Into the wind - adapt to new ways of doing business

Sarah Erasmus smiles into the camera.
SAIT grad and small business owner Sarah Erasmus explores how to build an Indigenous-inspired and resilient small business during COVID-19.

An unprecedented pandemic; a difficult economic outlook; global uncertainty — these overwhelming challenges call for innovation and insight. They also call for conversation, discussion and debate — for gaining personal perspectives from people on the frontlines.

Back in 2010 when Sarah Erasmus (DGC ’10) founded Erasmus Apparel — a Northern-inspired clothing line that incorporates her Indigenous culture into its designs — she knew she had to be ready for the challenges of artistic entrepreneurship.

A few months before she had even graduated from SAIT’s Graphic Communications and Print Technology diploma program, she was working on getting Erasmus Apparel up and running. After working through the initial challenges of launching a small business, like working long hours and training new staff, the business grew. Foot traffic increased to Erasmus Apparel’s Yellowknife-based brick-and-mortar store, they received large wholesale orders from other businesses, and Erasmus travelled and sold her products at festivals.

Leadership in the business world

In the first five years of business, Erasmus Apparel sold more than 60,000 products and won People’s Choice Awards from the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce and local magazine Up Here. In 2013, the Council for the Advancement of Native Development Officers recognized her leadership in the business world, awarding her the title of Aboriginal Private Sector Business Economic Developer of the Year. And Erasmus was recognized as one of SAIT’s two Outstanding Young Alumni award recipients in 2015.

But current challenges have meant Erasmus has had to shift gears. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the doors of small businesses worldwide to shut for weeks on end. When they reopened, foot traffic was minimal. Tourism to Yellowknife was halted, meaning Erasmus couldn’t rely on visitors buying her products as souvenirs. And the festival circuit was cancelled completely.

Digital focus

As in-person sales opportunities slowed, Erasmus had to adapt. Now, her day-to-day business strategy involves a lot more time on digital platforms. Specifically, this means a focus on social media engagement to maintain brand awareness and to encourage online sales.

"As a small business owner, you can only do so much. But digital is the way things are going and that isn’t going to change any time soon." 

“With so many unknowns, it’s hard to know what the future of the retail sector will look like,” says Erasmus. “Every day, you wake up and fight to get the sales — and that is never going to stop. But business owners will need to adapt to a new way of reaching out to customers.”

Erasmus says that’s where digital know-how can help with the resilience of a small business. For her, future-proofing means having the knowledge and confidence to use digital platforms to reach customers. And that’s where SAIT’s new School for Advanced Digital Technology can play a role in helping prepare future business owners.

“I think SAIT’s new school will teach students how to use digital tools properly,” says Erasmus. “And that can help students grow into successful small business professionals.”

Sarah Erasmus shares three tips for building resilient small businesses.

Erasmus sees technology and digital literacy in the small business sector as hugely important for maintaining brand recognition, increasing brand awareness and driving sales. For example, she has taught herself how to elevate her social media strategy by reading articles about effective social media engagement. Now, she relies on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to remind customers to shop local and to let them know when new products are available on her company website.

“As a small business owner, you can only do so much,” says Erasmus. “But digital is the way things are going and that isn’t going to change any time soon. Professionals working in this sector need to learn how to use digital tools to reach the millions of potential customers out there.”

Into the wind series

LINK magazine reached out to eight past recipients of SAIT’s Alumni Awards, asking for their advice on meeting the future, head-on. Dive into the series, Into the wind...