There is no doubt that Alberta is hurting right now: unemployment in the province is sitting at 8.3 per cent. The number of laid-off energy workers sits in the realm of many thousands, with no reprieve on the horizon. Indeed, small businesses and startups seem to be in for a bumpy ride as the province experiences an upheaval that hasn’t been seen in decades.
But, Albertans are a tough and resilient type and no story of triumph happens overnight, especially in the turbulent world of business. For every victory, there are a multitude of failures. For every dollar earned, there have been dollars spent. For every step taken on the rocky road to success, there too have been stumbles.
It is in this spirit of resiliency and hard-work that the Rocky Roads project was born. A startup in itself, the focus of Rocky Roads is to tell the story of small businesses and new entrepreneurs in Southern Alberta as they follow their dreams, and make the journey from small startup to success. In this chapter of Rocky Roads, the team met with the founders of two startups that serve two very different industries.
Red Iron Labs
Rosalinda Hernandez and Lloyd Summers, the co-founders of Red Iron Labs, a Calgary-based virtual reality video game studio, aims to scare the pants off of players by tapping into their fears of being abducted by aliens, as well as the fear of the unknown. Before they started their gaming company, Summers developed mobile apps and games while Hernandez worked in communications for the United Nations Association in Canada - Calgary Branch. Founded in January 2016, the main focus of Red Iron Labs is to create games with compelling stories that are steeped in dark themes ranging from apocalyptic stories, the unknown, and tales of the paranormal.
“Action is great, and horror is great but we’re actually more into the story side,” Summers says. “We went for a story driven dark experience [that is] as immersive as we can [make it].”
Hernandez and Summers’ current project is a game series called “Abduction.” The premise of the game is that aliens have come to Earth and have begun abducting and harvesting humans for reasons unknown. Produced in an episodic fashion, every chapter of Abduction follows a different character and as the player delves deeper into the mystery, a more nefarious secret hell-bent on revenge comes to rear its ugly head.
Summers and Hernandez believe that acknowledging individual diversity in their games is important but pumping their games with gratuitous violence is not the purpose. They have had a lot of support from their fans and have even conducted live-coding sessions that break the barrier between developer and player, so that feedback and ideas are discussed between the two groups. In essence, players have the ability to influence how the game is made in real-time.
“2016 was the year of getting out there,” Hernandez says. “A lot of people played the demo, and we provided people...with the opportunity to provide us with feedback and we actually did take it in and improved from there.”
“We have had a lot of people provide feedback that is positive. They like the game, they like the story aspect of it,” Hernandez finished.
At the time of writing, the first episode of Abduction is currently available for purchase on the Steam store, a digital distributor of PC games. According to Summers and Hernandez, the average time it takes to make one of the episodes varies but usually takes about a year from start to finish. Red Iron Labs is currently working on future episodes of abduction.
To listen to Red Iron Lab's Podcast
Brad and Lindsay Smylie, the co-founders of Raw Distillery, a Canmore-based craft distillery, focuses on using local Alberta grains and botanicals, in addition to fair-trade spices, in order to offer liquor connoisseurs a uniquely Albertan taste. Before diving into Raw Distillery, Brad was raised with a strong entrepreneurial background, with his parents owning an O’Tooles Roadhouse franchise in Ontario and Lindsay working in the medical field. Brad was also a firefighter and ski patroller before working with Raw.
Founded in early 2016, the Smylies dream of setting up a small distillery in the Rocky Mountains has been a long time coming and required an incredible amount of research every step of the way, as well as ensuring that the facility they are currently working in met all of the safety-code requirements which are quite stringent given the fire-hazard potential. According to Brad Smylie, one of the biggest pushes came from changes to provincial legislation in 2014.
“I think the big instigator for us, to be honest, was when the province decided to change the minimum production requirements for breweries and distilleries,” Smylie said.
According to Brad Smylie, prior to the changes in legislation, Raw would not have been able to produce enough spirits and thus would not qualify to receive a license to operate. As soon as those changes were made, the Smylies began to put a business plan together, starting their operations in the heart of the mountains.
At the time of writing, the Smylies have been crafting Raw Vodka, a Canadian whisky, rum, craft beer, and three different types of gin. Of the different offerings produced by Raw, the peppercorn gin seems to be the product that excites the Smylies the most. For the peppercorn gin, the Smylies use Tellicherry Peppercorns grown in the jungles of Kerala, India - one of the only non-Albertan grown products that goes into a Raw Spirit.
“One of the big well-known flavor attributes of rye when it’s distilled or brewed is that you get a taste that is described as peppery,” Brad Smylie explains. “It was a natural move over into peppercorn gin.”
According to Raw Distillery’s Instagram feed, the local liquor depot in Canmore has started selling Raw’s unaged Rye on it’s shelves and the Smylies are hoping to get their products on more shelves across Alberta as soon as they can.
To listen to Raw’s podcast
On the surface, Red Iron Labs and Raw Distillery seem like they are worlds apart, but the similarities shine through as the layers get pulled back. Both start-ups were born out of the pursuit of a dream. Both start-ups found that it was incredibly challenging to actually get off the ground, receive funding, and find a working space where they could turn their dreams into reality. Both startups were co-founded by spouse teams and each couple knows that they would not have been able to make it as far as they have without their partners riding along shotgun.
“You know when you’re working somewhere and you have that go-to person that you can trust?” Summers asked. “That’s who we always are for each other ... there would be no way that I would be doing this company without her help, and vice versa,” he finished.
The rocky road for any business can be a long one. The Rocky Roads project, in partnership with The Calgary Journal, aims to bring these conversation with local entrepreneurs into the limelight.
By sharing these stories from Albertans, to Albertans, we hope to inspire future entrepreneurs, small business owners, and anyone else who hopes to make the journey from small startup, to success.
If you want your business to be featured, or if you simply just want to follow along for more start-ups on the rocky road to success, visit the Rocky Road project’s website.
- By Tatianna Ducklow, Paul McAleer & Tyler Ryan