Over the span of less than a year, Tammy Buchanan and Sherri Bain launched a plumbing company, a network for women in business and then a trade show for those women. “It came down to the wire once I got licensed, I still wasn’t making enough money,” Buchanan says. “I was just making ends meet, almost to the point it was getting ahead of me.”
With Bain’s encouragement, Buchanan took her nine years’ of experience as a plumber and national certification and set out on her own. Together, they opened Small Jobs (SJ) Plumbing, the only women-owned-and-operated plumbing company in the province. Finding resources for women in business was challenging, so they started a networking group on Facebook. And then over a period of four months, they created and organized a trade show for women in business. They donated the show’s proceeds to Bryony House, the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre and Alice Housing.
Halifax Magazine recently spoke with Buchanan and Bain about their experiences.
Did being a woman make it harder to get started in this business?
TB: If anything it was a great benefit. The feedback I get, people love having a female plumber in their home. It was more of a challenge working in the environment for someone else in a male-dominated trade.
SB: Employers may not be ready for women in the trades, but customers are. A lot of our customers are women. I think a lot of women are more comfortable having a woman come into their home than some strange man.
How did the Women in Business Halifax network evolve?
SB: We have almost 900 members now. We’re eight months into this whole process… There really aren’t a lot of resources in this city for women in business. There is a Centre for Women in Business. I’ve been happy to share that information because there are still a lot of women entrepreneurs that don’t know the Centre for Women in Business is there. But they can’t meet all of the needs for women in business. And there aren’t really any mentoring opportunities for women in business in this city. That’s one of the benefits that group has brought to me and our members is that we really get to draw on each other’s experience. When we started the business I was trying to find opportunities to advertise for us. Because we had a limited budget, I had to be creative about how to do that.
Did the show evolve out of that?
SB: There were a lot of shows that were coming up for women in business, but they really had a limited focus: health, beauty, fashion, craft. It’s really difficult to fit a plumbing company into a craft show. It made me think if we were having a difficult time fitting into those kinds of events, then we couldn’t be the only ones. We needed to have an opportunity so that women in any industry could participate. Our 60 tables sold out and we had 23 on the wait list.
What did you learn putting together a show like that?
SB: We need more time, next time. We need a bigger venue because there are more women interested in participating than we anticipated.
Did you learn about the challenges women in particular have in business?
SB: Yes, but not through the show, but through this whole process of being an entrepreneur. Women pull double duty. I am amazed by women in what they are able to accomplish given that they’re moms. We had a hard time getting financing and sometimes that’s because of the types of businesses we are starting. We are very socially conscious. We tend to do very different kind of work than men do.
Why was it important for you to give to those charities?
SB: I think part of my motivation was recognizing the work they do and those organizations, for the most part, are underfunded. They do incredible work. It’s just a part of who we are as a business to give back.
Tammy, how do you do your job differently?
TB: I think my customer service skills are a lot different. We can reach more of a connection faster than the men. What I mean differently is getting the job done and the different ways I have to do it because of my size and the fact that I am not a big burly man. I’ve had to adapt different ways to do it. Sometimes it may take a little longer, sometimes it doesn’t. I can get into small spaces a big guy can’t. It’s been a positive experience.
Why is it important that women entrepreneurs work together?
SB: I think SJ Plumbing is a prime example of why a community of women in business is so important. We’re not a year old. And I think a good portion of our success is from two reasons: one, Tammy is a female plumber and two, because we have this growing community of women who are willing to support each other. And that support ends up having benefits professionally, on the bottom line and because there is a shortage of support and resources, specifically for women in business, if we can offer that to each other as best we can.
Did you expect all of this to happen in a year?
TB: I thought it would be more moderate, like networking and getting to know people, gradually the business growing. As history proves, most small business takes time. For me, I found that immediate success, within a couple of months, a little challenging. But it’s fantastic. As Sherri says, you can’t just turtle through; you have to jump right in.
SB: Tammy is a woman plumber. I knew that was our hook. And I knew that hook would get us in the door. And I’ve known the power of social media for some time. I’ve been able to leverage it in many different ways. I had absolutely no doubt that we would be able to support ourselves through SJ Plumbing. What I didn’t know was how many women just like us were looking for that community of women. Since then there’s probably six or seven other groups doing the same thing, sort of centralized to their own area. So I love what’s happening in the women in business community. To me it tells me more and more will come.