Rita Silvan, editor-in-chief of Golden Girl Finance talks to Wendy Davis, owner of Zebrano, Canada’s premier luxury travel advisor, about taking the leap to starting her own business.
Wendy Davis founded Zebrano in 1999, Toronto’s leading household concierge service company. Davis is the owner of Zebrano Travel, Canada’s premier luxury travel advisor that specializes in private trips throughout the world.
GGF: How did you start your business?
WD: I wrote the business plan. I did all my numbers. I estimated I would have a certain number of clients. I got some office space, put the shingle out and thought, “let’s go”. In the beginning I would do services for free so people could get used to it.
GGF: Tell us about your first year of business.
WD: Wow! I never truly understood how much work it would be. It’s not like a Tim Horton’s franchise where you get a manual. First, I had to set up all the suppliers. We didn’t know where this would go. We’d get a call to plan a party with hundreds of balloons. Okay, we’ve got to source those. We just had to create everything from scratch.
GGF: Did you have business partners?
WD: I was going to get investors but at the end of the day I decided not to. I wanted to control what I was doing and didn’t want anyone telling me what to do. I spoke to some venture capitalists but it wasn’t the right time as they were very dot.com-focused. I met with the Four Seasons and they were very interested in the model.
You do need capital to get into this business and I had a good chunk of money. It took quite a bit of money before it caught on. But I didn’t wing this. I had a solid plan. I worked like crazy. There is no way with to do this with life balance.
“People don’t value their time and we run around like idiots trying to fit it all in.”
GGF: Did you specialize in event planning at first?
WD: We did some little campaigns to get things flowing. At the time, my husband worked on a trading floor so for Valentine’s Day, for example, we’d do these special campaigns. I realized that working on-demand was not feasible in the long run, so I came to the membership model. The initial commitment was 25 hours at $25 per hour. Today, it’s 60-hours @$100 per hour. $6,000 can change your life. I think it’s a pretty good return on your equity. People don’t value their time and we run around like idiots and try to fit it all in, especially women who don’t let people help. If I had another life, I’d do a lot more counselling with women on how to let go.
GGF: How do you acquire clients?
WD: I introduced Zebrano to the city’s top real estate agents. When an agent would sell a home, it would make sense for Zebrano to whisk in and manage it from that point, especially if the buyers came from out of town because we know all the suppliers. We’re a one-stop shop.
When people move it’s a big commotion in their life. By the time they came to Zebrano they were at the point where they were going to have a nervous breakdown. We have an incredible move program. There will be the bowl with the apples on the table when you show up. And if you have wine in your wine cellar with the bottles in a certain order, they will be just the same way in your new home.
I also worked with investment bankers, divorce lawyers, because that’s another transition point. And word of mouth.
GGF: Did you work directly with corporations?
WD: Initially we went with corporations, but I decided not to use that route. I wanted Zebrano to be personal, not corporate. Each person spends money a different way. Also, I found that most executives prefer that their personal life is separate from their corporate life. However, we’ll do corporate tasks like board of director meetings, gift buying, or event planning for financial deal closings.
“Some of our clients have even asked us what kind of dog to buy…”
GGF: Who is a typical client?
WD: People who are very busy and want to spend time their time with family and friends, traveling, doing physical fitness and they don’t have time for everything. We come into the home and take care of everything: the HVAC, air conditioning, window cleaning… We also supply the suppliers and vet them all. We’ll help people with errands. Some of our clients have even asked us what kind of dog to buy and we’ll research breeders for them.
GGF: Do you come from an entrepreneurial family?
WD: No. [laughs] I’m an athlete, a doer, and goal-oriented. I used to be on the national rowing team. I was always in a team and used to excelling. The bar was always a little bit higher. I don’t have an off-switch which I think is very entrepreneurial. I go in a lot of different directions. I smartly hired a business consultant who I’ve had since the start. He’ll sit me down and say, “no, no, no you’re going on a tangent; don’t spend time doing that.” For example, we came to the realization that our core clientele is really right here in this area in the higher net worth neighborhoods. Oakville was tempting but we decided I should focus on Toronto.
GGF: What three adjectives would you use to describe yourself?
WD: Creative, for sure. Hardworking, I walk the talk; I put my head down and go; and I’m an optimist.
“I’m not a huge risk taker when it comes to investing.”
GGF: Are you a risk-taker in your financial choices?
WD: I’m not a huge risk taker when it comes to investing. My husband who worked in finance would be more of a risk taker, so we balance each other out nicely. Real estate has been pretty solid. We’re pretty good at design. We like a good location. We want to make sure that we buy wisely, and we like architectural homes that have some style.
GGF: What’s the best piece of advice you ever got?
WD: It’s a quote we had at our wedding: “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”
GGF: What about the worst?
WD: To not trust my instincts. That I always have to hire consultants. I’ve learned to go by my own compass.
“I didn’t know that invoices had to have numbers!”
GGF: What advice would you give your 25-year-old self?
WD: Make sure you surround yourself with great mentors. Don’t rush things. Learn the fundamentals of business, the cashflow and the accounting side of things. Most entrepreneurs can get clients in two seconds, that’s the high but you have to manage how the business works, which isn’t the fun part. I didn’t know that invoices that invoices had to have numbers! When you work for a Fortune 500 company someone else does that. The accounting and human resources management were things that I totally underestimated.
GGF: Imagine you’re looking back on your life, what are most proud of?
WD: I’m very proud of Zebrano. I wanted to build a luxury lifestyle brand and that’s one of my greatest achievements. Rowing was very cool. I’ve travelled all over the world. And being a good person.
GGF: What’s next for you?
WD: As we get older, things are changing. We don’t need as many things anymore. We’re thinking about what we need for the rest of our lives and philanthropy is starting to come into it. I don’t have children. I’m an animal lover; that’s a big thing for me. One of the groups I support is Soi Dog (https://www.soidog.org) in Thailand, that is a rescue for stray dogs to prevent them being used in the meat trade. Soi Dog spays and neuters the dogs and do many other good things. I also support protections for the mountain gorillas.
GGF: You travel a lot. What’s left on your bucket list?
WD: Japan. Patagonia. Galapagos.
GGF: What tips can you share with our readers on how to travel better?
WD: Stick to places that are easy to get to like London or Paris. If you’re using points, plan well in advance for more options and better pricing. Don’t leave it to the last minute. Come up with 3-to-5-year travel plans. The new thing is lifetime travel plans so you can finance the bigger trips. Don’t pack much. Use a carry on, so it’s easy to get from place to place.
GGF: Thanks Wendy!