We are asking Canadians behind great small businesses across the country about their advice for fellow small business owners.
Marc Rodrigue is the co-founder and president of Borealis Fresh Farms, a hydroponic farm that provides fresh greens like kale and joi choi to the people of Timmins, Ontario all year long. Marc and his business partner Alex Cochrane started their business as a way to tackle food insecurity in Northern Ontario by producing more local greens. They have grown their business significantly since starting it in 2018 — they recently doubled production and started growing new products like microgreens and lettuces.
Marc and his business partner Alex Cochrane at Borealis Fresh Farms.
Every small business wants to grow, but growth can be difficult and risky. Marc says that one of the things that helped them expand successfully was being open to client feedback and implementing changes based on that feedback. They also did extensive market research to support those changes.
“Depending on what type of expansion you are doing, you need to make sure the market is there for you do to so,” said Marc. “Metrics can provide some insight, however, the best research is done through direct conversation with some of your existing customers or potential customers to really understand what their needs are.”
But metrics also have their place – especially when trying to understand and refine things like production. For example, they use metrics like looking at the yields of each plant variety to measure the performance of the plants within a certain time frame and environment to discover which varieties grow better. They also use metrics to monitor things like humidity, plant canvas temperature, and ambient temperature of their modular farms. Adjusting these variables allows them to optimize the environment and increase yields as well. Measuring and tracking different variables is something that Marc recommends other business owners incorporate as a way to improve their business' efficiency and results.
Kale seeds at Borealis Fresh Farms.
“Incorporating metrics and using them to help guide us has allowed us to implement new processes and in turn, helped increase our yields and improve our overall workflows,” says Marc.
They've had to make tweaks along the way guided by how much certain variables might change their yields. “We've had to significantly modify our process to ensure we reduce waste and maximize our yields,” said Marc. “Using good metrics throughout the process allowed us to zero in on the right timing for the growth of the plants and implement more efficient workflows.”
Marc and Alex have learned to adapt from past missteps as they grew their business. For example, when they added spinach to their operation, the plants quickly developed bolted stems. These take up a lot of space and made working in that particular area of the farm impossible. That's made them much more careful about what types of plants they grow within the environment of the farm.
Marc thinks business owners should look at their early mistakes as learning opportunities.
“We don't regret any of the decisions made during the start-up process,” he said. “For us, every decision we've made, whether it worked well or not, provided us with a learning opportunity and from there we simply chalked it up to experience. We are continuously learning and improving, which we feel is quite important during any start-up.”
While loving his business and continuing to learn how to run it better, Marc doesn't believe owning a farm – or a small business – is for everyone, “The work that must be put in is significant, so you better enjoy what you're doing.”
Marc found that with the long hours he has to put in to make his business successful, he's needed to redefine what balance looks like. He's trying to enjoy the process of running the business and no longer putting the pressure to live a balanced life on himself.
“Once you're set up and the business is rolling along nicely, it becomes quite enjoyable to run, but there will always be work to do and you must continue to be persistent in your work habits,” he said.
Like with all professions, loving what you do is key -- because then it doesn't feel like work. For Marc and Alex, this purpose comes from their mission to provide fresh local produce to their northern community year-round, free of pesticides and herbicides.
“We wanted to make a positive change to our local food supply,” said Marc. Knowing that he is doing just that helps him keep working hard for his business and community.
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