T.R.A.D. Worm Industries

Vermicast is the end product of the breakdown of organic matter by earthworms and Roxanne Doerksen, owner of T.R.A.D. Worm Industries decided to make a business out of it. Roxanne grew up a farm girl and after her daughter was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder she decided to research a more natural alternative to fertilizer and T.R.A.D. industries was started. Worm castings help retain soil moisture, increase plant yield, as well as provide protective microbes to the soil making them a great fertilizer.

“This idea is so relevant to where we are in our world, in less than thirty years we will struggle with where to put all of our garbage,” says Roxanne. With currently over one million worms on her farm, they go through five thousand pounds of garbage a week during their feeding periods. Organic garbage is either dropped off or picked up from local companies and then put through an industrial shredder where it is processed down to a soup consistency. After that, it is measured, weighed, and put into beds full of worms where brown organics, such as egg cartons and newspapers, are added. Mix it up, put a lid on it and leave it for two weeks and a “superfood” fertilizer is created which is water-soluble, nutrient-rich and organic.

What makes T.R.A.D. Worm Industries different from other companies is that they are a low or no consumer company. “Everything we use is slated for the garbage or to be de-commissioned otherwise. We take it, fix it, modify it and use it for our purposes,” explains Roxanne. They have had incredible success with people donating items such as chemical totes, which they decontaminate and modify to use as worm beds. The packages that the castings are sold in are made by local seamstresses from old organic cotton bed sheets which can be added to whatever you are putting your castings on and will break down into the soil. They are also unique in their ability to fill large scale orders, they can bring their plant food to landscapers and reclamation contractors affordably.

T.R.A.D. Worm Industries have some innovative projects in the works for the near future including a larger transportable module that is run by a solar-powered generator. These will produce a zero-carbon footprint and can be introduced to places that may not have the infrastructure in place so they can harvest their own soil amendments right on site. They also produce worm casting tea which can be sprayed right onto your outdoor or indoor plants to ward off pests such as aphids without using any chemicals. All of this has made T.R.A.D. Worm Industries an entrepreneurial success story!

T.R.A.D. Worm Industries is just one example of a company that has received entrepreneurial coaching through the APEX Incubator of Southeastern Alberta. To see more entrepreneurial success stories visit www.apexalberta.ca. APEX Alberta is a collaborative initiative between three core service providers: Community Futures Entre-Corp, Medicine Hat College and Alberta Innovates.

That’Z A Wrap

What started as a hobby making vinyl graphics and decals for the automotive industry has grown into a business that cosmetically changes architectural fixtures and household objects using vinyl wrapping. “Making vehicle wraps got my entrepreneurial blood flowing and I realized, what is preventing me from wrapping architectural objects such as refrigerators and doors?” says Martyn Clift, CEO of That’Z A Wrap. After some research, Martyn found the architectural finishing industry and is now one of twelve certified installers in all of Canada for Altyno Architectural Finishes.

Architectural Vinyl is a Flexible PVC decorative film that can be used in a variety of different applications to cosmetically change the appearance of any flat, smooth and non-porous surface. For example, this could include nurse’s stations, doors, walls, elevators and columns. This provides an environmentally friendly option to those looking for an aesthetic change without having to send quality items to the landfill, just because they do not match the new decor. In a recent renovation project with a hotel in Calgary, That’Z A Wrap was hired to cover elevator and hotel room doors. “We were able to wrap the doors to get the exact look they were going for and this saved 320 doors from the landfill,” explains Clift. Another environmentally friendly example is to wrap a refrigerator in a stainless steel wrap to match your decor, which keeps appliances out of the landfill.

Martyn is currently working on a new proposal for a large client in Calgary, which could lead to a move, as he feels there is large market potential there. He also has hopes of expanding and opening a second headquarters. None of this would have been possible without the expertise of the Entrepreneurial Development Center at Medicine Hat College. He is very proud of winning the 2019 MHC Start Up Pitch Competition as well as the Best Pitch award. The prize money he received helped him travel to North Carolina where he received training at the headquarters for this particular industry. “Christie at the EDC helped me find my value proposition, without her I might not have pursued this company to the degree that I have,” says Clift.

APEX Alberta is a collaborative initiative between three core service providers: Community Futures Entre-Corp, Medicine Hat College and Alberta Innovates. These partners work together to help entrepreneurs start, grow and innovate their businesses. To see more entrepreneurial success stories go to www.apexalberta.ca

Dual Axis Solar Trackers

When faced with a small land footprint and the need for a high electrical load, Terralta and their partner Enmax decided to try out an innovative new solar panel system called a Dual Axis Solar Tracker manufactured by Sun Action Trackers.

“We are really excited about this one because it not only offers real-time data and testing but also a huge learning curve for us as an installation company and for Enmax whom we are partnering with,” says owner and operator of Terralta Marcus Campbell. Dual axis trackers have solar panels that track the sun north/south and east/west, which makes them very efficient. The Sun Action Trackers system is integrated with their “patented Real-Time Sensing Technology, which is designed to capture the optimum solar energy generation.” (Sun Action Trackers, 2019)

This project will be located along the St. Mary River Irrigation District and will tie into their lateral 12-pump station just south of Bow Island. To produce the 705.6 kilowatts (KW) of power needed, they are installing 42 dual axis trackers. Each tracker will consist of 42 LG 400 watt bi-facial modules giving them a total of 1,764 solar modules. “With these trackers, we are fairly confident through the modelling that we have done and through the partnership with Sun Action Trackers and LG, that we will meet those targets and they will be net-zero electrically for Bow Island Pump 12,” says Campbell.

Other benefits of dual axis solar trackers include the ability to keep the actual land disturbance to a minimum. Terralta will be using a helical footing right next to the canal so as not to disrupt the roadway. These trackers should also perform better in winter weather conditions, something that traditional panels can have problems with. “We don’t expect these units to collect as much snow as conventional systems because they will be tilted at the optimal angle to the sun,” says Campbell. Terralta and Enmax will be closely monitoring these systems over the next year, as this is one of the first installations of this particular product in a colder climate. They will be looking at numbers on a quarterly and yearly basis to compare data to conventional systems.

 Since 2009, Terralta and Enmax have partnered on multiple residential, commercial and agricultural solar energy projects including Medicine Hat College’s Community Renewable Energy Microgrid Demonstration Project and a solar installation at Dr. Ken Sauer School in Medicine Hat. They are hoping to install more of these solar trackers and have proposals out for projects in the County of Newell.

This project is an example of an innovative renewable energy product being used in Southeastern Alberta. To learn more on what is on the horizon for entrepreneurship visit www.apexalberta.ca. APEX Alberta is a collaborative initiative between three core service providers: Community Futures Entre-Corp, Medicine Hat College and Alberta Innovates.

Rustic Supplies Co.

A trip to a farm in rural Alberta over Christmas is what gave Kenton Irvine-Peers, Owner of Rustic Supplies Co. the idea to start his business. “While driving I saw a knocked down barn wood fence. I thought this is such a wasted opportunity for space for the farmer as well as an opportunity to sell barn wood, which so many people are looking for. It was a light bulb moment.”

After a meeting with the Entrepreneurial Development Centre at Medicine Hat College and watching one of their pitch competitions, Kenton came up with a business plan that included a unique twist to supplying barn wood. Rustic Supplies first tears down old sheds and barns, which helps reclaim the land for the farmer, stores the repurposed wood and then sells it. With every barn taken down, they take a picture of the structure, mark the location and attach a personal story from the farmer. Every person who purchases their wood knows where that specific wood came from, and the story behind the building. “Our biggest goal is to preserve rural heritage while repurposing the wood. Growing up in a small town you come to appreciate the history in our area,” says Kenton. This premium authentic barn wood will be used by artists, contractors and DIY’ers.

Kenton considers being one of the winners in the 2019 MHC Start Up Company Pitch Competition, where he was also awarded the Community Impact Award, as one of his biggest successes so far. He plans to use his winnings to invest in equipment and a trailer to haul the wood. When explaining his experience with the Entrepreneurial Development Centre Kenton says, “words don’t do justice for the support and knowledge that the EDC gives each student. They go above and beyond in challenging us.”

On top of completing his Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration, Kenton has big plans for Rustic Supplies this year. He will be looking at setting up an e-commerce website, finding suitable storage space and gearing up for the busy Christmas season by sourcing and removing available wood this fall. His long-term dream is to find a big enough workshop for small businesses to come in as a collective and use his wood supply to create their projects.

APEX Alberta is a collaborative initiative between three core service providers: Community Futures Entre-Corp, Medicine Hat College and Alberta Innovates. These partners work together to help entrepreneurs start, grow and innovate their businesses. To see more entrepreneurial success stories go to apexalberta.ca

Bosch Built Homes

A love for learning and a desire to show people what is possible led Joel Bosch, owner of Bosch Built Homes to build the first net-zero home in Medicine Hat. “I’ve always been pretty energy conscious and environmentally aware, so I knew I could improve on what I have been doing and find a better way to build a home,” explains Joel.

Net Zero homes produce as much clean energy as they consume, they use renewable energy systems and are typically 80% more energy-efficient than typical home builds. While most people may first notice the solar panels on this home, Joel says you save more energy per dollar on insulation and different heating systems. This starts from the ground up, with four inches of Styrofoam under a six-inch concrete slab giving them a rating of R20. Exterior walls are twelve inches deep and filled with a blown insulation product from WallBar which is made from 100% recycled materials, attic insulation is rated at R60, whereas a traditional house is usually R40. This means the house is airtight for maximum efficiency. Joel points out that “A traditional home will leak the entire volume of its air out the walls 2.5 times per hour, a net-zero home has a target of 0.6 air changes per hour.”

Another thing that makes this house unique is that there is no gas line. An electric heat pump replaces a traditional gas furnace to heat and cool the house, this heat exchange allows you to have full control over the air that leaves the house and the fresh air that you bring in. The hot water heater and back up furnace, which kicks in at around -17 degrees, are also run on electricity. All appliances are EnerGuide rated and low flow toilets were installed. There is even an electric car charger installed in the garage.

At the top of the house, solar panels were installed to power the house but it is still tied into the grid for times of lower production. When a surplus of energy is created, it goes back onto the grid and they will receive a credit on their utility bill. All of this, as well as how much energy the house is using is monitored in real-time by an energy monitoring system called Sense. “Once you see the numbers right in front of you, you are more inclined to cut back on your energy usage, you see the difference it makes when you shut off the lights in a room,” says Joel. He is excited to see how all these innovative electric products work in our climate as not a lot of research has been done.

Joel has a few more tests to pass before Bosch Built Homes can call themselves a qualified net-zero home builder but for now, he is hoping to inspire other people to get interested in energy-efficient homes, “If you don’t want to do all of this, you can pick and choose what you want to upgrade and go from there but ultimately this is what’s possible.” Joel and his family plan to live in this home and will be keeping track of what they save over the next year so he can provide some hard numbers. He estimates that it will take between fifteen to twenty years to pay back the extra costs of this home but only time will tell.

This is an example of an innovative business in Southeastern Alberta taking advantage of future trends in energy efficiency. To learn more about what is on the horizon for entrepreneurship visit www.apexalberta.ca. APEX Alberta is a collaborative initiative between three core service providers: Community Futures Entre-Corp, Medicine Hat College and Alberta Innovates.

Basement Dweller Games

According to their website, “Basement Dweller Games was founded by some random 18 year old with no previous experience in game design and altogether no life at all. I mean, we're not exactly a success yet, but we're getting there.” (Basement Dweller Games, 2019) This description perfectly characterizes Aaron Taylor’s sense of humour, which plays a key part in the unique design of his game Time Crackers. Aaron is the founder and creator of Basement Dweller Games (BDG), an independent video game company. Their first game Time Crackers is a hyperbolically humoured 3D platformer whose main character is a calculator trying to erase all of existence.

From a very early age, Aaron knew he wanted to be his own boss, “Since I was six years old I loved the idea of going into my own business and since I was seven years old I was obsessed with video games.” In 2017 at the age of sixteen, he started to study how video games were made and after seven months of research into video game marketing and the 3D platform genre, he started making his own game. He is completely self-taught and has no experience in programming. Because of this, Aaron considers his biggest success being able to get his prototype going, which he did by hand over eight months. While he is the writer, game and character designer, he needed a team of 3D modellers and programmers to implement all the mechanics and bring his game to fruition. Currently, he has eighteen people working with him on this, all of which he found through the internet.

The next step in the process is to connect with publishers so he can port his game to another platform, which he hopes will be Nintendo Switch. His main reason for wanting to sell his game to Nintendo, besides the obvious marketing and advertising support he would get from them, is their business and work ethic principles. “The Morals part is really important to me, especially since as video games get more expensive to develop crunch time is getting worse and some companies don’t treat their employees well,” explains Aaron.

This past spring Aaron graduated high school and took part in the Medicine Hat College Entrepreneurial Development Centre’s Pub Pitch Night. He won both the People’s Choice and the Best Pitch award and was honoured when one of the judges offered him money to put towards his college education. “I was flabbergasted at the response of people seeing potential in me, it was really uplifting,” says Aaron. With that money, he will be attending the Business Administration program at Medicine Hat College; he will also be working part-time, so he can continue to pay his team with a goal of a late 2020 release date.

APEX Alberta is a collaborative initiative between three core service providers: Community Futures Entre-Corp, Medicine Hat College and Alberta Innovates. These partners work together to help entrepreneurs start, grow and innovate their businesses.

A journey to entrepreneurship

Trevor Eichelbaum has a unique skill.  He can fix things, take them apart and put them back to together with relative ease.  After all, it is what he did for many years growing up on a small farm where fixing things was necessary all the time.

“I grew up in farming,” he says. “I didn’t know what I would ever become in life. I tried on several jobs, in many fields. I had a job as a farmhand, and got a small injury in 1999. This ended up leading me into my career path, though I had no idea at the time.”  

Soon after the injury, Trevor found a job at a local company that supplied mobility equipment.   He started as a Service Technician in January of 2000 and worked all the way up through the ranks from service repairs to eventually managing the company. 

Trevor’s passion for fixing things pours over into his personal life too.   A busy and proud husband and father of 3, he manages to squeeze in some time for his favourite hobby project. Restoring his 1973 Ford Gran Torino Sport which in its current state, has a completely re-built motor with high performance parts.  He plans to keep this classic car red, which was the original colour when it was purchased locally from Glanville Ford.

Even though Trevor indicates he wishes he had more time, he spends every Thursday evening leading a group of cadets.  The goal is to train them to eventually become effective leaders and good citizens. Trevor is a Cadet Instructor Cadre with the 2313 Royal Canadian Army Cadet Corps.  Though he wasn’t looking for extra work, he found himself intrigued when his son turned 12 and wanted to become an army cadet.  As a Cadet Instructor Cadre (CIC) and Second Lieutenant with the Canadian Forces Reserve, Trevor shows how important it is to give back to his community by investing in youth.

On December 2016, after 17 years as an employee of a local Home Medical Equipment company, Trevor’s hand was forced into considering opening his own business.  Trevor visited the Community Futures Entre-Corp office (CFEC), in downtown Medicine Hat, to discuss his thoughts and plans.  After his initial consultation with CFEC’s business advisor, he was encouraged to complete the business plan template that was provided to him.  With confirmation of his CFEC approved business loan, Trevor was able to begin the search for a building in a suitable location.    The building was leased and interior renovations began.  Finally after 2 straight weeks of 16-hour work days, the location was ready for move-in.  The business officially opened on March 6, 2017.

Trevor gives credit for his entrepreneurship to many of his friends and family, most of all to his dad.  His dad was a farmer and Trevor learned through his father’s example the value of hard work.  He is sure his father helped him see and value entrepreneurship in the farming lifestyle.

Starting out as a “fixer-of-things” at the farm, then to a 17-year faithful employee, eventually to become the proud Owner and Operator of Adapt Mobility.  Trevor Eichelbaum is confident his journey was meant to be.  

His passion for customer service shines through when you first meet Trevor.  In fact, it might be the compelling reason why he was able to open his doors and grow his business so quickly.  He stressed that his customers are not customers, but rather he refers to them as clients. The difference is the relationships that are built over years and last a lifetime.   Trevor also gave tremendous praise to his team who he said, “are like family to me”.   Trevor emphasized that he has an incredibly cohesive team and that they work well together because they love to help clients succeed, which in turn brings success to the business. “No individual on the team is better than any other. We all work together, in our own ways.”

There is no doubt that Trevor and his incredible team have a perfect recipe for growth and success.  Whole-hearted commitment to serve clients will go a long way in a town where word-of-mouth is still how many people find you here.

When asked what 3 pieces of advice Trevor would offer to entrepreneurs starting out today, here is what Trevor had to share: 

1.Know your product and your clientele or market well;

2.This is the biggest roller coaster ride of your life, so just close your eyes for the low ones; and

3.Treat your employees as both your biggest asset and your biggest liability.

Adapt Mobility serves anyone with a disability by providing solutions and helping people adapt with the right equipment and accessories so that they can maintain the lifestyle that they want.  

You can visit the Adapt Mobility website at:       adapt-mobility.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-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.

Design is passion for a local entrepreneur

When Bailey Tucker graduated from high school, she always knew she had an aptitude for design. 

She remembers the urge to redesign room layouts, process layout possibilities, good colour options and even fabric options.  These were designs she imagined for her bedroom, even at a young age. 

Bailey indicates that she is sure her artistic talent came from her mom, a talented painter and crafter.

Bailey shared a bit about herself, “I love nature, exploring and camping.  I enjoy doing things spontaneously but also appreciate structure and routine.  I have always enjoyed working with my hands and creating, whether it is interior design related or not.”  

When I asked Bailey what gives her the greatest joy?  “My son”, she says, “he has kept me laughing for the last ten years!”   Bailey’s favourite things are great stories that are unique and meaningful.   She loves to find a place with a beautiful view and knows this helps her get re-energized.

Today Bailey is the proud owner of Bailey Nicole Interiors + Design.  It is a boutique studio that offers professional interior design expertise for both residential and commercial design.

She explains how she started her journey to entrepreneurship.   “I completed decorating courses at Mount Royal College.  Many of the program instructors were Interior Designers that ran their own firms.   I started to wonder if this could also become my own full-time business. I continued my studies and completed an Interior Design diploma as well as an architectural class to learn design and drafting at Lethbridge College.”

In 2018, Bailey enrolled in an intensive entrepreneurship training program.  This classroom program, offered by Community Futures Entre-Corp, helped her acquire the skills she needed to launch her own business.

Bailey explained that she is capable of taking on projects that are big and small.  Clients are directed through the design process from idea creation to a final cohesive and beautiful interior design.

When I asked Bailey what she thought sets her apart from her competition, she had this to say, “Because of my training and educational background, I am qualified to be a part of various phases of the build and renovation cycle.  As a certified Interior Design Technologist, I can also complete drafting services which is not a typical service offered by interior designers. “

I also discovered that Bailey is new to Medicine Hat.  She explained how she has already met so many contacts.  She said that it is only a matter of time before her network of contacts will turn into growth and success in her future.

When I asked Bailey what guides her, she explains, “I think it is about staying true to yourself, who you are and your brand.  If a customer loves what you do, they will use your service and refer you to others”.  

Bailey can see a bright future for her business as she explains how new industries and real estate expansion in Medicine Hat will create more demand for the services that Bailey Nicole Interiors + Design offers.

Bailey also shared that,  “ The entrepreneur training I received at Community Futures Entre-Corp has helped me better understand small business operations”.

You can visit the website at: baileynicoleinteriors.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.

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 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 to the advice of other business owners.  Listen to the things they have learned.

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

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-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 ] Alvarez, Andrew.  “Coffee & Snack Shops in Canada.”  IBISWorld. February 2017. 

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. 

You can visit their website at 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-Corp, Medicine Hat College and Alberta Innovates. 

Local business is ready to move Medicine Hat towards renewables

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.”  

“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

Postcard Portables wins franchisee of the year award

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-Corp and this was the door that finally opened. Community Futures Entre-Corp 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.

You can visit their website at: Postcard Portables, Medicine Hat

This article 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-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.

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 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 programs, Kinetisense was 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. 

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.

You can visit their website at: kinetisense.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.

 

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 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:  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.

An Alberta innovator provides solution to strengthen health and core muscles

Dale Deis, of Medicine Hat, Alberta, is a practicing orthopedic physiotherapy rehabilitation specialist.  He has spent the last 28 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.”

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.  He explains how 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.  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 the Southridge YMCA location,” says Dale.  

A new prototype has been designed and 2 units are being built. Full production of the “Complete Core” system is anticipated to begin in the winter of 2018. Manufacting will commence the fall of 2019 and Core is looking to build the product locally within Alberta.

It’s 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.

 You can visit their website:  https://completecore.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-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.

A blooming success

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 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 is located in Dunmore, Alberta, 3 kms east of Medicine hat, on the #1 Highway.  You can visit their website at:   http://www.blondiesgreenhouse.com/

This article 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-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.

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:

1. 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.

2. Do not 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.

You can visit their website at: https://acc-acc.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-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.

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.

You can visit their website at: atlantislabs.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-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.

An existing business is the answer for a local family

Brian Tkachuk and Renee Gaudreault moved to Medicine Hat from Edmonton in 2016.

Brian worked in the oil and gas industry which meant long periods of time away from home.   

After commuting to work in the oil and gas industry for 12 plus years, Brian decided it was time for a change.  Although the industry paid very well, it would never replace the precious time he was losing with his young family because of the long commutes to and from work.  Brian and Renee have 3 children aged 6, 3 and 7 months old.

Brian started a search and found a local established sandblasting shop that was for sale in Medicine Hat.  The owner presented an offer to Brian to purchase the shop.   

The timing of the offer was perfect. As they assessed their situation, they both realized that purchasing the shop might be exactly what they needed to help them achieve greater balance in their family life.   Going into business together also made sense in other ways.   Brian had the skills and technical background to run the shop.  Renee had the tools to run the administrative side of the business (she obtained a certificate in entrepreneurial studies from Mount Royal University in Calgary).

After securing a small business loan from Community Futures Entre-Corp, Brian and Renee had the money they needed to buy the business.  Purchasing an established business with a client base meant Brian was able to start work almost immediately.

By April 2018, Brian and Renee were the new owners of Sandstorm Coating Industries in Medicine Hat. 

The sandblasting process has been around for a very long time.   It was discovered around 150 years ago, by Benjamin Chew Tilghman. It was formally patented in 1870.   The sandblasting process has been refined over the years and further patents and developments have since evolved.

Sandstorm Coating Industries in Medicine Hat works with many industries and projects.  Their portable sandblasting unit has opened more doors allowing Brian to travel directly to the customer.   It is one of the reasons this particular business caught their eye.  It is the only portable sandblasting unit in town.  That extra advantage has allowed them to expand their work to locations outside of the shop. 

Some examples of sandblasting and coating work that Brian has completed include work on Grain Bins, Trailers, Dump Trucks, Equipment, Rims & Tractor Rims, Guardrails / Handrails, Pipe Racks, hitches as well as residential projects.  Sandblasting can strip paint, rust and even remove certain imperfections from various materials.  Sandblasting is most often used as a preparation process to clean and prepare a surface prior to applying a protective coating. 

Renee described Brian’s incredible dedication to the business. “He works 6 days a week, and 12 hours per day”.   Even though being self-employed has meant long hours for Brian he can go home to his family at the end of each work day.

When I asked Renee to describe what the most important goal is for the business, she replied “We want to make customer service our main priority because we know that happy customers are loyal and this will grow our business.”

Here are two pieces of advice that Renee and Brian would give to entrepreneurs starting out today:

1.Take the leap, but look where you are jumping and have your jumping gear on!

2.Things happen, keep cool, and plan for it.

To learn more about Sandstorm Coating Industries, you can visit their website at sandstormcoatingindustries.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-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.