Change has many faces. And changing a lifestyle, especially if you are establishing or re-locating a business, demands serious consideration. Muskoka itself is undergoing rapid change these days, as technology breaks down the old barriers that kept commercial enterprise chained to the cities. Young people are increasingly drawn to the district because of its lower housing costs, scenic topography, and community cohesion, which outweigh any concerns about leaving city culture, switching schools, or moving away from friends and family. Here are the stories of four enthusiastic entrepreneurs who recently made the move to Muskoka.
Meet Sheena, Lee, Kelly, and Katherine
Building upon her years of expertise in the Canadian fashion industry, Sheena created a platform to encourage others to connect fashion brands and retailers with leading product innovations. ‘MSH District’, a fashion start-up accelerator, has a three-step process dedicated, in Sheena’s words, to ‘Making Sh*t Happen”. With guidance from industry leaders and their 'designed-to-sell program', clients build, test, and launch new innovations to market with financial support from the organization.
A graduate of Humber College’s Film & TV Production program, Lee established his own videography company in 2002. He later partnered with a strategic planning firm to form ‘Big Red Oak Inc.’, a video and content agency meeting the corporate storytelling needs of clientele in a range of industries. Enabled by Muskoka’s high-speed connectivity, Lee purchased a lakeside property in the Lake of Bays region this year, allowing him to straddle operations between his office in Toronto’s Leslieville district and his northern retreat.
Kelly is a born organizer who takes pride in helping people to maximize their potential. Her business, ‘RS Muskoka’, is a perfect match for her skill set. Together with her husband, Morgan, Kelly provides design, building, and project management to meet the diverse needs of clients on Lake Muskoka’s shorelines, islands, or nearby towns. From new builds to renovations, design projects to commercial developments, Kelly and the team ease the process of planning, design, build, furnishing, project management and billing, assuring quality work within the budget.
A serial entrepreneur and angel investor, Katherine's first venture-backed startup, ‘ShopLocket’, was acquired in 2014 by a global manufacturing and design company. Katherine then introduced ‘Female Funders’, an online education platform to support other women getting into start-up investing, which was acquired by Highline Beta in 2017. She has now founded a new business in Muskoka, ‘Sheerly Genius’, which has developed the world’s first pair of rip-proof, snag-proof pantyhose.
Their Roots and Motivations
Sheena and her husband moved to Huntsville, in the northern part of Muskoka, in July of 2016. Both born and raised in Toronto, they had a love for Muskoka that continually drew them here. They realized that they would still be connected to Toronto through family, friends and business relationships; and, when their son was just a year old, they felt that the time was right. “As cottagers, we always knew we wanted to live in Muskoka,” Sheena explained. “Living the ultimate lifestyle is what matters most to us.”
Lee grew up on a three-acre wooded property outside of the town of Bracebridge. With limited television reception or access to town amenities, Mother Nature was his source of recreation; and he and his sister spent their free time exploring the forests, hiking or snowshoeing the trails, and paddling the rivers. After college, he worked as a sound editor before incorporating his own business. He and his wife, Laurie, live in Toronto’s Beach neighbourhood with their two daughters, Ruby and Alice, who share his love of the outdoors: their five acres near the Limberlost Forest Reserve is a natural fit for their tastes.
Raised in a small community near Owen Sound, Kelly has lived in British Columbia, Europe, and New York, settling in Toronto in 2011. With a strong background in finance and a finely tuned entrepreneurial spirit, Kelly first developed a home styling company, then an online e-commerce furniture business. She and her husband both craved a change from the city; and, with roots as a cottager on a Lake Muskoka island, Kelly had always felt an affinity for this region. The couple started up their new business in 2015 and took it to Gravenhurst, Muskoka’s southernmost town.
As Toronto residents, Katherine and her husband wanted to explore local cottage life, and rented an island cottage in Muskoka. Motivated by the positive experience, they purchased a home just outside of Port Carling in 2016. It was originally envisioned as a vacation property; but serendipity stepped in, and Katherine found herself between careers and spent a winter up north weighing her options. “We are both entrepreneurs,” Katherine said, “and we had the freedom to control where we work.” By the spring, encouraged by the good internet and cell reception, they decided to commit to full-time living in Muskoka. They appreciate the proximity to water, the space for their dogs to play, and the culture – although they maintain a small Toronto place to accommodate meetings.
Conducting Business in Muskoka
Sheena’s business was founded in April of 2015, with a virtual office and a team in New York, Calgary, and Toronto; and she is accustomed to working with clients around the world. “Muskoka is good for me,” she said, “because it lets me unplug from the grind, and I can perform at my optimum capacity.” Sheena feels that the more relaxed pace with fewer distractions helps her to work better and faster than in the city; and she is not surprised that her advisors, investors, and partners are thrilled to come to Muskoka on a regular basis.
Lee frequently travels to film on location for his corporate clients, often editing footage from a motel room or taking phone calls on the road; and Muskoka’s advancements in high-speed connectivity opened up the door to a new lifestyle. With his wife’s career as a teacher, Lee anticipates that they will spend much of the summertime at their Limberlost property. “I can access the Internet, communicate with my clients and team members, and do my video editing here,” Lee said, “but I can also take a quick break to cycle the trails or paddle the lake.”
Kelly is particularly pleased with the micro-local aspects of the new operation, contrasting with the global reach of her previous businesses. “We only service Lake Muskoka and the towns that surround it,” she explained, stressing the need to understand the diverse characters of the towns in Muskoka and make the professional connections that matter within their area. “I actually find it insanely important to be here,” she said. Technology also plays a large role in their business, facilitating effective communication with clients through shared online portals.
With funding support from Toronto investors, Katherine is opening headquarters in downtown Port Carling this year as the base for all the research and development for ‘Sheerly Genius’. An added bonus to running business in Muskoka is its eligibility to a number of incentive programs and grants that aren’t available in the city; and she believes that Muskoka will develop into a hub for more niche manufacturers like herself. Katherine was gratified to discover another unexpected perk of Muskoka living: “We’ve actually become closer to our city friends since moving here,” she noted. “We can enjoy a visit for several days instead of just a couple of hours over dinner.”
Connecting with the Community
The people who live and work in Muskoka value its spirit and the growing business support eco-system. Sheena describes Huntsville’s Chamber of Commerce as a powerful group of young companies with big vision; and she has also collaborated with Muskoka Futures, a community futures development organization, to inspire innovation and new realms of thinking
to grow business in Muskoka. Lee and Laurie have welcomed the chance to meet and mingle with new friends in the local lake association, who also give them recommendations for local contractors and service providers as they landscape their property and build a home. Kelly is keenly aware of the shifting demographics in Muskoka and wants to attract more like minds to her community. She is deeply involved with several organizations, including Board membership on the Gravenhurst Chamber of Commerce and a mentorship role in Muskoka Futures’ programs. Katherine also joined the Board at Muskoka Futures shortly after moving to Muskoka. “This has helped me meet some amazing people in the business community,” she said, “and it really smoothed my transition to working outside of Toronto.”
There is no doubt that making a move to a new community can seem daunting … but these four people encourage others to follow their lead. “You, too, can move our business, grow your business, launch a new business while living in this beautiful community,” is Sheena’s advice. Kelly echoes her conviction: “When you’re in Muskoka, every idea, every opportunity, and every step you make impacts people; and it’s amazing knowing you are an integral part of the community. All the resources are here – great places, great schools, great things to do. Literally, it’s just a matter of saying, ‘I’m interested in doing this’, and the community will help you figure out how to do it.” And Katherine sums it up: “Your best life can start now. Take the plunge!”