Small businesses can grow from the most surprising places; for young Mohawk artisan Kelsey Deer, it happened at home. Kelsey graduated in 2019 after studying Technical Clothing Design and worked in the industry for a few years. However, clothing wasn’t her preferred focus – after hours, she would experiment by designing and sewing bags as a hobby. This passion project eventually inspired her to start her own business featuring original designs, which became KEL Tech Gear.
Set up in Kahnawà:ke, near Montreal, KEL Tech Gear offers durable technical bags, including chalk bags for climbers as well as bike bags. From the design and marketing of the products to sewing, packaging and shipping, Kelsey does everything herself in her studio at home. Running a small business by herself is a big challenge for the recent graduate, but she’s loving every moment of it.
A business shaped by a strong community
Growing up in Kahnawà:ke and witnessing her community’s creativity in action has fuelled her own. Kelsey is proud of her Mohawk roots, and being able to run a business from home adds to her passion. She says a lot of people in her community are very creative: everyone has a hand in something, whether it be traditional Indigenous art or other types of craft. “I’ve always been very creative and Kahnawà:ke definitely has shaped me. I’m not making traditional clothing, but I have grown up here and I live here, so it has definitely shaped the way I am.”
Her community’s impact on her business doesn’t stop there: they were her very first supporters, motivating Kelsey to create an opportunity for herself, and give back and support those around her. “Being here my whole life has shaped and pushed me to make something myself. For the first few months, almost all my orders were from my community,” she says. “I work and live here, so everything I do, all the money I make, I put it back into the community. I support so many businesses in Kahnawà:ke, and a lot of businesses support me.”
Since she started selling mainly to fellow community members during the pandemic, Kelsey relied heavily on Interac e-Transfer to collect payments for her products: “When I first started, there was no physical money being used, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and everything was by Interac e-Transfer. My business wouldn’t have been able to survive if I didn’t have that payment option.” Interac e-Transfer was also instrumental in helping Kelsey get KEL Tech Gear off the ground quickly, since she didn’t have to wait for payments to come through, and had no fees to pay for those transactions.
Living the WFH dream
While working from home has become the new normal for a lot of people, Kelsey is delighted to have set up her operations in a way that is sustainable in the long-term, without having to worry about renting a bigger space and more machinery. “It would’ve been easy at the beginning to rent a studio, but I’m really happy that I chose to base myself here. I’m a huge homebody, I have two dogs and I’ve always just wanted to be at home with them. So being able to start my own business and work from home has definitely changed my life for the better.”
Running your own business from home comes with some challenges, like acting as social media community manager, customer service and product developer all at once, but the flexibility to work where and how she wants is invaluable. Kelsey says Interac e-Transfer has helped her stay on top of her expenses: with Interac e-Transfer, she’s able to receive funds quickly and provide fast and easy payments to her suppliers and maintenance services. “It’s much easier to use Interac e-Transfer than having to prepare payments beforehand based on estimates. It’s also much easier to have the money in my account when I’m purchasing supplies,” she says. “When I started my business, it was my sole income, so I relied on it to help me focus on the business.”
Growth is challenging, but rewarding
As any other small business owner, Kelsey had to do some soul-searching while starting up KEL Tech Gear, and had to figure out how to make her passion something sustainable. She recalls one of her biggest challenges when she started was underpricing her products and not valuing her time enough. Recognizing and valuing their hard work, creativity and dedication is the kind of advice she’d pass on to others looking to start their own small business. “I wish I knew, when I started, to value myself and my time more. It worked out for my business because people were buying stuff and I was selling a lot, but I was not making any money. I was making enough to just pay for supplies. I wish I could have said to myself to value myself more and put my prices up, because I think that the bags I make are worth the price.”
As her confidence in herself and her business grew, Kelsey finally raised prices to reflect the efforts and care she puts in her products. The result? She can support herself and her dogs with her craft, all while working from the comfort of home, settled in the community she loves.
Now, what’s next for her and KEL Tech Gear? Beyond hiring someone to help her in the production of her bags, Kelsey mentions venturing into dog products. Her dog treat bags are currently her bestseller, and her clients are very vocal on social media, clamouring for more. It so happens that she loves dogs and has a lot of experience with them, as she used to be a dog trainer, and has two of her own to test new products with—would that end up making her business a family business? In any case, Kelsey’s passion and determination shows in every facet of the brand, right down to the last thread. She feels fortunate to be able to live off her artistry, and is looking forward to having KEL Tech Gear grow in new directions.