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websites or within accessory catalogs and brochures that were difficult to find, had incomplete details, or were out-of-date and inaccurate.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-Corp, 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.