How Futurpreneur’s 2019 Entrepreneur Of The Year winners adapted during COVID-19 – and why they think now might be the best time to start a new business

Maker Cube was created in 2018 to offer space for cooped-up entrepreneurs lacking accessible workspaces and connect lonely, isolated small business owners – goals that would become even more challenging, and even more crucial, in the years that followed.

The Langley, B.C.-based maker space and entrepreneurial hub, founded by Jacqueline and Adam Ali and Doug Chan, serves creators, makers and small business owners with big goals – and precious little workshop space. As creatives contending with the Lower Mainland’s real estate market, the trio had spent their share of time hunting for homes with basements, eking out work areas in corners of apartments, or even rolling gear into a condo parking garage.

They envisioned a shared workshop stocked with tools and equipment, flanked by private studio spaces that could be rented on a monthly basis, and classes and workshops where makers could expand their skills.

That would be enough of a draw for space-starved entrepreneurs on its own – but the founders also visualized Maker Cube as a vital network for small business owners. In fact, Adam says, they even set a goal to help a certain number of new businesses in their first year.

“You’re not just another body in the space. You have friends here, other makers you can feel connected with,” Jacqueline says.

As they get their businesses and products off the ground, members often trade tips and ideas, share knowledge and even teach one another new skills. That openness runs somewhat counter to how many new entrepreneurs operate when starting out: “A lot of people want to be secretive when they start their projects,’ Adam says. “We leaned into, “Hey, be collaborative when you work with other people. It’ll only make [your concept] stronger.”

That drive to foster community helped Maker Cube land Futurpreneur’s 2019 Entrepreneur Of The Year Award, which honours businesses “who have made a positive contribution to Canada’s entrepreneurial ecosystem”.

As the pandemic blindsided small businesses in early 2020, it was also one of the things that helped Maker Cube stay afloat.

From left: Jacqueline Ali, Adam Ali and Doug Chan.

TRANSPARENCY FIRST

From the beginning, the Maker Cube founders say, they built transparency into the business model. “Discussions with our members about their concerns, asking how they think we should proceed – it’s all in front of them, and that’s very important for building trust,” Adam says.

When COVID-19 prompted the shutdown of the business, they reached out to members and admitted they didn’t know what the future held, but asked members to keep paying their space dues for the time being until they could share more details. “That helped us kind of bridge that first month,” Adam says.

They sprang into action, renovating shared spaces like the washrooms to be easier to clean, spacing out tools, adding new disinfection stations and instituting new cleaning protocols, among other changes.

Now, the facility is disinfected every two hours, on top of makers spraying down tools and touch points after each use. They also created their own booking system to see which spaces would be in use when, which helped with both organization and potential contact tracing.

As a result, the member base remained fairly steady. While numbers dropped after the pandemic, they were quickly joined by returning members, along with a number of new faces – “people who realized how bored they were at home, and now found this place that let them start a new business or be creative,” Jacqueline says.

“We have more members now than before the pandemic.”

‘I THINK THIS IS ACTUALLY THE BEST TIME TO START’

Though 2020 has been a tumultuous time for small businesses of all stripes, the Maker Cube team says a number of their entrepreneurs are thriving, thanks to new supports for small businesses and an increased demand for local products, particularly during the holiday shopping period.

“It’s been a really positive time for a lot of the small businesses we have here,” Jacqueline says. “There’s been a lot more support – Futurpreneur, of course, offers great support. It’s a chance to leave the 9-to-5 or start a side hustle, because everything’s been turned upside down, and if you’re going to start something, it might as well be now.”

Adam adds that Maker Cube “fared just as well had the pandemic not happened, in terms of the support we got.

“For new businesses, I think this is actually the best time to start,” he says. “There are so many programs, so many different ways to get funded. There’s such a demand for a whole new set of products that didn’t exist before.”

Now, Maker Cube is looking at its own next steps: Reaching their goal of 100 members, selling out Phase 5 of their studio spaces, and adding new classes.

And after that? “Hopefully expanding to a couple more units, adding more space, adding more tools. And making changes to accommodate those [new members], too,” Adam says.

“We don’t settle down – that’s basically it.”

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