The saying ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ is particularly applicable to a trio of emerging entrepreneurs who have found unexpected success through the turbulence of COVID-19, by designing and manufacturing non-medical face masks.
Victoria residents Karmen McNamara, Shannon Graham and Ivy Lewney formed The Kindness Factory this past Spring, growing the business from their initial team of three to 11 employees in less six months, and from zero to over $20,000 in sales per month. They’ve also built an infrastructure that enables them to fulfill large orders on short notice, perfectly positioning them for accelerated growth.
Shannon Graham, the company’s Financial Officer, tells Douglas how the business came about.
“Karmen (McNamara) and I were laid off due to COVID in March. She started sewing just for something to do, and found that people wanted to buy masks, even her early attempts when she was still working out the kinks. She couldn’t go to stores to pick up supplies because of health concerns in her home, so she asked me to help as a gopher.”
As the demand grew for their product, Graham realized her fit would be in marketing and finance – setting up their web presence and Shopify account and doing the bookkeeping. Ivy Lewney came aboard as the first sewist to assist McNamara, and the three agreed to become business partners.
The entrepreneurs credit a strong existing friendship and the right balance of personalities and talents for their success thus far, as well as their partnership with bike messenger company NomadX.
“Our sewists work from home and live all over town,” says Graham. “The guys at NomadX pick up product and deliver materials to each of them twice a week, a massive time savings for us that allowed us to hire eight more people to do the work.”
New Business Overwhelmed with Support
The new business owners have been overwhelmed both with orders for masks and with the support they’ve received from friends and family. “It’s incredibly encouraging,” says Graham. “We get so many positive messages from the public and from our customers, thanking us for providing masks that are reusable and actually fun to wear. We’re also so, so proud to be able to employ sewing contractors.”
Mask design inspiration has come from hours spent combing through fabric catalogues, with McNamara and Lewney credited for developing a sense for what types of fabric and designs will sell. “Our constellations fabric, which glows in the dark, has been the most popular option, besides flat black. If we get a lot of requests for something, we’ll try to source it,” says Graham.
The trio says product diversification in the future is on the table and they have been brainstorming ideas and concepts. They are considering investing in a fabric printer and becoming a wholesale fabric studio.
But, says Graham, “we’ve set the company up in such a way that if the pandemic ended tomorrow and mask demand evaporated, we could pay off our debts and close up shop with no problem whatsoever. We want to continue making this product as long as it’s needed, and as well as we can. But if we do our job so well that we put ourselves out of business, that would be an ideal outcome.”
McNamara, Lewney and Graham are loving the autonomy, control and creativity borne out of their new partnership. Graham says they’ve learned more than they expected to. “I’ve learned how to hire employees, keep books, create budgets and forecasts, account for costs, write press releases, and so much more. The amount of learning and the variety of work you get when you’re in charge of everything is incredible and so rewarding. In past jobs I’ve been confined to my job description and had to ask permission to make any decisions that were out of scope. Now my teammates and I have the authority to run the business the way we want to do it.”
Company Values Promote Giving Back to their Community
The team say they’re proud of their company values and how they’re giving back to their community. “We take firm stands about things like cultural appropriation – for example, when we want to sell a Coast Salish fabric, we buy it from actual First Nations designers, we donate masks to Red Cedar Cafe every week, we deliver via bicycle, our packaging is plastic-free and we offer incredible flexibility to our employees,” says Graham. “We hire for personality and train for the job, and that’s working out very well so far. We pay the best wages we can afford – several of our employees make more than I do.”
Graham says she does not regret a moment of the last six months. “When I got laid off, I was applying for jobs and doing interviews almost every week. There were so many times I thought I had the job locked, but then it didn’t happen. Now I know that as long as we work hard, we can keep building and growing this business. We don’t need permission from anyone. And we’re making something that people actually need. No energy is wasted trying to convince people that our product is valuable – it is. All we have to do is get their attention.”
The founders of The Kindness Factory say their story provides a counter-narrative to the story that the CERB safety net has become a comfortable hammock that employees don’t want to leave.
“All of this is possible because our CERB payments allowed us to work on and grow our business full time without worrying about rent or groceries – and we’ve done it all while working from our homes in Victoria,” notes Graham. “In the next few months we hope to start drawing salaries from the company and stop accepting CERB, as well as open a retail storefront and workshop.”