Entrepreneurship: 6 secrets to success

"Before going into business, you need a game plan, and you need to clearly visualize every stage of the process; if not, it's a nightmare..." - Pierre-Olivier Masse

France Michaud | Desjardins Group

Pierre-Olivier Masse is a resilient entrepreneur, to say the least. In business since 2003, he's taken his venture in a new direction, faced challenges that would have derailed many, and has always bounced back. Read on to find out more about this determined businessman and the partner that's supported him through all the highs and lows.

1. Pursuing a passion
His first business, TorréFiction, was a video store offering movie lovers close to 5,000 art films, along with a coffee corner. Masse ran this hybrid business jointly with a partner who had  started it with him. The business operated for almost 8 years, until 2012.

2. Not being afraid to change direction
At a time when movies on demand were starting to seriously compromise the survival of the  video store part of the business, the two partners were questioning the viability of their venture. Masse ended up buying back his partner's share in the business and developed the restaurant side. It was a major challenge, one he had to take on by himself.

3. Dreaming big
To inject life into his new venture, Masse undertook a major transformation of the café and the menu, increasing capacity to 45. He added better-quality and more diversified items to the menu (everything is made in-house!), and changed the name to Carmen & Felipe.

"It wasn't enough to change the format, I needed to take things in a whole new direction. I wanted a distinctive new identity," he says.

Who are Carmen & Felipe?
The idea for Carmen and Felipe was conceived by Masse, to add life and vitality to the business. These two excentric and colourful animated characters are the café's new owners, and they're responsible for making sure the place has a lively atmosphere, and that business communications reflect the same kind of spirit. For example, Carmen will be heading up the next round of hirings with a sense of humour, while Felipe, in his own way, will be in charge of promoting the soup of the day and the new gluten-free muffin.

"I think we've pulled it off, but in the restaurant business, you're never out of the woods," says Masse, who often has to work 6 days a week, adjust to changing customer volume that's hard to anticipate and deal with steadily rising municipal taxes and the cost of food. "What's good is that it forces me to continuously improve, both on the management side and in terms of what I offer my customers," he adds.

4. Weathering the storms 
On top of these challenges, the city undertook work that blocked up the sidewalk and the exit from the subway alongside the café for many months. The owner of the property in which Carmen & Felipe is located then began major structural renovations to the building, which turned out to be longer and more complicated than expected. Lots of potential in the long-term, but a real headache in the short term.

5. Getting support
"My finances were occasionally unstable," says Masse. That's when Caisse populaire Desjardins Saint-Donat de Montréal, where he's a member, referred him to the ACEM Montreal Community Loan Fund, one of the many community organizations that are a partner of the Desjardins caisses in the Desjardins Microcredit to Businesses program. "It was a real breath of fresh air!" says Masse. "They listened attentively, and gave me helpful advice and financing that helped me get out of spiralling debt."

ACEM helps entrepreneurs who have trouble qualifying for traditional financing, by offering them close support and small loans they can afford. "To get the 2 loans from ACEM that I applied for, I had to do my homework first and be meticulous," says Masse. "The process was demanding, but extremely helpful!"

Counselor Florence Lardanchet and the rest of the ACEM team often challenged Masse. But these multidisciplinary experts knew how to ask the right questions and showed Masse that they understood the value and potential of his business venture.
6. Looking straight ahead!
"I just hired a cook and two servers, to strengthen the team and keep adding to our line of products made in house, like new quiches and pastries," says Masse. 

These additional supports are also helping him to effectively manage the introduction of a new point of sale for breads from boulangerie Guillaume, one of his suppliers. "I'm filling a gap in the neighbourhood, and also helping a business that makes fantastic products," he says. 

"And I'd also like to pay it forward one day," says Masse, who's very grateful for the support he's gotten from ACEM over the past few years. He says he'd really like to do his part in helping this organization continue to provide essential support to entrepreneurs.

A couple of tips for aspiring entrepreneurs
1. Be well-prepared 
"Before going into business, you need a game plan, and you need to clearly visualize every stage of the process; if not, it's a nightmare... you also need a good reserve fund so you can deal with the unexpected--there are sure to be lots of surprises along the way."

2.  Do what you love
"It's a cliché, but for anyone who doesn't really feel like going to work... I give them no more than 6 months. Personally, I see myself as an "artisan" type of entrepreneur. And I make sure that my reward is the enjoyment I get from it every day."

Business owner: Pierre-Olivier Masse
Name of business: Carmen & Felipe
Type of business: Café 
City: Montreal
Number of employees: 8 
Website : carmenfelipe.com

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