Women in Business: Saluting Oak Bay’s entrepreneurial spirit

Oak Bay business owners share stories and successes

Dionne Laslo-Baker

Dionne Laslo-Baker

Whether it’s turning a passion into a thriving business or lighting on an untapped market, Oak Bay’s women business owners embrace the challenges and rewards of entrepreneurship.

Heather Wheeler, owner of Avenue Gallery in the Oak Bay village, took the leap into gallery ownership in 2000. After years managing art galleries downtown, going into business for herself was the obvious next step, she says. First launching the Caswell Lawrence Fine Art Gallery downtown, Wheeler later moved to the Avenue. Like many small business owners, Wheeler’s biggest concern in making the leap was “growing a successful business for both myself and the artists I represented,” she says.

The unknown is a common concern for new business owners. “I had a good stable career as a marketing consultant at Microsoft, and my life had great balance,” says Nicole Smith, founder of Flytographer. “However, I just couldn’t stop thinking about this idea, it wouldn’t get out of my head.”

Smith landed on her Flytographer concept while on a trip to Paris with a friend.

“Disappointed with awkward selfies and the blurry photos strangers had snapped, we asked a local friend to take some candid shots of us enjoying the city together. After 20 minutes, I looked at the images on my iPhone and realized I had the best souvenir possible: priceless memories with my BFF in Paris.”

As a start-up, creating customer awareness on a limited budget was Smith’s greatest challenge. “We have created a new market that didn’t exist before, so there’s a lot of effort and education involved in just getting into people’s consideration set,” she says.

It’s been four and a half years since Dionne Laslo-Baker hit on the idea for DeeBee’s while making snacks with her kids.

With a background in science, business wasn’t necessarily on Laslo-Baker’s radar. When the idea came to combine her passion for healthy ingredients with a business that could involve her family, it was too good to pass up. “I’m going to do this and I’m going to teach my children something in the process,” she says, noting that having the entire family involved is a highlight of launching her own business.

Laslo-Baker launched DeeBee’s with the idea of building a business to a high standard, both in the product and how it’s produced.

With market research indicating there was nothing else like her teapops on the market, Laslo-Baker travelled to a trade show in New York where a line-up soon gathered at her booth. “It definitely cemented my hypothesis that this would be a good idea,” she says.

Challenges in retrospect included how much time and capital were required to launch. “I underestimated both,” she says with a laugh.

For Dee-Bees, which enjoyed considerable accolades in the three years since Laslo-Baker and her team brought tea-pops to the world, creating greater reach meant going back to the drawing board with a top Vancouver Island chef to fine-tune an already good product into an even better one.

A more gradual start would have allowed a little more market research to fine-tune things. “In hindsight, I would have started even smaller than we did,” she says.

Today,  DeeBee’s has expanded beyond tea, while retaining the tasty – and healthy – focus. “When I see the team really connecting and coming up with great ideas, to me, that’s been really rewarding.”

“Team” resonates for Smith, who has created a workplace culture she is proud of.

“My team is incredible. They are super smart, work really hard and are truly passionate about what we are building together. They genuinely care about our customers and our photographers. We’ve cultivated an environment where gratitude plays a big role, and everyone really helps lift each other up. I couldn’t be prouder of my team,” Smith says.

Operating a business as intimate as a gallery brings unique benefits – “clients that have become friends and fostering long-term relationships with the artists that I have represented,” says Wheeler.

“I encourage people to follow their dreams – there will always be challenges but those are what makes the success worth the risk.”