How a roller-derby-playing kickboxing Indigenous banker built her own business
If you want to start a new business, you need money. Cash. Capital.
Maybe it’s your own money. But probably, you’re going to need someone else’s money: a loan.
Five years ago, Nina Zetchus wanted to build her own business: a “float centre,” a facility with tanks in which people float in bouyant water with their thoughts and nothing else to distract them. With a background in banking, Zetchus new more than a little about the lending process and entrepreneurialism.
But that wouldn’t be enough. Finances were only half of it. To get her business afloat, she had to fight for her dream.
Zetchus was 25 and stressed. She had a busy life and her answer was to focus on high-intensity exercise. She threw herself into roller derby and kick-boxing. But the high adrenaline activities weren’t working; she was plagued by a heart condition and medical issues.
“I was like 25, relatively healthy, playing roller derby and my immune system was shot,” she said. “A doctor wanted to put a pacemaker in me at 25.”
So Zetchus tried something less combative than roller derby. She floated. A friend had told her about this “weird thing” in Vancouver where you would pay money to float, quietly, in isolation. It felt strange, at first, but she found calm and relaxation that had been missing. She got a second opinion on her health issues that brought her a diagnosis, a treatment plan, and counselling. She wouldn’t need that pacemaker.
She did decide, though, to do something different.
For more than a decade, Zetchus worked at Vancity Credit Union, helping aspiring entrepreneurs get their ideas off the ground and delivering financial literacy workshops in Indigenous communities (Zetchus is Sts’ailes). And she increasingly found herself wanting to start her own business.
The friend who had first introduced her to floating had an idea: What about a float centre, not in Vancouver, but in Chilliwack?
“I thought it was a crazy idea,” she remembers. Still, it was enough for Zetchus to put her skills to use. She started working on a business plan to see if the numbers could line up. But as she researched the cost of commercial space, her inquiries started to make waves. It may not have been a firm plan in her mind, but pretty soon people were convinced that a vague idea was, in fact, firm plans. And soon Zetchus, along with her now-husband Wayne, was all in.
“The energy and the passion was there and I was like: ‘I don’t care, I just feel like it’s a calling that I need to do.’ So kind of against my own best practices, I was just like: “OK. We’re doing it.’”
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But Zetchus needed a loan to actually get her float centre, well, afloat. Her experience and education left her with more knowledge than most about the situation. It was still tough.
“I helped people write business plans. And it’s so much easier to tell someone how to do it than do it yourself. Especially when you’re operating based on heart and passion, your brain kind of shuts off.”
Zetchus contacted other float businesses to get revenue estimates; she contacted suppliers. She did the math. And she wrote her plan. She was confident. She just had to persuade others that her confidence was justified—and to stand firm herself.
She had two major lenders: one for the expensive float tanks, the other for everything else.
The float tank lender was there, until they weren’t. At the last minute, she says the proposed financing terms were changed.
“I was like, ‘OK, I see what happens here,’” she said. “ You’re getting these tanks and these are the people who are going to finance them and at the 11th hour they’re jacking up the interest rate and you have nowhere else to go. So you’re stuck, but what are you going to do, right?”
Zetchus got help unsticking herself, relying on her family to cover the costs until she could secure more-favourable terms.
She encountered a similar problem with the general business financing from the Business Development Bank of Canada, a Crown corporation designed to lend to promote the creation of small- and mid-sized businesses. Her banker was receptive about Zetchus and her analysis and business plan. Things were looking up. He just needed to run it up the chain.
And the bosses were less enthusiastic.
“They were like, ‘What’s a float centre?’” Zetchus said. The bank had never financed such a business and the concept, in their eyes, hadn’t been proven. “At that point, my heart just sunk.”
But Zetchus is a fighter: a roller-derby playing, kickboxing ex-banker.
”I wasn’t going to go down without a fight.”
To prove her concept had community backing, Zetchus went around Chilliwack and put together a pile of letters from locals who would refer clients and use the service. And she asked her bank to put their money where their mouth was.
“It was funny. I had an email through BDC where it was like ‘We’re here to help female Indigenous entrepreneurs.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, really? Are you? Because you know you’re telling me you’re not actually going to give me money.”
Zetchus prodded her banker to find a lender at BDC who would see the promise, rather than the uncertainty. And that did the trick. Her business, to be called Luna Float, would happen.
Zetchus still remembers that first day, and the first customer. The space, in a sparkling Garrison building, was itself brand new. “It was so exciting, I felt like I was going to vomit.”
Luna Float is still going four and a half years later. It offers a more diverse array of services and products than when it opened and it has withstood, with some difficulty, the challenges that COVID threw at it. Zetchus trained a staff, and now mostly oversees the business from a distance.
“It was super validating,” she said. “But I’m not sitting back here like, ‘Yes, we did it.’ I still feel like it’s sometimes a bit of a grind.”
In speaking about how she got the money to make her dream a reality, Zetchus spoke several times about being privileged to have a background, support system, and personal finance history to help her access funding; poor personal credit history can sink a loan application.
“No matter how awesome your idea or your business is, at the end of the day they still want you to personally guarantee it,” she said. That, she notes, is no small matter for many people who have big ideas but who may have struggled to make ends meet in the past. “It’s a big question—like a whole systemic issue.”
There is no simple way to solve personal challenges rooted in the entrenched systems that influences everything from access to education and housing to ways people build credit.
But there are things an aspiring entrepreneur can do to improve their odds. Finding people who can provide advice and knowledge is one key, be it through a credit union, a networking group or, especially, community futures organizations that exist throughout the region.
She said the business plan is like an evolving roadmap, and is vital not just to persuade a lender, but for the plan’s writer themselves.
“It’s going to build the entrepreneur’s confidence, and you’re going to be able to articulate and foresee how much you need,” she said. “It’s kind of a silly thing, but a lot of the times, the first question a lender is going to ask is ‘How much do you need?’ And a lot of people don’t know. They know they need money, but they don’t really know how much.”
Having those answers can allow one to demonstrate the confidence necessary to persuade those who might have doubts.
“Don’t take ‘No,’” she said. “You’re selling yourself and you’re telling them why they should be excited to lend you money and why it’s safe to lend you money.”
Zetchus works with Sto:lo Community Futures, an organization with a specifically Indigenous-focused lens aimed at helping entrepreneurs realize their goals. South Fraser Community Futures provides resources for the general community. The non-profit organizations can provide advice, access to loans, and other help for would-be business people. (No, this is not a paid advertisement.)