David Noël-Romas: Welcome to the Manitoba Business Podcast, featuring interviews with business leaders and entrepreneurs based right here in Manitoba. I’m David Noël-Romas.
This episode is brought to you by my small business, Black Chair Consulting. We use social media to help businesses sell more. To find out about Black Chair, visit www.blackchair.net.
Today’s guest is involved in several businesses. Him and his friends started a marketing agency in college that ended up being bought out by a New York firm. He started a print shop. Then he bought into a night club. Now he also runs a restaurant. The guy is productive. I hope you get something out of our conversation!
If you do, please tell your friends about the show. The show is available on all your favourite podcast platforms, including iTunes, and a transcript of every episode is also available on our website at www.manitobabusinesspodcast.com
Now, without further ado, here is Donavan Robinson:
[to Donavan] Well, Donavan, thanks so much for taking the time.
Donavan Robinson: Thank you.
David: Let’s start by having you tell us who you are and what you do.
Donavan: My name is Donavan Robinson. I’m the managing director here at Vantage Studios and I’m also the operations manager at The Good Will Social Club, 625 Portage, as well as the new restaurant we just opened up in there called Have A Nice Day! As well, I am the partial owner of a club in Osborne called OV Club.
David: Very cool, very cool. So you’re involved in a bunch of stuff at this point.
Donavan: Yeah, quite a few things. Sold some businesses, purchased them, so I’ve gone to about 20 years of entrepreneurship.
David: Very cool. Where did you get started? What was your background and some of your first things?
Donavan: Yeah, so my background initially was I was a graphic designer. So that was where I first kinda got into the industry of what I’m doing now here at Vantage. I worked for a few companies and then I went to Red River. I took a media course there. From there, I met my business partner at that time, Billy Kailey [SP], and we started Vantage. I bought him out in 2009 and then started a print shop onto that. Then 2012, it was acquired by CHR Group which is a New York agency. Their roots started here at Winnipeg. Yeah. So that’s now, I work for the company and have some shares and assets in the overall company, but I’m mainly just hired to run my division.
David: Very good. Very cool. Okay. So you started Vantage. Sorry, what year did you say it was?
David: 2005. And then it was bought out in?
Donavan: In 2012.
David: Okay. That’s seven years later. When you were first starting out, what were kind of the first things that were important to you? How did you find your first customers? What were you kind of focused on at that point?
Donavan: Yeah, we actually started the company while we were in school. So we were able to acquire a few clients from there, networked with a lot of the other students that got out in the industry and used us. So we ended up getting a few pretty good contracts at that time. We were very small. We were in a 400-square-foot office, right around the corner from where we are now, actually, in the Grain Exchange building. They were paying $200 a month and we had somebody renting for $150 a month so our overall rent, our overall rent was $50. But, yeah, I mean, it’s all relative now. We make a lot more money but we spend a lot more money. I mean, sometimes, your roots are where it’s not as stressful.
But, yeah, we moved to quite a few offices from there and I didn’t get into any other businesses until probably around 2011 when I invested in a bar called The Greenroom at the time. And then from there, I was able to acquire some other businesses. A Little Pizza Heaven was one of them, which I currently don’t own anymore. I sold that out to the existing partners and they’re doing very well. You know, everything’s great with that. They’re opening a new location in Madison Square.
Donavan: So they’re doing very well. For me, you know, we were able to re-brand them and get them to a point where, you know, they’re very successful now. I mean, a lot of factors and new partnerships and that thing. Dave Fox came on that and he did very well, bringing in, you know, a lot of his insights as well. You know, Matt initially started the company and created the product, which was really great. We just needed some help getting to that next step and we were successful in that. And from there, I decided to move on and start my own restaurant called Have A Nice Day!
David: I wanna get back into the early days of Vantage because I think that’s interesting, but before I do, what was sort of the thought process of wanting to do your own restaurant?
Donavan: Because we had The Good Will Social Club, we did have A Little Pizza Heaven in there. It was a late night food type of thing, right? So we had a lot of people coming in after hours or during the night, but we weren’t getting a lot of day crowd to come in and have food. So we needed another option. So from there, I acquired some partners and we developed what is now Have A Nice Day! Anthony, who’s my business partner, he’s kind of the brains behind the branding and the overall look. And then we brought on Max Frank, who is the head chef, and so he’s brought his flavor to the entire thing and he’s done a great job so far.
David: Yeah. I mean, I’ve eaten there. It’s tasty. So the goal is to kind of try to get day crowds and more students and stuff like that sort of thing?
Donavan: Yeah, just bring a new spin on it. I mean, pizza was great. It worked for a while. But then it came to a point when it wasn’t really benefiting us as a business for Good Will. And that partnership was okay. It’s just, I wanted to do something else. I wanted to have my stamp on it. I didn’t have really that opportunity with the pizza place. But, I mean, they had their ideas and their direction and it’s going very well and they’re doing very well at it. I just wanted to do something that was mine. So, yeah, we brought on Have A Nice Day!
David: Cool. All right, back to the early days of Vantage. So now, you mentioned you did it while you were in school. How many you were, just you and one partner?
Donavan: Me and one other partner, yeah. So I bought him out and so it just became myself at one point, and then the acquisition happened in 2012.
David: And did you have any employees at that early stage?
Donavan: Yeah, I think we had about seven employees at that time.
David: Okay, wow. And so how did you divided the work? Like, who was selling? What was happening [inaudible 00:05:45]?
Donavan: Yeah, sales was always kind of something that we struggled with. We did develop a pretty good relationship through networking and that’s where mainly kind of the business came in referrals type of thing. So we made it to a point when that kind of tapped out and we had to look at other options. So that’s when the acquisition came at a good time because we were kind of, “Where do we go from here?” I’m not a hard sell person. I’m not someone who goes out and knock on doors type of thing. So I kind of was at a standstill of where to go at that point.
And then I was approached by Peter Clark from CHR Group. He was visiting from New York at the time. I had Abbey DePraudo [SP] who was renting some space and he had his furniture store. Peter actually came in to visit him and he said, “Hey, we’re doing this holding company for agencies. We’re interested in this.” So about six months later, we finally made a deal and that’s what happened from there.
David: Interesting. So it’s kinda started with this and you weren’t really looking for an acquisition, necessarily.
Donavan: No. Yeah. A lot of luck, I would say. I mean, you know, there’s things you could do to help with those things, but, I mean, I feel like there’s luck in a lot of things with a lot of people in business, for sure. Right place, right time, for sure.
David: What would you say were some of the lucky breaks? You mentioned that you got some big clients. Do you feel comfortable talking about that at all?
Donavan: Yeah, when I say big clients, I mean, I’m not necessarily [inaudible 00:07:15] bog clients. I mean, we did the Q94 at the time. We got our name out for, you know, doing a lot of local stuff. We worked a lot with Ace Burpee and a lot of things. So we were able to get clients that were able to get our name out. We weren’t necessarily getting large accounts but that came with that. Once we joined with The CHR Group, the bigger accounts came.
David: Right, right, right. And what was CHR’s strategic goal in acquiring you guys?
Donavan: Their goal was to acquire different agencies and become a large group agency.
David: So they’re basically just trying to consolidating agencies in different regions? Is that it or…?
Donavan: I would say they’re more of, like, just a holding company to house the agencies. And then, you know, the clients, the brands, some of the companies did merge and become part of CHR but some just retained their current brand, which Vantage was one of the ones that retained their current brand, and other agencies came under that umbrella. But CHR as a whole, just, we were able to acquire businesses that had a lot of clients that had big names as well. So we are gonna use that as our reference. It gave us a little more credibility in the industry. So Island Air [SP] was a big one that [inaudible 00:08:59] did, the Winnipeg airport. So there’s a lot of projects that we were able to bring on as ours because we did have the same group. It was just under a different company at that time.
David: So you mentioned that you got into The Greenroom about a year before the CHR thing happened. So what was sort of the motivating factor there [inaudible 00:09:27]?
Donavan: I used to work in bars for about 20 years. My connections there were like I meet quite a few people. So I actually had one, somebody that owned a bunch of venues, was looking to open another one, and was also looking to acquire a print shop. So we were talking about merging our companies. That didn’t end up happening, but during that process, I was able to get into Greenroom and become a partner at that time. So again, a little bit of luck, and from there, I was a partner and I was approached by A Little Pizza Heaven company and asked to do some things with them. So we bought in with some marketing services and some cash. We were able to build that to where it is, and then from there, it just snowballed into different companies.
David: Sure, yeah. What’s kind of the strategy, you know, for growth or even just for sort of maintaining client base [inaudible 00:10:26]? What does a marketing agency do to market itself?
Donavan: Because there are so many different aspects to our company, for us as a print shop, we actually developed a loyalty program just to retain clients, offer different services and discounts. I don’t really think there’s too many print companies in Winnipeg and many that are offering any type of loyalty service. So we’re just trying to build that group of people that wanna, you know…they can earn credit. So any printing that they do, we kick back a dollar amount [inaudible 00:11:01] printing. So at the end of the year, they can use their credit towards free printing, basically. So they’re getting something out of it. It’s almost similar to air miles. The more you spend, the more you get back.
So that’s one thing that we do, more client retention than acquisition. We’re trying to keep the clients that we have and make them happy. You know, there’s always things that happen during the process so we try to make sure that if there is a problem, we fix it immediately and making sure that the client’s happy. That’s a big one. For client acquisition, we try to reach out to larger groups that have a client base and we work with them to try to acquire some clients.
David: Cool. Is there any kinda conflict with the print shop compared to the creator side of the company in terms of, you know, printing other people’s work and stuff like that? Is that an issue?
Donavan: Yeah, like [inaudible 00:11:57] designers printing with us?
David: Yeah, yeah.
Donavan: I mean, that’s really up to the designers themselves. I mean, you know, we’re not in the business of trying to steal clients. So if, like, somebody’s printing with us…it also is a separate company. We don’t see a lot of the stuff that comes in there that comes through the agency. Plus, the agency is more retainer clients. So we’re looking for clients that are looking to spend a certain amount a year and then we spread that out throughout the month. So that’s majority of the clients that we get on the agency side and that’s where we do a lot of the bigger projects, for sure.
David: Was the print shop just something you do for fun or is it kind of the strategic thing for the agency?
Donavan: Actually, there’s another luck type of story is that there’s a company called Industry Images that was down the hall from us in the market building and they went out of business, or closed their doors down, I think, somewhere else, or whatever they did. But we had a lot of people coming to our shop asking to get printing, and we ended up buying a small printer just to get our own stuff done and we started printing for them because they’d come and say, “Ah, we’ll print this for you,” and we just built a business from that, actually.
David: It’s actually really funny you mention that because early in my business, I used Industry Images for a lot of work and I remember one day, I showed up at their shop and they were just not there.
Donavan: Yeah. And we were right down the hall so we ended up doing quite a bit of the work and we thought, “Maybe there’s a business here.” So we started very, very small. I was doing most of the work at that time, doing the printing and cutting. From there, we ended up moving to a location on [inaudible 00:13:40] and that we ended up buying larger equipment and becoming a full service print shop as well. So, yeah, I guess that just really came down to luck. I mean, if Industry Images wasn’t there, we probably wouldn’t have gotten into the print business. We might have, but it might have been a different story so, yeah
David: What do you kind of see as the biggest challenges and opportunities in all of your businesses now for the next couple of years?
Donavan: Client retention is always a tough one especially with the bars. I mean, we’re trying to keep people in our bar rather than going to other places. I think The Good Will really has a good thing going with the crew we have there. Tyler, who’s DJ Hunnicutt, you know him? So he’s ran Jazz Fest for, like, 10 years, something like that. He was working for Jazz Fest. He became an investor in Good Will, and then we said, “Hey, how about you take on this role?” And he’s [inaudible 00:14:37] with it. He’s done an amazing job. I mean, I couldn’t fathom doing 30 days of programming. Him and David Schellenberg worked together on that. It’s amazing what those guys can do. I can’t even [inaudible 00:14:51]…
David: It’s true. There’s something going on every night.
Donavan: Yeah. There’s something going on. Plus, they built it more around the community rather than just, “Here’s a venue. Come to it.” We’re giving back to the community. We’re always doing something. It’s a safe space. We’re really trying to promote that and emphasize on that. There’s zero tolerance. I mean, anyone does anything that makes anyone uncomfortable, we don’t stand for that and we ask people to leave if that’s the case. And just the crew there that we’ve build and the people there, it’s something to be very proud of. You know, that place, I can definitely say, “I’m glad I was part of that.” I mean, I could say my portion of creating it as successful as it is is pretty small compared to what the other guys are doing. But, yeah, it’s a pretty powerful place, for sure.
And then the restaurant, I guess, it’s new but Max has been doing a great job. I have a couple of partners in there that are putting some good stuff together as well. Yeah, still a lot of work but we’re getting it, right? The restaurant business is a little new to me. I’m more from the bar side of things. So learning that, you know, your margins a lot smaller and you gotta watch a lot of things and staffing and that type of thing, so it’s a whole new business. You think it’s the same because it’s hospitality, but it’s a totally different business model.
David: Yeah, I’ve always heard that restaurants are pretty tough.
Donavan: Yeah. It’s easy to not watch your spending and easy to watch…because you think, “Oh, we’re making sales.” But I’ve learned a lot from Vantage, actually, on making sure you’re looking at the bottom line rather than just the overall sales. Because here, we do very well overall sales, we have a lot of expenses, and if you’re not watching that, you’re not paying bills, you’re gonna be shut down very soon. So that’s something I’ve learned, you know, from Vantage. It was a small operation. We’re able to see money in and out and pay things. It wasn’t as difficult. Now, there’s, like, high salaries and a lot of things going on. I don’t have to take care of that, fortunately. We have a staff, a crew that does that so, yeah.
David: I was gonna ask about that. So your staff, are they giving you reports monthly for you to kind of get a sense of the overall picture?
Donavan: Yeah. Here at Vantage, we actually do a weekly financial report and then do an overall monthly report just to see where we’re at and that we bring in all the head, the managing directors from each agency just to see where we’re at and see what we need to bring in, that type of thing. With the other companies, we do quite a bit of monitoring, P&Ls; and that thing. I actually have a management company that manages the restaurants so we charge a fee but we’re able to present P&Ls; and show, you know, profit, loss, and done a lot of things. So, yeah, it really comes down to watching your dollars, for sure.
David: Who are some of the people that have influenced you the most, either people that you knew personally that helped you out or people you’ve kind of admired from afar?
Donavan: I would say my business partners, definitely. I mean, Anthony that works here as well, he’s brought a lot to the table as far as Good Will and Have A Nice Day! In the branding, he always brings kind of a different spin. I’m kind of pretty generic. You know, when I think it’s something’s good, it’s something that’s been done. He always brings something that’s never been done so initially, I’m kinda like, “I don’t know if I like that.” And it always works. So now, I just shut my mouth and I let him run with it.
And Tyler as well, just the things he’s been able to do. And it’s kind of interesting to see their history before Good Will because I didn’t really know a lot of these guys before, just to see what they’ve done. And they’re pretty modest about it. They don’t talk a lot about the things they’ve done. You know, Tyler’s a big influence in the underground DJ scene in Manitoba. Tam Leckey [SP] who works with Arcade Fire and a lot of bands, he’s one of the partners there. Those guys don’t really talk about that stuff but they got some history. It’s pretty neat to see. So I really look to those guys and I’m glad I get to work with them.
David: Cool. Are you a reader? Are there any books you would recommend to our listeners?
Donavan: You know, I’m more of a books-on-tape.
David: Oh, me, too, actually.
Donavan: Yeah, “Outliers.” Malcolm Gladwell’s someone that I listen to a lot. And I do read. It’s just when you’re driving a lot, it’s nice and fine to take a trip since I always get to have those books. So that’s someone who I read a lot of. But, yeah, I mean, I do listen to a lot of marketing books on tape, more than reading. But just, I’m a pretty slow reader so it’s a little faster for me to listen to somebody talk. Yeah, yeah.
David: Sure, yeah, cool. Well, Donavan, thanks a lot for taking the time.
Donavan: Thank you very much.