Meet five Bay Street escapees who left six-figure jobs to work for themselves
They left six-figure corporate jobs for the queasy uncertainty of self-employment. Tales of emptied bank accounts and the elusive but oh-so-sweet gratification of running your own shop
The Candy Man
Tim English, 46
Then: Bay Street lawyer
Now: owner of Chocolateria
I started my Bay Street career as a labour and employment lawyer at Filion Wakele Thorup Angeletti in 1991. Then I moved to Ontario Power Generation for eight years, and after that to Direct Energy for about a year and a half. I had a high salary, about $250,000, and was on the cusp of moving up into the executive ranks, but in the back of my head, I’d always wanted to run my own business and work for myself. In the summer of 2009, when I turned 45, I decided it was time.
My first step was to study every shopping district in the city, to figure out what kind of business appealed to me and which neighbourhood was booming. I realized chocolate is really hot right now. I had taken baking classes at George Brown College for fun and enjoyed it. So I set up a production kitchen in my house and rented a candy kiosk at the Downsview farmers’ market for three months last summer. I wouldn’t call it a hugely successful apprenticeship: the chocolate melted in the summer heat, and I ended up giving most of it away. Also, Downsview doesn’t attract a demographic that buys quality chocolate and pastries.
At the end of the summer, I opened a storefront on Roncesvalles because it has a burgeoning food culture and a kind of bohemian affluence. The space I rented used to be a restaurant. That really cut down on the need for permits and major renovations. I had budgeted $40,000 but spent only $25,000, mostly on equipment and ingredients and packaging for my products.
It’s been a challenge to find my niche in the chocolate-making world. I’ve hired some counter staff but make all the products myself. My chocolate-dipped chips are popular, and I’ve had a lot of success with bacon dipped in peanut butter and chocolate. My plan is to turn the store into a café and chocolate salon by adding pastries, house-made ice cream and an espresso machine. At this point, every penny I make gets plowed back into the business. I pay to work.
There have been bad days when I’m so exhausted and wondering why I did this. After all, I worked hard to become a lawyer, to put myself through school. I’ve given myself a two-year trial period, though I doubt I’ll ever return to law. As a lawyer, your interactions with people aren’t always happy. Now I go home every day with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Everybody loves chocolate.
The Yoga Guru
Christine Russell, 32
Then: resort developer
Now: co-owner of 889 Yonge Wellness Spa
I used to work in business development for Intrawest, which builds resorts all over the world. I’m from Mississauga originally, but I’d been living in Los Angeles for four years when I had an epiphany: one day, while running on the beach, I realized that there was a disconnect between the professional Christine and the personal Christine. I had a great job, I made in the low six figures, but I wasn’t contributing to anything meaningful.
My sister Emily and I always had a vision that we would be business partners one day. We both love yoga, so in 2005 I quit Intrawest, and she quit her job at the travel company Butterfield and Robinson. Three months later, we had a business plan: we decided to buy a studio space instead of leasing, to allow us to build an asset, and we wanted to be in the heart of a busy community where we could make a big impact. We chose a three-storey Victorian on Yonge because we felt connected to the building’s grounding energy. Our initial investment was about $400,000—excluding the price of the building and renovations. We’re not yoga teachers or wellness practi-tioners, so we enrolled in classes at other studios to find our staff. The yoga world is tight-knit, and many of the instructors were skeptical that we could run a yoga business, but we must have done something right: even though we opened just before the recession, we were immediately successful and now have over 40 regularly scheduled classes a week. We’re already looking for a second location.
The Movie Maker
Marc Rigaux, 34
Then: software salesman
Now: co-owner of Strident Films
I was making about $200,000 a year while working in software sales and as a consultant for software developers such as ImageTag, but I’d always wanted to run my own business. The idea of becoming a movie producer came to me while I was helping my roommate, Liam Card, shop around a feature script he’d written. I sat in on a few meetings, and the more I went to, the more I realized I had a lot to add. I started moonlighting as a producer—I’d make one phone call to sell software and another to find out about an actor’s availability.
Everyone loved Liam’s script—it’s about two people trying to start a relationship while managing all the other relationships they have on social networks. It’s When Harry Met Sally for the BlackBerry generation. Liam and I incorporated Strident Films at the end of 2007, and a month later we flew to the Sundance Festival, where we realized we weren’t the only people dreaming of hiring a big star like Tom Cruise for an indie movie. In September 2008, I quit my job and became a full-time filmmaker. The next day, the market collapsed by 1,500 points. Most of the money we’d secured disappeared, and we spent 2009 finding more. We had an investor say yes on a Friday and die on a Sunday. We flew to D.C. for a meeting with another investor who also sells helicopters to the Pentagon. I wasn’t starving, but I was doing this knowing I was worth a couple hundred thousand a year elsewhere.
We started filming Liam’s script in 2009. Before that day, everything was just numbers on an Excel spreadsheet, but suddenly, it was real. The completed movie is called Textuality, and it stars Young People Fucking’s Carly Pope and Sex and the City’s Jason Lewis. It’s coming out this April. Despite all the setbacks, I know this is the job I’m meant to have.
The Meat Heads
Mario Fiorucci, 36, and Tara Longo, 32
Then: a corporate lawyer and an investment banker
Now: owners of the Healthy Butcher
MARIO: When I quit, I was a lawyer at McCarthy Tétrault with a specialty in high-tech companies. It was an extremely hard decision: I was getting paid $140,000 a year, and I didn’t hate my job, but I didn’t thoroughly enjoy it, either. I wasn’t maximizing my talents. So I gave in to my entrepreneurial itch and quit my job at the same time as my wife, Tara, did.
We chose to become butchers for personal reasons. For two years, we were both vegetarians—not because we didn’t want to eat meat, but because we were disgusted at the meat that was available. We never got straight answers about where supposedly organic or sustainably raised local meat was coming from. We tried buying direct from the farm, but you have to buy a whole animal, which is hard when you’re living in a small downtown condo. We also found that there were a growing number of small farmers who didn’t have a market to sell into.
It took us a year and a half to put together a business plan. We invested about $150,000 to start. There’s so much responsibility in running a small business, especially when you’re selling food. I thought that with the right idea, things would just flow, but it’s a constant battle—staffing, mechanical issues, certifications. After the listeriosis debacle at Maple Leaf Foods, a crazy number of inspectors came by, and each one demanded something be changed.
TARA: I’d worked for two years at RBC Capital Markets as an investment banker when I decided I’d had enough. I was at the bottom of the totem pole and hated the long hours. At the same time, I met a lot of very aggressive entrepreneurs, and they planted the small business seed in my head.
Mario and I opened our first location on Queen West. It was the exact demographic we were looking for: working professionals. We’d built in a financial cushion to support us while we were preparing for the store’s opening, but it wasn’t an easy year and a half. I needed to be an expert in everything—staffing, sourcing, HR, retail. The biggest challenge is the constant uncertainty.
Today we have three stores, with 30 staff. We deal with 75 farmers, and half of them survive almost exclusively on what they sell to us. It adds a whole level of complexity to our work.