We talked to Michael Schwartz, founder of Les Affûtés, about handcrafting through workshops in various fields such as woodwork, sewing, leather, and zero waste, and this is what he said about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Michael Schwartz: Thanks for asking! We’re doing good, as Canada is a country that really took care of both citizens and businesses. I’m a father of a 3-year-old, so I spend a lot of time playing with my child as we wait for the situation to improve.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Les Affûtés.
Michael Schwartz: I have been an entrepreneur since the end of my studies. I’ve created several companies, in France, Brazil, and Canada, and I’m specialized in impact projects (B-Corp), especially by developing places and communities. In the past, I’ve created for instance a network of coworking spaces, a yoga studio, pop-up stores, and others.
I founded Les Affûtés (which means “The Sharpened”) in May 2019, just after arriving to Canada. Three years before that, I had started woodworking, as a way to learn how to use my hands and to feel like a beginner again. The experience was incredible, gave me such confidence, and made me feel so proud. I immediately felt that a lot of people in my generation (I’m 34) would love this kind of experience. Les Affûtés emerged from this experience, as a place where beginners can come to learn manual skills and make their own objects.
How does Les Affûtés innovate?
Michael Schwartz: There were places dedicated to woodwork, or sewing, before. We call them ‘makerspaces’. But I visited a lot of them, and I felt that they were more dedicated to professionals and seasoned practitioners, and therefore were intimidating for beginners. Everything we do at Les Affûtés is around the idea of making things accessible and giving people autonomy. Now, we have around 100 workshops per month, to create a skateboard, sew a sweatshirt, make soap, repair a bike, etc.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Michael Schwartz: We had to close, from March to May 2020, and again from December 2020 until now. Besides, we had to limit the number of people on-site, and during workshops. In the beginning, I didn’t know if we would survive this pandemic.
But my past experiences definitely helped me. An investor on a former project used to tell me all the time that cash is at least as important as inherent profitability. So I have the habit of keeping at least 3 months of fixed costs in cash (around $40,000 at the beginning of 2020). This helped me and my team a lot in staying calm and taking the best long-term decisions. And this allowed our business to survive the 2 or 3 first months until the government support came in.
And actually, when we were able to reopen (May 2020), a lot of new people came to discover what we were doing. We had a project of opening a second location before the pandemic and seeing the number of people who came to us, we took our chance and opened it, in November.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Michael Schwartz: We had to put everybody on employment insurance, but I wouldn’t say that it was a difficult choice, for 3 reasons. First, we’re a team where we decide a lot of things together, and where open-book policy is the norm. Therefore, everybody knew instinctively what was necessary in the short term. Second, we’re confident in our business model, and so everybody knew that as soon as we would be able to reopen, they would all be back to work. And finally, the Covid employment insurance was well-designed in Canada, so everybody received enough money to feel secure.
The lesson I learned from this was the power of giving my team space to decide and to help during crisis times. They were reactive, sharp, and in charge. All this reinforced us incredibly as a team.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Michael Schwartz: First, we tried to bring a lot of energy to our customers, onsite and online, by making Les Affûtés a “covid-free zone”, where we avoided speaking about the twists and turns of the news. We were the only ones opening a new place in the middle of this, and this energy attracted a lot of people.
Besides, we always try to be close to our customers and to be transparent about the way we do things. We’re a B Corp company, and this is one of the pillars of the B Corp movement. The pandemic just increased the need to be transparent, explaining why we did things, and how, because each time we just announced something without explanation, people requested the why. But when we were transparent, the engagement and support were impressive, and a lot of people just reached out to see how they could help, financially or in any other way.
Newsletters and physical interactions are our main tools for this quality communication, but even on social media, especially Facebook, we were able to connect with people,
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Michael Schwartz: I feel very lucky to live through this pandemic in Canada. We received a lot of help (grants and loans, public and private), which gave us time to think and to make the right decisions. Even now, as the restrictions come and go, there are still new grants to help us reach this summer, where hopefully things will be easier.
Your final thoughts?
Michael Schwartz: I always try to take the bird view, imagining what we’ll think in one or five years about something. And, for the businesses that survived, I think this time will be seen as an ordeal that strengthened their team and made their customers closer. And this pandemic was a confirmation for me that if we put energy, happiness, and a fighting spirit into our business and our relationship with customers, this acts as a magnet because people want to be close to the source of energy.