Weddingstar

Innovation helps Weddingstar maintain global leadership

Weddingstar has come a long way since its founders Rick and Helle Brink first started importing decorative Christmas bells into Canada 35 years ago. Weddingstar is now a leading global supplier of wedding products. The company’s headquarters and primary centre of operations are in Dunmore, Alberta where it employs approximately 100 people. Weddingstar also has a couple of other warehouse locations: one in Manchester England, where it services their European customers and one in Australia.

Originally starting with Christmas decorations (red and green bells), Weddingstar now sells 4,000 products to over 100 countries around the world. This success did not come about due to chance. Over the years Weddingstar has evolved and adapted to the marketplace. The company has also embraced innovation and consistently strived to improve its productivity.

In the early 1990’s Weddingstar had a scare. At the time, they were selling the same commodity wedding products as their competitors when a price war broke out. With customers defecting to competitors and with no product pricing power, the company’s very survival was at risk. Weddingstar survived and Rick Brink learned an important lesson, “I realized that we had to be different from our competitors. We needed more control over our product design.” 

Rick Brink considers this near-death experience to be an important turning point for the company. Today, 90 percent of Weddingstar’s products are now unique to the company. An added benefit of offering exclusive products was that Weddingstar was able to sell beyond Canada’s borders as buyers were willing to bypass local producers to access unique merchandise. 

Rick Brink’s philosophy on costs and productivity has remained consistent since the early days until today. When he was first starting out, he had very little capital and had to focus on keeping costs down in order to survive. He even recycled used boxes from local businesses in order to ship his products. Today, Weddingstar continues to ask important questions about their business model. What can we do better? How can we reduce our costs? How can we automate a process? How can we use technology? How can we reduce turn-around time for customer orders? 

Rick Brink gives an example of how technology has radically improved efficiency. One of the products that Weddingstar has provided for many years are customized printing of wedding invitations. In the early days, a bride would fill in an order form which a retailer would fax to Weddingstar. Staff would need to review the order, double check the text, set up the printing press and print the invitations. This took approximately one hour of staff time due to the manual process. When online orders became possible, Weddingstar was able to reduce this down to 15 minutes per order. In recent years, automated processing of web orders through Weddingstar’s in-house systems and digital printing has brought this down to about 5 seconds! 

The desire to increase productivity has also had additional benefits from a marketing standpoint. Weddingstar’s business model had previously relied on a smaller number of relatively large retailer orders. Given the staff time to process orders, this was a way to keep costs down. With increased automation and improved processing times, Weddingstar is now able to efficiently process a large number of small orders. This is supportive of the consumer direct model through the company’s website and catalogue where an order could be as low as $5. It has also enabled Weddingstar’s retail partners to stay lean and only order products as needed instead of stocking their shelves.

After 30 years as a successful entrepreneur, Rick Brink has accumulated a lot of wisdom. One caution for would-be entrepreneurs is to not underestimate the long hours and constant challenges of building a business. The pressure to overcome barriers becomes intense not only for your own livelihood but there is a great responsibility for your employees as well. For this reason, it is important for an entrepreneur to stay on top of their company’s operations.

Weddingstar is a shining example of a company based in Southeast Alberta that has embraced innovation, continuously improved productivity, and stayed focused on its market to become a winner in the global economy. 

Visit their website: www.weddingstar.com.

APEX Alberta supports the growth of innovative and technologically-oriented businesses in Southeast Alberta. APEX Alberta is a collaborative initiative between three core service providers: Community Futures Entre-CorpMedicine Hat College and Alberta Innovates

Kinetisense

Technology in motion

Equipping an industry with modern tools and technology is the ambition of most entrepreneurs; be the first one to provide the solution to a problem or make something better than what is available in the market today and you are well on your way to a successful business.

Most entrepreneurs don’t wake up with that solution; it is often a journey filled with lots of questioning, testing, researching, evaluating, troubleshooting, re-testing, a multitude of sleepless nights and many long hours. To sum it all up; it is commitment beyond belief and rarely is a business idea just a haphazard notion out of nowhere.

When I meet successful entrepreneurs, I am usually most impressed by their fortitude; that strength of mind and guts that it took to start a business. Looking in Medicine Hat, Alberta, I found that business and the entrepreneurs behind it who invited me to visit and conduct a short interview. 

It is a company with a technology solution that is, as the name suggests, on the “move” to grow and expand. When I first heard about Kinetisense, I was probably most intrigued by the business name and the meaning behind the name. Kinetisense derived from the word “kinetic” (the adjective form of the word) actually originates from the Greek word κίνησις kinesis, which means "motion".  

Kinetisense was founded in 2012 but really began operating in 2014. The two founding entrepreneurs, Dr. Ryan Comeau and Mr. David Schnare were onto something when they began talking about how they could incorporate technology into current techniques used in physical rehabilitation and fitness assessment. The commonly used tools in the industry, which have been around for decades; the goniometer and inclinometer are really difficult to use and do not always provide the most accurate measurements and results that a health care practitioner, trainer or coach would need for an accurate assessment. This drove Comeau and Schnare to investigate how their technology solution could be used to improve that assessment process.

Dr. Ryan Comeau, a Doctor of Chiropractic, in Medicine Hat and Mr. David Schnare an Information Technology Specialist actually met at a local tennis club and soon after, started exploring a partnership on how they could work together to develop this technology solution. David started the initial testing stages by applying as a Microsoft developer to get access to the Kinect software. To develop their product, David and Ryan partnered with a Microsoft MVP development team in Athens, Greece. The team in Greece created the initial prototype. They then validated their technology by comparing Kinetisense to the Vicon system in a University biomechanics lab under the direction of Parkinson’s Researcher, Dr. Jon Doan.  

Using the technology of the Microsoft Kinect camera (which was originally designed for gaming) and the patented software methods by Kinetisense, they would collect data on human biomechanics or range-of-motion and posture and the second module was functional movement. They would then analyze the data and used that data to identify appropriate treatments and overall patient progress over a period of time. Dr. Comeau’s original concept and idea, coupled with David’s expertise and contacts in the technology industry allowed them to pull together a team that included a senior developer in Greece who specialized in working with the Microsoft Kinect sensor. 

Please review the following video link “Revolutionizing Rehabilitation with the Help of Kinect, Azure and Cloud” 

By the beginning of 2014, Kinetisense developed version 1 and celebrated their first commercial sale of the product. The product continued to evolve as both Comeau and Schnare listened to the market needs and developed a second product that would complement the first, and this second product focused on functional movement.

The Kinetisense product has taken the market by storm. Kinetisense has been available on the Microsoft store for just over a year and this has now opened up access to a multitude of users worldwide. The product is now being used by practitioners from multiple disciplines, chiropractors’, physiotherapists, registered massage therapists, medical doctors, athletic trainers, orthopedic surgeons, dentists (neuro muscular, posture component) and that market is continuing to grow. The Kinetisense product is also being used as a research tool because it is portable, convenient to use and is readily available. 

Benefits to the practitioner mean that assessments are done in real time, and patients can see the results and receive immediate feedback. Practitioners can take video and still shots and then can use these to create a report, communicate with others in the industry (for example insurance providers who might use the information to validate claims as a result of injuries). This immediate feedback to patients has been invaluable and is leading to positive patient participation as patients who see results quickly are much more motivated to follow their corrective action plan.

Kinetisense has also created an objective and efficient analysis tool for balances that does not require wearable sensors. The Kinetisense 3D Balance system will improve the assessment of the elderly in determining risk of fall and concussion baseline analysis. Currently balance is often analyzed visually which is very subjective and lacks accuracy.

Kinetisense received federal grant support through the National Research Council and provincial grants with the help of Alberta Innovates in 2013. This funding was used to help accelerate the commercialization of their technology solutions. In accessing the Alberta Innovates Micro-voucher and Voucher programsKinetisensewas able to execute on their intellectual property strategy for global protection of their technology. Alberta Innovates also supported Kinetisense with their Commercialization Associates Program, which provided a resource to support marketing efforts for a 6- month period. This funding and support has been instrumental in helping Kinetisense access new markets, obtain exposure to Alberta government connections and to develop the product further. This is all good news for our region as Kinetisense will continue to provide employment opportunities for this region and grow its local team.

When I asked Kinetisense to describe what some of their biggest hurdles were, they described that the initial selling process and getting their product to market was a challenge. They were so heavily invested in the product development and innovation pieces in the beginning, that it left them limited time for marketing and sales activities.

Now that Kinetisense is looking at global distribution and strategic partnerships they are focused on how they can continue to grow their global recognition, consumer confidence and consumer validation in those new markets. Here is a brief summary of the history of Kinetisense from 2012 up to now.

Aug 1, 2012:     Kinetisense is founded

Nov 1, 2012:    Kinetisense partners with a Microsoft MVP development team

Apr 1, 2013:     Kinetisense prototype is created

Apr 15, 2013:   Kinetisense receives grant funding from Alberta Innovates

Apr 30, 2013:   Kinetisense initiates patenting process

May 15, 2013:  Kinetisense receives grant funding from the National Research Council of Canada (NRC)

July 1, 2013:     Kinetisense is validated by a University Biomechanicals Lab

Jan 1, 2014:      Kinetisense Version 1 is launched on the Microsoft App Store and the first commercial sale

Mar 1, 2014:     Kinetisense receives standing ovation at the Microsoft development conference

May 31, 2014:  Kinetisense is featured in the USA Today

Aug 1, 2014:     Kinetisense partners with MaRs incubator program

Oct 1, 2014:     Kinetisense Version 1 is finalized

Nov 15, 2014:   Kinetisense is featured in a Parkinsons Research Study

When I asked Kinetisense to provide 3 pieces of advice to entrepreneurs starting out today here is the information they had to share:

1) Be careful that you take time to research and understand important things like costs and time as these were the things that they did underestimate in the early stages of their business.

2) Ensure you have a solid plan, and obtain sound financial support and expertise.

3) Create and maintain a good team as this will be critical for your business as it grows.

Visit the Kinetisense website:   https://kinetisense.com/

This story was written by Elizabeth Blair. Elizabeth is the regional innovation network coordinator at Community Futures Entre-Corp and works to oversee activities with APEXAPEX is a Regional Innovation Network that supports the growth of innovative and technologically-oriented businesses in Southeast Alberta.

APEX is a collaborative initiative between three core service providers: Community Futures Entre-Corp Business DevelopmentMedicine Hat College; and Alberta InnovatesAPEX strives to support local entrepreneurs and small to medium-sized enterprises to develop and adopt new technologies, commercialize innovative new products, improve productivity, and get connected to Alberta’s Innovation System.

Flag 5

Growing a business

Melissa Chinski grew up in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, moved to Medicine Hat in 2002 and studied at the Medicine Hat College. She obtained her degree in Visual Communications in 2005. The Visual Communications program provides students with an in-depth knowledge of design through courses like typography, drawing, marketing, video and applied design. Shortly after graduating, Melissa secured a position with the City of Medicine Hat, working as a graphic designer in the Communications Department.

Even with a full-time job, she was driven to entertain graphic design work after hours and on weekends with a plan to save enough to eventually open her own business. Melissa obtained a business license in 2005. As she began to explore the possibility of running her own business full-time, she did an online search and found out about Community Futures Entre-Corp and how their services might be able to assist her with the questions she had about starting a business. After meeting with a Community Futures Entre-Corp business advisor, she was able to collect valuable information and resources to help in the process of putting together a proper business plan, which she admits would ultimately be the groundwork to help guide her through everyday operations. Melissa shared how that visit with Community Futures Entre-Corp helped her understand how there was so much more to consider in running a business than just everyday client work.

12 years later, Melissa is enjoying a successful business with a store front and one full-time employee. Her business is called Flag 5 Inc. located in downtown Medicine Hat on 4th Ave.

Flag 5 has serviced a growing list of clientele, some of them, as far away as Boise, Idaho. Melissa’s target market is medium-sized businesses who have an understanding of design and who want to market their business with a consistent and professional look. Melissa explained how her number one principle at Flag 5 is customer service. They strive to get to know clients businesses on a personal level, ensure each client feels like they are part of the team and that their goals are achieved.

Story by Elizabeth Blair, APEX Coordinator

APEX is a collaborative initiative of Community Futures Entre-CorpMedicine Hat College, and Alberta Innovates. APEX strives to support local entrepreneurs and small to medium-sized enterprises to develop and adopt new technologies, commercialize innovative new products, improve productivity, and get connected to Alberta’s Innovation System.

Atlantis Research Labs

Advanced technology in the energy sector

Hydrocarbon energy producers in Alberta are producing tremendous amounts of methane emissions, a harmful environmental by-product. Tackling emissions is currently a priority for governments around the world.

A technology solution to help reduce oil and gas producer emissions has been developed by Atlantis Research Labs.  The founder of Atlantis Research Labs, Vladimir Mravcak, had a passion for technology from his youth.  He grew up in an era where the space shuttle program was active and where technology was evolving at a very fast pace; he witnessed the development of the internet. 

Atlantis Research Labs was created as a commercial research lab with a goal to produce technology to address industry needs where there are large and complex challenges. Following a multi-year program, Atlantis developed an advanced jet combustor which would provide the solution needed by the oil and gas industries. The innovation is called PureJet. Adapted from Atlantis Research Labs’ aerospace technology, it will change the way aerospace vehicles are designed and built in the 21st century and can be used to help the energy sector reduce its emissions in the 21st century.  PureJet draws in emissions and then incinerates the multiple types of gas and then neutralizes the pollutants at a 99.9% efficiency rate.  There is no output of flame or smoke produced in the process.

Vlad discovered the programs with Alberta Innovates (AI). The connection to AI allowed Atlantis Research Labs to accelerate their technology development through AI’s acumen and technical capacity and AI’s ability to recognize innovation and support it. Atlantis Research Labs began working with AI and Community Futures Entre-Corp and this partner connection assisted Atlantis Research Labs with the ability to move through the technology market stages. Atlantis Research Labs was an organized business entity prior to arriving in Alberta, although, it was the AI connection that allowed Atlantis Research Labs to prepare their product for the marketplace.

With the assistance of the AI micro-voucher and Voucher program, Atlantis Research Labs was able to accelerate the prototype design and development process of its PureJet product line. A possible next step would be to continue to work with AI through its Product Demonstration Program (PDP) and also the Industry Commercialization Associates program which are designed to help complete the product development cycle and get the PureJet product to market. Vlad stated that AI helped with those key processes to help de-risk the technology for the client and then to demonstrate how the technology works, and assisting to demonstrate that it is a valid commercial product. He said that these were all critical milestones in the innovation process and that AI provided the necessary support through these programs.

This story was written by Elizabeth Blair. Elizabeth Blair is the regional innovation network coordinator at Community Futures Entre-Corp and works to oversee activities with APEX. APEX is a Regional Innovation Network that supports the growth of innovative and technologically-oriented businesses in Southeast Alberta.

APEX is a collaborative initiative between three core service providers: Community Futures Entre-CorpMedicine Hat College; and Alberta Innovates. APEX strives to support local entrepreneurs and small to medium-sized enterprises to develop and adopt new technologies, commercialize innovative new products, improve productivity, and get connected to Alberta’s Innovation System.

Postcard Portables

When Robert and Dustin discovered the Postcard Portables franchise, they were already operating a small print business called “The Caddy Card”, which specialized in Golf Course marketing, in Medicine Hat. After assessing their business and deciding that it was very seasonal, they started researching a business that would open the doors for year-round opportunities and one that was still closely related to advertising and sales. They began their market research by talking with many business owners to try and understand what the needs were and how they could assist in providing better marketing efforts. Knowing about the need in the marketplace for good quality advertising and affordable pricing, they began their search for something affordable and attractive to offer small businesses. This search led them to a franchising opportunity with Postcard Portables. Their extensive experience in the printing and design business enabled them to put together a sound business plan and within a short 6-week window, they were approved to start operating their new franchise in Medicine Hat.

At the beginning of 2007, the business partners started the journey to acquire the Postcard Portables franchise. Their first attempt brought disappointment and discouragement, as their application for financing was declined by the bank. Fortunately, someone they knew directed them to Community Futures Entre-Corpand this was the door that finally opened. Community Futures Entre-Corp (CFEC) offers loans to new and expanding businesses throughout Southeastern Alberta and once CFEC reviewed the business plan provided by Robert and Dustin, an approval to finance their business became a reality in a very short time. In fact, 6 weeks later, they were to become proud owners of the new franchise and began operating the new business on July 1, 2007.

Ten years later, their business is thriving. Postcard Portables recently won the prestigious national award for Franchisee of The Year for the second year in a row making them only the 2nd franchisee to ever accomplish that in Postcard Portables’ history.

Reflecting on their strengths and motivators, Dustin says, “Our number one driving principle will always be customer service and dedication to building strong customer relationships”. He went on to explain how placing customer service as a top priority continues to drive profitability because those same customers continue to come back. 

This story was written by Elizabeth Blair. Elizabeth is the regional innovation network coordinator at Community Futures Entre-Corp and works to oversee activities with APEX. APEX is a Regional Innovation Network that supports the growth of innovative and technologically-oriented businesses in Southeast Alberta.

APEX is a collaborative initiative between three core service providers: Community Futures Entre-CorpMedicine Hat College; and Alberta Innovates. APEX strives to support local entrepreneurs and small to medium-sized enterprises to develop and adopt new technologies, commercialize innovative new products, improve productivity, and get connected to Alberta’s Innovation System.

Blondie's Gift & Garden Centre

A Blooming business!

Entrepreneur stories with humble beginnings are the ones I find most intriguing. I love to meet the people behind the business, hear and learn about their journey and how what seemed impossible, turned into success because of determination, personal drive and motivation.

Back in 1993, when Joyce Swaren was the manager at a local garden center in Medicine Hat, she ran daily operations and handled everything from growing and cultivating plants, designing gardens, to managing inventory. During her 13 years there, she acquired a wealth of knowledge in the industry that would later assist her when the owner had to shut down operations due to illness.  Joyce began to assess her future options. Soon after the garden center closed, Joyce enrolled in a full-time 2-year horticulture program at Olds College. It was a difficult time for her: finding care for her children, commuting home every weekend, earning enough money to sustain her family: her kids were 12, 8 and 4 years of age at the time and she was also a single mom.

By the time she completed her training at Olds College, she knew she wanted to open a garden centre. Continual encouragement to start a business came from Bob Notenbomer (the current Maintenance and Operations Manager), and Joyce’s family and friends. Joyce already had the reputation as the “go to” plant expert, and with this, she knew she could gather that loyal group of customers and that they would follow her to a new business.

But Joyce knew that starting a business from scratch was going to mean that she would need some help and some additional training.

Within a few months of returning from Olds College, Joyce and her daughter discovered the self-employment program at Community Futures Entre-Corp. In this 7-week program, they acquired the skills and training that would give them the tools to start and run the business. Joyce’s daughter, Renee, was instrumental in helping in the early stages – she managed the administration and bookkeeping for 5 years until she decided to move into a nursing career.

Finding financing would be the next challenge. The first loan application was declined by an entrepreneur organization. After several attempts, their application was approved and within 1 year of their intial application, they had enough funds to purchase land and start construction of a building.

Blondie’s Gift & Garden Centre opened its doors on April 15, 2004 with only 4 bays. In 2007, they expanded and opened 5 more bays and today they are operating at capacity in a 22,000 square foot building. Joyce employs 5 full-time staff and 12 part-time staff.

Joyce admits that running a business has come with some wild adversity. 

On July 18, 2016, they would face devastating damage to their building due to severe storms that brought heavy rain, winds, and damaging hail.  The garden centre, comprised of mostly plexi-glass and some composite plastics, received considerable damage. Joyce described it to me, “…we threw out dumpsters and dumpsters of broken glass. There was broken glass everywhere. Everything was wrecked.” She estimated the damage to be in the hundreds of thousands. “It was the hardest time for me and for the business”, she said. That hailstorm was an enormous setback but she described how her passion for the business is really what saved them.

When I asked her about her previous entrepreneurial experiences, Joyce explained how she admired her brother who started a business when he was 18. “He worked his entire life, as a general contractor, and is set to retire this year.”, she said.  Joyce laughed when she said that her brother told her, many years ago, that she would return to Nova Scotia within six months, after Joyce moved to Alberta. That was 35 years ago. She proved him wrong.

Blondie’s Gift & Garden Centre celebrated its 13th year in business on April 13, 2017. 

When asked if Joyce could give three pieces of advice to new entrepreneurs, here is what she said:

1. If you find a business idea and are passionate about it, go for it. If you are passionate about your business, people will follow you;

2. If you love what you do, good things will come to you; and

3. Be prepared to work long hours; but it is very rewarding.

Blondie’s Gift & Garden Centre is located in Dunmore, Alberta, 3 kms east of Medicine Hat, on the #1 Highway. 

Visit their website:   http://www.blondiesgreenhouse.com/

This story was written by Elizabeth Blair. Elizabeth is the regional innovation network coordinator at Community Futures Entre-Corp and works to oversee activities with APEXAPEX is a Regional Innovation Network that supports the growth of innovative and technologically-oriented businesses in Southeast Alberta.

APEX is a collaborative initiative between three core service providers: Community Futures Entre-CorpMedicine Hat College; and Alberta Innovates. APEX strives to support local entrepreneurs and small to medium-sized enterprises to develop and adopt new technologies, commercialize innovative new products, improve productivity, and get connected to Alberta’s Innovation System.

Accessible Accessories

Local entrepreneurs find success through drive and sacrifice

Don Doonan and Brone Miller had no previous entrepreneurship experience when they first began dreaming about a business of their own.

This couple moved to Medicine Hat in the fall of 2002 from Wetaskiwin, Alberta. They moved into a small 2-bedroom basement apartment, leaving much of their belongings in storage after selling their house in Wetaskiwin. “We set up a make shift work area in the spare bedroom with 2 saw horses and used the bi-fold closet door as our desk.  Our computer was old and could barely do what we needed. We did not even have a printer,” Don said. Brone went on to describe the huge sacrifices that they made to ensure every dollar earned would be directed to the business. They knew saving was the only way to make it work. “Living a meager lifestyle was our only option. We learned to like Kraft dinner,” she says.

Although they had a sound business idea, they knew that they needed more support. They spotted a billboard sign at the bottom of Scholten Hill in Medicine Hat, that read, “Have an Idea? Start your own Business. We can Help.” They followed up and registered for the Community Futures Entre-Corp, Self-Employment Program. The couple completed the Self-Employment training program in July of 2003. Brone emphasized just how much the program helped them. She explained how they can now both navigate through the business financials and how what they learned in that program gave them the ability to maintain hands-on control over their books and business today. “The Self-Employment program provided the tools we needed and the confidence to apply them when we started our business,” says Brone.

Putting Don’s 30 years of automotive industry experience together with Brone’s computer sciences background ensured that they had the combination of skills and insight that would help them design a solution for the industry. The two local entrepreneurs began developing their idea to create a software tool that would facilitate the link between the vehicle accessory market and dealerships. The software tool would provide a seamless method for dealerships and accessory markets to interact. At that time, there was no technology to help dealerships easily find information. It was either on supplier websites or within accessory catalogs and brochures that were difficult to find, had incomplete details, or were out-of-date and inaccurate. Providing a software tool to connect the information and facilitate easy access to information allowed dealerships to easily promote accessory sales and in turn push up their sales and profits. The vehicle accessory market is indeed bursting with opportunity. 

According to statistics gathered by Foresight Research, based out of Rochester, Michigan, the dollars spent on auto accessories was $33 billion in 2015.

By October of 2003, Don and Brone incorporated their business. They hired a programmer to write some basic code and by 2004, they were ready to go online.

But things were never easy. Brone explains how. “It was hard to get financing. We were a startup software company, with an idea and a product that was not even really proven or tested yet. Nobody would give us financing,” Brone explained. Don and Brone poured every cent into the business. “Every last dollar,” says Brone. “We had used all of our savings and mortgage funds to finance the startup of our business.”

Don started the sales calls but it was difficult to get a dealership to listen or agree to a free trial. Signups were few and far between for the first 2 years.   In 2006, Don phoned a dealer representative for General Motors in Calgary and offered to provide the software to 20 of their dealers across Alberta for a 6-month trial at no charge. It was a try it out and see arrangement because Don and Brone felt that once these dealerships used the software, they would begin to see the immediate benefit. The software allows dealerships to showcase vehicle accessories online to their customers. It should drive sales for the dealership and increase gross profits. The offer and trial run proved to be a smart decision and a complete success.  General Motors of Canada saw the benefit of their software and signed their first data contract in 2007 and the rest is history. Seven manufacturers and hundreds of other dealerships across the country are now clients, utilizing the Accessible Accessories software product to navigate through vast databases of accessories, offering solutions to their clients, and increasing their profits at the same time. Many dealerships have seen accessory sales increase by 200+%.

Don and Brone described some of the things that they implemented that helped them drive their business in a positive direction.

Value your employees. “We believe employee happiness, work-life balance, and recognition is essential – in fact, it is number one for us. They are our single most important asset. They are the key to our success! We go out of our way to provide our employees the little extras like: their birthdays off each year, with full pay; a Christmas gift every year up to $500 in value; monthly staff lunches; all beverages and snacks provided and more. And although we have to work a 40-hour week, great flexibility is allowed in their schedules to help balance their home life as well,” says Brone.

Respond to your clients immediately. “When a client contacts us needing assistance, or with a problem or to suggest an improvement, we respond immediately (mostly within 5 minutes). We also keep a record of every single inquiry whether it is positive or negative and we hold a monthly draw to reward them because we want them to know how much we appreciate their feedback. Our client’s comments and usage is the only way we can measure how we are doing and if we are meeting their needs. Their suggestions and ideas are how we build our next version of the software. It really is built by the people who use it,” says Don.

“We also recognize that our clients are very busy people so we stress this as a priority to all of our staff to answer phones and emails immediately. It is a WOW factor, for our clients!” says Brone.

There must be full commitment from the business partners. “We believe that in order to have success in your business, you have to have full commitment from all of the partners. Whether you are a husband and wife team or a couple of friends, there must be 100% commitment from each person, otherwise, it is very difficult to move forward. It’s like being in a boat. You both need to be rowing in the same direction to move ahead or you exhaust yourself going in circles,” says Don.

In 2011, Don and Brone purchased an old church in Medicine Hat. They renovated and updated the brick building into an architectural masterpiece that suits their technical needs and provides an appealing workplace for their employees. They now have 8 full-time staff.

When asked how their business was doing, their reply was “Great! We are currently writing a new version of the software to change the look and feel, and are looking to expand into US markets.” Two pieces of advice they would give to new entrepreneurs are:

Learn how to run a business. The self-employment training program at Community Futures Entre-Corp taught us how to run our business. We learned how to keep our books, remittances and payroll. These were excellent tools for us and without them, we would have failed.

Don't expect to turn a profit before the 3-year mark. Be realistic, and plan for your expenses. Don’t start and think “the business” can pay for everything. Don went 2.5 years before he received a pay cheque from the business.

This story was written by Elizabeth Blair. Elizabeth is the regional innovation network (RIN) coordinator at Community Futures Entre-Corp and works to oversee activities with APEX Alberta. APEX is a Regional Innovation Network that supports the growth of innovative and technologically-oriented businesses in Southeast Alberta.

APEX is a collaborative initiative between three core service providers: Community Futures Entre-CorpMedicine Hat College; and Alberta Innovates. APEX strives to support local entrepreneurs and small to medium-sized enterprises to develop and adopt new technologies, commercialize innovative new products, improve productivity, and get connected to Alberta’s Innovation System.

Inspire Studio, Gallery & Cafe

Merging creative passion into an inspirational business

What does it take to create an inspiring place and atmosphere? It starts with creative people with a passion and a vision.

Meet Maureen Newton and Louise Vernal, sisters, born and raised in Medicine Hat. Maureen is the sole-proprietor of Inspire Studio & Gallery and co-owners of Inspire Café. Together they have created a beautiful business idea: Inspire Studio, Gallery & Café, located in sunny Medicine Hat, right at the busy corner of 2nd Street S.E.  I describe it as a delight to the senses: look, feel, taste, smell and even sound are all available when you visit here.

Maureen started planning the business in January 2008 and officially opened the doors of Inspire Studio & Gallery in July of that same year. She made the decision to also partner with her sister Louise to create an extension of the business and together they created Inspire Café. This extension to the business was finalized three years later and the café was open for business in February 2011.

Maureen worked in the art industry for her entire adult life and after returning to Medicine Hat, she decided that a studio and gallery would be a great business concept for Medicine Hat. “There was really nothing like this in Medicine Hat”, she says, and she was sure that it was a concept that would make their business unique and attractive in our community. “This is exactly the type of place I enjoyed visiting when I travelled and visited other cities”.

Maureen enrolled in the Community Futures Entre-Corp Self-Employment training program in 2008. Maureen describes what she found to be most valuable, “the training program was great for breaking down the process of how to begin a business and what the overall process of running a business would entail. The program played a vital part in helping us make connections to mentors and advisors who helped us along the way. The program also helped me to develop a solid business plan”. Soon after, Maureen participated in the Chinook Entrepreneur Challenge through Community Futures Entre-Corp and took home the first prize of $15,000. “These funds helped us build Inspire Studio.” Maureen was also able to access a renovation grant/loan program and start-up financing from Community Futures Entre-Corp which were used to renovate the shop and start the build-out of the café.

The self-employment thread runs through this family. Their father had a home painting business, their eldest brother had a charter fishing business and each of her nephews are currently in the process of starting up their own businesses. With a vision to bring life to Medicine Hat's downtown core, they are using their entrepreneurial talent to make this happen. Inspire Studio, Gallery & Café also satisfies their need for great food, music programs, and creative art pieces. They enjoy a regular local customer base and also appeal to visitors to the community who want to experience something unique. The pair have worked diligently to partner with other businesses and groups in our community such as the Esplanade, Medalta, The Monarch Theatre, Medicine Hat JazzFest and the Medicine Hat Folk Music Club. They are also part of the Downtown Medicine Hat Art Walk and participate in all of the City Centre Development Agency (CCDA) events. These partnerships and community activities bring vitality and vibrant business activity to the downtown core. Inspire Studio, Gallery & Café continues to attract a variety of customers who love culture, our community and its history. 

Inspire Cafe has one full-time and 8 part-time employees. Their days are long. Preparation starts in the early hours so that the kitchen is ready to serve at opening time. Louise does all of the scheduling, shopping and planning for Inspire Cafe, as well as most of the cooking while Maureen manages the social media and marketing aspects of the business, and teaching art classes. Art classes run throughout the day, in the evenings and also on Saturdays.  Inspire Studio, Gallery & Café is a busy family business.  They are open 6 days a week and closed on Sundays and holidays giving them a much needed full day of rest.

Three pieces of advice that Maureen and Louise would give to entrepreneurs starting a business today are:

       1. Have a solid business plan and take the time to research your business idea.

       2. Always give yourself time to rest and recuperate. Take care of yourself because if you are not in top form, neither is your business.

       3. Expect the unexpected. It is like playing a video game. As challenges and obstacles arise, you have to figure out how to go around them, go over them or blow them up.

You can visit their website at: http://www.inspireart.ca/inspire-cafe

This story was written by Elizabeth Blair. Elizabeth is the regional innovation network (RIN) coordinator at Community Futures Entre-Corp and works to oversee activities with APEX. APEX is a Regional Innovation Network that supports the growth of innovative and technologically-oriented businesses in Southeast Alberta.

APEX is a collaborative initiative between three core service providers: Community Futures Entre-Corp Business Development, Medicine Hat College; and Alberta Innovates. APEX strives to support local entrepreneurs and small to medium-sized enterprises to develop and adopt new technologies, commercialize innovative new products, improve productivity, and get connected to Alberta’s Innovation System.

Terralta Inc

Alberta is on a shift to renewables and is pushing to meet its environmental goal of reducing carbon emissions. The new priority is to tackle global warming and collectively governments around the world are looking closely at how they can obtain energy from alternative energy sources like wind and solar instead of coal.

Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan outlines the plan to obtain 30% of its electricity from these alternative energy sources by the year 2030. [1]

This appears to be an extraordinary transition goal at first glance. Is this goal achievable and how will we get there?

One local Medicine Hat company is poised and ready to assist in that transformation to renewables.  Terralta Inc. started their operations in 1998 in Yorkton, SK and were installing geothermal systems at that time. After relocating their operations to Medicine Hat, they began exploring solar photovoltaic systems. Terralta has since installed numerous solar panels (solar PV) for both residential and commercial customers across the region. Starting with small scale residential systems in 2009, they have since moved on to large scale roof top solar, recently installing a 200kw array in Cardston, Alberta.

I met with Laura Shivak, Owner of Terralta Inc. as well as Marcus Campbell, the Director of Operations to learn more about the industry. “The interest in residential and commercial installations really peaked when the NDP came into power. We have since had a steady flow of inquiries because of the City’s HAT Smart program,” says Laura. “The City of Medicine Hat currently offers an incentive for the installation of residential solar PV,” she says, “but there is no program for geothermal at this time.”  The details on Medicine Hat’s incentive program can be located at this link: https://www.medicinehat.ca/government/departments/utility-sustainability/hat-smart/solar-electric-panels

“In 2009, we focused primarily on geothermal, plumbing and mechanical but then decided to explore the solar PV market. Marcus Campbell was brought in to handle that sector of the business,” says Laura.  Marcus described the journey to learn about the industry as so much of it was still so new, “I spent many years researching the industry, training and learning about the many products and available suppliers. Because of this work, we now have access to quality products and can focus on quality installations with strong and reliable supplier relationships. This research allows us to be well positioned to handle the demand and industry growth in our region today.”

Laura admits that business cycles have been unsteady so they have had to make adjustments and changes to streamline the business. “We eliminated unnecessary equipment, sold what we did not need to get that inventory off of our books. We created a strategic partnership with Enmax in 2011,” says Laura. “A partnership with Enmax and becoming an authorized dealer has created a strong relationship which allows us to receive work orders from them. This is good for our business.” Laura was able to expand operations with a loan from Community Futures Entre-Corp to fund equipment, inventory and working capital to prepare for the new influx of work orders that they have received. 

Advancements in technology have made solar PV conversions much more attractive as production can be tracked.  Laura explained how they are able to monitor a site when it is installed through various software programs. The monitoring system enables Terralta and the customer to measure the number of kilowatts produced per day, per week, per month and per year. It is essentially a monitoring system for the lifetime of the energy system. 

“Customers are also very interested in knowing about environmental benefits such as CO2 emissions saved and lightbulbs powered.  The average home consumes about 30 kilowatts a day. A home solar PV system can produce anywhere from 20 to 35 kilowatts a day from spring to fall,” says Marcus. Marcus explained that a typical system might cost around $15,000 and with the current subsidies available through city and provincial grants, you can expect that about 50% can be subsidized.

Terralta has an abundance of work booked for the coming months. With a list of eager customers looking to participate in grant programs, there are about 30 new orders waiting for installation. With a steady flow of business, Terralta is poised for growth. Currently employing 6 full-time employees, Terralta may be looking to hire in the coming months to keep up with the demand.

Three pieces of advice they would give to new entrepreneurs are:

1. Ensure you have sufficient working capital up front.

2. New technology is new! Do your research and don’t be so quick to jump in. Make sure it is a good fit for your company. Timing is critical.

3. Do not be afraid to admit when you do not know how to do something. Take your time, learn about it and try not accomplish everything all at once.

You can visit their website at:  http://terralta.net/

This story was written by Elizabeth Blair. Elizabeth is the regional innovation network (RIN) coordinator at Community Futures Entre-Corp and works to oversee activities with APEX. APEX is a Regional Innovation Network that supports the growth of innovative and technologically-oriented businesses in Southeast Alberta.

APEX is a collaborative initiative between three core service providers: Community Futures Entre-Corp Business Development, Medicine Hat College; and Alberta Innovates. APEX strives to support local entrepreneurs and small to medium-sized enterprises to develop and adopt new technologies, commercialize innovative new products, improve productivity, and get connected to Alberta’s Innovation System.

[1] Alberta Government, Renewable and Alternative Energy Industry. Retrieved from https://www.alberta.ca/renewable-electricity-program.aspx

Cafe Verve

Coffee, Art and Music.

Imagine how interesting you could make a camping trip if you could make an espresso for your friends. That’s just the kind of guy Eugene Cleland is – he was the one who brought along his espresso machine to camp. For Eugene, making coffee is an art, from the choosing of the roast, to the making of the shot, the careful steaming of the milk, and finally, the art he creates with the foam. It is common for friends and family to gather at his home for a great coffee – many have told him he should open his own coffee shop. After much dreaming and consideration, that’s exactly what he did.

Eugene and his wife, Betty Jean, began the journey to entrepreneurship in 2016 when they enrolled for the Community Futures Entre-Corp Self Employment program. During that training, they had time to learn about business ownership, tackle the challenges in understanding business, develop their ideas, and create a viable business plan which would allow them to turn their passion into reality.

A year or so later, they are the proud owners of Medicine Hat’s newest coffeehouse, Café Verve. For first-time business owners entering an already competitive industry, they are doing great things. 

They have already mastered one thing: get people into your space. That’s of paramount importance especially when you consider the two biggest players in the coffee and snack shop industry hold 83.9% of market share(1)and they just happened to open a coffee shop during deep economic hardship in our region.

Not only is Eugene a skilled practitioner at creating that perfect cup of coffee, he is also a talented musician who spent 18 years with a local folk group called “Poet Lark”. After a bit of a break, the group is going to perform live, at his very own business. The group is already rehearsing for their first performance which will surely generate a huge buzz in their community of music followers. 

Betty Jean is a talented photographer. Even from a young age she was fascinated with photos. She owned her first professional camera at 20, studied photography at the Medicine Hat College and invested considerable time pursuing her passion in creating artistic portraits. 

When you walk into Café Verve, it’s the first thing you notice: beautiful design, open space and a combination of art and design that will take your breath away. 

Eugene and Betty Jean have carefully planned their space for live music and to support local artists on their gallery style walls. There is usually live music every Friday night. Local art continually changes and adorns their walls. Café Verve has already hosted many musicians and artists since they opened their doors May 5, 2017. They employ 4 full-time staff and 6 part-time staff. 

When asked if Eugene and Betty Jean could give advice to new entrepreneurs, here is what they shared:

1. Listen and heed the advice of other business owners and listen to the things they have learned.

2. Continue learning about business and remember when making decisions to ask yourself “Does this fit with our vision?”

Eugene and Betty Jean both shared that they are so thankful for their wonderful staff who work with them to make the cafe a reality - they emphasized that they could not have come this far without them.

You can visit their website at: http://www.cafeverve.ca/

This story was written by Elizabeth Blair. Elizabeth is the regional innovation network (RIN) coordinator at Community Futures Entre-Corp and works to oversee activities with APEX. APEX is a Regional Innovation Network that supports the growth of innovative and technologically-oriented businesses in Southeast Alberta.

APEX is a collaborative initiative between three core service providers: Community Futures Entre-CorpMedicine Hat College; and Alberta Innovates. APEX strives to support local entrepreneurs and small to medium-sized enterprises to develop and adopt new technologies, commercialize innovative new products, improve productivity, and get connected to Alberta’s Innovation System.

(1) Alvarez, Andrew. “Coffee & Snack Shops in Canada.” IBISWorld. February 2017. 

Complete Core

Dale Deis, of Medicine Hat, Alberta, is a practicing orthopedic physiotherapy rehabilitation specialist. He has spent the last 27 years in the fitness industry.  “For years, I have helped individuals with specific injuries as well as designed workout programs for people in all walks of life. Most of my work involves back and neck injuries and I really believe most of these could be prevented, or at least minimized, by addressing core strength and mobility.” There has been a strong emphasis on “six pack” but Dale stresses that “strengthening needs to take place at the core, the muscles that keep us upright: the back muscles. Lower back pain is among the most common physical conditions requiring medical care.”

Lower back pain is among the most common physical conditions requiring medical care.

Studies have shown that “Sitting is the new smoking.” Dale believes extended periods of sitting is the new health risk. Dale began exploring his business idea in July 2011. Since then, Dale has embarked on a journey to design a machine that was going to provide support for the patient in stretching, activating, and strengthening all of the core muscles. “The human core is not simply your abs,” Dale states. His unit has the ability to encourage and develop a full range of motion at the hip flexors and the entire spine to counteract the effects of our modern technologically based lifestyles which very often involves sitting and inactivity.  The unit is designed to enhance the use of the existing exercise ball.

Dale developed his first core machine unit in 2012 and placed it into the local downtown YMCA in Medicine Hat, Alberta. The unit, called the “Complete Core Conditioner”, was set up as a prototype for observation. Input from users helped him to make adjustments and modifications to be incorporated into the next model.  A new model was designed and the YMCA purchased one and then within a month they purchased a second unit as members requested another unit because of the high demand. “A third unit was also placed at their other location,” says Dale.  

He is now working with the Canadian Sport Institute in Calgary to set up studies on range of motion, usability, as well as pre and post physical capacity measures. Dale is also working with a Federal Government representative at the National Research Council of Canada in Lethbridge to apply for the Build in Canada Innovation Program (BCIP). This could expand the use of the units through government offices, military bases, RCMP facilities and other government workplaces across Canada. With funding from the Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) and professional guidance, Dale has continued to make modifications to the existing prototype. A new prototype has been designed and 2 units have now been built. Full production of the “Complete Core” system will begin right away.

It is no surprise that Dale envisions his units having a global reach finding places in gyms, sports academies, homes and businesses around the world. The Complete Core unit has gone through 7 revisions and now has 4 patents in Canada, USA, China and Europe. 

“Early on, I decided to surround myself with really good people, in different areas of my business,” stated Dale. “I applied for the Voucher Program with Alberta Innovates whose funds of $15,000 allowed us to obtain an Opportunities Assessment study with Myers Norris Penny (MNP) which was completed in April 2014.  So much of this would not have been possible without all of the assistance I received.”  Along with his own funds, Dale received another $20,000 in matched funding to help cover the cost of retrofits and a new design, through the Industrial Research and Application Program (IRAP)

When asked, Dale described some of his biggest obstacles as a business owner. He laughed, “Everything was a challenge! I was challenged with design because everything was new. I had to find the right people. We made lots of personal and financial sacrifices to make this happen.” Dale went on to emphasize just how much he loves what he is doing, “I want to help people and make this unit as safe as possible and help people understand that the core is much more than just the abs.” 

Three pieces of advice that Dale would give to entrepreneurs starting a business today are:

1. Do your research. Study what is currently available in the market and find out who your competition is. 

2. Surround yourself with the right people who know more than you do. If you are the smartest person in the room, find a new room.

3. Have patience. I thought this would take 2 – 3 years. We are now in the 6th year, heading into the 7th year. We are just now realizing that this can be a viable business.

For more information about Complete Core, please visit their website at:  completecoreconditioner.com

This story was written by Elizabeth Blair. Elizabeth is the regional innovation network (RIN) coordinator at Community Futures Entre-Corp and works to oversee activities with APEX. APEX is a Regional Innovation Network that supports the growth of innovative and technologically-oriented businesses in Southeast Alberta.

APEX is a collaborative initiative between three core service providers: Community Futures Entre-Corp Business Development, Medicine Hat College; and Alberta Innovates. APEX strives to support local entrepreneurs and small to medium-sized enterprises to develop and adopt new technologies, commercialize innovative new products, improve productivity, and get connected to Alberta’s Innovation System.