Ex-Toronto entrepreneur ponders uncertain future for her small green business

The challenges for new entrepreneurs remain constant, regardless of their motivations

A toothbrush, a container and a sustainable floss over
For four years, Oxygenate sold many different sustainable hygiene products. (Courtesy of Hana Bae/Oxygenate). 

It took watching a few BuzzFeed and YouTube videos to spark Hana Bae’s interest in eco-friendly products and environmentalism.

Before founding her company in 2019, she was looking for the best ways to make an environment-friendly toothpaste for personal use.

The former Toronto resident realized that in an ever-changing world, everyone should care about the environment. She did some research on the topic and concluded she wanted to change something, to send a message to those around her.

“It felt like a trigger,” Bae said. “I knew I had to be more aware of things going on in the environment. I should recommend [the sustainable toothpaste] to a few friends too.”

The birth of a brand

Since she wanted to make a positive impact, Bae, 28, didn’t stop there. After digging some more into different formulas of dental hygiene products, she started to create and sell them to people she knew, and came up with a brand, one that would “oxygenate the earth by minimizing waste.”

Her company, Oxygenate, was a business that aimed to create sustainable alternatives to hygiene products.

The entrepreneur went to events like TIFF and TEDx to promote the business, but she crafted the products in her Toronto home.

At first, Bae didn’t focus on the profit. She wanted to make an impact. She ran the small business for four years until they shut down operations in July. Taking less profit and focusing on minimizing waste was her main goal, but this didn’t ease the challenges when Oxygenate was still running.

The balance between full-time employment and small business management

Sajill Sehdev, Bae’s partner and former co-owner of Oxygenate, said one of the biggest challenges was managing time for their business, especially with both founders having full-time jobs. For him, it took hours every week to craft the products.

The owners often found themselves questioning how much they could keep promoting their brand if it took up a lot of their time and did not make a lot of profit.

“A big part of the business is marketing, so if we are unable to put that time into it, we don’t have the best return. Sometimes it felt like a blessing because when we did get orders, it was manageable. It was a double-edged sword,” he said.

Oxygenate was active on social media platforms (which benefited from Bae’s advertising background), ensured that customers were aware of where products came from and eventually negotiated deals with frequent buyers. At one point, they started shipping internationally.

“England and Japan are the ones I can remember. Those were very frequent, and it’s one of those types of things that was very cool to see us reach out all across the world, even though we are so tiny. We had customers in the U.S. too,” Sehdev said.

For the couple, it was also hard to ship product to locations from Toronto, as the shipping prices were similar to the actual cost of the product. For them, everything took too much of their time.

Ongoing challenges faced by small entrepreneurs

More and more millennials and Gen Z are starting side hustles, CTV News reported in 2022. Many in the groups have an advantage with popular technologies like social media because they grew up using them. But the demographic is also impacted by a challenging economy.

Toronto Small Business Community is a platform and community-based initiative for small entrepreneurs in the GTA. Co-founder Victoria Tinkler said there are many reasons one starts a small business, and that around 70 per cent of the owners she knows work full-time jobs outside of their entrepreneurial projects.

“This includes some variation of full-time employment, caregiving of children and family members, higher education, retirement, and operating a business,” Tinkler said.

Bae said that in the beginning, it was hard to learn all the new information related to running her business. All of Oxygenate’s products were formulated by Bae before she founded the company. They were categorized as cosmetics products because otherwise, they would have to be approved by Health Canada.

“For example, our toothpaste didn’t have any fluoride in it, right? If we were to add fluoride, then it would be considered a healthcare product. We don’t know the full impact of fluoride on health … we found through research it isn’t great for pregnant women. It’s a risk we didn’t really want to take,” Sehdev said.

Toronto’s efforts to become a green city

Currently, Toronto’s efforts to invest in the green industry make the city known as a technology hub inside the sector, a 2023 survey done by the city reports. The green industry contributed more than $6.5 billion to the city’s GDP in 2018.

Although there are efforts to combat climate change and invest in new resources to slowly make Toronto a green city, these do not always ease the difficulties of small entrepreneurs in the sector. According to Statistics Canada, in the first quarter of 2023, businesses with 1-19 employees in the country struggled with the rising costs of inputs and interest rates.

Sehdev said that with a product like toothpaste, chances are higher that people will choose multinational companies instead of newcomers in the market, even if the product is labelled as environmentally friendly.

Bae said many people still think of green products as a luxury, and for that, it was hard for Oxygenate to enter the market.

“Let’s say I’m going to college and I pay rent. I don’t have money to spend $10 on toothpaste. I’d rather go to Walmart and get it for $5 or something,” Bae said.

The current economic state

Oxygenate was not the only small business to face that challenge, especially in a costly city like Toronto. Tinkler points out that highs and lows are common in the world of business, but some struggles feel new to her.

“What has not been so normal is that small businesses are facing the perfect storm of economic challenges of affordability, inflation, and consumer purchasing power being so low,” she said.

But Tinkler points out she has seen many small business owners who do not wish to make it a full-time commitment.

“Many have found and are comfortable with the idea that small business ownership is not a ‘side hustle,’ but more of an additional and alternative stream of income,” she said.

“This is because Canadians have more options for how they earn and how much space their income takes in their lives,” she said.

New entrepreneurs should receive guidance on how to manage a business, build connections, and find a representative voice, she said.

Breathing life back into Oxygenate

After moving to Calgary for better professional and financial opportunities, the couple aims to one day bring Oxygenate back to life.

Bae wants to go back to school to gain more knowledge in chemistry and the business of pharmacology. The co-founder wants to rethink the challenges she faced and find the best resources to send the message that people should care about the environment. 

“I want to come back in ten years … I know that is a very long time, but it is only a fraction of time if we can make the world a better place,” she said on Oxygenate’s most recent Instagram post.

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Posted: Dec 11 2023 9:00 am
Filed under: Business Features News Spotlight On Small Biz