Matt & Grace Stelpstra - Ontario Deck Railing

Tell us about yourself

We are a husband-and-wife team building this business together in the last four years. We met while working as missionaries in Perth, Australia. We got married and moved to New Zealand, then to Vancouver, where Matt completed a Master’s in Theological Studies. While there, Grace worked for a small business learning most of the aspects of the business, as she was the only employee. We wouldn’t be running this business together if not for our time & education in Vancouver.  

Matt grew up in North London, so he’s a local. He went to school at Fanshawe College and graduated with a Construction Engineering Diploma. He worked at EllisDon Construction for a few years before heading overseas. He loves mathematics, thinking out of the box, and comes from a family that loves and is skilled in the trades – so this business is perfect for his interests. Matt also dabbled in the business world as a child. 

Grace grew up in Malaysia. She graduated with a Degree in Commerce focused on Management and Marketing, and ran a business as a child selling handmade keychains! She was surrounded by relatives and family friends who were small business owners, but she never envisioned being one herself. She often thinks about improving processes – getting things done efficiently and excellently without compromising the result.

We have a little one who is now being trained to be part of this team since 2020. 

Tell us about your business

Ontario Deck Railing Ltd is a small family-owned business, operational since late 2017. We are located at Bradley and Adelaide (on Newbold St) in London. 

We offer a very simple aluminum and glass railing system design, as we carry only products from one supplier. It simplifies and reduces the costs for inventory and makes it easier for customers to make their decisions. We also source our own Frameless Glass Railings, which has taken off this year – that we are very proud of. All our products are fully engineered and tested to exceed the Ontario Building Code. 

This is our 4th full year in business, and we are so looking forward to hitting our 5th-year mark! They say if you can survive for five years as a small business, then you are on to something, so we are looking forward to seeing how the 5th year will look like for us. 2021 was a huge year for us as we hired our first two employees to help us build on this business and began transitioning out our business partner (and Matt’s Super Dad) Jack as he plans towards his retirement. This year, we can see some fruits of our labour building up our name through excellent customer service in the last few years. We’ve gotten many referrals from our previous clients and feel so much satisfaction from serving our customers well – even if we happen to fail the first time.

Has your business been impacted by COVID-19? 

Initially, we did not know how Covid would impact our railing business. We had to shut our doors for a short period as the government figured out their plan for the province, so we started working from home. Over time, it started looking like our business would be positively impacted by the pandemic as we all realized that we would need to utilize our homes in a different way than we ever did. We are one of the fortunate – we kept busy, and our business grew exponentially during this time. We also had to keep ourselves up to date with the requirements for safely operating a business during the pandemic – it was tricky. One of the things we had to do when we could not open our cozy showroom to the public was offering our homes as the alternative ‘showroom’ as we have both the Aluminum and Glass Railings installed on our porches and decks. We would also leave colour samples in our mailbox so that there would not be any contact between our clients and us.

What services/programs have you utilized at the London Small Business Centre and how have they helped your business? 

We have participated in a few of their free seminars, accessed their Legal and HR Advisors and were part of the Scale-Up Program in 2020. They have been a great resource for us, and Scale-Up was great because we had the opportunity to build our relationship with one of their advisors and some of the program participants. We’ve sent some opportunities to some of the guys we met, and they’ve also given us some recommendations. It is great to get to know other small business owners in the same industry as a new business to build the economy together. Quite importantly for us is the access to affordable Legal advice, which is very helpful when you are a growing business. SBC staff are also always ready to help, whether to advise, guide or give you a resource. 

What led you to start this business? 

This was not something we had planned on at all. It really just fell into our lap, and we took the opportunity and ran with it. When Matt was entering his final year of his Master’s Degree, we were starting to consider what we would do after he finished; whether it would be staying in the Vancouver area long term or moving somewhere different. Matt’s parents had recently added a deck in their backyard. In the process of trying to find the railing that would match the current railing they had on their existing decks, they realized that the railing supplier had pulled out of the area and didn’t have a distributor in Ontario. When Jack told us about this and the idea that there could be an opportunity there, it stirred something in us, and we started a conversation about starting the business together.

What were some of the challenges you faced getting started and how did you overcome them?

Some of our greatest challenges were not necessarily knowing what it meant to run a construction-based business. Matt and Jack were very strong in the technical aspect, and Grace was quite strong in the business aspect, but figuring out how to mesh our knowledge and understanding together was quite a challenge at times. Plus, when you add that we are doing business with family, it adds a whole other level of complexity to it.  

We have overcome the challenges by doing our best to listen and hear each other and have many open discussions. When doing business with partners, communication and trust are important, so we had to learn how to grow in both areas and learn how to work together effectively. 

What is the #1 small business book/blog/website you would recommend?

A very helpful book for us as a team was “The E-Myth” by Michael Gerber. It really helped us understand the different aspects of running a business and the different hats you must wear as a business owner. One of the greatest insights it gave us was the idea that there are three characteristics that a business owner has to have – the technician, the entrepreneur, and the manager – and that we cannot just fully focus on one of them. These can be extremely helpful in a construction-based business because people who start construction businesses tend to be very strong in the technician aspect, but neglect the entrepreneur or manager aspects. Understanding this and seeing how we each fit into the different characteristics helped us learn how to run the business more effectively and use each other’s strengths better.

What advice would you give to an aspiring Entrepreneur today? 

a)     Make time for building relationships, especially with your community. Owning a small business can be overwhelming because you have to cover every base and build on your business. The easiest thing that we can end up giving up on is time with our spouses and children (or, if you’re single, with your family and friends). Over time, this puts a strain on our relationships and well-being, but these are our core people, and you can’t give up on your core support. 

b)     Draw boundaries. This relates to the point above. If you don’t draw a line about how you run your business, your business (or customers) will run you. Right from the get-go, Matt and I decided we would not do the installation on weekends or answer work calls after 6 pm as we knew there would always be customers who would contact us after hours, but those hours are for our family and each other. This has helped us keep our sanity but also has kept our relationship strong.

c)     If you are married to your business partner, no business talk in bed. It can be overwhelming working with your spouse; you can end up talking about business every moment you have together. To stay in love, we try our hardest not to talk business while in bed, but instead to keep that time listening to each other’s day, dreams, or dreams together (which are sometimes, inevitably, business-related, lol). 

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