St. Stephen – Thursday night the Garcelon Civic Center was once again transformed into a gala space as the St. Stephen Area Chamber of Commerce hosted it’s 29th annual Business Gala Dinner. The event celebrates local businesses in the area who are nominated in various categories by their peers, and then chamber members vote for the winner. This year’s event saw businesses and entrepreneurs claim the title of Female Entrepreneur of the Year, which went to Lisa Aronson of 5 Kings Restaurant & Picaroons Brewhouse, New Business of the Year was East Elite Electric, Non-Profit/Charitable Organization of the Year was Charlotte Dial-A-Ride, and the big winner, voted Business of the Year, was Queen of Cups Lingerie Inc., owned by St. Stephen local, Abby Pond.
Pond was legitimately surprised by the win, thanking whoever nominated her. “Thank-you for noticing,” said Pond in her acceptance speech. Pond began Queen of Cups Lingerie (QOC) formally, in June of 2016, after participating in the St. Stephen Development Board/Chamber Business Bootcamp program the previous winter.
“My original idea was to create a makerspace in St. Stephen, kind of like a gym, but with all the crafty equipment and tools you need,” said Pond. “You’d pay a membership to gain access and book time with the various tools or studios you need. The more research I did, the more I realized this type of space works well in a non-profit or subsidized context, but not as a for-profit business.
“One evening, the program mentor asked, ‘well, what could you do to make money when the space isn’t being used?’ I thought through all the crafts and skills I had, and suggested, ‘I could maybe make bras?’ He responded, ‘Bras?’ And I explained, ‘Bras that are custom fit to your body.’ ‘Would people pay for that?’ he asked. Another woman at the table exclaimed ‘I’d give you all my money right now if you could make me a bra that actually fit.’ So I pivoted to focus on creating custom fit bras,” said Pond, and the seeds for QOC were sewn.
But what prompted Pond to take the risk of being an entrepreneur with such a unique business in a small town like St. Stephen? “Actually, I couldn’t have started this business if we lived somewhere else,” said Pond. “It was the low cost of living, the flexibility of my previous employer, lack of commute time, and supportive community network that gave me the tools and space I needed to create Queen of Cups.
“If we lived somewhere else, I wouldn’t have had the financial space or freedom to do so, or have a wide enough network of people to help me make it happen.”
And make it happen she did. For the first two years, Pond says she kept the business “purposely small” as she was still working full-time elsewhere. Her lack of storefront and appointment based system meant she was able to control the growth rate of QOC, intentionally rely on word of mouth for new business. But it wasn’t long before the growth took on it’s own momentum, and Pond was faced with the decision of what her path forward would be.
“As 2018 progressed, I was having to push appointments further into the future – if you called for an appointment, it would be four to six weeks before I could get you in,” said Pond. “I started getting more cancellations. I had more and more requests coming in. I was running out of hours in the day, and had to choose between continuing to work full time, or trying to make a go of the business. I made the decision to jump into it and haven’t looked back.”
And Pond isn’t just making bras (and other lingerie pieces) for women – she’s hoping that within the process, women are experiencing more than simply having a bra that fits.
“Queen of Cups Lingerie exists to empower women through every step of what we do,” said Pond. “When you wear our bras, you’re empowered – you aren’t distracted or limited by painful, uncomfortable underwear. When you buy our product, you’re empowering the women who make it,” (Pond sews, and employs a contract sewer, Donna, and has a new employee starting next week).
“The majority of underwear on the market today is made by women and children who work for a pittance in horribly unsafe conditions,” she added. “We make our underwear right here, and we get paid a living wage to do it. Finally, we as a company and you as a customer are empowered, because we choose earth-friendly materials for our products, to make them as environmentally friendly as possible.
“Over 90 per cent of our supplies are made in Canada. We recycle and re-use whatever we can (particularly metal) and we build our bras to last longer. The second largest emission generating industry, behind oil and gas, is fashion, so anything we can do to keep you wearing what you own longer is a good thing.”
“I hope they (her clients) can shift their mindset from thinking, ‘my body is abnormal, none of these bras fit, I don’t look like that model’ to ‘My body is normal, and now I feel strong and confident’,” said Pond. “I want my clients to put on their bra and then forget they are wearing it.”
And what aspect does Pond love the most about her business?
“My absolute favourite is final bra fitting time,” she said. “When a person puts on a bra that actually fits, it’s like they light up. They stand up straighter. They want to see themselves in a mirror. They want to keep it on and wear it home. It’s a wonderful experience to share.”
And Pond is appreciative not just of her award on the night, but is a keen supporter of groups like the Chamber of Commerce – who exist to help businesses in it’s area, and Pond sees real value in that.
“My business is somewhat “invisible” in a traditional sense,” said Pond. “I don’t have a brick and mortar storefront or walk-in traffic. I spend a lot of my time alone. First and foremost, the Chamber is a group of businesspeople who I can access when I have questions or concerns.
“It’s also essential, to me, to my business growth and ability to function. I find people I can trust. As I grew this past year, for example, I contracted out my bookkeeping and accounting – to other Chamber members. I’m currently looking for studio space, and reached out to ask Chamber members for their input. I can use the networks I have to help my fellow Chamber members in return, too.
“I think that’s a large part of the value of a Chamber. When you sign up, it’s because you believe in working together on common issues, but also that you are willing to help other businesses grow,” she added.
And as an entrepreneur, what does Business of the Year mean to Pond?
“I was really, completely shocked to even be nominated,” she said. “It is incredibly meaningful because it is an award from my peers – from other Chamber members. As I said when I accepted the award, we sometimes feel so isolated and alone in business, particularly when we aren’t in traditional industries.
“Some nights when you have worked for 12 hours, and your fingers hurt, and your head hurts, and you are worrying about cashflow or insurance, you feel like no one else can see how hard you’re working.
“This award means that your peers see you, and your work, and believe in you. And that is a beautiful, humbling thing,” she added.
And with her successful jump from effectively part-time to a solid full-time venture, what does Pond see on the horizon for QOC?
“More growth!,” said Pond. “I mentioned I’m in the process of hiring, and I’m expanding my pop up fitting sessions from Fredericton and Miramichi to include Saint John and Moncton. I also have two other large projects that I can’t go into detail about yet, but will be launching in 2020, that will mean expanding my team here in St. Stephen again significantly,” she said.
And reflecting on where she started to where she is now, what advice does she have for anyone considering striking out into the world of being an entrepreneur?
“Ask yourself: Do people actually want what you have to sell for the price it is worth, and do you actually want to sell it?,” Pond advises. “If you don’t want to sell whatever it is you have or do, then you aren’t going to succeed. And if people don’t want to buy what you are selling, for what it is worth, you’re going to fail. You need to know how, or learn how, to sell and do it well.
“Ask for help. Do the work yourself, and ask for help. It’s impossible to be an expert on everything, or to do everything yourself. There are plenty of people with skills, knowledge and experience who are willing to help you, if you are willing to help yourself.”
If you’d like to contact Pond, you can email email@example.com, she is on Facebook at facebook.com/thequeenofC, on Instagram @queenofcupslingerie, or simply call 506-321-1418.