Below is our Q&A interview with Latreille to learn more about his company and seek his advice for other Canadian small business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs:
Zensurance: Tell us about Malartic Design + Builds. What do you do?
Hugo Latreille: When I first started, I wanted to be the IKEA of custom homes – and I don’t mean that in a bad way; often, IKEA gets a bad name. IKEA was able to produce furniture inspired by high-end contemporary design at a much lower price point. We wanted to do the same – use our training in architecture to create homes that were high-end designed without the price tag of a high-end custom house.
At work, I saw that custom homes being built had so much fluff in the budget and were expensive that contractors carried so many more contingencies and extra fees to protect themselves and set budget expectations.
Clients in that realm also want the best of the best and that leads to a lot of creep in the budget, which makes these homes very expensive. When I first built my place, I thought, “We can keep it lean and operate as if we’re almost a track builder.” That is, keeping things affordable and using my skills to make good design choices without using expensive materials.
The house I’m currently working on and our previous builds – I designed these with my girlfriend, Izza Lapalice; she also has an architectural background – we mock these buildings up in 3-D, and we go through the entire plan; it’s usually a lengthy process. For the house we’re currently building, I act as a contractor, project manager, and designer – that’s where the build side comes in. We wear a lot of hats, but we can construct what we design.
Zensurance: What inspired you to become an architectural designer? What or who then inspired you to strike out on your own and start a small business?
Hugo Latreille: With architecture, I feel like it’s just LEGO. My mom was a visual artist, and my dad was a computer programmer. Somehow, I was a mix of both. But I was fascinated with LEGO when I was younger.
Through my teenage years, I got into 3-D design by creating maps for video games I was playing. I was passionate about that. When it came time to choose a profession, architecture just made sense. I didn’t know a lot about it, but when I got into it, I really loved it. I ended up focusing on the design-oriented side instead of the technical side.
What inspired me to leave my job was seeing many of our clients and young developers taking risks and building homes. A lot of the work I did getting things approved by the city with its zoning laws and so on gave me a different lens to look through. Because some friends bought property and wanted to build, I thought it would be a terrific opportunity to try my skills out and see how it went.
Zensurance: Do you still play with LEGO?
Hugo Latreille: No, unfortunately not (laughs). I think my parents still have my LEGO sets, but it’s been a while since I opened one of those boxes.
Zensurance: Did you work with a business mentor in the early going to get your business started?
Hugo Latreille: Not necessarily in this business, but in architecture; I worked for Hobin Architecture, a prominent firm in Ottawa. The owner and principal of that firm, Barry Hobin, is a well-known architect. He was always a great mentor for me. I was helping him out with various small projects of a scale we’re working on now, and he mentored me by showing me all about the business and making me believe that this is possible because he’s done it. He always shared his knowledge with me.
Zensurance: Do you hire subcontractors or have employees who help you build homes?
Hugo Latreille: Currently, it’s just me and Izza. But we hire all the trades, which are guys I grew up with who ended up becoming tradespeople, and they run their own successful businesses. Through the office (of Hobin Architecture), I made a lot of connections with a variety of tradespeople who could work with me or refer me to people who could help.
Zensurance: How many homes do you build annually, and what is your goal?
Hugo Latreille: That’s a difficult question. Realistically, we can do two or three homes per year while the business is small. We’ll see how the business evolves.
Zensurance: You focus on designing and building homes that are eco-friendly and affordable to own. How do you balance constructing an eco-friendly abode and ensuring its affordability?
Hugo Latreille: The ecological stuff is not necessarily much more expensive. It’s just that trades are reluctant to use some of the newer products. Generally, tradespeople prefer to work with stuff that they know. So, there’s an education component on our part to show them the details and show it’s not that much more difficult to make houses airtight, for example.
We’re not going to an ecological standard like that of a passive house that requires construction methods that are so much more complicated. Instead, we concentrate on things like airtightness, where you lose a lot of energy. We’re using heat pumps for a home’s heating system that are much more efficient than conventional gas-powered furnaces. It’s a matter of applying the principles without spending much more money.
For our clients, the affordable aspect is we run a lean operation. We’re not a big contractor with a ton of overhead. So, we can subcontract and still profit while running the business and not charge an arm and a leg to clients looking for affordable homes. That’s not to say these are cheap homes, but it’s more affordable to build your own home than to buy something a big developer makes a large profit off of.
Zensurance: Who do you sell your homes to, and how does that process work?
Hugo Latreille: Currently, it’s through word-of-mouth with our friends, who are all professionals. They see what we’re doing and how the homes are successful. We don’t have a huge portfolio under our belt. We’re building our third big project at the moment. For now, we’re helping the people in our circle to give them a custom home and work with them to build it without spending an arm and a leg.
Zensurance: Your website is still under development, but you’ve got an impressive YouTube channel and presence. Why did you prioritize YouTube over a website?
Hugo Latreille: I enjoy watching YouTube content. When I embarked on building our house, I watched a ton of construction videos and saw a lack of good videography content paired with construction. A lot of other industries that I also follow on YouTube have excellent content as far as quality of video and being entertaining. I didn’t think that was the case in the construction space. I don’t think I’ve achieved that yet with my YouTube channel, but it’s something I strive for: bringing better videography and being more entertaining than a lot of other stuff out there.
It (the Hugo Builds YouTube channel) also started as an experiment to document our first build. We did it for ourselves, not to start a business. We thought we could save a lot of money by building our own home, and it’d be fun to see if I could put it out there (on YouTube), and it was generally well-received. Of course, some of the earlier videos were rougher, but as we progressed, it got better. I wanted to use YouTube to speak to other people like me.
Zensurance: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced starting Malartic Design + Builds, and how did you overcome those challenges?
Hugo Latreille: I don’t know if we’ve overcome any of them yet. Finding new clients is always a big one. As we develop our portfolio, I hope to keep spreading the word. Of course, there are always challenges in starting a small business. There’s a significant amount of bureaucracy, like setting up accounting and a business bank account, and getting incorporated; I found a lot of it complicated in the beginning. Just getting the word out there about the business is the biggest challenge. I don’t doubt there’ll be more challenges down the road. But keeping my clients happy and ensuring we stay on budget when building a house is the driving factor of success.
Zensurance: How did you hear of the Zensurance Small Business Grant, and why did you apply for it?
Hugo Latreille: I learned about it through the Zensurance newsletter email. As a project manager, I needed some liability insurance. I did some research and subscribed to your email list. When I saw the promotion for it, I thought I might as well apply. To be honest, I didn’t think I had a chance of winning. It was a tremendous surprise when I was contacted and told I was shortlisted.
Zensurance: What do you intend to do with the $10,000 grant you receive from Zensurance?
Hugo Latreille: A lot of the prize money will go toward expenses to set everything up, like getting a website and business cards. Ultimately, all of the money will be re-invested in the business because we don’t have a huge operating budget, so we’ll use it to get additional tools we need. Although I use subcontractors, I am very hands-on, and anything I can do, I do it myself.
It’s the same with the profit we’ve earned so far; it goes back into the business to help us get the tools we need. I know it sounds boring, but things like that and paying for accounting, legal, and so on come with a cost each year. I know we’ll make good use of it because we desperately need it.
Zensurance: When did you decide to get business insurance for Malartic Design + Builds? What led you to buy a policy?
Hugo Latreille: I didn’t think about insurance initially. One of my first clients is a good friend of mine who’s a lawyer. When we discussed building him a home, he recommended I get proper coverage to do it safely. It’s good I got that counsel.
Insurance is mostly for peace of mind, knowing if anything did happen on a job site, we’re covered on all fronts, and all of my subcontractors are independently insured. We feel a lot safer knowing we have insurance. To be fully transparent, I am a Zensurance customer. I think it’s great to have an online brokerage that can help you get affordable insurance for a small business like mine.
Zensurance: What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs starting a business for the first time or other small business owners regarding business insurance?
Hugo Latreille: You can’t be too careful. If you drive a car, you’re not going to crash your car every day, but when things do happen, they can be quite expensive – especially in the construction industry. Insurance is an expense, but it is a business expense at the end of the day and tax deductible. So, you might as well have that peace of mind.
Zensurance: What general advice do you have for other Canadian small business owners or entrepreneurs?
Hugo Latreille: Go for it! A lot of people hold back, I think. Being an entrepreneur can be risky, but we only have one life, and sometimes you need to take risks to make something happen. If you have an idea you think is good and needs to be shared, I encourage anyone to take that risk.