Donavan Robinson

February 3, 2023

Entrepreneur extraordinaire enriching the landscape of local business

Donavan Robinson has owned a slew of local businesses, including the Good Will Social Club and Made Here.

Donavan Robinson is the entrepreneur behind some of Winnipeg's most popular businesses such as the Good Will Social Club and Made Here. For him, the entrepreneurship bug came at a young age.

"In high school, in my locker, I had a little convenience store, so I'd sell chocolate bars and things like that, so I think I always had that bug," he said.

While his interest remained in business, the Red River Métis Citizen started out in a graphic design program. The graphic design piece would come in handy in 2005, when Robinson started Vantage Studios at the young age of 25. He still runs the Winnipeg marketing agency today with his partner Kyle Romaniuk.

Vantage has worked on branding campaigns for local clients such as the Dream Factory, craft brewery Little Brown Jug, and radio host Ace Burpee.

Through Vantage, Robinson received funding from multiple avenues, including the Louis Riel Capital Corporation, a Manitoba Métis Federation affiliate lending institution.

"It helped me grow my business a little bit," he said.

Robinson started Vantage Studios at the young age of 25. He still runs the Winnipeg marketing agency today with his partner Kyle Romaniuk.

The support helped Robinson expand Vantage, which was originally more of a graphic design studio located in the Exchange District, with the addition of a Print Shop, which he said materialized almost by accident.

"There was a print shop down the hall from us when we were in the Exchange, and they focused a lot on hospitality. When they went out of business, we decided to, because we used them as our printer, get a small Xerox printer that would accommodate the kind of digital printing that's done nowadays," he said. "People who were printing with that business thought we were the printer and would come into our studio and ask for things to be printed. And we were like, 'well, we're not that printer, but we can print your stuff.' So, it evolved from there."

Robinson's background in printing also helped boost Vantage's printing arm. Originally from Dryden, Ontario, the Red River Métis Citizen worked for a large print house before moving to Winnipeg.

"One of my first jobs out of school was working for a company called Alex Wilson Coldstream, which was a large print house, so I did have some experience in that side," he said. "But I learned a lot developing (the Print Shop), and it became a successful division to the company."  

Vantage's Print Shop prints business cards, flyers, menus, brochures, banners, and more.

Burgeoning business

Now located in the Richardson Centre Concourse in downtown Winnipeg, with team members in Calgary, Vantage is continuing to grow.

However, when Robinson first started the company, finances were extremely tight. The entrepreneur used his background in bartending to make additional income working in a downtown bar close to Vantage's office.

"It was nice. It funded me throughout my trying to get the business going," he said. "But also, because I'm not from Winnipeg, it allowed me to meet a lot of people and make a lot of connections."

Those connections led to a new business venture. Robinson ended up opening his own venue with a few other partners in Osborne Village called the Green Room, a nightclub which he owned for about five years.

With a second business under his belt, the Red River Métis entrepreneur was on a roll.

"I was also able to utilize what I do as an advertiser to buy into these businesses. I didn't have a lot of cash to do that, so it was sweat equity," he said.

Soon enough, Vantage had acquired A Little Pizza Heaven.

"What I offered them was marketing and rebranding to buy into that business, which they accepted," he said. "So, the brand you see today is the brand my company developed to buy into that business."

Robinson opened the Good Will Social Club in Winnipeg's West End in 2014 with several other partners, and they still operate it today.

From there, the pizza joint was able to open up other locations, including a food truck. One of those restaurants was located inside the Good Will Social Club, Robinson's next foray into the hospitality business - a way to use one business to support the other. He started the live music venue in Winnipeg's West End in 2014 with several other partners, and they still operate it today. The Good Will aims to be a safe space for all genders, abilities, ages, cultures, and sexualities, and has zero tolerance for any form of discrimination.

"The Good Will Social Club was meant to be what we thought was like a really cool live music venue," he said. "What it kind of turned out to be was a community-based venue. So it opened it up for all people to enjoy whoever you are. It wasn't specific to any demographic, and it was just a place (where) people could feel safe and comfortable, and I think we achieved that."

When Robinson sold A Little Pizza Heaven a few years after starting the Good Will, the Portage Avenue music and entertainment venue partners opened up their own restaurant in its place called Have A Nice Day. The street food eatery "failed miserably," said Robinson.

"We didn't do too well at that, so we ended up closing that down," he said.

Pandemic pivot

When the pandemic came, the Good Will, along with numerous businesses in the hospitality industry, grappled with how to pay rent and wages. They soon felt the support of the community they had built.

"The people, the community, reached out and said, 'hey, can we support you in some way?' They all wanted to just give us money," Robinson said.

His partner, Tyler Sneesby, organized a GoFundMe for those interested in contributing, which raised nearly $60,000.

"It's a tough thing to do to ask people for help," Robinson said. "So it was really the support of the community and just pushing that to saying, 'here, we want to support you and want you to be around after this is all over,' so I think that was a huge reason why we kept going."

Beyond the pandemic, that kind of support keeps business owners like Robinson going on a daily basis.

"There's so many times you just want to say, 'close it down,' or 'wrap it up,' or get what people call a normal job, and just do that," he said. "So I think that support kept us going, and it made us realize that this is a place that is bigger than just a business."

During the pandemic, the music venue launched a clothing line called the Good Will Exercise Club.

The pandemic also pushed the Good Will to expand from solely focusing on the venue to move towards creating more revenue and website traffic. The club launched their website, which has transformed into a multimedia hub covering venue performers, community leaders, nearby businesses, and more.

"The site was created to give people a voice, so stories and articles, photos, etc. are from our staff and community, and is bringing the concept of the Good Will to an online platform," Robinson said. "It is essentially a media company, and we hope to be able to create something that allows the content creator to see revenue from it."

During this time, the music venue also launched a clothing line called the Good Will Exercise Club.

"It was really just to get people to get out during the pandemic and do something and be active and support mental health and those type of things, so it's a fun little apparel line that we created, kind of a lifestyle brand," Robinson said. "And it's neat to see when you're out in public and you see people wearing the clothing - it's humbling for sure."

Charitable challenge

Robinson started another venture through Vantage Studios in 2018. Made Here, a socially conscious business, offered locally made products before the big push to buy local during the pandemic.

"We sell locally made products on consignment, and we do that to support children's charities," Robinson said.

Made Here was born from Vantage's relationship with the Dream Factory, which helps make dreams a reality for children with life-threatening illnesses.

"My partner at Vantage, actually, when he was a young boy, when he was 12, he actually had cancer," Robinson said.

His partner, Kyle Romaniuk, had two wishes for the Rainbow Society, now the Dream Factory: play basketball with Michael Jordan, and swim with dolphins.

"He couldn't play basketball with Michael Jordan," Robinson laughed. "So he ended up swimming with dolphins, and he had so many great stories (from) that experience."

Many years later, Romaniuk started an agency called Cocoon Branding, which the Rainbow Society approached to work on the charity's rebrand, leading to its transformation into the Dream Factory.

Vantage Studios merged in 2012 with the charity and other agencies into a larger agency group. Vantage has since moved out of that, with Romaniuk, CEO and ECD, and Robinson, founder and principal, solely owning the marketing agency.

Made Here offers locally made products on consignment, with 10 per cent of proceeds supporting local children's charities.

In 2018, Vantage decided to raise some money for the Dream Factory.

"Our print shop did a lot of printing for these local makers and we thought, well, let's ask if they want to put their product in our store, we'll sell it on consignment, and a percentage of that will go to the Dream Factory," Robinson said. "We did this like maybe a month out from Christmas, so we raised maybe $400. It wasn't a lot, but it kind of gave us the idea of like, what if we did this on a bigger scale?"

Vantage pitched the Richardson Centre to partner on utilizing a newly vacant space for what would become Made Here. Located in downtown Winnipeg inside the Richardson Building, the store offers a wide array of popular products from over 110 local makers and artisans, ranging from artisanal food items and soaps to jewelry and glassware.

"I didn't realize how much amazing stuff was created here in Manitoba," Robinson said. "You don't know how amazing this stuff is until you see it and touch it."

Ten per cent of Made Here proceeds support local children's charities, and in its first year, the store raised $20,000 for four children's charities.

Future years didn't run as smoothly for the storefront.

"Unfortunately we hit barrier after barrier the second year," Robinson said, including flooding from a nearby hotel. "Water got everywhere in the store so we had to close down for a month during the holiday season, which is the time that we usually make the most revenue."

The following year's global pandemic and ensuing restrictions also slowed Made Here's success.

"We really haven't really had a long runway on that business," Robinson added. "But because of the support from the Richardson Centre, that's helped us a lot."

Before becoming a business owner, Robinson started out in a graphic design program.

Lessons learned

Through the ups and downs of starting, acquiring, and selling multiple diverse businesses, the Red River Métis entrepreneur has some lessons to pass along.

"I didn't grow up with a lot of knowledge in finances," he said. "The thing that I learned and what I mentor people with, is make sure you have your personal finances and stuff in order, because that is going to be the challenge. If you're struggling personally, it's going to be a lot harder when you struggle in business."

Robinson said it took him a long time to learn that lesson.

"It was tough for me," he said. "I didn't grow up with a lot of money, and my family didn't have a lot of money, so it was kind of learning that on my own."

The jack of all trades also discovered the benefits of picking a lane within the business and not trying to do everything yourself.

"When I started the business, to save money, I would do the bookkeeping. I would do this, I would do that. And then it actually would cost me more money because I was putting the bookkeeping off until I had to do it," he said. "If you just paid somebody to do it or hired somebody, your stress levels are down and it actually ends up costing less I think in the long run."

The multi-entrepreneur attributes his success to the great team around him.

"I've had really great partners, and my wife actually has been along with me for most of these businesses, and she acts as a bookkeeper and an office manager for all of them," Robinson said. "She's been a big part of the success of any of the businesses."

His wife, Lindsey Cabato, will now be taking over the Made Here store as owner/operator.

"I think the people that I'm involved with, that's really the reason why I'm able to do these things," Robinson said. "If it was just all on my shoulders, I think I'd be dropping the ball on a majority of them."

Vantage has worked on branding campaigns for local clients such as the Dream Factory, craft brewery Little Brown Jug, and radio host Ace Burpee.

The multi-entrepreneur said he is most proud of seeing the heights his numerous former employees have propelled to.

"I've probably employed well over 400 people, and I think that's a big achievement in, you know, I've given that many people jobs," he said. "And even with Vantage, a lot of people have come and gone, and I think a lot of them were students who came out of school and they moved on to other positions, and I think it's nice to see that we maybe were that stepping stone for them to grow."

Robinson said a lot of his former employees are now extremely successful in other careers.

"Especially in the bar industry too, it's usually not somebody's career goal, it's, you know, money that they can make while they're going through school or whatever it might be," he said. "So I think we've supported people in that journey, and then they've moved on to doing other things, so it's always nice to see." 

With two children under the age of five, Robinson might now want to slow down on opening new businesses.

"Taking those risks that I used to aren't the things I should be doing or can be doing now," he said, "but, you know, taking educated risks are still good."

Today, the business owner is most focused on building and growing Vantage and the Good Will. He hopes to teach his kids about business someday.

"At some point, if they want to start a business or learn how to do those type of things, I think it would be kind of cool to get them into doing that," he said, "but again, I want them to find their own path and, you know, whatever they want to be, I'll be happy with that."


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