Taking care of business

Parenting plus pandemic means double the work for local business owners

John King with his streaming setup at home. Photo Courtesy Monkey Rock Music

Running your own business can be difficult enough, but for many local small business owners who are also juggling parenthood, the pandemic has proved a time of challenges and valuable lessons.

Ian Quick, the owner and operator of Ottawa-based Birthday Party Magic, a party company offering a variety of entertainment services since 2012, is also the father of a five-year-old girl.

“Parenting during a pandemic has been a challenge — that meant fewer playdates and activities, and more home time with mom and dad,” says Quick.

Daycare and school provided Quick and his wife, both home-based entrepreneurs, with much-needed free time to work. “My wife and I try to maximize our time while our daughter is at school,” says Quick. “The rest of the time, we take shifts between parenting and working so that neither the family, nor our businesses get neglected.”

The pandemic was incredibly difficult at first, says Quick, and within a week, every show booking he had was cancelled. Overnight, Quick found himself unemployed.

Things improved in summer of 2020, when restrictions had eased and it was possible to do some outdoor events, but for Quick and his staff of nine, it “was a small fraction of what we normally do. All fairs, festivals and summer camps had been cancelled. The company did create new online services to help combat this, but it still wasn’t our usual volume. Then in early 2021 came another harsh lockdown. It was a struggle to stay afloat.”

Quick’s business wasn’t the only one affected.

Pre-pandemic, Monkey Rock Music Inc.’s main product was in-person classes for parents and their kids under the age of four.

“We were fortunate to get online in the first few weeks of the original lockdown, and captured audiences that stayed with us,” says director John King.

As he was already running the business from his home office, King was used to keeping boundaries between work — “I’ve always made a point of leaving my office or home studio between 5 and 6 p.m., and not going back in if I can avoid it,” he says — and his home life with his wife, Sheryl, and their kids, Jack, 12, and Max, 11 (both of whom helped with the business at the beginning of the pandemic).

Government loans allowed King to invest in technology to produce a daily live-streamed show for subscribers, and Monkey Rock’s YouTube channel has grown dramatically, to the point where King “can’t imagine ever getting rid of online classes completely. Not only that, we used our new knowledge and gear to live stream a kids’ rock concert this past Halloween — something I intend to do with every show moving forward.”

Quick also managed to make some gains during the pandemic. As a home-based business, Birthday Party Magic had very little overhead, and along with a cushion of savings and a small business grant, Quick’s business not only survived, but thrived. Like King, Quick invested in new gear. He also filmed some commercials, and acquired the princess parties company that he had been working with. When the restrictions lifted, business was booming again.

But there have been challenges as well. It’s difficult to make money from online content, says King, who calls the YouTube channel “more of a marketing exercise than a money maker. We’re conditioned to think that the arts online is free… From YouTube to Spotify, it’s next to impossible to make anything close to a living from being an online artist.”

King found the learning curve for technology to be steep — “in March of 2020, I knew nothing about streaming and computer networks,” he says — but now, he has his own streaming studio set up. “The biggest struggle was… never being sure I’d have money enough to pay myself after I’d paid my staff,” says King. “I was always terrified I’d have to lay someone off. Not only are my four staff members like family, but they were very hard to find and would be impossible to replace. It’s a very narrow skill set, being a talented musician and great with kids.”

In the end, King was able to come up with a budget to pay his staff, regardless of actual hours worked, something he says was only possible thanks to the government’s emergency wage subsidy, which, he adds, “was always in danger of ending. I was in agony waiting for each announcement that it would be extended.”

The pandemic not only saw Meet the Keepers Wildlife Rescue’s Janie Cyr and Kyle Lawrie modify their educational programs, but become parents to a baby girl, Lynx, last May. Adjusting to life as a family of three “has most definitely been an adjustment,” says Cyr.

Despite lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, animal rescues remain essential, says Cyr, and the pandemic has been hard for their industry. They have seen many others shutter their doors during this time. With the first COVID outbreak, The Keepers lost all their events and bookings — “our business requires us to travel to educate the public about the importance of wildlife conservation, responsible pet ownership and uniting for wildlife,” says Cyr — which was financially devastating.

The Keepers partnered with Little Ray’s Nature Centre last year in order to get through the difficult times, but eventually had to get full-time jobs, working 12- to 18-hour days for six months straight to ensure their animals had everything they needed.

In the end, the effort to keep a business running through the pandemic was worth it, both professionally and personally. “I’ve lost count of the emails and messages from families telling me how Monkey Rock Music has been a lifesaver for them these past two years,” says King. “That means a lot… the feedback has really helped me keep at it.”

As for Cyr and Lawrie, “our daughter Lynx has been growing up watching her parents work with the animals while loving their jobs,” says Cyr.

“We couldn’t ask for anything else.”