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Calgary’s Next Economy: The Virtual Market is a local connection point for vendors and buyers

At first, Leonard thought 30 vendors and 500 buyers would be a big help. Then, it exploded.

It wasn’t really supposed to be a business to start, according to Sally Leonard, founder of The Virtual Market.

Her platform was initially started back in November 2020 and was launched as a goodwill project for the Christmas season that year. The world was in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, and everything had been shut down, aside from essential services.

“I am a frequent shopper of local, in-person craft markets, and it really bothered me that we were just canceling them,” Leonard said.

“Everyone was like, ‘no, we want to shop local — shop local, it’s all important — but we didn’t really have a good way to do it.”

Leonard said she was already running a few online communities anyway, so she decided to add one more. She wanted to connect market vendors and shoppers.

“My goal when I started this, I was like, you know, if I could get 30 vendors and maybe 500 shoppers, that would be amazing,” she said.

She felt any little bit would help.

“Fast forward six months later, I blacked out. I had 900 vendors and 18,000 Calgarians making hundreds of purchases each day. It was shocking.”

After the Christmas rush though, Leonard had thought about packing things up. Vendors encouraged her to continue.  That’s when work began on figuring out how to set up the online market long term.

After some research, she learned about what vendors and buyers liked, disliked, and what made a difference for them.

Leonard, who has a background in small business banking, understood some of the vendor struggles and she said it led to some cool conversations.

Unique features of The Virtual Market

In essence, The Virtual Market is an online market portal – think Amazon for local makers and other vendors.

One of the things she’d heard from buyers – and vendors – was many portals don’t allow for multi-vendor shopping. That’s where you can have one cart and visit many virtual shops, add things to the cart, and then have one checkout at the end.

Leonard said most vendors don’t have that option.

But there’s also a unique algorithm, too. She said when you go to a place like Amazon and you type a product into search, it gives you the person with thousands of five-star ratings and oodles of sales.

“How does a small shop compete with that, right?” Leonard said.

“So, we had to be creative in our algorithm and use different priorities.”

One of those is geography. Leonard wanted search results to yield products closer to where a buyer lives.  She also wanted to streamline the use; having a system that was back-end heavy and required inventory, uploading products, and having vendors send her stuff wasn’t efficient.

“We’re encouraging them to use this like it’s their own website,” Leonard said.

They don’t take commissions and vendors can use them as the web portal instead of having their own website. She said they can spend more time driving traffic to the site.

‘I’m not a tech person’

Leonard spent 17 years in small business banking across Canada. During that time, she made it her mission to find a way to help hundreds of small business operators and entrepreneurs.

She wanted to understand who they are and what they were trying to do with their business.

It’s that drive to help that pushed her to helping the vendors during Covid-19.

While she has the business bases covered, the Alberta Catalyzer – Velocity program is exposing her to something she doesn’t have: Tech skills.

“I feel really comfortable in the business aspect of it. I don’t know anything about tech. I’m not a tech person,” she said. 

Leonard said the Velocity program is a safe space to admit she’s not tech-savvy. That’s where she’s gained the most knowledge – particularly around what she needs and who she needs to connect with.

That’s setting her up to launch a new platform later this spring. Then, perhaps, expand to points beyond. For now, Leonard’s focus is Calgary. As a small business, she said she’s supposed to say The Virtual Market wants to expand across Canada.

If it happens organically, sure.

“I want to do Calgary’s really, really well,” she said.

“And I want to make a difference here today. That’s my short-term goal.”