For Julene Koslowski, it all started with a tractor.
Years ago she and her husband lived on a stretch farmland in Alberta. They weren’t farmers, but needed some equipment to work on the land.
So the pair went to see a guy about a tractor.
They didn’t end up buying it, but Koslowski points to that visit as the catalyst that eventually lead to the creation of the Camelot Haven alpaca farm.
Today, the farm sits in the quiet, sloping hills just outside the town of Vernon. More than 60 alpacas roam the grounds, joined by a few ponies, a couple of donkeys and two enthusiastic dogs.
Atop a plateau in the middle of the hills, beside the barns the alpacas sleep in at night, Koslowski sells yarn, knitted clothes and blankets—all made from her alpacas’ hair—out of a small shop.
Koslowski is a quiet woman whose accent reveals her British roots. On a tour of the farm not long ago, she explained that when she went to see the tractor that fateful day, she was instead captivated by the man’s llamas.
So she started researching the animals—even purchased a few—and that research eventually lead her to learn more about alpacas.
It would be those smaller cousins to the llama that would eventually capture her heart.
She started off just buying a few of the animals, with the intention to create a small cottage industry for herself.
In the 15 years since she first established the farm, she has moved her operation to Vernon, and her herd of alpacas has swelled to more than 60. She knows each and every one of them by name.
“If you knew these animals like I knew them you’d just fall in love with them,” she said, gazing out at the grazing camelids.
In the United Kingdom, where she grew up, Koslowski worked with post-secondary institutions organizing graduation ceremonies.
When she moved to Canada she did similar work at a few schools here, before becoming a stay-at-home mother and teacher to her homeschooled kids.
She says it was that time at home that allowed her to see that she shouldn’t be working in offices, but out in nature.
“I’ve always liked plants and animals, believe it or not, so I wonder why on Earth I was stuck in an office all those years,” she said. “But you finally wake up and realize what a waste of time it was.”
These days, Koslowski spends her days shuttling her herd from the barns to the fields, clipping toenails, mucking out stalls, and knitting.
Alpaca hair is known its softness, thermal insulation properties and lack of lanolin, meaning many who can’t wear sheep’s wool can wear alpaca hair.
Koslowski alpacas are groomed once a year, each producing anywhere from three to six kilograms of fibre.
She sorts, “skirts” and ships that fibre to mills across the country, where it’s turned into alpaca yarn.
Koslowski sells the yarn; knits or felts some of it into hats, scarves and other products; and sells other alpaca hair products in the Camelot Haven Alpaca Country Store.
She’s also begun offering wedding photos on and private walking tours of the farm grounds, where customers can take in the scenic beauty of the farm, and meet some curious alpacas along the way.
It’s a life spent largely outdoors, surrounded by animals and rolling hills. It’s a far cry from offices on college campuses, and Koslowski wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I much prefer being close to nature. It’s a different world,” she said.
More information on Camelot Haven Alpacas is available online.
One of the most successful fitness companies to come out of Kelowna happened almost by accident.
Sure, the pair behind it ooze enthusiasm, and made some shrewd decisions along the way, but if they hadn’t one day decided to get out their iPhones, HIITit.ca 12 Minute Workouts might not exist.
Chelsea Harrison and Melanie Breitkreutz are the Kelowna moms behind the online fitness company HIITit.
Each day, the pair create a 12-minute high intensity interval training (HIIT) workout video, which they send to their subscribers for a modest monthly fee (last month they began offering a low-intensity workout as well).
They run a slick operation, with inspirational marketing videos and flashy branding, but HIITit is firmly rooted in the pair’s passion for fitness.
Harrison explains that the whole thing started when she asked Breitkreutz to join her for a 30-day HIIT challenge, to help get back in shape after having kids.
Breitkreutz agreed, and immediately fell in love with the system. She still remembers marvelling at how effective such a short workout could be.
As they progressed, their far-flung friends and family began taking an interest, so the pair began filming each other and sending them their workouts.
Those videos proved so popular that more and more people kept asking for them.
“Once one person found out about it and told a lot of people, and it spread like wildfire,” Harrison recalls. “Then everyone was like ‘when are you doing the next one?’”
It has always been Harrison’s dream to pursue a career in fitness, and one day the pair decided to see if they could turn their videos into something more.
Breitkreutz set up a website and mailing list, and before long the pair had their first paying customers. Three years later, their daily videos are sent to hundreds of people from all over the world.
Breitkreutz says she believes simplicity has helped HIITit become so successful.
Subscribers get a daily email that contains both a high and low intensity workout. Each is only 12 minutes long, and can be done anywhere, without any equipment—and that’s it.
“You get an email, every day, and all you have to do is click on it, and you know what to do,” Harrison says. “There’s literally no excuse not to get in shape.”
But perhaps HIITit’s real secret weapon lies behind Harrison and Breitkreutz’s passion and enthusiasm (which is both infectiously genuine and bountiful).
HIITit runs on a remarkably simple but wildly successful business model. At it’s core, it’s really nothing more than a mailing list.
When she first set up the HIITit website, Breitkreutz automated much of the delivery process, so essentially all she and Harrison do is create the daily videos.
HIITit has essentially zero overhead—the only real cost is Harrison and Breitkreutz’s time—and they have a guaranteed revenue stream from their monthly subscription base.
“Basically what we set up in the beginning still works today. Whether you have 30 customers, or 300 or 3,000,” Breitkreutz says.
Harrison says HIITit began making money almost from Day 1, without any real financial investment on her or Breitkreutz’s part.
She admitted Breitkreutz is the business savvy one of the pair, and that it wasn’t until Breitkreutz told her they had landed on something incredible that she realized how brilliant the business side of what they were doing was.
“She told me ‘this is amazing. This does not happen when you start up a business,’’’ Harrison laughed.
“It seems too good to be true, actually,” Breitkreutz admitted. “Like, when is this going to end?”
The likely answer is “not any time soon.”
Both Harrison and Breitkreutz say they truly love what they do, not just because it keeps them in great shape, but because they are helping people across the world get over the hump and get in shape.
“We’re so not just about ‘this is a job, this is a business.’ We so passionately love seeing people succeed,” Harrison says. “It’s amazing the responses you get from people, you’re literally changing people’s lives.”
The new executive director of the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce wants to beef up the chamber’s role as an advocate, pushing for changes that will positively impact the Okanagan the way only a chamber of commerce can: through the exciting and fast-paced pursuit of policy development.
“We’re trying to make policy analysis sexy again,” says Dan Rogers.
Although the “again” in his statement may be somewhat suspect, Rogers is serious about using the influence he says the Kelowna Chamber has to push for improvements in the Okanagan.
With the full weight several chambers behind an issue, combined with smart policy analysis, Rogers says governments can be pressured to make decisions that will benefit the region.
Those issues? More spending on infrastructure to clear bottlenecks in provincial highways; more investment in local post-secondary institutions; tax credits to encourage the growth of startups.
“We have the opportunity to create a very strong region if we collectively work together and address the issues that are important to us,” Rogers says.
That eye to the entire region is significant, because Rogers appears to view his new role as an advocate not just for Kelowna, but for the entire valley.
He points out that, as one of the largest chambers of commerce in British Columbia, “we have the opportunity to play a leadership role, and will play a leadership role in addressing issues beyond our boundaries.”
“We will only succeed in Kelowna with the success of the Okanagan,” he says.
Rogers quit his gig as the head of the Vernon Chamber of Commerce to take his new job in Kelowna. Prior to that, he worked in marketing and spent well over a decade in municipal politics, as a councillor and eventually mayor of Prince George.
He says his experience has taught him that business in the Okanagan need to think well beyond their neighbours down the street, or even in the next city.
“You think your competition is across the street, but it’s not, it’s across the world, across the border, and we can only remain competitive if we think in regional terms,” he says.
Rogers says he was happy working with the Vernon chamber, but a big part of his decision to take the job in Kelowna was the opportunity to head an organization with the “capacity” of the Kelowna chamber— and he wants to put that capacity to use.
Over the course of a 30-minute interview Rogers talked about the chamber being better at engaging its members, and said more than once those members’ needs come first. However, he returned again and again to the idea that business here need to think beyond the city boundaries.
Kelowna has come a long way, he said, and the economy here is beginning to diversify beyond the tourism industry.
“We have to respect that tourism is a huge driver of our economy, but we should be thankful that we’ve diversified our economy both in the private sector and the public sector,” he said, referring to things like the city’s post-secondary institutions and medical institutions.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for the Kelowna chamber to take the lessons it’s learned over the last number of years … to go to the next level. We’ve made great progress with the city, we need to share a bit of that knowledge and help the region grow as much as we’ve seen growth happen here.”
The biggest obstacle standing in the way of that goal? The line of communication to the province’s new government.
Rogers says that, given the changes in government, there “could not be a more crucial time” for the Kelowna chamber to ensure the interests of the region are addressed.
With the majority of the government representing regions in the lower mainland, it may be tougher to protect the interests of the more rural parts of the province, including Kelowna.
“One of the lessons that comes out of the last provincial election is Metro Vancouver has become the battleground for power, and that is not necessarily healthy for the interior or other parts of the province,” Rogers said.
While Tom Dyas, the president of the Kelowna chamber, has in the past called the BC Liberal Party “the most business-friendly party” in the province, Rogers said the chamber isn’t a political organization, and will work closely with local MLAs, as well as the sitting government, “to make sure we don’t get lost in the shuffle.”
It was at a birthday party, in a frenzied kitchen, as the guest of honour cooked like mad, that QB Gelato was born.
The co-owner of Kelowna’s new gelato shop was at that party mulling over what he and his partner would call their dream store, when the Italian birthday girl suddenly called out “quanto basta!”
It’s an Italian phrase that roughly translates to “take only as much as necessary,” and in that moment Kevin Bojda knew he had found their name.
A little more than two weeks ago, Bojda and Victor Laderoute officially opened QB Gelato, next to DunnEnzies Pizza Co. in the Landmark Centre.
The shop offers small-batch, hand-crafted gelato and, according to Laderoute, has been more than 10 years in the making.
The couple hails from Vancouver, where both previously worked in the corporate world, a vocation Laderoute said they both knew “was probably going to put us in the grave early” if kept at it.
One day, nearly a decade ago, they stumbled across a friend’s gelato shop, and immediately fell in love with the stuff.
Fast forward several years and Bojda had just returned from a three-day gelato-making course. He recalls learning a lot there, but thinking there must be more to the craft than simply mixing together a bunch of pre-packaged ingredients.
“I thought where’s the creativity? Where’s the ability to say, OK I just came across something, how can I turn that into gelato?” Bodja recalled.
So the two started doing some research.
In the frenzy of Googling that followed, Laderoute says a pattern began to emerge: the owners of many of the best Gelato shops in the world all learned the trade from Carpigiani Gelato University.
“I literally turned to Kevin and said ‘we’re going to Carpigiani.’ If we want to do this, we have to go to this school,” Laderoute said.
Before they had even asked for time off work, the two had their tickets booked.
During their stay in Italy the pair got a crash course in all things gelato, not just from their instructors, but from the many trips they took across the country, tasting as much gelato as they could.
They took a ton of notes, not just on the many flavours they encountered, but also about things like shop design and specific techniques. When they got home they continued their research, looking into the best place to open their dream shop.
All that meticulous research finally culminated in the grand opening of QB Gelato June 17.
At QB, the pair have taken the concept of hand-crafted gelato as far as they could. They make absolutely everything in-house, doing things like baking special carrot cake they then immediately turn into carrot cake gelato.
According to Bodja, less than five per cent of all gelato shops are doing things they way he and Laderoute are.
“It’s really easy to set up shop. There is some awesome, awesome product out there that you can really make good gelato with. But to do it the hand-crafted way, it’s labour intensive and there’s all kinds of things attached to it,” Laderoute says.
“Think of baking a cake,” Bojda chimes in. “You can use a Betty Crocker mix and get a pretty good cake, or you can take Grandma’s recipe, that she made from scratch, and you taste the difference.”
To help them achieve that “Grandma’s recipe” level gelato, the the pair even brought in a ringer from Italy.
For more than two weeks, their instructor from the Gelato University camped out in Kelowna helping them perfect not only their recipes, but a custom-made stabilizer.
They also store their gelato not in a glass display case, but in traditional pozzetti containers, to protect it from exposed light and air.
“Our goal is for people to come in, to come up to the tasting bar and taste things they haven’t tasted before, maybe even have a couple of surprises,” Laderoute said.
“When we do that it makes us really proud. It makes us feel like we’ve accomplished something, and really brought something to the area,” Bojda adds.
“This has been the best thing we’ve done in our entire lives. I would encourage anyone, follow your dream, because when they do come true there is great things.”
Some entrepreneurs set out to build a company that will make them millions, others just want to make the world a better place.
Michael Buffett falls into the latter category, and through his not-for-profit Start Fresh Project, hopes to change people’s lives by connecting them to food.
“We have this goal, which is to inspire people to engage with food, and we do that pretty simply just by teaching people seed-to-fork cooking,” he says.
Making use of their training farm kitchen, Buffett and his team have created a year-long training program they offer—for free— to people struggling with unemployment, under-employment and homelessness.
The goal, Buffett says, is to give people meaningful skills on which they can build lives and careers, and then actually give them jobs at the end of it all.
Buffett firmly believes that learning to work with food can have a profound effect on a person’s life, because he himself experienced that power when he was just a young boy.
“There was a lot of points in my life where, if it wasn’t for people who gave me opportunities to work on their farms or in their kitchens, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today, so this is kind of like a pay it forward project,” he says.
“Things weren’t always great” for Buffett when he was young, and when he was 16 he left home. For a while he was essentially homeless, bouncing from church basements, to shelters and boys homes.
“It was really, really hard. It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he recalls.
Then, one night, a farmer came to the shelter he was staying at offering work to anyone willing to harvest grape for ice wine.
Buffett, who was 17, took the work. He didn’t have proper clothes or shoes, so the farmer gave him some. That job would eventually lead to work in a kitchen, and forever change Buffet’s life.
Buffett still remembers, after that first ice wine harvest was finished, everyone gathered for a “beautiful” meal. They all ate together, and Buffett says he was touched by the kindness and sense of community.
That’s when he realized how food could inspire people, and even change their lives. Years later, after going back to school and a successful career as a chef, he says he wants to give that same experience to others.
“It’s an amazing experience to go from nothing, and have someone come and give you this gift and feed you and talk to you normally, which is something that not everyone gets,” he says. “If I can do that for somebody else now, through this project, that’s amazing.”
In just a few days, the first-ever group of students will start their Start Fresh training.
The program is split between Start Fresh’s kitchen and volunteer-run training farm, with students spending time in each location every month.
As students harvest specific produce they will at the same time learn to work with that produce in the kitchen.
The real beauty of Start Fresh, Buffett says, is that he will actually be able to offer students who finish the program work in the Start Fresh Kitchen.
But in order for that crucial step to fall into place, Buffett needs a little help. Right now, there are only a few days remaining on Start Fresh’s Kickstarter campaign to finance the Start Fresh Kitchen.
The kitchen will be run like a business, offering boutique cooking classes to the general public, as well as catering and other services. The money it makes will be given back to Start Fresh’s not-for-profit initiatives, but it will also give graduates of the cooking program jobs.
There are some great rewards for donors (such as fully catered meals, naming one of the farm’s chickens or cooking classes), and Buffett asks anyone who’s been thinking about supporting Start Fresh to do so now.
“You’ll be getting something you would probably have bought eventually, but doing it now instead of later will really help support us,” he says.
The Start Fresh Project is raising funds for The Start Fresh Project on Kickstarter! We aim to provide access to culinary and farming education to individuals with barriers to employment.
Yesterday, one of the Okanagan’s favourite bakeries quietly celebrated its 12-year anniversary.
Normally, Darci and Barry Yeo like to make a little bit bigger of a deal when Bliss Bakery and Bistro hits a milestone, but as Darci said in an interview today, they’ve just been too busy.
Less than two weeks ago the couple opened their latest Bliss location, in the heart of downtown Kelowna, on Bernard Avenue.
Darci says they have been so busy getting things going there that the bakery’s birthday slid by almost entirely unnoticed.
“It’s kind of like waking up in the morning and going, ‘hey, isn’t it our wedding anniversary today? We should do something,’” she joked.
However, for a small business owner, being too busy is usually a sign of success, and Darci says she is excited to shore things up at the two newest Bliss locations in the coming months.
Bliss seems to be doing very well these days, but its journey to success was a bumpy one. At one point, when they had only their original Peachland location, the Yeos were even trying to sell the shop.
To begin, when they first decided to open a coffee shop in Peachland twelve years ago, “a lot of people questioned our sense,” Darci says.
One banker laughed in their face when they asked for money, telling them they’d never last the winter. When they did open up they had very little capital, and it was rough going for a while.
“I’m glad I didn’t know then what I know now, because I would never have started the business,” Darci says with a chuckle.
Then, after only a few years in operation, the couple was faced with an even tougher choice.
Darci has multiple sclerosis, and in about 2008 it became a struggle for her to continue working. When it got to the point where she couldn’t work the floor anymore, she and Barry had to come up with some kind of solution.
“We either had to sell the business or we had to grow the business, because it wasn’t a manageable situation anymore,” she recalled.
They put Bliss up for sale but, because they were still fairly small, they couldn’t find a buyer—so instead they began expanding.
With their freshly opened location in the heart of Downtown Kelowna, Darci jokes she and Barry now have “four-and-a-half” Bliss locations in the valley (their Stevens Road shop in West Kelowna is only open limited hours, and doesn’t have any seating).
That business, she says, has given her the flexibility to continue to work (she can stay home if she wakes up unable to walk or speak), but it’s also come to define who she and Barry are.
“Looking back now it’s defined more than a decade of our lives, and it’s kind of defined who we are. Twelve years in, now I’m seeing kids we hired as dishwashers, and they’re graduating from university and they have kids, and it’s amazing to be part of people’s lives that way.
“It’s not just a bakery and coffee shop anymore, for us and lot of people we’ve actually had a meaningful connection. It’s more than I ever could have asked from a job,” she says.
Paul McPhail first came to Canada when he was 15. At the time, he was thinking a lot about hockey, and very little about kilts.
The co-owner of McPhail Kilt Makers moved to Penticton from Ayr, Scotland when he was just 15 years old, to study at the Okanagan Hockey Academy.
A talented player, he hoped to one day reach the big leagues. Instead, he and his wife Amanda now run one of the only authentic kilt-making shops in all of Canada.
You could argue it all started when Paul and Amanda met, while attending Pen-High. They fell in love, and when they eventually got married Paul wore a suit.
“The kilt making thing kind of started when we got married. Basically, I got married in a suit because I couldn’t afford the kilt,” he said recently, his Scottish accent still pronounced.
After the pair were married and had kids, Paul says he “got really into Scottish culture.” He started learning more about Scottish art and music, and he and Amanda joined a bagpipe band.
Then, one day while he was at work, Paul says he just started to I wonder what it would take a make a kilt. He found “the most boring book you’ve ever seen in your life,” did some reading, and got to work.
“So after about 170 hours of messing around with some material and this book I made something that resembled a kilt,” he said.
Then, he, Amanda and their kids moved briefly to Scotland, and while there Paul and Amanda learned more of the art from traditional Scottish kilt makers.
They brought those skills back to Canada, started hand-stitching kilts for various pipe bands out of their home, and things just grew from there.
“I was sitting in the house on day and I said ‘we can’t have this in our house anymore. We need to find somewhere to make these things,” Paul recalled.
The started by leasing a small space on Main Street, but just last weekend opened up a brand new storefront in the Cannery Trade Centre.
The shop is complete with vibrant bolts of tartan fabric, a workspace for the pair to custom-make kilts, and a fridge full of “the Scottish national drink,” Irn Bru.
Nearly everything in McPhail Kilt Makers comes straight from Scotland, and Paul says he likes to think it’s about as close to an authentic Scottish kilt making shop as possible.
“I want people to walk in and say ‘ya, this is what it’s like to be in a kilt-making shop in Scotland,’” he says. “I think we’re as close to authentic as we can get.”
However, regardless of how the shop looks, the McPhail’s kilts are by all accounts top notch, and the pair ships them all over the world—in some cases as far as New Zealand and South Africa.
To make them, Paul or Amanda start with eight yards of fabric, which they rip by hand to their customer’s exact measurements.
From there it’s 20 hours of hand-stitching everything from pleats in the back to the band at the top and the buckles and straps.
Paul prides himself on his attention to detail, and points out how he perfectly lines up the patterns in the tartan, “pleating the set” for extra quality.
“There’s not very many in Canada that make kilts the way we do, trying to be as traditional as possible,” Paul says.
It can be stressful and tedious work, but Paul says he loves it. He gets to meet all kinds of different people, and in many cases create for them an authentic, high-quality garment they can pass from generation to generation.
In just a couple of months, an ambitious and “transformative” youth mental health centre will open its doors in Kelowna.
Foundry Kelowna is a “world-class” centre that will host representatives from more than two dozen youth mental health and addiction services.
The centre is part of the BC Integrated Youth Services Initiative, and represents a monumental step forward in how the province cares for youth aged 12-24.
As Mike Gawliuk of the CMHA explains, having multiple agencies operating under one roof means young people seeking help will no longer get bounced from agency to agency, as they try to navigate the “labyrinth” of a system that exists today.
Gawliuk says dozens of young people have already fallen out of the often confusing and unforgiving system, but Foundry has the potential to change all that.
Having 25 support agencies all in one place will be significant, but its the physical place itself that Gawliuk says makes Foundry so special.
Created by Kelowna’s Evolve Design, the building is unlike any most clinic you’ve likely seen before.
Bright colours are splashed across the walls, and plants and moss walls grow in the lobby. The entire building even sounds and feels different; the usual harsh lighting and echoing corridors are replaced by warmer tones and softer acoustics.
Most would agree that the building is beautiful, but as Evolve’s owner Jules Galloway explains, its design is based on much more than pure aesthetics.
Galloway is a firm believer in Foundry’s mission, and says she came into the project believing the physical space it occupied could contribute significantly to its success or failure.
She says that, before anyone even put pen to paper, her firm did an unprecedented 100 hours of consultation with staff, parents and youth in the system.
“One-hundred hours? Never before have we done that. Never before have we had that amount of input, that amount of stakeholders who have an opinion. It took us three months to get through it all,” she said.
On a recent tour of the nearly-completed building, Galloway demonstrated how everything in the building is purposefully designed to make clients more comfortable.
The reception area is a modern-looking room with a smattering of furniture scattered throughout. It’s an inviting space, but Galloway says it’s designed with much more than looks in mind.
“Some of the stories we had was that it might take three months for a parent to get their child here, and it might take an hour to get them out of the car to come in,” she explained. “They don’t want some dowdy, grey, old, uncomfortable reception space, because they might just bolt—they might not get the help they need.”
So while the room is welcoming, the furniture is also placed so the clients don’t have to sit facing someone else as they wait. There are booth-like places for groups, but there are also padded benches to lie down on, or spaces that offer a little more privacy.
“All of the things have been built under the surface a little bit, so hopefully the intuition is that you don’t have to sit face-to-face with somebody, but perhaps they don’t notice that. Hopefully it just feels like a welcoming place,” Galloway says.
Further into the building, movable walls will allow agencies to configure the space however best meets their needs. There is also an entire section that will be completely closed to clients, making it easier for the agencies working there to cooperate without worrying about confidentiality.
There’s also surprisingly welcoming examination rooms, and a kitchen and lounge area Galloway says will be used for classes, projects and presentations.
“Part of our mission at Evolve was to fully understand the space. We were given a blank shell, and we wanted to make sure no space was used less than 75 per cent of the time. Everything has to be constantly interchangeable. It has to be super flexible,” she said.
Foundry Kelowna will be one of five similar projects starting in British Columbia this year, but Gawliuk says that, thanks to Galloway’s “world-class” design, Kelowna’s will be the “Cadillac model.”
Some agencies are already moving into the space, and more will begin to arrive in August. Gawliuk says Foundry should start accepting walk-in patients by the end of the summer, with the goal of a larger grand opening in the fall.
More information on Foundry is available online.
It didn’t take Kristin Garn long to realize working in a classroom wasn’t for her.
Garn has a degree in Education, Mathematics and Statistics from the University of Winnipeg, and for a brief time tried her hand at a traditional teaching job.
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t last long.
She quickly left the classroom to run an educational consulting company where, as a high-priced tutor, she would “take like two weeks of lecture and give it to them [her students] in like 40 minutes.”
Even back then, Garn was subverting the traditional teaching techniques she thought were missing the mark. But when smartphones and mobile operating systems took root in society, Garn found an even better way to transform the teaching game.
Today, Garn is based in the Okanagan and is the CEO of Mathtoons Media Inc., a company that’s been designing adaptive learning software for mobile devices since 2011.
Garn, a “math head” who appears to put near-absolute faith in the power of data, sees incredible potential in smartphone-based learning—so much potential, in fact, she ready to radically reshape the way we learn.
She decries the fact that we send kids to school with textbooks, or that most of society’s teaching techniques revolve around sitting in rooms listening to people talk.
“We plunk people in a big room and talk at them, and then just cross our fingers and hope they remember everything,” she says incredulously. It’s something that bothers Garn a lot because she believes that, in many cases, for people to learn effectively teachers aren’t even necessary.
“It turns out that teaching has very little to do with learning. What’s really important is how someone learns,” she explains.
She says people are either effective learners, or they aren’t, and the quality of the person teaching them is way less important than how they’re learning.
An effective learner will learn regardless of how good a teacher is, and an fabulous teacher teaching an ineffective learner likely won’t make much progress.
Her company’s mobile app, Practi, takes teachers and classrooms totally out of the equation, figuring out how its users learn, and creating learning experiences for them based on that knowledge.
“It kind of pushes the information at you and watches your behaviour as you are acquiring your skills, and then facilitates your learning from there,” Garn explains.
“It basically takes the lecture and the classroom right out of learning.”
Garn admits she often comes up against strong resistance to this this idea, however, she still believes mobile learning is the future.
She draws a parallel between mobile learning, and the emergence of the fast food chain McDonald’s.
McDonald’s, she says, “untethered” the experience of dining out by giving its customers their food in a paper bag.
For a population used to sitting down to eat their meals, the idea that they could take their food anywhere was a game changer, eventually transforming the way society thought about eating out.
Mobile learning, she said, could be the same thing.
“People really have this feeling like, I have to be sitting in a classroom and there has to be somebody at the front of our classroom for me to learn. And we’re saying, ‘no, here’s your learning in a bag, buh-bye,’” she says
“You don’t need the teacher, you don’t need the classroom. The teacher and the classroom were never really what was teaching you. You were always learning.”
For years Mathtoons Media focused on classroom-based applications, but Garn says she faces such strong opposition to mobile-based learning in schools that they’ve recently shifted their focus and begun focusing on corporate training.
“I’d rather build something very big, and what I discovered was the textbook in the classroom is not moving aside very quickly,” she said.
She says everything from the tourist industry to call centres are finding use for the software, and things only appear to be speeding up.
Already, she says, she is experiencing less and less resistance to the idea of mobile learning, and she thinks it’s only a matter of time before a lot more people begin getting their learning “in a bag.”
Jesse Brown, the co-founder of a the new Kelowna-based app Unite, always considered himself and adventurous guy.
After moving to and exploring Kelowna for a few years, he’d basically hit all the landmarks you tend to hear about.
Then, one day, he realized there had to be more.
“I sort of just had a realization one day that there’s no way I’ve done everything that I can do here,” he recalled.
With that realization in hand, the UBCO student went to his friend and future (former) business partner Jay Bell, and the two starting chewing over the idea.
Before long, they realized they could create a solution.
“I, like many here, want to find something that I can go out and do with my friends that isn’t that restaurant I’ve been to 100 times, that isn’t Knox mountain, you know. I wanted something different,” Brown said.
Their solution, the Unite app, aims to catalogue all Kelowna has to offer and serve it to hungry activity seekers in a simple, user-friendly way.
The app is loaded with a selection of “cards” for a bunch of different activities in and around the city, complete with a picture and some basic information about the activity, and how to get there.
Users can swipe through the cards and, similar to Tinder, chose what does and doesn’t interest them.
It also allows users to share activities and connect with their friends, or find new people to go on adventures with.
It’s fairly user friendly, and Brown says having easy access to a plethora of information about what to do in the Okanagan is something many have been waiting for.
He’s passionate about his app, primarily because trying to find things to do in the city was one of the primary “pain points” in his own life. But the fact that Brown is all-in on his new startup might surprise some, considering the fact that only a few years ago he lost it all on a different one.
Back in 2013, Brown and Bell ran a company that dealt in the digital currency Bitcoin.
Things were going well: they had moved to Silicon Valley, there company was valued at about half a million dollars and investors were taking interest.
The pair were “living the dream.” Brown says, until their company got hacked—an especially catastrophic event for a Bitcoin company—and they lost everything.
“We lost a considerable amount of both ours and client money, and it was just a total shit show,” he recalled.
After the hack he and Bell decided to shut the whole thing down, and Brown found himself back in Kelowna, going to school.
But he still had ideas, and in particular his concept for Unite was one he felt quite strongly about.
But an idea is only an idea until you can put it into action, and Browns says he and Bell were having a tough time finding developers to build the app, or investors to give them a financial jumpstart.
“We were unfunded, we were basically just grinding students, and everyone we talked to said this is the best idea ever, this is the number one pain point in my life, so that was good for us, but it was really hard to get to that next stage,” he said.
Those challenges forced Unite to the back burner for a while, and Brown found himself taking a job when he got out of school
But then his Grandfather slipped him a little seed money— just enough to get the project off the ground— and Brown quit his job and once again dove head-first into another project.
Once he had the cash he rounded out his tam, found a few developers, and got to work.
“We worked out of our hose. On an hourly bases we were probably all making like seven bucks an hour. We had no air conditioning, we lived in a house right on Richter Street with no air conditioning. Right in our living room all five of us were working in our tank tops and gym shorts all day,” he said.
“It was not easy to jump back into the deep end again, but I don’t regret it at all,” he said.
Then, last fall, they attempted to blast Unite onto the market, with less-than-desirable results. The app was buggy, Brown said, it had too many features and just wasn’t properly refined.
“I think we tried to do way too much, way too fast, and we ended up not even solving the problem,” he said.
However, the crummy launch ended up being a “blessing in disguise, because of the assumptions we had ended up being wrong.”
Over the next six months the team went back to the drawing board, and vowed to created something truly worthwhile.
“We said ‘let’s not make a student app, let’s make a full-fledged, awesome, thing. Let’s design it well, let’s get good content, and really do this right.’”
The new Unite app launched a few weeks ago to a small group of friends and family, and Brown says it’s starting to take off, which is exciting for Brown not just because he wants to see his company do well, but also because he feels like he’s offering a really good service.
“This isn’t just we want to get some money, or because we want to be the next Zuckerberg. It’s really not that,” he said. “When we started talking about this it was like ‘this is something we would use every day.’”
Unite is available on both Android and Apple phones, and Brown says thy will continue to add more features and improve on their product as more feedback comes in.