Neechie Gear CEO Kendal Netmaker, Sweetgrass First Nation, has a winner's approach to life. At 26, he holds two degrees from the University of Saskatchewan, heads a company that has grown 450 percent since its founding in 2011 and now boasts five employees, is the winner of several awards and competitions, most recently National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development's Twenty Grand Business Plan Competition, and with his wife is expecting their second child. Maybe it's his sports background.
Raised by a single mom on the Sweetgrass Reserve in Saskatchewan, Netmaker loved playground sports, but could not participate in organized sports because the fees were too high and transportation to practices and games impossible, as a fifth-grade classmate from South Africa found out when he asked why his friend was not on the classmate's soccer team.
"The next day he tells me that his parents want to pay my fees and from that day forward they helped me out by enabling me to play soccer for the first time," says Netmaker. "It was pretty amazing and it set [in motion] a whole [series of] life-changing events for me," including a volleyball scholarship that allowed him to take classes for two years at Keyano College in Alberta.
In 2007, he transferred to the University of Saskatchewan and completed two university degrees," a B.Ed. in Social Studies/English and a B.A. in Native Studies, graduating in 2011.
The generosity of his friend's parents, says Netmaker, provided an opportunity that "inspired my spirit and filled my heart with courage." He decided to try to find a way to offer that same opportunity to other kids. "In my last year of university I had this idea to create a clothing company that helps kids the way that I was helped from that one kid from South Africa who really changed my life."
Despite carrying a full university course load and having absolutely no business experience, Netmaker set out to become an entrepreneur. He entered a business competition that required him to write a business plan for the first time. "It was really a lot of work and I had to pick people's brains in the business community. After a couple of months I had a business plan finished…which I still think to this day wasn't great at all…but I had something done."
The contest was sponsored by the Brett Wilson Entrepreneurial Center for Excellence, established by entrepreneur and philanthropist W. Brett Wilson in 2007 at his alma mater, the University of Saskatchewan. The competition, CBC's Dragons' Den, was essentially Canada's version of America's TV show Shark Tank.
Netmaker came away a finalist with $10,000 in prize money and in-kind services and Neechie Gear (the name comes from the Cree/Ojibway word "nichewakan," which means "friend") was suddenly a reality. He created the NG logo in Photoshop and designed the company's first clothing himself. The line now includes hoodies, sweat pants, hats and tees for men and women and for children a tee and a onesie. Netmaker has graduated to contracting with various designers throughout North America. The manufacturing component of the company also stays in North America. "A lot of our manufacturing is done in Mexico, and almost almost 100 percent of our stuff printed locally, here in Saskatoon."
Netmaker says, "We started from a one-bedroom apartment where my fiancée and I were raising our one-year-old son. It was very crowded—boxes in my living room, a little office in the corner.
And then we had a big break in a local mall—we got a kiosk rent-free for three months to test market our product. Our first couple of weeks we almost sold out of our stuff and our numbers were overwhelming. So after those three months the mall … offered us a small store."
In addition to that first store at The Centre on Circle and Eighth in Saskatoon, Neechie Gear now has a store in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, about an hour and 20 minutes north of Saskatoon, an online component and the wholesale business that extends throughout Western Canada.
Pat Parker, one of judges for NCAIED's business plan competition, is a board member of the organization and president and CEO of Native woman-owned Native American Management Services, a collaborative venture with her sister. Parker
says that what made Netmaker's submission stand out was his realistic financials. "He included a balance sheet, cash flow and even current 2013 financials, as well as passion. Business owners are their own marketers, so how he presented himself was also important. That, and a heartwarming story—it's a winner."
Neechie Gear is a business created to fulfill a mission and it has been a boon to the community right from the beginning. At first, the company distributed a portion of its proceeds directly to kids' organizations through its non-profit arm, NG Athletics Club Inc. "We had our own little funding account set up and we would just distribute based on who needed our help." A few weeks ago, Netmaker partnered with Kidsport!™ in order to reach more children. The company donates 5 percent of net sales to the organization and continues to support local sports clubs, while also providing grants to Native American college students.
And for the future, says Netmaker, "Well, obviously, growth's always fun, very difficult though. I think our online strategy's going to be the next big thing for us. We're creating a new website. Hopefully before Christmas it will be launched, and we'll go from there." The website is www.neechiegear.com.