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Jill Davis and Sarah Vezina. Photo: Mylène Desbiens.

Local business Octopied Mind hopes to help people through art and intentional connection

By Apartment613 on November 21, 2022

By Joy SpearChief-Morris

In her home office tucked away in the forests of Cantley, Que., a half-hour outside of Ottawa, Sarah Vezina talks about the community of people behind her business Octopied Mind: customers who have collectively named themselves “cult members.” Once, a customer from Ottawa shop Thyme and Again came by her house to pick up an order and left a full dinner—complete with margaritas—as a gift on her front doorstep.

“I don’t think that there’s any brands out there whose customers feel like friends, who actually feel like they can talk to me,” Vezina said. “It’s a step far beyond. I just think I would feel pretty empty if all I was doing was adding to the fashion world. I wanted to have purpose.”

That need for purpose and connection is the epitome of Octopied Mind, which sells shirts featuring unique hand-drawn designs with eye-catching, sometimes provocative, mental health-affirming slogans. Co-CEOs Vezina, 31, and her best friend Jill Davis, 30, began Octopied Mind in 2018 and unlike many small businesses, their online platform allowed them to thrive during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since opening, Octopied Mind has grown debt-free at 350 per cent each year.

Sarah Vezina and Jill Davis. Photo: Mylène Desbiens.

Octopied Mind’s roots lie in Vezina and Davis’ friendship, which began at the age of 10. Vezina, who identifies as an Indigenous queer woman, was born in Dalhousie, N.B. in 1991. The two met after Vezina’s mom, a hairdresser, arranged for a client to bring her daughter to the same babysitter for a playdate.

After a gap in their friendship, Vezina reconnected with Davis in 2011 when she moved to Halifax to attend Saint Mary’s University, where she earned a BA in sociology in 2015. That same year, growing tired of the limited quality and styles they saw in women’s clothing, the pair began customizing men’s t-shirts with their own designs. When they began wearing their shirts to parties, people took notice.

“We would print shirts and sell them for like five dollars, or I would just trade shirts at parties with people and leave with a different shirt sometimes, because someone wanted the one off my back,” Vezina said.

Poison the Patriarchy shirt. Photo: Jen Bernard.

In March 2018, Vezina moved to Ottawa for a customer support marketing job at Shopify. By the time she finished her training, she was already thinking of branching out on her own. She called Davis to ask if she’d be willing to go in together on a business for their custom-designed shirts. Davis, a trained mechanical engineer, was becoming tired of her own job and agreed. The two women began putting in four to six hours a day after work, and in June they launched their business online, quickly selling out of their limited stock.

Their first shirts featured their logo, a geometric octopus in a circle with a third eye in the centre of its head and the phrase “free the Octopied Mind,” a play on the phrase “occupied mind” and the inspiration for their business name (along with Davis’ obsession with octopuses).

Vezina said the two joke that Davis is the pen and she is the brain. Their colourful and attention-grabbing designs usually begin with a conversation based on a story or experience Vezina had or a shared experience that Davis then turns into art.

Octopied Mind grew quickly, and in 2019 Vezina left her job at Shopify. Davis left her full-time engineering job two weeks before the announcement of the global COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. Worried about how the pandemic would impact their business, Vezina said their accountant encouraged them to hold on as the world moved online. Octopied Mind pivoted quickly and successfully, and with the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit provided to individuals and businesses early in the pandemic, they were able to reinvest their revenue back into their business.

“So many people just jumped to online shopping and it did wonders for us,” Vezina said.

Double Depresso shirt. Photo: Jen Bernard.

Recently, Octopied Mind partnered with trusted suppliers and factories around the globe to source and produce their shirts directly, eliminating inconsistencies in style and quality and allowing them more production control. However, the start of this relationship coincided with rising inflation. Vezina said their average costs are up about 10 per cent, but they have not yet raised their prices.

“Now we look almost like we did two years ago, financially, and that is just in the last two months.”

Vezina believes this is also because consumers want to spend on experiences as opposed to online shopping: “They’re putting their resources elsewhere and that is very much hitting us hard. Scary hard.”

As a result, Octopied Mind is pivoting again to offer digital e-books, guides, and consulting services for other small businesses. Vezina wants to continue growing their business but has no intentions of opening an in-person store: “Online is the future.”

Paws Off My Body shirt. Photo: Jen Bernard.

Vezina does eventually want to open a studio space that could host events, wellness workshops, and retreats, something she did in Halifax with friends who were into personal healing and New Age spirituality. These also helped her reconnect with her Indigenous heritage, a part of herself that she says has needed healing.

“I think the more that I heal that relationship, the more that I’ll be able to show up in my own business and allow my platform to be a space for other Indigenous makers and other Indigenous people to feel seen and heard,” said Vezina, who is Maliseet from the Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick.

These healing circles also bring back the values Octopied Mind was founded on: helping people through art and intentional connection.

“That’s always been the goal from literally 2018. I told Jill right off the bat, we’re starting with clothes, we’re ending with a retreat,” Vezina said. “I want to be just this long-haired, whimsical lady in the forest, and I just want to hang out with people and talk about their feelings all day.”

Learn more about Octopied Mind on their website and Instagram