Phone bill warrior
Trevor Nichols - Oct 12 - Biz Profiles

Image: Contributed
Michael Lavigne’s clever startup promises to save people hundreds on their phone bills.

A local entrepreneur’s clever new startup is helping people slash their ballooning phone bills.

Time Brokers, the brainchild of Kelowna’s Michael Lavigne, negotiates with telecom companies on its customers’ behalf, snagging (sometimes substantial) discounts for those unhappy with how much they’re paying.

For as long as he can remember, Lavigne has negotiated his own bills, phoning up companies and talking his way into cheaper phone, cable and internet prices.

“I just don’t accept full price, that’s just me,” he says.

That urge probably stems from the entrepreneurial drive that was instilled in him when he was young, as he helped with any number of the companies his “serial entrepreneur” father built.

Lavigne even admits that, when Time Brokers first “fell into [his] lap,” he was already building a different, social enterprise company.

It all started about two years ago, when a friend was griping to Lavigne about his outrageous phone bill.

So Lavigne offered to work his negotiating magic; he called up the provider, and managed to save his buddy about $500 on his contract.

Word got around and another friend asked him for help, and again Lavigne earned her some serious savings. When that friend told him “I would totally pay for this,” the lightbulb went on.

He reached out to a few close friends and offered them the service, to see if he had a viable business model on his hands, and things just grew from there.

Less than a year ago, Lavigne shelved his social enterprise and incorporated Time Brokers. Turns out, he says, people are hungry for the service he’s offering.

“Necessity is the mother of all inventions, and people need to save money on their telecom bills,” he says.

With Time Brokers, Lavigne has wedged himself between competing telecom companies, capitalizing on their obsession with customer retention.

“Because there’s always going to be customers going from one provider to the next, the providers fully understand it’s cheaper to cut the bill in half and keep the customer than to try and go and acquire another customer,” Lavigne explains.

Lavigne says he has a deep understanding of the telecom market, and agrees to explain his methods “without giving away too much of my secret sauce.”

Essentially, he says, he plays the companies off one another, as they vie to keep their customers from jumping ship to their competitors.

The providers are used to these kinds of calls, and have entire departments dedicated to customer retention.

So when people come to Time Brokers with ballooning bills, he looks at what they’re paying for, what services they’re actually using, and how he can spin that into discounts.

“I call the right person, I say the right thing, and I convince them to lower the rates,” he says.

Lavigne says he’s often able to save his customers hundreds (sometimes thousands) of dollars on their contracts this way.

He takes a third of anything he saves them as his cut, with no risk to his customers. That means if he doesn’t save them any money, they don’t have to pay him anything.

That “no risk” approach was an important one for Lavigne, because he says it has allowed him to shake any perception that Time Brokers was some kind of scam business, or multi-level marketing company.

“I think it’s really important from the customer’s point of view, because if I was just like ‘no matter what I’m going to charge you fifty bucks,’ then they might not take the time,” he says.

Right now, he says, he has a few hundred clients, whom he’s saved about $250,000 in total.

Lavigne says he’s now considering scaling the business up, bringing in more team members and stepping away from the phones to take on a more management-oriented position.

For the moment, however, he is happy operating as a “boutique” business, serving mostly local clients and flying largely under the radar of big telecom companies.

More information on Time Brokers is available online.

New wave wave creators
Trevor Nichols - Sep 28 - Biz Profiles

Image: Conrtibuted
A pair of Kelowna entrepreneurs have created a world first

An innovative tweak to an established idea vaulted a pair of Kelowna entrepreneurs into the startup spotlight this week.

SurfStage made a splash recently when a video of it in action, set against the backdrop of Okanagan Lake, hit YouTube.

Laurence Parlane and Daniel Benson are the co-founders of Voltus Industries Ltd., which builds SurfStage. They bill their product as “the first ever floating wave.”

The floating surf machine allows surfers to gather with friends on the lake, and ride an artificially created wave.

The product is flashy and impressive, but as Parlane explains, the concept, product and business that supports it all grew out of what was essentially a joke.

Parlane has little love for formalized education. The college dropout has been building stuff since he was a kid, and his engineering prowess helped him snag an internship with Red Bull Racing right out of high school.

He learned a lot working with the company’s Formula 1 team, but only stuck around for about six months.

“It was super high-level; cutting edge; really big money; high stress. It wasn’t for me, but I learned lots,” he says.

It was around this time that SurfStage began to percolate in his brain.

Parlane and Benson both spent time as summer councillors at summer camps in Osoyoos.

Parlane explains that the camp doesn’t have a ton of money, so they often had to create their own equipment. One day, he and some others were joking about how much effort it would take to jerry-rig a Flowrider-type surf station at the camp.

After everyone else moved on, Parlane kept musing.

He realized it would be easier to pump enough water to the rig if it was closer to the lake. Then it hit him that next logical step was to just put the thing right in the lake.

“And then I realized, OK, this might actually be a legitimate business idea, and not just ‘let’s build something sketchy,’” he said.

So he started going through some preliminary designs in his head. Those found their way to napkins, and then more formal plans. Things grew from there.

He worked at it for about six months, until he moved in with Benson, who was fresh off a business management degree from UBCO.

Benson immediately got on board with Parlane’s idea, and as Parlane explains it, “made it into a real, feasible business, not just a pipe dream.”

Of course, once they had a business, they still had to actually make the product.

“We thought we were going to crank it out in like six months, and it took two years,” Parlane joked.

“It took a long time,” Benson chimed in.

For a year the pair went through a number of design iterations. Then, once they got the design where they wanted, they needed funding. After a few shaky pitches they found investors, and moved on to engineering and fabricating.

After putting together the 14-metre SurfStage prototype, this spring they dragged it to a secret location on Okanagan Lake for testing.

The massive SurfStage sat on the lake for months, and Benson recalls trying and keep the project “on the DL” as they waited for patents to clear.

“There were NDAs for days,” he said.

Now, they’ve finished testing, dry-docked their prototype, and are tweaking the design as they get ready to start production.

“The system right now has all the functionality it needs, it just needs to have that Apple shine on it, so it looks super good… more user friendly,” Parlane says.

The concept of “surfing” on a stationary platform isn’t new, but Parlane and Benson are the first ones to make that possible directly on the lake.

Image: Contributed
Daniel Benson (left) and Laurence Parlane (right).

By taking the fairly logical step of moving the structure from land to water, they’ve cut down costs significantly, and made the platform much more portable.

The SurStage is decked out with lights and a sound system, and can hold about 30 people at a time.

Parlane says the whole thing is designed to be “kind of a destination in itself,” where friends can hang out together performing or goofing off on the wave.

“A ski boat or a wakeboard boat is a lot of fun, not because you’re wakeboarding, but because all your buddies are on the boat, and there’s music and all that,” he says.

Parlane and Benson both say they’re not great surfers, but that it doesn’t really matter with SurfStage.

The high cycle rate means people can catch on quick, and it usually doesn’t take long to get good enough to start having fun.

“That’s the thing, even though I’m not that good at it, it’s actually still really fun,” Benson says.

Benson says SurfStage is now “open for business,” and he expects the product to start appearing on lakes as early as next summer.

For more information, visit SurfStage online.

Next evolution of arcades
Trevor Nichols - Sep 21 - Biz Profiles

Kelowna is humming with new businesses that have harnessed technology to solve any number of serious problems, but one of the city’s newest additions is using it purely for entertainment.

The newly opened Kelowna Escape Games takes the latest in virtual reality technology and makes it available to the mainstream, letting its customers rent play time in state-of-the-art VR setups.

Off a short road occupied mostly by industrial-style buildings, Kelowna Escape Games occupies a single unit in long, low building.

Walk up a  simple set of stairs and you’ll find four rooms, hastily painted black, with padded mats covering the floors and HTC Vive headsets hanging from the ceiling.

Slip on a headset and load up a game, and the simple surroundings fade away, plunging you into a zombie-infested sewer, a besieged castle, high atop a skyscraper, or dozens of other scenarios.

The two controllers you hold in your hands become guns, flashlights, dodgeballs, or a bow and arrow.

The games are fairly simple, the graphics aren’t mind blowing, but you will likely find yourself ducking as lasers shoot past you, jumping with fright as zombies appear at your back, or clinging shakily to the edge of a high tower.

Of course, any friends with you in the room will mostly just see someone in a giant pair of goggles flailing wildly around, swiping at unseen foes.

When Escape Games opened in Calgary in 2016, it was the first place in Western Canada renting virtual reality gear along with a fully equipped space to use it in.

The newly opened Kelowna location is the company’s first expansion, but owner Jimmy Tan says he believes they are at the forefront of the next wave of public gaming.

Decades ago, gamers would gather in arcades to play their favourite titles together. More recently, internet cafes have become the new community gaming spaces.

Tan says VR is the next evolution in that trend, ironically bringing groups of friends to the same physical place to play.

Virtual Reality is immersive, so each of the four office-sized VR rooms at Escape Games is dedicated to a single player.

However, multiple players can enter and play the same game. Players can also talk to one another through the headset, making it a surprisingly communal experience.

“The best part of VR is watching your friends flail around,” Tan says.

The technology is also still very cost prohibitive, so most people won’t be able to use it unless they visit a rental place like Escape Games.

“It’s going to cost at least $5,000 to have a normal setup. Then you need to have a dedicated space that’s at least 100 square feet,” he says. “Not many people will be able to afford that.”

Tan also believes traditional video gaming experiences will never be able to compare to virtual reality.

“The difference is huge,” he says. “This is just so much more of an immersive experience.”

“At home, with standard video games, you are just using input with your fingers, pressing buttons. [In VR] if you need to dodge a bullet you don’t just press left or right, you actually have to move your whole body.”

For more information visit Escape Games online.

The non-business business
Trevor Nichols - Sep 13 - Biz Profiles

Image: Facebook

Kelowna is a city bustling with passionate young entrepreneurs, pouring the full weight of their education and angel investors into their budding businesses.

They have clever solutions to many of life’s annoyances, and have created beautiful apps and websites to help bring those solutions to the people.

Brandon Storozak doesn’t have an app, a business degree, or big-time investors—but he does have a yearning to make the world a better place, and he’s trying to accomplish that in an unexpected way.

The 23-year-old runs Paratus General Contracting and Project Management, which he started this April.

Paratus takes on contracts for demolition projects, junk removal, clean-up efforts (it just helped remove the sandbags from around the city) and other general duties.

Picking up short-term projects is a niche in the trades that can be quite profitable, but Storozak says that’s not really what he’s interested in.

“It’s not about profit, really, for me. I need to keep my bills paid, but I’m 22, I don’t need to get rich,” he says.

Instead, he sees those short contracts as an opportunity to hire folks who might be struggling with addiction, homelessness, or unemployment.

He’s able to give them a couple of days or weeks of work, put a few paychecks in their pockets, and hopefully, he says, help them take the first steps to getting their lives on track.

“Basically, I hire people that I know need the opportunity, and I try to groom them up and mentor them to be proper workers, make them more employable, and then try to get them proper education if I can,” he explained.

The quest is a personal one for Storozak, who struggled with addiction and mental health issues when he was younger.

He says he didn’t have the best upbringing, and turned to drugs and alcohol to escape the resentment and loneliness he felt because of it.

But a trades exploration program he went through when he was 17 got him a job working with heavy machinery, and through that he says he realized the value of work.

“I might be a weird person, but I like getting up every day and going to work, and having something to do. I don’t mind working hard, because usually with hard work there is a dramatic before and after,” he says. “That’s where I get a lot of satisfaction in my life from, so I think there are other people who that would be true [for] too.”

Of course, hiring people struggling with addictions and homelessness means he sometimes gets burned, and Storozak says he often works gruelling hours or loses money if new hires don’t work out.

He says it’s hard to stay profitable when he’s not really approaching his company from a business mindset, but that he’s willing to take the losses if he can help a few more folks.

“I’ve been homeless and I’ve starved for years. It’s not something that I’m really afraid of,” he says.

Storozak says he already has a core group of competent employees at the centre of the operation, and his tireless work ethic and commitment to the quality of his work have so far kept him in businesses.

He admits it’s been a struggle at times, but the people he has been able to help—even if it was only in some small way—keep him on the path.

“If I can change their mindset, or keep a couple dollars in their pocket during a hard time, that’s good. But if I can actually inspire somebody to actually try and help themselves and help the people around them… eventually there could be a remarkable change in the community,” he says.

Classic vans get new life as rentals
David Trifunov - Sep 08 - Biz Profiles

Image: Submitted.

Sadly, Jeff McSweeney can’t keep the shag carpet, disco balls or eight-track players.

The Vernon man is fresh from a successful first summer spearheading his new business, Vantastic Rentals.

He rents out three classic Chevrolet “Boogie” vans as an alternative to pricier—albeit newer—RVs and motorhomes you see cris-crossing the highways more these days.

All of McSweeney’s vans are between the 1971 and ’81 model years. Once he finds one, he guts it, restores it and gets it road worthy.

“The cost of a motorhome is just unattainable for most people,” he said.

“And who doesn’t love the 70s and 80s Chevy Boogie vans?”

All three vans were virtually sold out this summer, he said. Cost of a rental is roughly $800 per week, and he’s getting good response from European travellers wanting a quintessential Canadian road trip.

Most Chevy vans of this vintage only sleep two people, but he has one that sleeps four. They all have modest kitchen facilities like a cold-water sink, fridge and hot plate. McSweeney provides the basics and will rent you a van for a night, a week or a month.

He struck upon the idea during a camping trip, realizing he wanted a little more from the experience.

“I got tired of sleeping in a tent.”

The business began renting vans and two trailers. But the trailers didn’t get much response and everyone wanted the van.

He sold the trailers and bought two more vans, instead. His success has led to plans for three more vans to be road worthy next summer.

It’s not an easy task. The vans are often sheltered away in backyards or the back 40.

Image: Submitted.

Rust is the enemy. Sometimes, they’ve been neglected for 30-plus years.

He’s found stock across the Interior, and does much of the work himself, relying on mechanics for the bigger jobs.

“Safety is my No. 1 priority,” he said. “I’m not going to send anything out until it looks good and I’m happy with it.”

He’s chosen Chevy vans of the 1970s because he loves Chevy and the company started adding too many moving parts later into the ’80s.

For rentals, it’s best to keep it simple, he said. These vans don’t have air conditioning or power windows.

“I don’t want all the new technology,” he said.

It’s also why he has to rip out the carpet so popular in these classic vehicles.

His idea also turned heads from fellow businesspeople.

McSweeney was a finalist in this year’s Enterprize Challenge sponsored by Community Futures.

Image: Submitted.

One Big Table, many big dreams
Trevor Nichols - Aug 25 - Biz Profiles

Image: Barnett Photography
One Big Table wants to change how people buy and eat their food.

In less than two weeks, a tiny grocery store built on some very big ideas will open its doors in Kelowna.

Filled with local and B.C.-produced cheeses, produce, meats and other grocery items, the small, “European-style” One Big Table grocery store aims not just to make local food more accessible, but to change the way Kelowna residents shop and eat.

Giulio Piccioli is a co-founder and director of the co-op grocery store.

He says he wants to tell the stories of where the food One Big Table sells comes from, connecting customers to the people that produce it, helping them appreciate the things they eat in a whole new way.

“What it comes down to for us is the idea of creating participation in the buying process for the consumer,” he says.

“When you know the person that has grown it, or made it, you are really choosing to buy that product, and in that way you are allowing the product to grow. You’re really becoming a co-producer… in a way that’s very different from when you go to the grocery store and you just pick something blindly off the shelves.”

Piccioli is a chef by trade, and originally hails from Italy. While his goal today is to change the conversations we have about food, it was something much different that originally brought him to Canada.

When he was about 20 years old, a lovestruck Piccioli followed a girl from Italy to Ontario.

“I was young. I really didn’t know left from right, or what love was, really,” he recalls.

The relationship didn’t work out, but Piccioli stayed in Canada, eventually hopping a train to B.C. where he began working in restaurants.

Image: L.G. Photography

A chef by trade, it didn’t take Piccioli long to grow dissatisfied “with the restaurant philosophy” that  valued making money far more than creating a story and sharing the values of buying and eating local food.

That’s when he started the first iteration of One Big Table.

“To be honest, I didn’t know what it was I wanted to do, but I did know I wanted it to be something different from the restaurants [I worked at],” Piccioli explained.

In the beginning, the organization was simply a catering company. Piccioli would host dinners in farmer’s fields and snow-covered forests, mere metres away from the source of the food his guests were eating.

He served local ingredients and did everything he could to show his guests where the food they were eating came from, and tell them the stories behind it.

As he hosted more and more of those dinners, Piccioli began to realize all the ingredients he served we’re really hard to find, and it required a ton of effort to hit up each individual supplier to get them all.

He could bring those ingredients to a few dozen people at a time, a few times a year, with his special dinners, but he wanted to do more.

He believes the One Big Table grocery store will be that place.

“You don’t have 1,000 choices in front of you. There’s going to be one pasta, a few cheeses… we put a lot of time into selecting the best ingredients that I personally thought the Okanagan has to offer,” he says.

“You walk into the shop, you’re most likely going to find what you’re looking for, except it’s probably going to be small, it’s going to be artisan made, it’s going to taste really good … It’s really making not just the cost of the food, but the values of making it, part of the conversation.”

The space will also feature a small cafe, where customers can eat a meal prepared with the ingredients sold in store.

Image: L.G. Photography
Giulio Piccioli (left) and Christian Brandt (right)

The idea, Piccioli says, is that people can come in and watch a cook make them lunch. Then they can go and buy all the ingredients themselves to make the same meal at home.

One Big Table will even offer take-home instructions explaining exactly how to cook the meals, making it easier for people to eat well in their own homes.

When people realize they can eat delicious local food at home, they’re more likely to continue to support local producers.

“At some point we hope it’s going to grow and become how we purchase our food,” Piccioli says.

Right now, Piccioli and One Big Table co-founders Christian Brandt and Anne-Marie Cayer are putting the finishing touches on the shop’s physical location, which will officially open Sept. 7.

One Big Table sits at 1440 St Paul St, in the former home of The John Howard Society’s One Cup at a Time coffee shop.

The store will also continue many of the hiring practices the society used to staff the former coffee shop.

For more information, visit One Big Table online.

Bread with a 166-year history
Trevor Nichols - Aug 21 - Biz Profiles

Image: Trevor Nichols
Dan and Mike Bronswyk draw on 166 years of family tradition at The Bread Co.

It’s somewhat of a tradition among tradespeople for children to take up the (sometimes literal) tools of their parents and continue the family trade.

Kids of carpenters, farmers, butchers and bakers often follow in their parents’ footsteps, but when it comes to “the family business,” the Bronswyk brothers have just about everybody beat.

Dan and Mike run The Bread Co. in Kelowna. They are known for their hand-made, artisan breads, and the sandwiches they serve on them out of their Bernard Avenue bakery.

The brothers have run the business for close to 11 years, but their family’s history as dough punchers spans continents, and stretches back centuries.

It began with their great, great grandfather, who in 1851 started the original Bronswijk bakery with his brother and wife, in the village of Poeldijk in Holland.

Generations of Bronswijk bakers spread across the country from there, until two generations later W.A.F Bronswijk established his bakery in Apeldoorn, putting his six sons to work there.

“Those were all my uncles, and we would go visit when we were young, and go to those different shops,” Mike recalls.

Image: Contributed

Eventually the sons branched out to start their own bakeries. Many stayed in the Netherlands, but a pair of them (including Dan and Mike’s father, Henk Bronswijk, who changed his name upon arrival) came instead to Canada.

Dan and Mike, like just about everyone in their field, will tell you that almost every baker has thought about leaving behind the grueling early-mornings of the profession for something else.

Henk wasn’t that different.

When he arrived in Canada he worked first as a farmer in Manitoba, then as a lumberjack on Vancouver Island.

But his yearn for yeast eventually lead him back to his family trade, and in the 60s he opened his first bakery, The Dutch Maid, in Castlegar.

It was there that Mike and Dan were born, and throughout their teenage years the pair cut their teeth in the flour-filled rooms of the family business, which by then was a bakery in Red Deer.

“As a family bakery in the 60s and 70s we had to contribute,” Mike recalls. “In the summertime I would either be packing crusty buns in bags, or I would be flipping doughnuts in the fryer.”

Both Mike and Dan are now trained in the field, but in 1986, like so many before them, they decided they were finished.

Image: Contributed

“Mike and I both said ‘OK, I’m done with baking. I’m done. I’m over it,’” Dan recalls. He jetted off to Australia for a while, but when he returned he needed a job.

“So guess where I ended up?” he says with a chuckle.

He and Dan ended up running the Chalet Bakery in Revelstoke, which they kept going for 16 years, until deciding once again in 2004 they were finished with the profession.

Of course, a short time later they had opened up The Bread Co. in Kelowna.

But this time something was different.

For years the convenience of pre-packaged, pre-baked goods had been chipping business away from old-school bakers, who woke up at ungodly hours to knuckle their dough by hand.

“The writing was on the wall for the old-style of bakeries, because of the Safeways and all the in-house baking in the grocery stores. That old style of baking had run its course, so we had to find another avenue to start in,” Mike explained.

Image: Trevor Nichols

But instead of going with the quick-and-convenient trend, when the brothers opened The Bread Co. they were inspired to double down on the “old fashioned” methods their great, great grandfather used, and go totally artisan.

“It ignited a new passion in us, doing artisan breads, it was something to be excited about,” Dan says. “We don’t want to be the hot dog bun maker. We don’t want to be the white bread guy. We like what we’re doing. It’s like creating art every day.”

Today, the Bread Co.’s breads are made using the natural yeast in the air, for the most part without additional sugars or oils (Dan says they have been nursing the same sourdough starter for more than a decade now).

The breads are baked without pans, warmed from the inside out while sitting directly on the deck of the oven.

They’ve modernized a bit, with a large chunk of their business coming from what is essentially their restaurant on Bernard Avenue, but all of their products are still made “the way they would have been done when Christ was walking the Earth.”

With more than 160 years of family experience to draw from, it seems unlikely the Bronswyks would end up taking any other approach than the the old-school one.

Bringing neckties to the people
Trevor Nichols - Aug 17 - Biz Profiles

Image: Contributed
Nick Ross and Luke Cooke of

Davis Yates still remembers one of the first presentations he gave as a young business student.

Still a wide-eyed freshman, he walked into the room looking as professional as he could, in a full suit, black shoes, “and just white dad socks up to my knees.”

Yates, like so many of his peers entering the business world for the first time, didn’t have the resources to buy accessories that would have completed his outfit.

“You get into business school, and you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing,” he recently said with a chuckle.

While watches, neckties, bags and belts may not seem important for young students, most professionals will tell you image matters; having a stylish watch or professional-looking messenger bag can do wonders for how people perceive you.

Image: Contributed
Davis Yates

Of course, few students can afford professional-looking accessories, which is why Yates and fellow UBCO business students Nick Ross and Luke Cooke started

The trio’s online store features a curated collection of accessories, selected with frugal young professionals in mind.

The site is still in its infancy, but currently features products like a $14 watch, $8 tie and $44 messenger bag.

Although they’re not popular brand names, the products are stylish enough to hold up in professional settings, and most are well-made enough to last for years.

Yates explained that, When Ross and Cooke were nurturing the first inklings of the company, their philosophy was “let’s insure that students, regardless of their economic condition, can get these accessories and these things they need to be a successful business student, at an affordable cost.”

There’s two ways they accomplish that.

First, by selling goods that aren’t branded, Remarked is able to get rid of steep markups high-end companies typically slap on their products.

There is often little difference in quality, for example, between a high-end and off-brand pair of sunglasses. In fact, most are likely made in the same place.

“The reason why Oakley is Oakley is they spend so much on branding. They pour money into these massive campaigns so people think they’re cool, but you’re paying for that when you pay for the product,” Yates  said.

“These products are just not that expensive to make, so we’re just not marking them up as much.”


Second, Remarked uses a process called “drop shipping,” essentially acting as a middleman connecting customers to the manufacturers that sell the products.

This means that, instead of keeping a large inventory and sending products directly to their customers, the company relays customers’ orders to manufacturers and wholesalers, who ship it directly to the buyer.

No inventory means minimal financial risk and minimal expense, making it an ideal business model for a trio of upstart young businesspeople.

Yates said Remarked finds its products through careful online research, and refines what it offers through customer feedback.

The wholesalers they feature “live and die by online reviews,” he said, “so you can really go through a good vetting process on that end.”

Remarked has been running for about three months now, but Yates said he and the other co-founders already have big plans.

They’re in the process of figuring out who their customers are, and will soon start expanding and refining their product offerings, ideally becoming a one-stop-shop for budding young professionals.

Remarked is “an ultimately scalable machine,” Yates said, so there’s no reason that, with the time and energy the three founders are putting into it, it can’t grow to be something great.

For more information, check out

Fibre fit for a king
Trevor Nichols - Jul 25 - Biz Profiles

Image: Trevor Nichols

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.

Image: Trevor Nichols
Julene Koslowski

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.

Kelowna business a HIIT
Trevor Nichols - Jul 19 - Biz Profiles

Image: Contributed
How a pair of Kelowna moms built a simple but brilliant business.

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, 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.

Image: Contributed
Chelsea Harrison and Melanie Breitkreutz

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.

Image: Contributed

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.”

All Biz Profiles Stories