THIS BUSINESS SPOTLIGHT SHINES ON
Brought to you by this community-minded organization because they recognize that
good business is good for everyone:
A local entrepreneur made it onto Dragon’s Den, and received the full $700,000 ask to further her company’s success.
Kim Aitken, founder and CEO of Aitken Frame Homes with a background in structural engineering, recently appeared on the CBC show to pitch her company’s business model to ask for financial support that would give the company an operating line instead of relying solely on income from various projects, funds to help develop software, and to bring on some partners (Dragons) that understand what the company is trying to do and have the expertise to help them expand globally.
“The purpose was we were reaching into a side of the market we didn’t know much about, which is software development, so we figured early on when we understood the building system we had was going to be a) very high demand and b) really easy for us to enable people across the country to use it, the best way for that to be feasible was to determine a software in support of our system that would give people the tools everywhere to be able to build high efficiency houses at a local level,” said Aitken.
Aitken created the idea for her business after needing to find safe haven at a women’s shelter.
“It was something that more or less happened. It was not something I had in my life plans. I was working as an engineer and my experience with Chrysalis house in Huntsville with secure housing and the story of having to leave my home with my children in the middle of the night and end up in a facility with other women and children, that for a variety of reasons needed to be safe for a bit of time, just really affected me,” said Aitken in a video interview.
“I was really very fortunate and you may think at the time you’re not having the best time of your life but you really look around and realize all of the factors―I did have a house, I had a job, I had a car, I had my own income, my children were happy and healthy and doing well in school―there was no real concerns with individual elements that were happening that were an ongoing problem in my life that was insurmountable on top of not finding accommodation. I guess I didn’t really realize, until I got there, how much of an impact it was having on people that were not as fortunate as I was. I made the assumption I could find a smaller house and cut my expenditure down and carry on. Then when I went out looking and the choices were less than acceptable it all came together, at the same time, to realize there was a serious problem and this was a problem that was affecting everybody, not just people at a certain level in the market.”
Aitken’s brother, Patrick Forde, appeared on Dragon’s Den with her.
“For 4.5 million Canadian households the dream of home ownership has never been further away―rising interest rates, lack of supply and our ever-increasing need to reduce our carbon footprint has resulted in not just a national, but global housing crisis,” Forde told the panel.
Aitken told the panel about her experience with the women’s shelter. “The worst part was there were other people in that facility who were heard to say ‘I’ll never get a house but OHIP is free,’ and they would go back to partners just to have a roof over their heads.”
Aitken Frame Homes is not looking to build cheap houses.
“We’re able to offer a high-efficiency house for less than the cost of a traditional house. We could choose to offer traditional housing at less than the cost of a traditional house―but the efficiency of how we build is unique to the system we have to be able to achieve such high efficiency at such a low cost. It’s very important to me that we don’t become a cheap house, that it’s thrown up and it doesn’t really have a positive effect on people’s quality of life,” she said.
The affordability factor for Aitken is more than just making the down payment.
“The circumstance almost seems to be like a lottery, some people get an inheritance or they come into money somehow but that doesn’t translate to the affordability of maintaining a home,” she said. “The idea with high efficiency is when you’re in a home that the cost of being there on an ongoing basis doesn’t take over your life.”
The company has a patent covering 150 countries.
“Our proprietary build system fuses the floor, the walls and the roof prior to construction allowing us to build houses that are stronger, faster, more efficient and most importantly below market cost,” she told the Dragon panel. “There’s nobody in the market that can physically build homes at code or above standard for the price and the speed and all the factors that we can do it.”
Dragons Vincenzo Guzzo, an entrepreneur who runs multiple companies including Cinemas Guzzo, Le Groupe Guzzo Construction Inc. and a restaurant chain Porchette, and Michele Romanow, an engineer and major investor, signed on as partners investing $700,000 together for 25 per cent equity and a seat at the table.
It was definitely a huge relief, we were super excited. Michelle Romanow was someone we had in mind on the tech side of things, she’s a dynamic millennial entrepreneur―a lot of reasons we felt she would be a really good partner with Aitken Frame Homes―and Vincenzo being in a different part of the country, in Montreal, and his experience in construction. Once it clicked with him what we were doing, the innovation, he was incredibly enthusiastic. The dream team would have been to have Arlene [Dickinson] included in the deal just because of who she is and there was a connection in regards to the story and her experience. We were delighted to have the verbal support from Arlene and Jim Treliving and end up with a deal with two Dragons. You couldn’t have written or scripted it any better than how it actually went.
Kim Aitken, founder, Aitken Frame Homes
Aiken met with producers in March to do the initial pitch, filmed the show in May and it aired Nov. 21.
Since meeting with the Dragons she has moved forward with developing the software, created a storage bank for the initial phase with the drawings and technical support elements to allow people worldwide to access the correct information to build the houses.
“Our model, which we talk a bit about on the show, is not a franchise but a licence agreement,” said Aitken. “In the province of Manitoba we have somebody who’s poised to grow this concept there with a big focus on Indigenous housing in northern Manitoba, which is super exciting because that’s a market we were keen to engage with from the start.”
Aitken Frame Homes has received a huge response across the country since appearing on Dragon’s Den.
“There’s been a ton of requests to get people trained up and operational in every other province in Canada, including the Northwest Territories, which is exciting because we weren’t sure how much demand we were going to get from the far north. At the moment we have somebody in Ireland who’s been working since February to translate the process into a design that suits that market. We will be starting a build there in the spring. Early on we got some government support, we went through a trade accelerator program, which I would recommend to anybody, where we looked at what the export options were for our system. We identified countries that have a lot of similarities to the Canadian market and trade agreements.”
Aitken started the company just over a year ago. “We’ve had an incredible impact and, up to the Dragon’s Den exposure, we followed a very organic path. We’ve been given golden tickets, it feels like, to just step into a market because there is such a need and it’s a universal problem.”
From her experience, Aitken encourages others who may be struggling to look for a way out.
“The key points are for those who feel like they’re stuck or it seems like there’s not ever going to be a point in which things are going to change, I remember that feeling from my scenario before leaving my situation, you just have to keep hope, focus and look at solutions and don’t be shy to preemptively have a conversation. Even if it’s just to understand the way in which things can change, whether it takes two years or 10 years. There’s definitely a lot of good going on; don’t lose sight of that.”