Heather Abbey Funded Indig Inc With her Business Competition Winnings

This is part one of a two-part series on Indig Inc.

If there’s one thing Heather Abbey is not, it’s risk-averse. To fund her business idea, this Cree businesswoman from Little Pine First Nation and a Saskatoon, Canada, resident wasn’t afraid to buy a one-way ticket to a business competition without having enough funds to get back home—much less knowing where she would sleep afterward. Not only did that put pressure on her to win the competition, she also had to sell enough t-shirts at the event to afford a room for the night. (Spoiler alter: she won first place out of 30 competitors on this particular occasion, the national “Powwow Pitch” competition in Ottawa.)

Abbey ultimately placed in 15 business competitions to earn the capital to create Indig Inc. She’s also the proud recipient of the 2016 national Indigenous Entrepreneur of the Year award from Startup Canada.

Indig Inc is an online marketplace for indigenous artisans. Also a business platform, Indig Inc’s mission is to provide artisans with the freedom to create their own businesses and set their own guidelines in a professional setting seen by a global audience at indiginc.ca. “We work with and nurture the business goals of artisans and connect them with buyers,” Abbey said.

Here’s Indig Inc co-founder and CEO Heather Abbey’s story—from student to competitor to successful business owner:

When Abbey studied business and inter-cultural leadership at the First Nations University of Canada, she supplemented her income by making small trinkets and shirts. Also while a student, she became pregnant, and needed to address new barriers to earning an income. “Far into my pregnancy, I wasn’t very mobile, and I couldn’t get the products out there to get in front of people to sell. I spent a lot a time at home, and a lot of time on Facebook. I used my Facebook to ask other artists how they got around their barriers and what challenges they faced. I received a lot of friend requests, and a lot of indigenous artisans started adding me. We were able to shape conversations that way.”

The more openly she spoke online about addressing the challenges of an artist entrepreneur, the more artists started adding her as a friend. “They realized there was someone out there who was actively listening and cared about the issues that they faced,” she said.

Through these conversations, awareness about three barriers to business began to take shape.

  • “The first problem was financial. It costs a lot of money to rent a booth at a pow wow or tradeshow,” Abbey said. “Often artisans couldn’t afford that, or they couldn’t recoup their costs or make any additional money on top of that.”
  • “The second barrier was transportation. Most pow wows happen on First Nations reservations or communities that don’t really have major transportation, so it’s very hard for them to get to it.
  • “The final barrier was knowledge. How do you price your product? How do you promote your product? How do you become a small business owner if you don’t have that background? A lot of artisans weren’t sure if they were doing it right.”

“I bought a one-way ticket and didn’t reserve a hotel room,” to compete in a national business competition in Ottawa called the Pow Wow Pitch. Abbey finished first out of 30 competitors. (Courtesy Abbey)

Abbey had an idea: To aggregate indigenous artisan work online. “When I formed that idea I returned to Facebook and I asked one main question: If I make a website where you can post your items and sell them, will you use it? The answer was a resounding yes,” she said.

Abbey cashed out her current work and began paying for the skeleton of what would become her e-commerce site. But she quickly realized that she would need to secure additional income to create her dream.

She caught wind of business competitions through a friend. The thought of participating was daunting; she felt out of her league. “I was not an entrepreneur and I didn’t have that entrepreneurial knowledge. I had my instincts, and I was always creating, but I didn’t know the terminology,” she said.

When she entered her first business competition, she did “an absolutely horrible job. It was the worst pitch I’ve ever done in my life, and I still cringe when the local radio station plays it every time they interview me,” Abbey said. I ended up placing third, and the [winning] funds were donated by W. Brett Wilson, who was on Dragons’ Den here in Canada at the time.” (Dragons’ Den is a reality television program format in which budding entrepreneurs get three minutes to pitch their business ideas to five multimillionaires who are willing to invest their own cash to kick-start the businesses in the original “Shark Tank.”)

“I didn’t place because I had a good pitch or a solid business idea, but I did place because I had a lot of passion and the beginnings of something that I could eventually turn into a good business idea,” Abbey confessed.

Abbey holds her “Best Pitch Award.” She won first place in “The Pitch Party” hosted by investment banker, philanthropist and former CBC Dragon Dens’ panelist W. Brett Wilson. (Courtesy Abbey)

Abbey started pursuing competitions left and right. “I started winning them and placing first. If I had a pitch that had to be three minutes, I would write out the script word for word and practice breathing so I would know exactly where it would time out to,” she said. “I would finish my pitch at two minutes and fifty-eight seconds or two minutes and fifty-nine seconds. I practiced until they were absolutely perfect, and that’s how I was able to either win or place in the capital of all 16 of these business competitions. They were regional, and they were provincial. Then they became national, and I actually represented Canada in Kansas City back in 2014 for the Get in the Ring business competition.”

That’s when, in 2013, Abbey launched ShopIndig.ca, a predecessor to Indig Inc, charging a mere 3.5 percent commission. “We were doing really well, and we were picking up artists from all over North America. We picked up sellers and buyers from all around the world. We had transactions that were going to Australia and down to Santa Fe, New Mexico—all across the States and Canada,” she said.

But eventually, she encountered challenges. “There are a lot of moving parts internally to any e-commerce site that I was not aware of.  All I knew was that you had to put up a website, and it had to be useable. I didn’t know any e-commerce terminology whatsoever and things started breaking down. The more users we had on the site, the more needs they had, and the more that could potentially go wrong. The site was doing well for what it was, but it wasn’t bringing in the revenue that I needed to sustain it much less make a thriving business out of it,” she explained.

It boiled down to the fact that Abbey couldn’t grow the business effectively without the knowledge. “I didn’t know that I needed my own developer; I didn’t know enough to forecast what was coming next; but I also didn’t know that my business model was flawed. I ended up closing down shop…. I had a lot of work to do to make it sustainable,” she said.

Because her concept was proven, she was able to start attracting grants and loans. She was ready to birth her next iteration of an e-commerce platform, Indig Inc. “I knew I wanted a rebrand because, even though it hadn’t been a failure, in my mind it was. I took it very hard that I had to close down my first business, because I felt that, as a social enterprise, I was letting my artisans down. At the same time, I needed to improve myself if I ever wanted my business to become something. This began a period of learning,” Abbey said.

Abbey was invited to participate in the Canadian Technology Accelerator Program Roundtable with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Indig Inc was the first Indigenous Venture to be accepted into the Canadian Technology Accelerator Program. “They sat me right next to our Prime Minister!” Abbey said. (Courtesy Abbey)

She applied for every form of business training “under the sun,” she said. “At that time, I was awarded the Start Up Canada National Indigenous Entrepreneur of the Year Award, which was fantastic. It came at a really low time for me, because I wasn’t sure who I was as an entrepreneur, and I had a lot of artisans who weren’t no longer able to earn an income. I wouldn’t even want to get out of bed but I did.”

While building the blocks for Indig Inc, she applied to the Canadian Technology Accelerator, which had been awarded the number one accelerator worldwide in 2014. Abbey became the first indigenous venture to be accepted in the history of the Canadian Technology Accelerator. “They actually said that my venture and what it stood for were priorities for the Canadian government,” she said.

Through studying with the Canadian Technology Accelerator (CTA), she learned she needed to increase her commission rate to 20 percent to cover costs of processing and any credit card fees, not to mention the general business overhead.

“I didn’t want to go into debt again trying to service my artisans. I did a lot of studying in the CTA. I went back and forth between Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts, and New York six times. I was able to study under mentors who knew global e-commerce. Before this, I only knew everything from a Saskatchewan perspective, and I actually thought I knew a lot. It would become an obvious fact that I knew nothing in terms of global e-commerce,” she said.

Abbey compared the training she received through CTA to drinking out of firehose, because it’s constant and powerful. “The knowledge that I gained there helped me craft what Indig Inc would become and what we needed to do—the phases we needed to implement, and how to start using a lean start-up strategy, so that I wouldn’t run out of capital, and I would be able to scale up slowly. From there, the new Indig Inc platform was born.”

Check back tomorrow to read part two of this two-part series on Indig Inc.