ON THE RISEShane Hartje talks about self-employ
In the article that follows Shane Hartje talks about his history of self-employment and his most recent business venture.
Could you tell the readers about yourself?
I lived in Winnipeg until I was nine-years-old at which time my family moved to Anola where my parents still live. I’ve been in Winnipeg most of my adult life, I’m single and have no children. I’m a huge motocross fan, jets fan and snowmobile a lot in the winter.
Tell me about the onset of your spinal cord injury and how it affects you today.
At the age forty-one, I crashed a dirt bike on a race track and sustained a C-07, complete spinal cord injury. I remained in the Rehabilitation Hospital, Health Sciences Centre for approximately three months. I use a manual wheelchair for mobility. I would say one of my greatest challenges since has been recurring urinary tract infections. I experience heightened neurogenic pain and muscle stiffness when I have a urinary tract infection. This can interfere with my productivity and depending on the severity it can confine me to bed for a couple of days if it’s really bad.
Could you provide an overview of your employment history and tell the readers how you became an entrepreneur?
I started my first business when I was fifteen years old. I was enrolled in the Building Construction program in high school and at the end of my first year I started building cedar lawn furniture. At that time my parents didn’t have the extra money to buy the thousands of dollars in tools and supplies I needed. We discussed what I wanted to do, and they agreed to purchased everything on their credit card. They told me that I had 30 days to start making money and pay them back or interest would accrue on the card. I did almost $10,000.00 in sales that first summer and continued building and selling lawn furniture over the next three summers.
When I turned 16 and got my license I started working at Wendy’s flipping burgers. After high school graduation, I worked full-time at Palliser Furniture building furniture and working in the shipping department. My goal however was to become a carpenter. At that time there were no apprenticeship opportunities and work in the field was scarce. So, I took random jobs in the construction industry that involved roofing, framing, dry walling, soffit and facia installation. I eventually got tired of the go-round: seasonal employment, getting laid off, not making a lot of money and unreliable income.
In 1997, I reconnected with a friend very close childhood friend and we decided to become business partners. I sold my dirt bike and scraped up some additional money, he borrowed some money from his parents and with just an idea and $15,000.00, we opened Blaze Internet Services in Oakbank MB: a dial up internet service provider and web hosting company. We placed advertisements in the local papers and a sign on the highway just outside of Winnipeg and we a were off!
After about a year or so the business allowed me to cover my rent and pay my bills. The partnership was good. We ran the business for the just over three years and built up a base of around almost 700 customers. Although we were in agreement about our direction, we lacked an end goal and just took things as they occurred. Then, high speed Internet started to become available in Winnipeg and changed everything. We figured we had better sell our customers before they started making the switch and that’s exactly what we did. Prairie Online a partner of MTS at the time purchased our customers and we were on to the next chapter
With Blaze Internet Services sold we decided to open another business in Winnipeg called Clear Concepts,. We provided website design, hosting and network management. We had base revenue coming in over the next year but not much additional money. We lived a very spartan existence over the first year. It was a hard lesson; I realized the value the internet service provided in regard to cash flow. We eventually found another partner through our connections. He had more business experience than either of us, brought a client base some money to the table. Over the course of the next 7 years we built the business up to $2.5 – $2.8 million annually; at our peak, we employed 15 – 20 people.
In 2003 while we were still building Clear Concepts we launched another business with several other partners. The company was called Internet Merchants International. The companies focus was to build and market products online. We marketed everything from flowers, website hosting, sports paraphernalia and even partnered to launch and online pharmacy. Things we really starting to take off for us when Google made some major changes to there search engine and essentially bumped us out of the marketplace. The company continues to exist, and it still generates a very modest income.
Eventually, I began to feel dissatisfied. Although our new partner brought knowledge, contacts, money and a client base, we did not share a common direction, had different views on how to accomplish goals, and were not in agreement on how to divide responsibilities and differing points of view regarding supervision and management of staff. Around 2012 I knew I needed to make a change so I started thinking about the only other thing that I knew how to do well and CompleteMyProject.ca was born. Clear Concepts, with the addition of a few new partners has now grow into one of the leading IT companies in Winnipeg.
Over the years with Clear Concepts I had participated in several business groups and had established many contacts. Additionally, I had a large following on Facebook. Much of the business came by way of referral. I came to feel the construction industry did not hold to the same level of professionalism that I had experienced in the information technology industry. I was determined to establish professionalism in my own company. Eventually, the business grew to three, full-time staff and many sub-contractors. By the third year, I had realized a nearly $1 million in sales.
Unfortunately in the 4th year, I broke my back. While in the Rehabilitation Hospital, I worked from my bed and did what I could to keep the business running. I had an employee who was my right-hand-man and who was essential to the business. By the following summer, we had secured a major contract with Ikea. Shortly after that was completed, my main employee secured a full-time, permanent position with the Manitoba Government that included full benefits and a pension. The future of CompleteMyProject.ca became quite precarious.
After my discharge from the Rehabilitation Hospital, I wanted to increase my functional abilities through therapy. I called several clinics and found none of these specialized in working with people with spinal cord injuries. Through further research, I found out about Project Walk which was based in California, that lead me to a franchise in Regina where is discover they had rebranded as First Steps Wellness Centre after Project walk made the decision to change from a charity/non profit to a for profit model.
Every treatment I researched for persons with spinal cord injury, including stem cell transplant, required six – twelve months of intensive exercise therapy. Initially, I had not considered buying into the First Steps Wellness Centre, but while I was there in September 2017, CompleteMyProject.ca began to falter. I had to seriously consider my future and I began to ask myself: What would it be like to have First Steps Wellness Centre available in Winnipeg? The more I considered it; First Steps Wellness Centre seemed a natural transition for me. In December 2017, I travelled to Regina, met with the Board of First Steps Wellness Centre, and began negotiations for licensing in Manitoba. I felt that I could really represent the brand well. In July 2018, I purchased the licensing rights to Manitoba, and it’s been a serious push to open a facility here in Winnipeg ever since.
What is it like to be your own boss?
It has been so long, I’ve basically always been my own boss. I have a pretty high tolerance for risk. I think my calculation of risk is different than the calculation that others might make when considering risk. For example, if I believe in a business idea, I do the forecasts and market research to determine if its viable or not. Once the calculations are in place and the numbers work, I don’t see it as a risk, just as an opportunity.
What have you learned about business along the way?
I learned the importance of having a documented business plan and the significance of cash flow. In terms of First Steps Wellness Centre, all of my prior business experience revolved around service so the concept of service delivery was not foreign to me. I learned that I had a lot of transferable skills and knowledge relevant for this type of business venture. In my opinion, First Steps Wellness Centre fills a need that is not met locally, and this put us in a very viable position. The goal for all businesses is to become self-sustaining and then profitable, that includes a not-for-profit. Obviously, the structure of a non-profit is different from the companies that I had launched previously. I’m on a learning curve that involves identifying potential donors, approaching donors, and securing financial and other sources of support. First Steps Wellness Centre will be self-sustaining once we have three full-time therapists.
What qualities and skills does an entrepreneur require?
I think there’s some element of luck but, overall , entrepreneurs have to be smart, adaptable, and resilient. They have to recognize opportunity when it presents itself and be quick to seize the opportunity. Having a good accountant or bookkeeper is essential to keep your house in order. By this I mean, payment of taxes, issuance of payroll, source deductions. You never want to end up in a situation where you owe money to government because this brings hefty financial penalties. As I said earlier, you have to have a high tolerance for risk and stress. You have to be resilient and able to let the little things roll off your back. You can’t afford to allow the little things to take a notch out of you.
In terms of recruitment, I have interviewed many people over the years. As a result, I have developed good instincts and am able to assess the character of people quickly. You need to ask important questions, such as, Where do you see yourself in five years? If the person says they see themselves as being the lead therapist, this bodes well for First Steps Wellness Centre because I know the person is committed, ambitious and intends to stay.
It’s also important to network. One of my biggest influences was a business group I joined many years ago called The Entrepreneur’s Organization. The annual membership fee was approximately $3,000.00 but the benefits were significant. We met monthly, we were placed in forums with peers but never with businesses competitors, the meetings were highly structured. The organization also hosted universities and brought in speakers and provided many educational opportunities for its members. These types of organizations can create a lot of long-term value and the knowledge you can gain from a group peers is invaluable.
What advice would you have for those readers who may be considering opening a business?
Have a business plan. Everyone seems to think a business has to involve doing something that no one has ever done before. Not so. Just find something ideally you enjoy, a product or services that exists but which you feel is under served or perhaps you feel you can do better than what’s currently offered.
Shane, thank-you for your time and the insights and knowledge you’ve shared regarding entrepreneurship. I’m sure the readers who have or are considering self-employment will find the information helpful.
Written by Laurence Haien,
Senior Rehabilitation Counsellor