Destination Unknown

Shane Wamboldt proudly shows off a 42-inch television hanging on his living room wall. From the sofa in the Dartmouth home that serves as both his company’s showroom and head office, Wamboldt reaches for the remote. Instead of a sports game or home improvement show, options for lighting, temperature control and music come into view. With the touch of a couple of buttons, jazz begins to play in the background and lights are turned on in another room. Wamboldt, co-owner of a three-year-old smart home technology business called uberHome, puts the remote down.

“Technology can be seamlessly integrated into everyday life. That’s what our business is all about,” says the 40-year old entrepreneur. Fittingly, seamless integration is also what Wamboldt’s career path has been all about. “When I started making decisions about university programs, owning my own business didn’t make the list,” he says. “I began my career in public relations.”

Ironically, it was Wamboldt’s first career that sowed the seeds for uberHome. “I was working in public relations at the QEII (Queen Elizabeth Health Sciences Centre) in Halifax when I came across a magazine article. The message was that if you could speak the language of humans and computers, you could write your own ticket for the future. With a PR degree, I felt good about the human part,” he says with a laugh. “With an aptitude for computers and an interest in technology, I enrolled in a masters program in information technology education at Dalhousie (University).”

After graduating, Wamboldt and his wife Suzanne, uberHome’s other owner, moved to Florida where they spent close to five years. “The opportunities in the U.S. during the dot-com bubble were numerous,” he says. “I started out teaching Oracle data bases at American Intercontinental University, then moved into a position as a systems analyst and then became manager of training and development for a private company. But, eventually, the bubble burst.”

That burst, combined with the couple’s desire to return home, led the pair back to Nova Scotia. “We moved to Dartmouth but I kept working for the same company for another three years. They were fine with me continuing the role from a distance but I left because the position was no longer fulfilling,” says Wamboldt. “I considered returning to public relations but the positions available at the time required lots of direct experience. I had been out of the country building my resume in other capacities so I didn’t have the experience they were looking for.”

Undecided about his next move, he decided to spend the summer at home with the couple’s two children (they have three now). “I took the opportunity to spend more time with my kids, which was great. But,” he adds with a laugh, “the experience was also an important catalyst to figure out my next step.”

That next step led to Markham, Ontario. After completing a three-week program through the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association, Wamboldt became a certified home systems installer and worked in the industry for a brief period. “The company I was working for wasn’t headed in a direction that was of interest to me and I saw a gap in the market that I thought I could fill. Striking out on my own was the only option.”

The decision to open the doors of uberHome without direct business experience can be characterized as exciting, brave, risky and, for some, even foolhardy. However, according to Ellen Farrell, associate professor in Entrepreneurship and Venture Development with the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University, non-linear career paths for business owners are not that unusual. “Regardless of a commerce background, people with a passion in a certain industry often start businesses which draw on skills from past experiences,” says Farrell, who earned her Ph.D. in management and finance at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom.

“In all of the positions we’ve both had, we’ve looked for opportunities to take on more responsibility and to learn new skills,” says Suzanne Wamboldt, who is responsible for business development at uberHome. “Living in another country, working with a variety of people, and gaining skills in new areas have really helped prepare us for the evolution in our careers,” she adds.

In fact, the 37-year-old former physiotherapist says that her past experiences have been vital to her current role. “Physiotherapy can be really dependent on referrals. In the U.S., I had the opportunity to be responsible for marketing our clinic to physicians, anticipating questions, and meeting with a variety of people,” she says. “I’ve learned that every experience counts, even if it’s not immediately obvious.”

That’s a lesson Truro-based entrepreneur Ron McLeod says he’s learned as well. After working in the restaurant industry for close to a decade, McLeod, who has a business degree, decided he needed a change. “I spent lots of years buying, selling, and managing a bar and two Greco Pizza restaurant franchises at various points, but I was ready for more,” says McLeod.

In 2001, the Acadia University graduate found the change he wanted and, without prior involvement in the traffic safety industry, purchased Colchester Security and Road Safety. “They were providing temporary workplaces on streets and highways for clients in the construction and utility industries. I could see the potential for increased demand in that sector. I did my due diligence and made the decision to move in this direction without really worrying too much about a lack of knowledge about the industry. I felt I had lots of great experience to draw upon.”

Today, McLeod says it’s an investment he’s glad he made. “Revenue has increased to five times where it was when I bought the company. We’ve grown from a staff of 12 to close to 50 and we won our first Nova Scotia Construction Safety award in May. You need good people to help achieve that sort of growth. I learned a lot about that from my time in the restaurant business.”

The ability to recognize what a company needs at various points in its development is one that Ellen Farrell says is absolutely vital – regardless of how or where that skill is acquired. “Many entrepreneurs have trouble evolving from a hands-on role in a business they have spent years building to a role where managerial oversight becomes the focus,” she adds. “It’s crucial to understand your company’s needs and to be able to deliver on those needs.”

Initially located in the back of Shane Wamboldt’s Honda Element, uberHome is now on solid ground – literally and figuratively. In just three years, the company has received numerous awards (for business ethics, community service and marketing excellence), created enough business to employ a handful of staff; and grown its gross revenue from less than $100,000 in the first year of operation to well over half a million in 2009. In 2010, the company’s projected income is expected to reach the million-dollar mark.

“Eventually, we’d like to build the business to the point where we can be less involved with the day-to-day operations and move into a role of oversight,” adds Wamboldt. “The idea of returning to teaching at some point down the road is of definite interest to me.”

Regardless of Shane Wamboldt’s next career move, it will no doubt occur with seamless integration.

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