Turning lemons into lemonade

Entrepreneur’s corner | Jan 30, 2018

Running a small business is not something you do to relax. Julie Dion, co-founder of Dakissa, a Montréal shoe repair shop, knows that all too well. But even a human resources problem and a hasty relocation haven’t discouraged the young businesswoman. Let’s hear it for adaptability!

Julie Dion met her husband, Seïdou Dembélé, in Africa while she was on a co-operative mission in Mali.  He is a cobbler by profession, and chose to follow the young Quebecker here when she returned in 2007.

When entrepreneurship calls

After working in a Montréal shoe repair shop for two years, Seïdou wanted to start his own business. Julie hesitated, but changed her mind as her contract in the educational field was coming to an end. The Canadian-African couple became business partners as well, he as the craftsman and she as the manager.

They tracked down the equipment they needed to set up a shoe repair shop… in Lévis! “I found it on Kijiji,” explains Julie. “We stored it all in my parents’ garage until we were ready to get started.”

Thanks to the Self-Employment Support Measure (SESM), they were able to rely on one year’s salary at minimum wage and mentoring in entrepreneurship. “We wrote our business plan, did a market study, and so on. Working in a group with other entrepreneurs was really motivating,” she says.

Meeting labour needs

Cordonnerie Dakissa opened in 2011 on the corner of Saint-Denis and Saint-Zotique, and the welcoming cobbler’s shop quickly attracted plenty of local trade. Word of mouth and targeted advertising (metro stations, local newspapers, etc.) brought in lots of customers.

“When our business began to grow, we had a problem finding help,” says Julie. “Seïdou was the only employee! We wanted to train people, but didn’t have much luck.”

To solve the problem, the couple invited Seïdou’s brother, also a cobbler, living in Ivory Coast. Hamadou Dembélé joined the adventure and has been part of the team for the past year and a half. But he can only stay until May 2018, so the two entrepreneurs have had to start the hiring process again.

They knew that skilled workers in this field are very rare, and came up with an original idea: “There are no shoe repair schools left in Quebec! Should we become a training centre? We’re thinking about it. We’d like to work with Emploi-Québec and the Department of Education to become a shoe repair training centre.”

Coping with the unexpected

When they started, the entrepreneurs immediately became friends with the owner of their premises, who surprisingly didn’t want them to sign a long-term lease.

“He preferred to rent to us one year at a time. That suited us, especially in the first few years. But it worked against us six years later, when he died suddenly. Our lease wasn’t notarized. The new owner offered us a smaller, more expensive space. So we had to move.”

Once again, the Internet came to the rescue. “I found what I was looking for on Kijiji this time, too: a place in Plaza Saint-Hubert. It was less expensive, and there was more traffic.” But leasehold improvements, buying new goods and paying for the move all took money. Julie had budgeted $10,000.

“Before our loan came through so that we could pay the moving expenses, we had to rely on our credit cards and find love money,’’ she confides.

Now comfortably settled in their new premises, the couple want to come up with their own line of “Made in Quebec” footwear. They’ve received a $15,000 loan to develop the idea. 

In the short term, Cordonnerie Dakissa is looking to acquire a business on the South Shore and turn it into a service outlet.

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Cordonnerie Dakissa is supported by PME MTL Centre-Est