David Vine - Stem2Stern

Tell us about yourself.

Leaving high school in Hamilton, ON, I thought I wanted to move into my father’s accounting practice. I was a bit of a numbers guy, so I headed off to Western University in London for the Business School. With a degree, I realized I could never sit behind a desk. So, with a huge apology to my parents, I headed to Humber College in Toronto, where I completed a cabinetmaking apprenticeship over four years. I was destined to spend my life creating with my hands.

As much as I loved building custom furniture for people, I soon realized that my true calling was to teach others about the art and craft I was passionate about. So, off to the teachers’ college in London I went. It took three bouts of schooling, but I finally have things figured out. I was born to be a life-long learner and educator, and to be able to teach what I so love to do is an experience to which few can lay claim. Incidentally, it turns out that it was the combination of Business School, Trade School and Teacher’s College that was the key to the success of Stem2Stern.

Rewind to the year 2006. My son was nine, and my daughter 15. I had been looking for a working holiday for the three of us to do some family bonding and heard about a family boatbuilding workshop in Brooklyn, Maine. We spent one glorious week together building our Optimist Pram sailboat, which still lives by the pond on the family farm. I had always vowed to bring this program back to London and share the joy we experienced as a family over 15 years ago with others. The concept for Stem2Stern was born!

Tell us about your business.

Stem2Stern is a Community Boat Building organization that, for the most part, targets marginalized youth in London and the surrounding area. We build wooden rowboats and then launch them ceremoniously into local lakes and waterways, most notably Fanshawe Lake. I founded S2S in the Winter of 2018 and started building boats with youth in the summer of 2019. We built one boat that year while I was still in the classroom.

Traction was still a little slow in 2020, with just two boat-building summer workshops, but then I was still teaching construction full-time in a high school, and we had also plunged into a pandemic. My third career officially got underway in 2021 when I left the school board and began building boats with youth full-time, year-round. We registered eight workshops that year.

We have been pleasantly overwhelmed with 18 week-long workshops planned so far this season and much more interest shown. Our main product is building a twelve-foot rowboat with hand-carved oars. However, we are now diversifying with other products, such as Muskoka Chairs, toolboxes, Charcuterie Boards and any other wooden products our hosts request their clients create.

Our business relies on the fact that we are completely mobile, running out of the back of a 20-foot cargo trailer, which doubles as our workshop. This allows us to set up outside at any location in Southwestern Ontario, removing the hurdle of transportation for our participants. All workshops are free to the participants, relying on sponsorship dollars from the host organizations and donations from the greater community. At this point, we have no paid employees, as the sponsoring organizations happily provide plenty of volunteers to help on-site.

What are the lessons your business learned from the covid-19 pandemic?

The pandemic has been tough on so many members of our community. Everyone was quarantining out of necessity or by choice. We soon realized that so many youths were struggling while stuck inside their homes, wasting time on their screens. We learned that people really do want to get outside, socialize with others, work with their hands, ditch their screens, be creative, work together as a team, pick up new skills, enjoy nature, play on the water, and become involved in activities that are somewhat structured but still have so much freedom built in. Our workshops take place outdoors, so we were able to adapt our workshops with a great amount of social distancing. And then, we were able to capitalize on the easing of restrictions once things started to loosen up this year.

What services/programs have you utilized at the London Small Business Centre and how have they helped your business?

I have utilized many programs and services at the SBC. Starting and running a small business can be a daunting and overwhelming venture. The SBC takes a lot of the guesswork out of the equation by answering questions beforehand, rather than relying on the trial-and-error approach. Utilizing these services gave me the confidence to jump right in and get started rather than delaying our opening while running around town searching for information. Some of the services/programs I have utilized include: Business Planning Guide Workshop, Starting a Small Business, Income Tax for Small Businesses, Advisory Assistance (access to resources and other information), Recommendations to Professional Services (legal advice), and the Scale-Up grant program which helped us purchase our cargo trailer.

What led you to start this business?

I have worked very hard to get to where I’m at, but I also recognize that I have had a somewhat privileged upbringing. I could not have achieved my success without the support of so many others along the way. Having taught in the secondary school classroom for almost three decades, I saw first-hand what it’s like for those less fortunate – the marginalized, minorities, and newcomers. I now have the ability to give back to our community in appreciation for the support I have enjoyed in London. The school board is drowning in red tape through no fault of its own. Moving outside that system allowed me greater opportunities to help those most need it. I have three main loves: woodworking, boatbuilding and working with youth. I realized I could combine all three passions and do much more for our youth by starting my own business.

What were some of the challenges you faced getting started, and how did you overcome them?

The biggest challenge was jumping in with both feet as an unknown in the community and finding organizations willing to put their trust in me to work with the youth in their care. I worked hard to find a high-profile organization in the mental health field and convinced them to take a chance. Once we had worked successfully with the first organization, it became much easier to land new work. The testimonials worked magic.

The next biggest challenge was finding liability insurance to cover our workshops. Our premiums were higher than our revenue in the first year. Now that we have entered our fourth-year incident-free, finding reasonable premiums has become much simpler and at a fraction of the cost.

What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received and why?

I recall spending many weekends at the home of a relative several years back, agonizing over the perfect business name and the perfect website to use, continually delaying the business launch. This relative finally had enough of my procrastination and said, “Just Do It!” Better to do something imperfectly than do nothing perfectly. Done is better than perfect. That afternoon I launched Stem2Stern.

What’s in the future for your business?

We plan to diversify the business beyond the hands-on workshops we provide to the community by opening a concession stand on the main site of our workshops in the city centre. The concession stand will be on the water’s edge, along a bike path, and near the home base of the local Rowing Club. The snack bar will provide employment opportunities for our newcomers, providing even more transferrable job skills. It will also be a secondary source of revenue for the sponsorship of upcoming workshops. And it will serve as an information centre to help educate the public about the good work we do with those less fortunate. We also hope to put a second crew on the road to allow us to run more than one workshop each week, therefore servicing more than one organization at a time. We were disappointed this year having to turn away some organizations as we had filled all our time slots throughout the summer.

Learn more about Stem2Stern

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