Making it work: How entrepreneurs can find advice and support

A ‘Table to Farm’ supper organized by the Flying Apron Cookery. (Image: The Flying Apron)

The dream is simple: leave the big city behind for the tranquil environs of the country. But unless you are lucky enough to be independently wealthy, the rural dream often begins and ends with one simple challenge: finding meaningful employment.

One of the best ways to make country living work is to become your own boss. This is particularly true in a place like Nova Scotia, where jobs outside urban centres are few and far between.

While starting your own business is no easy feat, the good news is that support is available in a number of different forms, from provincial programs to independent organizations.

Melissa Velden, who co-owns the Tantallon-based Flying Apron Cookery with her husband Chris, found the help she was looking for in FarmWorks Investment Cooperative. FarmWorks, based in Wolfville, was founded in 2011 as a way to promote community investment in food production and increase access to sustainable local food in Nova Scotia, according to board member Linda Best.

Last spring, with a business plan in hand, the Veldens were about to approach their credit union for a loan to expand their catering business by opening a food truck. But a chance encounter with Best led them to rethink their plans. “I met Linda at a workshop and she was telling our group about FarmWorks. I described the Flying Apron and our future plans to her and she suggested we participate in the next ‘Dragons Den’ event.”

These showcases, modeled on the popular television show, are organized by FarmWorks each year to give entrepreneurs a chance to pitch business ideas to a panel of food, agriculture and business professionals, known as ‘Gentle Dragons’. The dragons act as a sounding board, offering advice and suggestions and asking questions to strengthen the proposed ideas.

“We’ve presented two times at the Gentle Dragons events,” says Velden. In the first session, held in April 2012, the couple pitched their food truck idea and received feedback and questions exploring the financial side of their current business and what had been accomplished in their first year of operation.

A potential customer samples the Flying Apron’s products before buying. (Image: The Flying Apron)

Armed with that feedback, the Veldens sat down to work on honing their plans. “It was during the business plan process for FarmWorks that we figured out we really didn’t want to be doing a food truck and selling on the side of the road. Instead, we decided that we wanted to focus on culinary education.”

So last month they headed back to the Dragons’ Den, armed with a new pitch. This time, the idea was for a mobile culinary education centre that would facilitate what the couple likes to call ‘Table to Farm’.

“Table to Farm Dinners will offer guests an opportunity to connect with the farmer and the chef,” Velden says. “They’ll learn about the food they’re eating and the culinary techniques that create their dinners.” The truck will travel to schools, farmer’s markets and community centres across the province to offer cooking demonstrations and food education to as wide an audience as possible.

“The questions and comments at both events were helpful in writing the business plan, as they gave us a bit more insight into what FarmWorks would be looking for when considering our loan application,” she says.

Jo Ann Fewer, the CEO of Perennia, which offers extension services to farmers and food producers in Nova Scotia, was one of the dragons to offer feedback on the Veldens’ pitch. Although the ideas were in various stages of development, Fewer says they displayed innovation either in their delivery mechanism or because they were a prototype of something that has yet to be developed. She is hopeful that the ideas can fill a gap in the marketplace.

“I’m excited about the new green technology under development, about how some entrepreneurs have combined their culinary capability with event planning to create totally new customer experiences, and how others are using social media to spread the good news about agriculture and food,” she says, recapping just a few of the ideas heard at the showcase.

Velden says they could have pursued a loan from their financial institution at a lower interest rate, but she chose to work with FarmWorks for the added value the organization brings. “We feel we will be able to get more support as a young business with FarmWorks than with the bank. The plethora of advisors from all types of backgrounds that are available for guidance is hugely beneficial to us as we continue to grow and figure out our future path.”

She says FarmWorks also shares a similar vision for food and agriculture in Nova Scotia.

“Farmworks gets what we are trying to do. They share our passion for changing and growing the local food system. A bank just wouldn’t understand our vision to the same degree.”

A few words of advice from Melissa:

  • Know and truly understand the market you want to get into and where it stands in terms of what’s happening with current trends.
  • No matter how unique your product is, there is always competition. Be prepared to be creative in order to stand out.
  • Regardless of what type of business you are starting, you must have a passion for what you’re doing. You need that internal motivator to keep you moving through the tough times – and there will always be tough times in any form of self-employment!
  • Align yourself with people who know what they are doing when it comes to business. You will need their support and guidance at many stages of your business.
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