Terence Sawtell, a 2004 graduate of College Heights Secondary, stands outside the front entrance of the school during a recent visit to Prince George.
On the Goat path
Terence Sawtell’s 33-year-old self admits it with a measure of pride. Back in his College Heights Secondary School days, he was a geek.
Sure, he was passionate about hockey and the outdoors. At the same time though, he found computers and their inner workings fascinating. Thanks to a family friend who ran an information technology business, Sawtell had a regular supply of cast-off computer parts at his disposal and took great delight in building and coding his own machines.
“I think I got one ever going,” he said with a laugh.
These days, Sawtell himself rarely stops. As founder of a Vancouver-based design agency called Goat, he’s increasingly in demand. Using digital technologies, Sawtell and his tightly-knit team serve up innovative web platforms with eye-popping looks and customized strategies to help their clients reach target audiences and objectives.
In July of 2019, the Goat gang took on a major project for Simon Fraser University’s School of Business. Under a crushing deadline, Sawtell and company delivered a finely-tuned, highly-efficient platform that got them noticed across their industry. The work they did for SFU – which they finished in less than four months – helped them grow their client base and even helped them land a gig with the B.C. provincial government. The province was looking to improve the user experience of its EducationPlannerBC website and called on Goat. That job recently brought Sawtell back to Prince George on an information-gathering road trip.
While home, Sawtell stopped at his alma mater and chatted with select CHSS students about what they liked and didn’t like about the EducationPlannerBC site. He also had a chance to reflect on his own high school career and the key moments in time that helped set him on his current entrepreneurial path.
“My interest was really piqued on the technology side but it really wasn’t fully engaged until about Grade 10 when I took InfoTech 10 with Mr. (Jerry) Bleecker, who is still here,” Sawtell said while seated near the front entrance of the school. “He kind of taught the first round of Visual Basic and that was my first exposure, formally, to any kind of software or coding environments. From there, I just got really nerdy. You’d get the Visual Basic textbook and I’d be done in four days. The rest of the class would be working through it and I’d be sitting in the corner, making PowerPoints.”
Sawtell became so passionate about computers and computing that he completed both InfoTech 10 and 11 in his Grade 10 year. During his last couple years of high school, he started building websites and getting paid for his efforts.
“I was building 500-dollar websites and my mom would always question why I was getting these PayPal gift cards in the mail,” he said with a chuckle. “That was the only way I could get paid. Honestly, at the time, I didn’t want to get a job at McDonald’s or anything. I found I’d rather be a nerd on my computer. At that time, it wasn’t really that acceptable to be on the computer more than anything else but I think my parents (dad Kim and mom Marie) were good about recognizing that I’d found something I liked and they just kind of let me do my thing.”
For Sawtell, two other influential teachers were Cindy Smith and Rob Lewis. The recently-retired Smith was one of Sawtell’s English teachers and recognized that he would benefit from a more personalized learning option.
“I remember being in Mrs. Smith’s English class and I just struggled,” Sawtell said. “It’s not that I couldn’t write – I was actually a fairly good writer but it was just getting my pen to the paper and being frustrated when I made a mistake. She was like, ‘Well, make a PowerPoint.’ And I aced that class because I would just kill all the research and the presentations because I’d be doing it on the computer. To this day, those lessons are huge because I’m super-efficient in everything I do and I’ll use tools to the max of their capabilities. I think (Mrs. Smith’s class) was my first exposure to being able to actually utilize what I’d learned in these InfoTech classes to actually make my other subjects better.”
Sawtell remembers doing a PowerPoint presentation on the Second World War in a Humanities class.
“I had music and photos and it was well-written,” he said. “It’s interesting looking back because nothing has really changed. I still am a storyteller in a way – using digital products to tell stories.”
Lewis, meanwhile, gave Sawtell and some of his classmates an abundance of encouragement and support in the running of a video game hockey tournament.
“I think it was NHL 2002 and we had this massive tournament,” Sawtell said. “We’d take the whole gym up and I think we had more people watching that than any other event. We had the whole school cheering the finals on. It was wild, and just being able to coordinate something like that. So I got to flex my love for hockey and my love for technology and gaming.”
Bleecker, Smith and Lewis all found ways to tap into Sawtell’s passions and, because of that, were huge difference-makers for him.
“They recognized that, ‘He’s definitely not the same, he’s not going to learn the same way’ and they were able to grab my attention via the things I was obviously interested in,” Sawtell said. “The work I’m doing now, it all comes back to having those little things triggered in my brain at that time, at a very young age. Even the research I’m doing now is reflected in some of that stuff.”
After his graduation from College Heights in 2004, Sawtell – by this time fluent in the languages of computer coding – decided to go to work instead of a post-secondary institution. He took a couple jobs in sales and later landed at Telus, where he moved up to a team management role and eventually accepted a transfer to Vancouver. His last formal position with the company was as manager of data science and analysis and it was in that job where his love of coding and technology got retriggered. Sawtell found himself building programs and tech-based tools to solve real-world problems for the company.
Eventually, however, Sawtell felt like he wanted more freedom to express his creativity. He started coding on the side and, in 2013, built a website for a friend who owned a construction company. Sawtell made a tidy sum of money from the job and the well-researched and executed website jumpstarted business opportunities for his client. Sawtell freelanced for another year or so, left Telus in 2014, and started Goat in 2015.
“I loved goats – there was no thought process behind (the name),” he said with a laugh.
With a full-time staff of nine people, Sawtell’s company is small by industry standards. But, he and his regulars (and contractors as necessary) pride themselves on offering the personal touch in every job they do.
“We don’t just get hired by a company to make like a brochure website,” Sawtell said. “We’re working with EducationPlannerBC to help redesign how students research and choose programs and the schools they want to go to. We build complex digital projects. We can tie in multiple digital technologies and we’ve also done a lot of really big rebrands and restructurings for visual identities. Those are our two core businesses and they have been for about five years now.”
Sawtell said the EducationPlannerBC project has been “a ton of fun” for a variety of reasons.
“We have an opportunity to impact how students choose their post-secondary path, whether they’re going into trades or sciences or medicine,” he said. “Everything kind of funnels back to this website. And I’m learning a lot too. We’ve interviewed counselors and students all over B.C. It’s been quite enjoyable.”
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