A few short years ago, Kate Latos walked into a boardroom of panelists as a finalist of the inaugural BAA Innovation Challenge. Armed with a business pitch and an unwavering dream, she walked out the first place winner of $10,000 in seed funding and a year of mentorship to help launch her dream enterprise. Today, Kate sits at the helm of Ecofence & Decking, which builds decks and fences for residential, commercial, and municipal clients out of recycled material. She was also recently selected by RBC Women of Influence as a “One to Watch Award” recipient.
BAA: Tell us a bit about Ecofence & Decking and your journey to get the business to where it is today.
Kate: Ecofence & Decking is a 100% recycled plastic fence and decking material that will not only leave you feeling proud of your environmental contribution but will also leave you plenty of spare time to relax in your backyard oasis as it’s only upkeep is brushing off the fall leaves.
As with every entrepreneur, it takes a lot more work than anticipated to get your business/product ready for market. While we had sales within our first operating year, we have had to source out a new manufacturer, complete engineering (which takes A LOT longer than anticipated) and, more recently, we are completing a business plan to decide whether in-house manufacturing is the best route for our business. We have been so fortunate to have amazing support from the business community in Alberta and government programs for startups. It has been great to have their resources to fill in the gaps on our knowledge on plastic production.
BAA: What was the inspiration behind your idea for the business?
Kate: The idea for Ecofence & Decking arrived when my husband decided to go back to school after a slow down in the oilfield. I was editing a paper for him the plastic pollution in oceanic gyres. I was horrified by the information in his paper and told him we needed to come up with a long term solution for plastic (most plastic ends up in the landfill within one year). We happened to be driving in Calgary where I saw miles and miles of virgin vinyl fences that could easily be replaced with recycled plastic and the idea was planted in my head. It also just happened that I saw the ad for the BAA Innovation Challenge that night; it was like destiny!
BAA: Can you tell us about your experience in the BAA Innovation Challenge? What was your favourite part of the competition?
Kate: I entered the contest after everyone I spoke to told me my plan was silly, but I had a feeling it was a great idea. The best part of the competition was having to complete a full business plan. The time I spent learning about the deck and fencing market, completing a market analysis, marketing plan, working out the finances, etc., was extremely valuable. In fact, at the end of that exercise, I knew that this was an idea that could work. I found it really valuable at this time to reach out to trusted peers to ask for their suggestions within their areas of expertise. I am glad I did this as I felt really confident when I presented, even though I was presenting alone against two well polished teams. Over the last two years, having a detailed business plan that the competition required has come in extremely handy and it has been continually updated.
BAA: What was the impact of the Innovation Challenge on you and your business?
Kate: While the money was extremely exciting, the biggest benefit from the competition was hearing from a respected team of judges, that they believed in my idea and they were willing to support me in my endeavour. The mentorship and support from the judges was worth far more than the $10,000. Without this competition, I am sure I would have never taken the idea beyond my living room.
BAA: Do you have any advice for others looking to pursue entrepreneurship?
Kate: First, I would say, before you spend a penny, take the time to complete a full business plan. I think many entrepreneurs leap into business without understanding what they are getting into and this can lead to costly mistakes. This was one of the most valuable things from my experience in the innovation challenge.
Second, I would like to suggest that you be open to taking advice and mentorship from those around you. If I wasn’t open to receiving feedback and support from those around our company, we would have missed numerous opportunities or spent money that wasn’t necessary. Reach out to your peers in marketing, engineering, accounting and really listen to their suggestion or guidance. Not all feedback will be life changing, but there might be one that changes everything.