When the coronavirus pandemic hit, twin sisters Dakota and Jesse Brant were in the middle of major expansion plans for their growing jewellery and accessory business.
Their company, Sapling & Flint, sells Haudenosaunee-inspired jewellery designed by Jesse, in gold, sterling silver and wampum, and accessories designed by Dakota, out of their gallery and studio in Ohsweken, Six Nations of the Grand River Territory. Their designs are, the sisters say, conversation pieces that share the story of Turtle Island.
The Brants were ready to expand an already-thriving business further into wholesale manufacturing this year in order to reach new clients in the tourism and hospitality industries—but 2020 had other plans. The pandemic prompted them to hit pause on their hiring spree for several more silversmiths and account managers. Moreover, Sapling & Flint’s manufacturers and suppliers were forced to shut down to comply with public health guidelines, preventing them from manufacturing new pieces and replenishing their inventory for a month.
“When COVID-19 hit, we contracted at first,” recalls Dakota, the company’s co-founder and CEO. “We needed to make sure we had the money to survive at that time. I knew we weren’t going to give up, but it was disheartening to know you’re ready for growth, but you have to put the brakes on.”
Similar to many small businesses across Canada, they’ve adapted to the times. Facing the reality of limited inventories, Dakota and Jesse—a trained goldsmith who learned traditional wampum cutting techniques from local cutters—simplified their website in the early months of the pandemic to focus on the items they knew they could rely on through the summer months, and held off designing a summer collection.
Touched by the sewing community’s efforts early in the pandemic to make homemade masks and alleviate the demand for N95 and surgical masks, Dakota and Jesse lined up suppliers and developed their own breathable polypropylene mask filter for non-medical masks. “We were shocked to hear people were resorting to coffee filters and t-shirt fabric for their mask filters,” Dakota said. When the mask filters were listed online, they sold out in minutes.
Producing mask filters allowed Sapling & Flint to maintain employment in their community during the shutdown. They also supported Indigenous communities across the country by allowing clients the option to purchase mask filters at a reduced rate to be donated to frontline workers in Indigenous communities and to the Navajo Nation government in the U.S., which had called for masks to protect their elders.
Seizing the new market opportunity created by the pandemic, Dakota—an artist, designer and regalia maker—created a line of cotton sateen face masks with Haudenosaunee-inspired designs, stainless steel nose pieces to ensure a tight fit and adjustable fabric elastics that fit all head shapes. She built in an internal filter pocket that gave the wearer an additional layer of protection.
Once manufacturing reopened, they turned their attention to preparing for Black Friday and the upcoming holiday season and were able to hire more staff to ramp up production.
The Brants have had a website and online retail options since they started selling earrings, cell phone covers, accessories and clothing in 2014 as a hobby, and as full-fledged business owners, they had continued to grow their web presence. That e-commerce savvy paid off during the pandemic, which brought them record online sales as people moved to online shopping during the initial lockdown and afterward. PayPal’s checkout software for retail and wholesale clients helped the Brants manage their flow of orders.
“If you’re thinking about getting into e-commerce, if you’re wondering if it’s a good idea, the answer is yes,” Dakota says. “E-commerce is only going to become a more widely used experience for customers, and if you’re looking for clients to reach you 365 days a year you need to be online.”
Having “endurance” has been critical during challenging times, Dakota says—both in Sapling & Flint’s early days and during the tumult of the pandemic. “You need to have endurance as a business owner and replenish that thing that motivates you regularly, and that means celebrating your successes,” she says. “I do see growth happening and I try to celebrate that as much as possible.”
One key success has been how their pieces—and the stories those pieces tell—have resonated with customers not just in Canada but overseas. Sapling & Flint has a large customer base in Western Europe and other parts in the world as cross-border trade has been made easy with e-commerce and business solutions from companies like PayPal.
“PayPal gave us this really simple way of taking money and sending invoices to people around the world,” Dakota said, adding that brand’s global reputation as a safe way to transact went a long way in giving their international customers the confidence to shop.
Another major win came last year, when the company got a significant upgrade after being selected from 5,000 small business applicants for PayPal Canada’s Business Makeover Contest. The $15,000 cash prize allowed the Brants to replenish their inventories of precious metals and gold and purchase new industrial manufacturing tools that exponentially increased their production capacity. “For any company $15,000 might seem like a drop in the bucket for business planning, but it was transformational for us to be able to advance our production.”
While the pandemic slowed Sapling & Flint’s expansion plans, it gave the sisters a new form of growth—and Dakota is confident demand for their products will help them succeed well into the future.
“The opportunity is there. In Canada, there is a demand for authentic Indigenous art and a desire for quality in those products,” Dakota says. “That’s what we’re pushing towards.”