While most startups are pushing to get their business global, Toronto’s Brika is taking its worldly approach and bringing it down to the local level.
Launched by Jen Lee Koss and Kena Paranjape in 2012 as an online marketplace for makers and artisans to hawk their hand-made creations, Brika – which is often described as Toronto’s Etsy – has slowly seeped into the brick-and-mortar world using Toronto as its proving ground.
Their first foray was a pop-up at The Hudson’s Bay Company before launching a store along Queen West and, eventually, one in Yorkdale Mall.
“It’s amazing, the beauty of us putting a store on the ground and being a part of the community is that makers have heard of us so we get so many people coming by bringing their products to our shop because they want to sell with us,” explains Jen. “There’s a really tight knit community of artisans and makers in Toronto.”
The concept initially came about after Jen, a trained musician with an MBA from Harvard, found Kena’s fashion and lifestyle blog. The pair bonded over coffee and their retail experience (Kena also has an MBA) and, as the friendship grew, came up with the idea to create a marketplace where the focus was on the stories behind the creators.
“We really felt like that didn’t exist and we wanted to be the bridge between those who live creatively and those who aspire to,” she says.
Toronto seemed like a perfect home.
“Looking at it from the perspective of an American who moved here, I think it’s a fantastic, cosmopolitan and extremely diverse city that has everything every major city has but on a smaller scale,” she says. “And I think there are so many exciting new businesses and ideas and innovation happening here – I think it’s a bit of a hidden gem.”
It’s the same excitement and innovation Brika leveraged when it joined and graduated from Toronto-based accelerator Extreme Startups’ Spring 2013 class, closing $500,000 of their $1 million round by June that year.
Today, the site profiles and sells artisanal goods from over 400 makers, while the brick-and-mortar showcases around 100.
“80 percent of our business online is in the U.S. but there’s a beauty in that because we’re still just scratching the surface here in Toronto and Canada,” says Jen. “When people find out we’re from here, they always say ‘no way! I had no idea you were from Toronto’ and they think it’s awesome.”
But despite the global standing, Jen is quick to point out that Toronto is inherent in the company’s DNA. And it’s that “tight knit” community of infectiously innovative makers in the city that makes it the ideal spot to grow the business in their unique way.
Much like the makers they showcase, adds Jen.
“Our maker community gets us because we are building our business and doing exactly what they’re doing,” she says. “We’re mirroring their struggles and going about the business in a different way just like them.”