy-in as possible, I needed to contact him right away and let him know what I was doing. And he scheduled, I believe, an e-newsletter the next day, at seven in the morning. And then we, we’ve just been flooded with responses all week. And honestly, I’ve been talking to people all over the world from the Netherlands, Philippines, UK, US, Jamaica, all these different countries have reached out to say they’ve either replicated what we’ve done, or that they want to, and they want feedback on that. 

    The owners behind the Birchwood Café in Cornwall.
    The owners behind the Birchwood Café, one of the many businesses on Cornwall gift certificates. Perch Magazine

    Felix: Give us a timeline of what was happening in your area. How quickly were you able to start basically developing this website and building the store?

    Bernadette: In Ontario, it started with the school closures. So once the province declared the schools closed for three weeks, people started to get nervous. What was this going to mean? But the following week was when the province determined, on an emergency basis, that they would start closing down the bars and the restaurants. So that happened in the space of about five days. That’s from school closures to declaration of emergency on a provincial level. 

    Kelly: I remember being in the grocery store, I believe on the Thursday, and at four o’clock people were lined up. It was busy. My boyfriend’s a local journalist, and he got a text saying that the schools were closing, and I thought, “Oh my God, this is going to start happening. And we’ve got to move quickly.” And I think, that night, I said to him, “We need to have a worldwide gift certificate platform, because we don’t want people risking their health to go out into stores and restaurants, because this is going to get bad real soon if we don’t stop and flatten the curve.”I sat on it for a couple of days, and then one day I was on Facebook, which I don’t really use for personal reasons, but there was a young lady who had shared, “How can I support local business? I want to get a gift certificate,” and everyone’s like, “Whoa, don’t go in. Stay at home.” And then that’s when I set up a Google spreadsheet and I started sending it around to local businesses

    Steps they took to launch an online gift certificate store 

    For a step by step guide on how to set up gift cards for your store, check out this tutorial

    Felix: Can you walk us through a little more about the logistics involved? Give us a step-by-step of the things you had to start hitting these milestones you had to hit along the way in order to successfully launch this.

    Kelly: Sure. I would say, first of all, get your list together. Go to whomever you need to go to to get a good list of businesses. I know all the businesses in town and knew who was still active and who wasn’t and kind of worked with that. It’s easier in a small town, I have to say. What we did do is, I have a great friend, her name is Chantal Tranchemontagne, and she is the chief creative officer of Big Catch Communications. She created a logo for us, and we decided to share a template of it with whoever reached out. We set up a tab on the website that says, “Start Your Own Campaign.” They can take that template and change the name to their own city. A lot of people already have their own logos, but we thought that would be a nice touch. I downloaded our template and linked to it on the website, and then we created a social media campaign where we’re putting entrepreneurs out there with a sign that says, “I am Main Street.” And Main Street represents everywhere. It’s not just here. Like, our Main Street is called Pit Street. But we wanted it to make sense in other communities as well. So we made it so it was generic enough that people could take it and make it for their own areas.

    I have to say, it was so easy to build out. I’ve worked with Canada Learning Code, I’ve taught people how to use Shopify, but I am in no means an expert. So I would say I’m intermediate level, and I was able to build the store in less than six hours. It was super easy and the certificate is automatically—or, as we say in tech, automagically—created as an email to the customer. So the system is robust, it’s easy to use. I’m working on integrating some other features into the site as well, but there’s all kinds of tutorials out there. I’ve been getting a lot of compliments on the user experience, and the UI, and the graphics that Big Catch Communications created.

    Customers and team members of Schnitzel European Flavours in Cornwall, Ontario.
    Schnitzel European Flavours is one of many restaurants that have closed down operations and is part of the Cornwall gift certificates program. Cornwall Tourism

    Felix: How do the customers that are purchasing these gift certificates redeem them?

    Kelly: We couldn’t really create a store where we could keep track of everyone’s purchases, so we left it up to the business to keep track, because a lot of the businesses here, or some of them at least, don’t use automated POS systems. So what we do is, we have the customer print off their email with the confirmation, the gift card numbers, and they go into the store and the store will have a list of how many gift cards were purchased, under what gift card numbers. We don’t give the whole number, we just give the last four digits for security reasons. And they’re able to manage their balances through that as well. However, moving forward, I would love to come up with an even more robust way to do it. It’s just that we had to move quite quickly in this instance, because we didn’t want anyone feeling that they weren’t being supported. Overcoming challenges while launching quickly

    Felix: What has been the biggest challenge in getting this up so quickly?

    Kelly: It’s really hard to work under these types of circumstances, and I am sure the mayor probably has it a hundred times worse. I think everyone is feeling very overwhelmed with what’s happening. We’ve never seen something at this scale in our lives. Bernadette: Never. Kelly: And so you’re working diligently, you feel like you got to do something, you’ve got to help the community. And I’m lucky, because I work contract work, so I don’t have to work remotely for eight hours a day. I can make my own hours. You start to realize, we’re probably in this for the long haul.

    Bernadette: I find, too, that when you’re under this kind of pressure, and you’re working in collaboration with people, you’re more innovative. I feel like the ideas that are coming from the community, that are coming from council and all of these groups, it’s astounding to me that this kind of pressure also leads to some very heartwarming stories, but also some very innovative stories. So, out of all of this strife and struggle comes some quite brilliant innovations.

    Kelly: It’s a weird time, but you’re also seeing so many people doing really cool things in their communities, and so you’ve got to encourage that entrepreneurship in helping your local community. I feel like at a time like this, it’s a call to action.

    Felix: What are you learning from local businesses about the challenges they’re facing, beyond this problem that you are currently solving, that other aspired entrepreneurs trying to solve their own problems might want to try to help and tackle?

    Kelly: Oh, for sure. I think fintech is a big one. So financial services would be a huge opportunity right now—to develop a system that can handle the amount of money coming from government and distributing it amongst the population. I was thinking about that today, and fintech, I think there’s a lot of opportunity there to be innovative, and our government actually created a portal really quickly that welcomes people to pitch their ideas to the federal government in this time of crisis. And, obviously, health services is a huge one as well. So you see manufacturers shutting down and using their facilities to build ventilators. So, I think it’s up to entrepreneurs to think about how they can use their knowledge for the betterment of this situation. Getting the local community onboard

    Felix: So you have the website set up. How do you actually drive people to learn more about this program so they can support these businesses?

    Kelly: We've been doing a lot of PR. We’ve been talking to local media. I’ve been featured on television and then local newspapers have covered the story. We’ve pushed it out on social media and a lot through Twitter as well. Bernadette: And also, through my channels as the mayor. I also do Facebook Lives regularly and have been talking about that. So yeah, using also the elected official local government channels.

    A shopper and cashier within a shop at Cornwall, Ontario.
    Lou Matera built his parachute as he went when he dove headfirst into launching Youth Sport Nutrition. Cornwall Tourism

    Kelly: Oh yeah. If you get acknowledged by a mayor—most popular mayor ever—she definitely has some clout around here. When she won her position, people definitely welcomed the change. So a lot of people really look to her. And I need to say this: we had 130 people quarantined in our city about a month ago, from one of the cruise lines, and so the mayor had to spring into action and get the word out as quickly as possible. And she has been the light in the darkness as we move forward. She’s calming, she’s good at making people feel safe. So, I think having some good leadership like that really makes it easy to collaborate and be innovative in this city.

    Bernadette: Well, right back at you, Kelly. I think when you have a community with terrific entrepreneurs that are so community minded, it certainly makes it a lot easier to be in an elected community-leadership position.

    Felix: Yeah, I think the silver lining in this situation is always to see communities come together and seeing private individuals and public officials working together. I’ve never seen it to this scale before, because we’ve never been in a situation like this before, of course. So I appreciate it, both of you coming on and sharing your story, hopefully to inspire others that want to do the same. What is next in your plan to keep this program running or expanded?

    Kelly: I’ve started recruiting partners at the municipal admin level and through the chamber of commerce. So, we definitely want to keep scaling, in terms of getting the word out, telling these businesses that it’s OK to promote it, because some of them have been very humble and very community minded and very polite and have said, “We don’t need the money.”And I say to them, “If you don’t need the money and someone buys a gift certificate, why don’t you buy a gift certificate off another business?” And that’s exactly what they’ve been doing. And so, you see this circle of giving back. We just have to keep pushing this out and we just have to show up for people. I mean, they’re very hard hit. The people that end up with this virus, they’re definitely hardest hit. But I look at other people in the community, and I think our small business owners really, really need our support. So, this is a great way to do it. And the response has just been so great. And I love that the mayor has been on board since the minute I told her.