Pursuing passions during the pandemic

For as long as she can remember, Ryerson University student Natalie Watt has enjoyed dressing up and accessorizing her outfits. With that, she dreamt of starting her own jewelry line and now has finally put her dream into fruition.

The COVID-19 lockdowns forced many small businesses to shift their stores online, where some struggled to gain the same traffic that their in-person stores had. Other small businesses were born out of the pandemic and have thrived exclusively online, such as Watt’s jewelry shop NTLE.CO

In June 2020, Watt officially launched her online jewelry store, aiming to provide customers with “quality jewelry that won’t tarnish at affordable prices.” NTLE.CO specializes in pendant necklaces, earrings and rings, as well as customizable anklets.

Watt had contemplated starting her own business for two years prior to COVID-19 but finally decided to do so after losing her summer internship last year. “Instead of dwelling on the loss, I looked at the situation as an opportunity to dedicate time to starting what I’ve been dreaming about,” she says.

Watt admits that her schedule can get hectic as she operates her small business. She is a full-time student pursuing a bachelor’s degree in commerce, works full-time during her co-op term while working part-time leading social media marketing boot camps at Ryerson and is involved in several extracurriculars. 

“I try to plan my week in advance so I know what tasks I have to get done on what day,” she says. “To balance out my busy schedule, I make sure to block out time for my mental health. I prioritize working out or being active everyday for stress management, [ensuring] I have set down times to socialize and take breaks when needed to prevent burnout.”

Watt’s everyday regime consists of waking up early in the morning to exercise, working her regular nine-to-five, attending classes and completing school work. 

“I don’t actually start working on my business until late in the day or on the weekends,” she says. “I take my free time on weekends to really work on the operations of NTLE.CO, which includes emailing invoices, packaging orders, shipping them out at the post office, organizing and managing inventory, social media prep, researching for new designs, etcetera.”

COVID-19 versus small businesses

The pandemic has drastically impacted small businesses across Canada. In January 2021, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) revealed that more than 200,000 Canadian businesses were considering permanent shut downs. A month later, the CFIB reported that small businesses were approximately $135 billion in debt, with the average debt load being almost $170,000.

Clearly, Watt’s successful online shop is an outlier to these harsh statistics. Another web-driven store that has excelled in the midst of the pandemic is Marla Miranda’s bakery.

Much like Watt, Miranda is a full-time student at the University of Toronto and operates her own small business called Marla’s Merienda (the Tagalog word “merienda” meaning “snack” in English). Marla’s Merienda’s menu consists largely of Filipino desserts such as caramel bars, meringues and other treats.

Caramel bars from Marla’s Merienda / Photo by Marla Miranda

“Selling Filipino desserts wasn’t really a deliberate choice, rather, I naturally just leaned towards sharing the comfort foods I was already familiar with,” Miranda says. “What pushed me to continue in that direction was seeing how much emotional warmth it brought to the people who missed the tastes of home.”

Miranda has always enjoyed baking and found herself with more spare time to do so after schools moved exclusively online. She began fully operating Marla’s Merienda during the 2020 holiday season and did not expect her business to grow as big as it has. She recently collaborated with Toronto-based Filipino restaurant Bar’kada as a dessert supplier and anticipates more future collaborations.

Behind the scenes, Miranda often consults her mother and sister for culinary and business advice. But she operates everything for her business on her own. “The baking, packaging, cleaning, delivering, inventory, marketing, out-reach and sales,” she says. “It’s a frantic one-man show!”

According to Miranda, managing a small business single-handedly isn’t easy, especially when juggling her other responsibilities. “But people find ways to make time for the things they value,” she says.

What the future holds 

As COVID-19 measures are loosened and the sense of normalcy is slowly making a return, Miranda is adamant in continuing to operate her small business.

“I honestly thought it was just going to be a holiday thing so I am truly surprised everyday that the business grows,” Miranda says. “I will go as far as the support takes me. I’m always happy to expand and open to all the opportunities that come my way.”

For young, aspiring entrepreneurs hoping to start their own small businesses, Watt advises them to just start.

“You’ll never know if it will fail without starting and even if it fails, it’s a learning lesson,” she says. “Of course, do your research and do your planning but don’t dwell on the little things that aren’t perfect in your plan, because there’s always room to improve your business later on.”

Miranda also recommends researching and mapping out a plan, as well as reaching out to those with experience in the industry. “Talk to people who run or have run successful businesses,” she says. “You can also watch YouTube channels of business owners in domains you may be interested in pursuing to get a better sense of how you want to go about running your own business.”

Like Miranda, Watt has no plans of shuttering her jewelry shop when the pandemic restrictions come to an end. 

“Running this business is a passion of mine,” Watt says. “And although there are definitely times where I have self-doubt or want to give up, I continue, because at the end of the day I love what I do and I love who I have become as a result.”

About the author

Alyssa Bravo is a former reporter for Youth Mind. She is a coffee fiend and likes music, movies and food. She wishes to travel to Italy and Greece, and hopes she’ll live to see the day the Toronto Maple Leafs win their 14th championship. When she’s not writing, you can probably find her watching videos of dogs or baby pandas.

Alyssa Bravo

Alyssa Bravo is a former reporter for Youth Mind. She is a coffee fiend and likes music, movies and food. She wishes to travel to Italy and Greece, and hopes she’ll live to see the day the Toronto Maple Leafs win their 14th championship. When she’s not writing, you can probably find her watching videos of dogs or baby pandas.

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