We talked to Katharina Otulak of FAIR/SQUARE about an independent small business that is fully owned and operated by vegansand this is what she had to say.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Katharina Otulak: Every family and business has had a different experience since the pandemic started. As an online retailer, we’ve been lucky, and we’re thankful to be doing well. Our hearts go out to those who lost loved ones and small businesses that have had their world turned upside down.
Tell us about you, your career, how you joined FAIR/SQUARE.
Katharina Otulak: I grew up in Germany and started my career in marketing communications working for various companies from automotive to consumer electronics. After moving to Canada (where my husband is from), I started working for a local houseware brand, helping them with their eCommerce. I liked the job, but my heart wasn’t in it. I was growing increasingly wary of global supply chains where manufacturing relied heavily on Asia.
I wanted to start a business where I can market and sell products that are locally made and use ethically sourced ingredients. I started FAIR/SQUARE out of a tiny room filled with products that I believe in – all vegan and Canadian made. It’s grown into what you see today – an online retailer with a focus on excellent customer experience, support for makers big and small, and a continually growing assortment of vegan and Canadian products.
How does FAIR/SQUARE innovate?
Katharina Otulak: As a small business, innovation and flexibility have been at the core of FAIR/SQUARE from the beginning. It’s been a steady process of offering more and more products that resonate with our customers in the vegan community and combining unique products to offer creative gift ideas. We are not afraid to make mistakes and often try projects out on a small scale to gauge customer interest. We continually evaluate our efforts and go from there.
Our latest innovations are vegan cheese & charcuterie box kits that can be sent to recipients anywhere in Canada. It was quite tricky to figure out refrigerated shipping, but they have been prevalent this holiday season and make for a great gift.
Ultimately, we aim to connect Canadians with the best vegan products available. Having this goal ensures that we keep thinking of new processes and products and keep growing.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your business, and how are you coping?
Katharina Otulak: Our first and most immediate concern was to be very diligent with disinfecting our workspace and eliminating any infection risk through our products.
One of the first things we introduced in response to the pandemic was a monthly curbside delivery service. Some of the vegan specialty items are hard to find in Brick & Mortar stores, and people often have to go to several stores to find them. We wanted to help people stay home by delivering items contactless to their door.
More broadly, the rise in online shopping benefitted FAIR/SQUARE’s sales, but it also created some new challenges. We’ve been continually growing in physical size, but the jump in online orders pushed us to our capacity, caused some space issues, and made us take a more streamlined approach to our operations. It has also been a challenge to maintain our customer service level, which is a massive part of our brand.
Another impact was the cancellation of all vegan and vegetarian events. We would typically attend around ten shows per year, a large part of our marketing and brand building. We are missing the interaction, feedback on products, and positive vibes that the events provided.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Katharina Otulak: As a young child’s mother, this pandemic has been and still is, a challenging time, especially in the early days when schools and daycares closed, but our orders went up. It was a tricky balancing act, and I’m sure I have missed some details.
As an entrepreneur, I’m making a lot of smaller choices each day that isn’t ‘difficult,’ but they all add to how the business succeeds. As we get larger, one of the most challenging areas to spend my time is most effective and what to hand off to others.
A lesson learned is acknowledging the value of your time and doing the most with it that you can.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and FAIR/SQUARE in the future?
Katharina Otulak: Staying ultra-organized has been vital to getting through this holiday season (which is traditionally our busiest time of year). It helps me keep confident that I haven’t forgotten something critical to the operation of our business. I also lean on my family, who are incredibly supportive, and remember some of the messages and reviews that our amazing customers have sent us.
The projection is a good question. FAIR/SQUARE is less than four years old, and with so much of my focus taken up by the day to day operations, it has been hard to envision growing into a large company. It is something that I am starting to focus on – the long game of what the company looks like in 5-10 years. I am currently taking part in two accelerator programs, helping me visualize the company’s future. It’s inspiring to think of where FAIR/SQUARE could go.