Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Erin Brillon, owner of Totem Design House, located in Courtenay, BC, Canada.
What's your business, and who are your customers?
We are a 100% Indigenous-owned and operated Social Enterprise that designs and produces an array of apparel, jewelry, fine art, and wellness products from our studio and retail store on K'omoks First Nation, Vancouver Island.
Tell us about yourself
I grew up in the Native art world and witnessed its many forms of exploitation. The sad truth is that the people who make the most money from Native art are not Indigenous. I also grew tired of seeing our illustrious art form being "trinketized" and cheapened by the array of tourist products being mass-produced overseas while paying only nominal royalties to the Native artists (if at all). This prompted my desire to design and produce a line of apparel and jewelry that retains the high-quality design worthy of the artistic masters that came before us, working with my brother and fiancé, who are incredible artists. The foundation of my business is to produce in a way that retains our Indigenous values, creating a local economy, sourcing as locally as possible, and being as eco-friendly as possible. And of course, as a Social Enterprise and coming from decades of work in the Indigenous no-profit realm of community work - giving back to empowerment-based projects through Copper Legacy Indigenous Empowerment continues to be a huge passion for me.
What's your biggest accomplishment as a business owner?
Overcoming all the obstacles to building our home/studio and retail space on reserve. Most Canadians are largely unaware of how extremely challenging, if not impossible, obtaining a mortgage is on First Nations Reserves. With F.N. Band-approved mortgage covering less than half the cost of building, we had to work 24/7 to save for years, then apply for business loans to make it all work. Designing every square inch of the home/workspace, overseeing the build, setting up new to us equipment all while running my business from our tiny two-bedroom home was the most stressful time of my life - but so worth it in the end. And, of course - thriving through a global pandemic is pretty epic as well. We've doubled our revenue three years in a row, from 2019-to 2021. I am extremely proud of the growth.
What's one of the hardest things that come with being a business owner?
Wearing so many hats, I've had to force myself to learn so many tasks and skillsets - from accounting, website development, production equipment, and so many computer programs. As someone who was a "solopreneur" for the first six years of my business, I literally handled every aspect of the company on my own.
What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today?
Make sure you love it enough to work 24/7, even when you're tired and need a break. You really have to build your stamina to be able to handle the output. I still struggle to find "balance" (is this even a thing?? ), and my mind is always on all the moving pieces of my business, even when I am taking downtime.
Where can people find you and your business?
If you like what you've read here and have your own story as a solopreneur that you'd like to share, then email firstname.lastname@example.org; we'd love to feature your journey on these pages.
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