Young Money: This Toronto couple quit their jobs to start an ethical business

By: Rebecca Lee on January 25, 2017
Article image

Young Money is our five-part series chronicling young Canadians and the lessons they learned making big financial decisions. Click here for a recap of the entire series.

Names: Gelaine Santiago and Jérôme Gagnon-Voyer
Age: 26 (her), 30 (him)
Where: North York, Ont.
What they do: run an online ethical retail business

Gelaine and Jérôme, dating for six years, didn’t expect the next chapter of their careers — or their love story — to be the launch of an ethical retail venture.

But almost two years ago, they joined hands and jumped into business together.

Gelaine and Jérôme are the owners of Cambio Market, an online shop that sells fair trade, sustainable products to a North American market. The site launched in 2015, after the pair quit their jobs to pursue something more meaningful than their nine-to-fives.

All of the products in their shop — from jewelry and accessories to greeting cards and home decor — come from ethical enterprises around the world. And behind each item is a cause. Proceeds from the purchase of the Journey necklace, for example, go toward the holistic care of survivors of sex trafficking.

And while there’s a lot more to be said about Cambio Market, there’s also a lot to be said about the couple behind it.

So here’s the tale of these two ethical entrepreneurs who financed their social enterprise, while balancing love and lifestyle along the way.

First, they mixed love and money

Gelaine and Jérôme live together, they work together, they play together. It’s a trifecta.

It’s also not the recommended arrangement for most romantic partners.

Gelaine and Jérôme had worked together before, but Cambio Market is different. It’s their livelihood, and the pressure’s high.

And despite the age-old adage — love and money don’t mix — they’ve been better for it.

“Our relationship actually became stronger after working together,” says Gelaine, “We were already living together, but working on Cambio Market challenged us in new ways as a couple and forced us to learn how to really trust each other”.

They also learned how to supplement each other’s weaknesses, appreciate the other’s strengths, and not go crazy from being cooped up at home with only each other for company.

Then they adjusted to a single income arrangement

Prior to Cambio Market, Gelaine and Jérôme had two steady streams of income to count on.

Now they had one.

“The initial arrangement was for Gelaine to work on the business full-time and I was going to do it part-time,” says Jérôme. “Then I could still work on my IT contracts and generate money for Cambio Market.”

cambio market

And that’s what they did. But this setup had to account for their living expenses first.

Jérôme was able to cover the major household costs, like rent for their condo and insurance for their 15-year-old Honda Civic. Gelaine, who wasn’t bringing in new income, had to dip (a lot, she admits) into her savings to pay for groceries and other basics.

They had to be more conscious when they shopped — Gelaine started buying clothes secondhand and avoiding the organic produce aisle — but it wasn’t a huge adjustment for the already-frugal couple.

“You always read those stories of entrepreneurs that have to eat ramen all day to survive,” says Jérôme. “But I never wanted to go into business and have to switch to the ramen diet. Quality of life is still important.”

And then they adjusted some more

On top of relearning the tricky art of joint finances, Gelaine and Jérôme had to find a way to afford Cambio Market’s startup and operating costs. They did it out-of-pocket, fronting about $10,000 of their own money in the first year.

No physical retail space and a cheap e-commerce plan kept their initial costs from bubbling over, so inventory and online ads became their biggest investments.


A photo posted by Cambio Market (@cambio_market) on

“We really wanted to carry our own inventory. So we buy all our products up front from our partners, which is a huge financial risk,” Gelaine explains. “Sometimes we don’t even know if those products will sell”.

That’s why they started very lean and only sunk a couple hundred bucks into two products. They’ve since expanded.

Meanwhile, online marketing guzzled cash by the thousands. They realized that they’d need to pay for traffic, but Google ads and Facebook promotion was a whole new, very expensive world. The costs accumulated quickly.

Eventually, they had to readjust their expectations — managing living expenses and business costs on a single income wasn’t sustainable after all.

So about eight months after Cambio Market opened, Gelaine got a part-time job.

But don’t be disheartened — she promises that it’s a happy compromise.

Two incomes allow them more financial flexibility and since their work is part-time, they still have time to prioritize their business. Plus, they’re just jobs. The work they’re putting their full hearts and full focus behind are waiting for them at home.

Now they’re making plans for the future

People are starting to talk about Cambio Market.

In part, this slow buzz is thanks to Gelaine and Jérôme’s marketing efforts and their growing presence in Toronto’s business-for-good community. But consumers also just want to get behind Cambio Market because its mission is so undeniably good.

gelaine and jerome

Gelaine and Jérôme reveal that they haven’t even upped their marketing spend to get this attention — in fact, it’s gone way down. People just like what they’re doing and are happy to spread the word.

Now that their audience is growing, they’re turning to their next goal: 2017 is going to be the year of turning a profit — hopefully.

“We’re not looking at salary yet,” admits Jérôme. “We just want to go over breaking even and not sink”.

Even if that means getting some outside help.

When they were just starting, they were determined to bring Cambio Market to life on their own — no investors, no loans. But they feel differently now.

“We had both decided to figure this out for ourselves before we got others involved,” explains Gelaine. “We were still trying to figure out what this means to us and having external funders and investors meant having too many people that you had to please and answer to. But we’re keeping an eye out for government grants and funding in our second year”.

You, in turn should keep your eye out for Gelaine, Jérôme, and Cambio Market. They’re building something bigger than just themselves.

“We’re doing this because this is how we think business should be done,” says Jérôme.

Learn more about Cambio Market, shop their products, and follow their journey on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.