A person is building a wooden door outside a house.
Running a business

Kris Harris is heating up

Name: Kris Harris

Location: Squamish, BC

Business: Nootka Saunas

Kris Harris is standing in a yard during a construction of a wooden sauna.

Tell us a little bit about your business.

We're a sauna manufacturer in the Pacific Northwest in Canada. We manufacture everything here mainly using western red cedar — that beautiful smelling, aesthetically pleasing wood — and mainly producing barrel shaped saunas. Saunas that can go in people's backyards quite easily. We sell them with delivery and installation options across North America. 

It started in 2019 and has grown pretty organically over the past four years. It basically started as myself in my backyard in Whistler, and then we grew and built a team out. I brought on a partner early on. Yeah. So that's our company! 

How did you get started and what gave you this idea?

I grew up using saunas quite a bit. It was a part of our family and social pastime, but just something we did a lot and that stuck with me. I started building a couple saunas for my own use and then from there the demand was pretty organic. People saw them on social media, started asking if we could build some for them and then grew it from there. I typically end up using my own sauna for social gatherings, after workouts, that type of thing. And it's been cool to see that North America is definitely adopting sauna culture quite quickly. My background is in mechanical engineering, so I do like building things. That's kind of second to the main goal of the business, but definitely a nice complementary skill set for this.

Why build your own sauna as opposed to going out and finding someone to do it for you? What made you want to make it yourself?

That's a good question. I think the inner engineer wanted to be very specific with how it was built and how it was designed and to have something that was of the quality that I wanted to sit in. And obviously when you're in the sauna, you're just sitting there not on your phone or anything and you're looking around, you see if there's any imperfections or poor quality or craftsmanship. So I think I'm pretty particular in that sense, and I knew what I wanted to see.

What’s the strangest sauna request you’ve ever gotten?

We've built them on rooftops of apartments and things like that. We've flown them under helicopters up mountains. We did a video campaign for a beer company that was launching so we flew and assembled a sauna at the top of a mountain, backcountry skied for a day, and then had the sauna ready to go at the end of the day for the commercial shoot. That was a really fun project. We went up with a few Olympic skiers.

How do you tackle the less fun stuff about being a business owner? The non-sauna things?

We were using QuickBooks from day one. I've had a number of companies before this and early on I've made the mistake of, "I'm going to manage this in a spreadsheet." And then when you go to reconcile things and do your taxes, it's an absolute mess. So even when I didn't know what the scale the company would grow to, I did know that I wanted to have clean books. So I set up a QuickBooks account from day one. And then as we've grown, we've added more and more services like Payroll. The simplicity of the online component is attractive for us versus a desktop solution. I also have some other entrepreneurial friends that use it. So it seemed like an obvious choice. It’s very simple.

There's a lot of repetitive tasks in running the business from a bookkeeping perspective. We use Zapier to automate and have the e-commerce part of our business talk to the QuickBooks side of the business, streamline some of the invoicing and estimating, things like that. So it really just makes it as quick as possible for reconciling things. We also accept payments through QuickBooks. That helped a lot, especially as we started shipping into further markets where we're not located, where we can now accept credit card payments pretty easily through the invoice. That's a nice feature.

Owning a business with employees is its own challenge. What is running payroll like?

So we have a production team in the workshop. They work 8:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. Monday to Friday, and everyone punches in and punches out using the payroll feature in QuickBooks. And it's been fantastic automating that, keeping everyone honest and being able to track who's in the shop when. And then even if I'm not on the location, I can see how we're doing and if everyone's made it into the shop.

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How does owning your own business feel?

I don't think there's really another option for me. I haven't really had a traditional job to date. I love it. Every day brings all sorts of different problems you're trying to solve. I love dealing with customers. I love working in manufacturing and R&D. We're lucky in that we have a great team. They’re very energetic and excited employees that are really driven by what we're producing.

Was there anything you didn't know about running a business that you needed to learn or teach yourself?

Lots. Yeah. This is the first business I've had with a number of employees in it. So figuring out  HR and payroll has been a learning process in itself. As you grow, you hit new challenges. You can fly under the radar for a certain amount of time when you're small enough, but then as you get bigger, you need more space and there's more paperwork and more things to consider as you move into new markets.

What’s the biggest lesson you've learned about managing people?

It's been interesting to see that a company's culture gets created whether you're a part of creating a culture or not. So we've made a conscious effort to create a positive work environment rather than standing by and letting it just naturally come out. And that's been very effective. We have a pretty good system in terms of monthly town halls and engaging our employees, seeing where there's room for improvement, and making sure we're moving forward and pulling in the same direction.

A person standing in front of a mirror taking a picture of himself.

What is the most fulfilling part of running this business?

For this particular business, I love that we actually produce a tangible product that is in the health and wellness space and is good for people and has a positive impact on people's days and lives. There's a lot that's coming out in the way of peer-reviewed medical studies on saunas increasing people's lifespan — being able to produce something that people use not just for the first few months after purchasing it, but we hear from customers years down the road who are still in their sauna five, six days a week. That's something that sticks with me and means a lot obviously.

What advice do you have for someone thinking of starting their own business? 

I don't know if it's a responsible thing for me to try to tell everyone to be a business owner. I think it might not be the best arrangement for some people. As I said earlier, I didn't really have another option. It wasn't like I ever entertained working for a company. It just wasn't in my nature. I don't know why that is. I guess the one thing that I would say for sure is the earlier you start, the less you risk. So I've spoken to some high school students, university students. At that point, if you're starting before you locked yourself in or committed to mortgages and vehicle payments and things like that, the risk of failure isn't as severe and you also start to learn earlier. So I think if you're serious about it, the earlier you start, the better.

How  do you do business differently? What sets you apart from other businesses that do a similar thing?

We're not the only ones that do this — it's almost like a new wave of businesses that are doing this. We’re really putting the customer first. We will go above and beyond wherever we can to satisfy a customer. The entire first year, I was losing money on every sauna and going back and doing a ridiculous amount of callbacks just to figure out how we needed to develop the product properly. We still serve those first few saunas that I built, even though we changed things a lot since then. But that has ended up being huge for us. It has served as its own form of marketing where we end up getting a lot of word of mouth and referrals. 

What does success look like to you? And has that changed as your business has grown?

Success is basically helping North America really adopt sauna culture. When you look at other countries, whether it's Finland, Japan, or parts of South America, a lot of cultures have this hot/cold therapy routine and it's a very important part of their life. It was in corners of the North American market, but now it's become a lot more mainstream. So for us, it's just getting out there as much as possible and helping it become a mainstream activity for people.

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