Dorm rooms aren’t normally high up on the list of dream storefronts, but that’s where Neechie Gear founder Kendal Netmaker found himself operating in his last semester at the University of Saskatchewan. “I had a wireless debit machine, and people would come by at all hours of the day to buy my clothes,” he recalls.
Things are different now: Netmaker’s line of athletic gear has its headquarters in Saskatoon, operates two physical stores and turns a booming profit from online sales. Now 29, Netmaker is a director of the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce and flies across the country giving motivational speeches. But he’ll be the first to say that he couldn’t have gotten where he is today without overcoming some hurdles—many of which make selling shirts out of a dorm room look like child’s play.
Growing up, Netmaker was an athletic kid lacking the resources he needed to participate in sport. “I grew up on the Sweetgrass First Nation reserve, and I came from a low-income single-parent household,” he says. “It wasn’t until Grade five that I got to be on a soccer team, because [the parents of a friend] paid the registration fee and drove me to practice.”
Years later, Netmaker wanted to create an athletic clothing line that would help disadvantaged kids get involved in sport. “I had the idea to create a brand that would give back, but all I had was an idea—no business training whatsoever,” he recalls. He sought out help from his university professors and put together a business plan. After winning two on-campus business competitions and securing some funding, Netmaker started his dorm-room shop, which he later moved to a one-bedroom apartment. In 2012 he made the decision to go “all in,” and another contest win got him a rent-free kiosk in a local mall. “After three months, our products took off, we made $50,000 and I was able to reinvest that money back into our company,” he says. (Five percent of the profits go to funding teams run by a non-profit arm called NG Athletics Club, or to donations to kids’ sporting groups.)
Most recently, Netmaker founded Netmaker Academy, an online program for which he acts as a mentor to young entrepreneurs without formal business training. “I’ve got half a dozen students so far, and on the site I’ve uploaded video modules, old business plans and some worksheets,” he explains. “These students are just lacking confidence and a good mentor. I’ve seen what impact entrepreneurs can have, and I’m trying to grow that throughout Canada.” One of his first pieces of advice? “Invest in a personal brand for your company,” he says. “I’ve become the face of my brand, and every time I get a chance, I’m wearing my stuff. I’m fielding sales everywhere I go.”