Whether it's your first or 31st year in business, there's always something to learn.
The words Teala Laliberte would use to describe the first year of owning Killam’s Rogue Coffee Co. are “exhausting,” “rewarding” and a “roller-coaster.” But she wouldn’t change a thing.
“I think it's the best thing that ever happened to me, like my divorce and the business—not that divorce is a good thing—but I've learned a lot about myself throughout this year, going through so much hell at the time,” she said.
Dan Fee and Teala Laliberte chat inside her Killam business, Rogue Coffee Co., on Oct. 17, 2023, after ATB’s Small Business Week panel. (Kaylen Small/ATB Financial)
Laliberte and her husband separated before she opened her coffee shop, and she had to “learn everything from scratch.”
“I didn't realize I was going to get divorced, so opening this business, I thought I'd have somebody to help along in this journey,” she said.
“Starting out, I didn't really know much about business whatsoever… I probably wouldn't have opened this unless it wasn’t for him to push me to do this.”
Before entrepreneurship, Laliberte worked in welding, pipelining and agriculture while making custom cakes on the side.
After Laliberte saw the need and prime location for a coffee shop in the central Alberta town of under a thousand, she opened Rogue Coffee on Oct. 25, 2022. The year has come with a learning curve, Laliberte said, noting she’s addressing ADHD, time management and perfectionism while navigating running the kitchen, pricing items, delegating tasks, doing paperwork and cashing out.
“On the first day opening, I was alone trying to do my cash out crying, probably for about two months because I didn't know what I was doing every day closing,” she said, adding that a friend made her a cheat sheet and her family helped bake.
Medication, good sleep, monthly meal prepping and to-do lists have helped her get organized.
Dan Fee and Teala Laliberte pose inside her Killam business, Rogue Coffee Co., on Oct. 17, 2023, after ATB’s Small Business Week panel. (Kaylen Small/ATB Financial)
Laliberte rents the space from Dan and Kathryn Fee of Budding Ideas Flowers & Gifts, the florist and framing shop next door.
The Fees, who met at university, opened Budding Ideas in August 1992—when he was 22 and she was 23—and married that September. They did the flowers for their wedding.
“I’ve been fortunate being able to work with the person that’s most important to me,” he said.
The couple are experts at what they do, developing business sense growing up watching their families run companies. Dan said he and Kathryn work well together with complementary areas of expertise: his is framing and hers is floral—but they mix and match.
“We fell back on our university minors instead of our university [English] majors," he said. "With her being a botany minor and me being an art minor, we picked up on the secondary part and ran with it."
Dan’s family has more than 100 years of history in Killam, owning a range of businesses: a hardware store, car dealership and funeral home. (At 18, he even became a licensed funeral director for his dad’s business).
But the Fees didn’t want to get by on the family name—they wanted merit too, so they upped their education with relevant courses and certifications.
“We want to make people feel at ease that we knew what we were doing. Not that we were just doing this because, ‘Oh, small town, anyone can do something,’” he said.
“Just because you're small town doesn't mean you need to be small town. We're all professionals out here, even if we are a small town.”
Lessons from rural Alberta entrepreneurs
Teala Laliberte and Dan Fee were panelists at ATB’s Small Business Week entrepreneur discussion at Rogue Coffee in Killam on Oct. 17, 2023.
Dan Fee and Teala Laliberte speak during a Small Business Week panel in Laliberte’s Rogue Coffee Co. on Oct. 17, 2023, to host Cliff Turner (right), an ATB Financial strategist. (Kaylen Small/ATB Financial)
Below are takeaways from the new and seasoned entrepreneurs.
Community is cornerstone
The community is why Laliberte has a business; she calls patrons guests, not customers.
“I've never felt so loved and cherished,” she said.
“I wasn't really alone through the process. I had people in town that were super supportive, like just helping me fix things or giving me a freezer for free... It was a really good community to be in when I was going through all this.”
In this together
Both entrepreneurs are in tune with who enters their shops. If you grow up in town, Fee said, you know what it needs and cannot have a business without community.
“Even if you are a small business in a small town, you're not alone,” he said, because every operation faces similar stressors, like supply chain issues, upset customers or bad reviews. (But not Rogue Coffee or Budding Ideas—both currently have five-star Google ratings).
“Everyone else is in the same boat,” he said, mentioning a family trip to Ireland where he connected with a small business owner over shared issues like competition.
Milestone flowers as people mature
Flowers are for every occasion, Fee explained, so Budding Ideas is there for customers’ highs and lows—and everything in between.
“We’re doing weddings for kids we did baby flowers for."
“There was just a young lady that had her first baby here over the weekend. We did flowers for when she was born. We did flowers for her birthday. We did her wedding flowers. We did now her first-born flowers. We did her grandpa's funeral,” he said.
“You're dealing with not just one person in the family. You’re dealing with the whole family, so one person becomes 25.”
Owning a business in a small town produces close community connections.
“I don't know if it's our personalities or our relaxed atmosphere in here… There's an emotional bond between us and our customers because they feel comfortable telling us whatever they're going through,” Fee said.
“We should have taken psychology instead of English.”
Best part of the job
For Laliberte, the best part of the job is the people.
“I love waking up in the morning and seeing my regulars come in through the door… and I love to bake,” she said.
For Fee, the highlight is being his own boss.
“I don't think I could work for anybody else,” he said, noting he and Kathryn share a 50-50 partnership.
Laliberte’s greatest victory is seeing it through, noting that starting a business—and “doing the damn thing alone”—is her toughest endeavour. But she is growing in multitudes.
“It's taught me how to be strong in areas I didn't think I was strong in, and I learned to be a lot more independent,” she said.
The entrepreneur is rediscovering herself again, making time to create art and go for runs. She feels positive about how far she has come but is always striving for more.
“I still feel like I'm not where I should be, but I'm trying to give myself some grace, but at the same time, it's like I know I could do better,” Laliberte said.
Budding Ideas is the longest-serving full-service florist in Flagstaff County and Camrose, Fee said, noting every other flower shop in the area has only survived five to seven years. Stores might not last due to retirements, ownership changes or it being harder than it looks, he said.
“There's a lot more knowledge required behind the scenes to do the work—not just because I'm handy or crafty or I like flowers,” he explained.
“We knew it wasn't going to be easy, but we figured we could handle it.”
Fee is proud of his business’ longevity. Their success is due to the couple’s teamwork, sharing the same passion and making it their primary focus—it’s not a hobby.
“It's because we don't have anything else to fall back on,” he said. “We're both in this business together… This is our baby. This is what we do.”
One of the hardest parts for Laliberte has been figuring out financials.
“Money is coming in, money is coming out. I didn’t know where to start, just trying to figure out when I could start paying myself,” she said.
A couple of months in, Laliberte “was so mentally in the dumps” that she put up a for sale sign as an out. It was the talk around town, she said with a laugh.
“People were like, ‘What? This business [that] just opened up there is for sale?’” she said. “Who opens a business and then puts a for sale sign up right away? You just don't see that.”
Laliberte took the sign down when she started enjoying her days more.
“As time went on, it got a little bit easier and it felt more right, and I didn't want to just throw away my dreams or throw away what I made,” she said.
Lessons Laliberte has learned in her first year of owning the coffee shop:
- Plan for the worst but hope for the best. “The good days outweigh the bad days.”
- You learn from doing. Take time to train your team (and trust them).
- Small-town entrepreneurs need to have a positive reputation and be kind, outgoing, community-oriented and disciplined.
- Research the type of business you want to get into and talk to people in other towns: “The most knowledge you can get before you open is the best thing you can do for yourself.”
Lessons Fee has learned in his 31 years of owning the flower shop:
- Ride the highs, but don’t ride them too high. “The highs and lows will balance out,” he said, citing his business surviving droughts, a nearby fire and the oil downturn.
- “No matter who comes in the door, they're a customer.” It doesn’t matter how much they spend. “Whether it's five bucks or 500 bucks, we treat them all the same because everyone's situation is different…You treat everyone with respect who comes in the door just because they deserve it.”
- Small-town entrepreneurs need to know what's in the area first and “be an active part” of the community. You can’t just set up a business and expect instant customers.
- Adaptability is key. In a rural area, the solution isn’t 10 minutes away.
For advice and support with your small business, you can meet with an ATB business advisor.