043: All Maple, Amazing Mentors, Arcane Marketing, and More with Eric Vardon
Today, we delve into Eric Vardon’s journey from pioneering the digital marketing landscape in the 90s to co-founding and gracefully selling his first agency, Arcane. We discuss the valuable lessons in mentorship, business growth, and smooth acquisitions he’s learned along the way.
Key Points + Topics
- [01:08] Eric Vardon attended college in London, Ontario. At the time (the mid-90s), it was the only school in the area with a website development program. He was fortunate that when he graduated in ‘99, the internet was really becoming available and used by everyone. He got involved in working with Micromedia and Flash. He worked for a marketing agency for a short period of time. He learned he was not good at listening, so he and a partner decided to start their own business. They built all manner of digital marketing materials for businesses all over the world: websites, graphics, videos, etc. This was an unbelievable time in the digital world; there were no templates, sound clip websites, or photo editing how-tos.
- [04:21] One of his first businesses was All Maple Apparel, though it didn’t start out as an apparel business. They were more of an “e-zine,” basically a blog before there were blogs. All Maple discussed anything creative being done in Canada by Canadians, a realm of media not being covered otherwise. Eventually, they started creating themed merchandise with the special designation of all the items being designed, stitched, and made in Canada. They opened a couple of retail locations and had decent sales online for a number of years. At the same time, he and his partner had a marketing agency that was really starting to find success. Ultimately, All Maple was Vardon’s first experience going through bankruptcy with a company. Apparel was just too capital-intensive of a venture for them to maintain. Over the lifetime of that business, though, he did receive some fortuitous advice from a mentor. He was told that being focused and dedicated to two companies at the same time doesn’t work long-term.
- [12:33] A mentor is someone who sees something in you that you can’t see in yourself. It’s usually a reflection of something they see in themselves. For Eric, there’s also a sort of connection or spark that happens right away when a mentorship begins.
- [13:37] One of Eric’s most influential mentors is his business partner, John D’Orsay. They originally met through their exes. They became friends and discovered the skills and expertise each other had in the digital realm. Through a series of business connections, they discovered Tony and Brian as well, and eventually, they all became founding partners of Arcane Agency. They all complemented each other very well. Without ego, they were able to disagree, make decisions, and give each other guidance and assistance. There was friendship, mutual respect, and opportunities to learn from each other, which led to a sort of unspoken business advantage.
- [20:10] These days, Eric gives much of his focus to EventConnect. It’s an investor in that business that has become a mentor for him in recent years. Being accountable to him and his family is something Eric truly appreciates. He’s able to learn from someone who’s had so much success in their lives. The teachings also align with his values and upbringing.
- [24:49] At EventConnect, Eric now mentors his team. He also mentors through a group for young agency founders. He doesn’t view those relationships as hierarchical but more as friendships to which he comes with humility and openness. His team communicates very well and centers around the idea that they’re all on the same journey together. The industry culture can feel a lot like the early two-thousands, very fractured. He’s accustomed to the notion of leading a new brand, fitting itself into an ever-changing world; his colleagues are new to that.
- [28:13] Eric co-founded Arcane Agency in 2011. It was acquired/sold in 2020. He and his business partner truly grew this business from their basement. When it came time to make the decision to hand over the reins, Eric didn’t really struggle with it, as many would expect. He’s seen many CEOs over-involved in the day-to-day operations of their business rather than just doing what they like and are good at. He says, “You’re the CEO. You have the power to just do what you like. Why don’t you?” He and his partner knew what they were good at very early on – taking a business from zero to one (that is, founding, opening, and building a sound foundation for a business to grow on). They knew what they were good and what they should NOT be doing. They knew letting their agency go was the right thing to do. So, they spoke with a friend who worked in mergers and acquisitions (M&A) and made a list of what they wanted – to keep the culture and not be removed entirely from the business.
- [36:14] Arcane launched at the same time as many other agencies that did not find the same success. Eric attributes their success to always knowing what they SHOULD be doing within their business and their agreement to always replace themselves as soon as possible. The business started with them doing the daily work of building campaigns, designing websites, and whatever clients needed. Then, they began to hire people and build business units, and eventually, you can get out of the way after finding good people. They found people who cared. Eric knows what he’s good at and not good at and would rather have support there from people who are good at those other pieces.
- [44:02] When it came time to really hand off the business, Eric was both proud and relieved to say it went incredibly smoothly. They had an unbelievable group handling their M&A process that was very experienced. It wasn’t cheap to have them manage it, but they made it through the process unscathed because of them. They knew how to handle the emotional component of such a business move, which is an often overlooked piece. Though it was a lot of work and effort to transition things over to others, it went well, and there were no horror stories.
Guest + Episode Links
Danny Gavin Host 00:05
Hello everyone, I’m Danny Gavin, founder of Optige, marketing professor and the host of the Digital Marketing Mentor. I’m super excited for our guest today Eric Barton, president of Event Connect. I’ve been on Eric’s podcast before, so it’s a real pleasure to have Eric here on the Digital Marketing Mentor. Eric is an AI tech entrepreneur, C-suite executive and advisor with more than 20 years of success in marketing and sports. Eric’s broad areas of expertise include strategic partnerships, brand development, digital strategy, communications, entrepreneurship, leadership and growth. Today, we’re going to be talking about mentorship and, of course, Eric’s past when it comes to selling a digital agency. How are you doing?
Eric Vardon Guest 01:01
Eric Doing very well. Danny, Pleasure to be here and great to chat, as always.
Danny Gavin Host 01:06
All right, let’s kick it off with where you went to school.
Eric Vardon Guest 01:09
Yes, I went to college in a town called London Ontario here in Canada. It was the only place that had something to do with building websites. I won’t date myself, but I will anyway. So mid-90s, I decided I was going to go to college and cease my career of wanting to be a hockey player, because that wasn’t a reality, which I’m still aiming for today. But I wanted to build websites. I wanted to get into the whole space. I was lucky enough in my backyard to find a place that was starting to offer how to code HTM at the time. So that’s how it all began.
Danny Gavin Host 01:50
That’s amazing. I know that you studied commercial and advertising art and then obviously, like you said, html, digital communications. Do you think back at that time? Were there any experiences both inside and outside the classroom that you kind of liked to be like, ah, those were pretty pivotal into getting me where I am today. Yeah, 100%.
Eric Vardon Guest 02:08
I mean we were really lucky at the time and fortunate that that’s really when the internet was starting. So I graduated in 1999 and then went into another program for a year, was able to bypass the first part of the two-year program to get another diploma, and that’s when I got into at the time a Macromedia director and a Macromedia Flash before Adobe bought it, and at the time when bandwidth, unfortunately, was terrible, there was a few of us that were building these ridiculously annoying websites that could move around and have a whole bunch of noise and sound in them, and getting into 3D and motion capture and some of those kinds of things allowed us to build a business, with no experience really, but having something that everybody wanted. So that’s how I got into it. I worked a little bit for an agency in town and ultimately was never really good at listening, so I decided to work for myself because then I wouldn’t have to listen to anyone. But I had a great business partner and we just kind of just did that. We built really cool things for companies all over the world.
I look back now at interviews and magazines and traveling to Europe to conferences to speak and all these things as a 20-something-year-old with no experience, but in a community that, even to this day, I was just interacting with somebody on LinkedIn who used to sort of profile the two advanced back in the day and a few of us that were doing some cool things, but, to your point, it was. That’s what really allowed me to build a name and a bit of a brand and also be a part of a community that was brand new and there were no templates, there was no sound clip websites, there was no how-tos on Photoshop, this, and that you literally built everything on your own from scratch. It was just an unbelievable time and I look at it back with great pleasure.
Danny Gavin Host 04:02
I love how you mentioned Macromedia Flash. I remember evenings where my dad’s coming home from work and he’s pulling up online like well, check out these cool websites. And we used to like it when I remember him showing us these really cool Flash websites and that was like you know. I just have great memories of that. So thanks for bringing me back there. I don’t know if a lot of people know, but I believe shortly after college you created All Maple Apparel. It’s an apparel company. What led to that venture?
Eric Vardon Guest 04:27
Yeah, well, it was actually part of the cool community uprising. There were a few, I think, what we call E-Zines at the time, before blogs were really a thing, and there wasn’t really one that represented what was going on in Canada. So we started All Maple and it was really a glorified blog of sorts that featured Canadian musicians and Canadian artists, photographers, landscape, like whoever was doing something interesting and creative. We would profile them and interview them, and it really was more of an editorial play than anything. We were part of a few different conferences in Canada too, and so we had some neat hats and some shirts that we made.
And, because we had nothing but time and energy, one of our clients did a lot of screen printing and things like that. So they said, hey, why don’t we just get into business together and start a retail brand? They had seen that people were starting to order our stuff from all over the world. There were X paths Canadians living all over the place, and we had built a little ecommerce store with something called OSCommerce back in the day, packed together as some sort of merchant gateway. I don’t remember how. It just sort of came out of that interest at the time and there was a bunch of stuff going on with retail and how a lot of retail manufacturers, specifically roots at the time, had moved a lot of their facilities from the retail perspective overseas, and we wanted to just be sort of a younger, cooler, you know Canadian brand and no idea what we were getting ourselves into, started just buying blanks from American apparels and alternative apparels and all these and just you know. And then we got into with an investment with a local company, custom sewing everything, and so the purpose of that was everything would be handmade and sewn and dyed and stitched in Canada and be 100% all maple, you know, all the time, which is one of our kind of slogans.
So yeah, fast forward a couple of years. We had two retail locations and the online commerce store kept growing and you know, we had one in a local, fairly successful mall and one in a boutique downtown location and, at the same time, running a marketing agency with my partners. We were all involved together, which helped, but I would be at the mall from 7am to 1pm dealing with the world of retail and then going to the agency, getting some lunch and then working till 10 o’clock at night and seven days a week. That’s what I did for far too many years.
But yeah, the long story short. There is definitely a longer story. That’s kind of how we stumbled into retail. The only interesting thing about it was that, as a marketing agency which at the time, as we mentioned, started really just doing web development, web design we kind of got to branch out into POS and creating a campaign and getting into copywriting and all of these kinds of things, which led me to personally believe that there was more that our company could do and more that we could offer, and that’s at the end of it. What we were really good at was creating a brand and telling a story visually, and ultimately that obviously became a life.
Danny Gavin Host 07:34
Amazing. So what ended up with the apparel? Did you sell it off?
Eric Vardon Guest 07:38
No, unfortunately, that would have been my first experience going through a bankruptcy of a company, and it was seven years. It was a long, a good long haul. We did very well. I had a couple ownership changes in between. I was lucky enough one day to get a call from co-founder of Roots, who just called me on my cell phone one day and said hey, eric, I’d love to have you guys come in for a conversation.
I really didn’t know what that meant and thought that maybe there was synergy there.
We were right down from them in the mall, and so it was really just an interesting kind of avenue, and I’ll get into the reason why that matters.
But at the end of it, just with the sheer need of capital with such a capital-intensive business, we just couldn’t source it, we couldn’t find it, and so we ended up for a few years doing a little bit of online commerce, kept that going and then ultimately just sort of had to close our doors and turn things around, and at the same time the agency was starting to really grow, and so I learned my kind of first lesson from one of the mentors I think I maybe mentioned, or maybe not, in our earlier chats Dandy, but about focus and about attention to detail, and having your emotion in two different companies of sorts is not something that ever really is successful if you really are looking for something special to come from. And so that was a learning experience and I was probably a little bit tired, a little bit stressed, a little bit overworked, so part of me was maybe okay with it, but for many years I just always wondered what could kind of happen.
But at the same time I was on to the other adventure, and it is what it is.
Danny Gavin Host 09:15
But I think the positive we can take out of it is like and we’re going to talk more about your journey with the agency and selling that off but you were into big hits like big swings, and you took chances and you did things. So I think that just being that type of person, naturally you’re going to have those big wins, but you may have those big losses as well. To society and the Instagram world we live in. We only get to see those really amazing points, but the guys have actually done well. More often than not, they have those experiences where they didn’t do so well. So it’s nice that people can know that about you, because that just makes it more real.
Eric Vardon Guest 09:50
Yeah and appreciate that. I mean there was many other businesses and things we tried to get into at the time and there was always five or six different priorities from mortgages being in a mortgage brokerage business to a media company that was in airports and train stations to like just all sorts of random things we tried to get into. The notion was always that the service part of the company could cash flow a more scalable product. That was always something that I think to your point was we’re always looking at sort of the next thing. But one thing you remind me of taking chances was we had a random call from the agency one day and I didn’t quite catch who it was. He said my name is Scott from Such and Such. He’s like I’d love to talk to you about a project. I’m like sure, okay, we don’t really get too many inbound calls, usually referrals and things like that. But I hung up when I was talking to the business partner at the time and I said I think he said AOL, but I’m not too sure if that’s what he meant or if that’s what his email address was, and I was on the other line at the time. So I was like I’ll, let me call you back a month with another client I don’t know if I really was or not, but it was part of the deal, but anyway it turned out to be AOL Time Warner and they had a new art director that was kind of leading their revamp of their brand and they had called. So you saw some of the work that we did in some random magazine and Love what we’re doing said I’d like for us to come and see you to understand what the team is all about and the types of projects you know that you’re working on, because we’d like for you to work on our new user interface. You know, for a for further, the things that used to come out of the CD ROMs that you plug in, dial up to.
That was a pretty big deal. So we ended up becoming a vendor of record. But they said you know, let’s come to you, we’re gonna come. We’d love to come and see the office. At this point it’s me and this partner in his parents basement using their you know, of course, free, free house, maybe an internet connection that they paid for and a telephone that maybe we paid $49 for a month or something like that. So that was the first. You know we’re gonna come to you and we’d love to see your operation and, and you know, we ended up going to New York and got the business and it became a staple for us and in that agency for a few years it did a ton of really cool work. But that point of life okay, we need to actually have a serious operation here because they can’t become your parents basement too. You know, take a look at the team, because it’s just me and him, so you never know, but that’s the way it was back in it.
Danny Gavin Host 12:21
That’s amazing. What an awesome story. That’s pretty cool how all the you know not all, but a lot of successful people have their basement stories. Gotta do it All right, so let’s jump into mentorship. So, Eric, how would you define a mentor?
Eric Vardon Guest 12:34
I look at it from both angles, I guess.
But a mentor ultimately is someone who sees something in you that you probably Don’t see within yourself.
I think it’s almost always a recognition of, maybe, things that they see within themselves that they would love to do or change again. But I think it’s. It usually comes with some sort of energy, you know magnetism or or you know, hitting an off right away. There’s usually something there that sparks that, hey, I like this person and I want to help them, or I like this person and I need help from them, and I think that they can really help me and that could come usually to me. It always comes right away. There’s some sort of you know significant, you know connection, and I think that’s it is the mentorship on both sides, or Mentee is a connection to each other in some way that you don’t quite know what it is and hopefully, you know, you figure it out soon, and I think the people that are open to that type of feeling often work out very well together. Could be business partners, it could be husband, wife or partners, whatever, but to me that’s how I define super.
Danny Gavin Host 13:35
So let’s talk about some of your influential mentors. I know there’s your business partners at Arcane John Dorsey.
Eric Vardon Guest 13:42
Let’s get into it. I guess the two are the same. You know, John and I started out as Friends. Our exes at the time were working at the same company and so we would get together for, you know, staff parties or get together and so on, so forth. They’d be talking about work and we ended up just talking about music, you know, internet and stuff like that, and he was the web developer, and so he had an experience that had a depth of programming that I didn’t have, and we just, you know, we got along. We were friends for a very long time and, as I was trying to, I was getting out of that earlier agency that I shared a few stories with and kind of moving our separate ways to the whole purpose of. You know what we did at all.
Maple was sort of full marketing and the whole, the whole offering, whatever it was that a company or brand needed. That’s what, you know, got me excited, and John and I both shared within not only that vision, but also at the time, about a year or so after the downturn in 2008, when companies started saying like, okay, where’s my money actually going? And you know I’m giving you this check every month or a year or whatever, depending on the type of Relationship, and I kind of need to be able to be accountable to where it’s going. And so we, you know, in in that 2008 9 time frame, you know, even even Facebook and Twitter and a few others very rudimentary opportunities to be able to show any kind of attribution or ROI. Google ads at the time was, as you know, getting a bit better in terms of its algorithm and really starting to Allow agencies like us to kind of kind of formulate a return. And so when I had, when John and I got together, I was working at a another agency that sort of took up the job because I was getting out of some of the legal requirements from my ownership partnership, that that moved on and an alarm sort of weird way, there’s Tony and Brian and John and myself were the founders of Partners in Arcane that, as an agency that I was at, worked with Tony. So Tony actually had a client with it with satanio windows local company, a good life fitness it’s a really large fitness company in Canada, I think, one of the largest in the world and a couple others, and so he actually had hired that agency and then what I found out was that he was using John to build some of the components of these clients. So in this weird World where we all kind of got together in a roundabout way, fast forward a couple years, we ended up all starting Arcane.
You know, John and I were the founders, specifically on paper, and Tony and Brian sort of. We figured out deals to come together soon after that, but it was always a, you know, the partnership with the forlorn never had a founder and I need to do this or XYZ. We have complimented each other very, very well, and sometimes others needed each of us more, and sometimes, you know, they didn’t, and we were able to, really without ego and without, you know, the need to force upon each other a direction. We just were able to, you know, make decisions collaboratively. That Worked, and sometimes we’d argue and sometimes you wouldn’t agree and sometimes you wouldn’t get along, and it was never ill-will, it was just a way we made decisions. Maybe it drove some of our executive team a little bit crazy, I know for sure it did, but it worked for us. I think there was a friendship, there was a mutual respect, there was also An opportunity to learn from each other, and so to me that was really one of the first long-standing kind of mentorship groups that I had in a peer group where we would know everything about each other very personal and extend that into the business. And so when you can have that level of trust and the level of mentorship and Accountability to each other, you know, to me that’s what makes a fantastic partnership and obviously you know John was a huge part of that we continue to do stuff to today.
I’ll tell you one sort of smaller story as to it, but in the likeness of all building a lot of these businesses I mentioned, you know, that sort of approach of connectivity to somebody. It wasn’t until a few years after John I finally started our cane, had some time to actually, you know, talk, talking about where each other came from and, hey holy, your parents and where did they come from? You know we found out that our parents actually knew each other growing up and that his mom was actually at my mom’s wedding party. Oh wow, and we didn’t know that till 12 years after we got together. So there were all these weird things that kept flying around.
I can go on and on about clients and happenstances and all sorts of stuff, but the point I’m trying to make is that I think there’s a when there’s a collective energy like that and there’s a collective agreement on the approach that you take, the way you treat people, this really became the backbone of how we ran the business and our morals were all very shared equally, and how we built the values of our business all came from the way we kind of work in our own lives and I think that part of that mentorship, specifically in marketing, which can be, you know, brutal in some cases, I think it was a sort of a non-strategic secret to our some of our success.
Danny Gavin Host 18:40
Yeah, and to me, I feel like a mentor is higher than a partner, you know especially. And so the fact that you would like honestly say like this business partner, not only was he just a partner and which part means, like you know, we’re doing it together but the fact that he’s a mentor, that he can actually I can come to him for advice, you know, maybe he can challenge me and I’m open to that like that really is a sign of a very, very strong Relationship. And that’s why I think, like, as you think, that it’s a, you know, sort of an unspoken strategic advantage that you had, but it makes sense, because you don’t hear about that all the time.
Eric Vardon Guest 19:12
No, I agree, I’d always look to. You know I worked with my uncle when I was going through college and and they started a business when they were in university and with his best friend and they worked together and they played together and they became, you know, very close friends. You know John’s a godfather of my son and you know it. I’d always thought that how to be really cool to you know, have somebody in your life that you can not only trust but you can really give yourself to when you need it. And we all go through ups and downs and things in our lives and he’s been there for me and I’ve been there for him and same goes with Tony McBride, etc.
I think to your point is when, when you, when you can bring those types of things along, not only is it good for us, good for the business, but clients see that. You know, team members see that, staff members see that and the passion of the work ethic comes from that. You know. You see, I think you care. You care about what that means to somebody else, not, of course, just to yourself.
Danny Gavin Host 20:07
So let’s talk about your current investor at Event Connect. What level of mentorship, would you say, maybe a little bit different than John? What do you get from him, or how does that relationship work?
Eric Vardon Guest 20:19
Yeah, I mean, and as I said early on, as I was really not good at one, the one good thing I was maybe good at was not listening. I’ll say it.
I’ll say it that way, and so to to kind of fast forward to being, you know, now in my mid 40s, and having Don what I would consider as a unofficial mentor I haven’t used those words to him, but hopefully he sees this and knows them I think he does, but being accountable to to him and the family and you know, in a way that we’ve done both John and I have never had is is fantastic, especially when every conversation is something about About learning in a way from somebody who’s been through so much unbelievable success in their lives, but in a way that is also meaningful because it’s it fits in well with the way we grew up in our morals, back to the same consistency of Attributes that I think that I’d hopefully described well within Tony and Brian as well, and so I think that level of respect also comes from. I need to always be open to learning. I need to always be open to being taught. I also need to get out of my comfort zone and and go into challenging Conversations that maybe I’m not always prepared for, but in a way that is meaningful because that’s how I’m going to get to the next level Within my life and in my career, and I’m a part of you know why PO, from a peer-to-peer perspective and Happy to talk about what that means and why I think young professionals and entrepreneurs should go in that road. I’ve been fortunate to have a circle around me and I think Don is just that next evolution.
You know, for me and I think speaking for John as well that gives us just a well-rounded view of life and storytelling and best practices and all of the things that come with it. And maybe often, most often, he doesn’t know that every, within every conversation there’s something that we’re taking from it. But I think that’s when you know you have a good mentor, they’re not saying hey, you should do this or hey, you should do that or what about this, where that way those things do happen. But it’s more about sharing within life experiences and what you can take from that and how you can build on that With a relationship is probably the biggest part of how a successful mentor meant to you relationship works and what I love is is that Obviously, you’ve had a lot of your own successes, but I mean, at least from where I’m sitting, you know as you’ve grown up or as you’re moving forward, you’re actually you know.
Danny Gavin Host 22:38
There’s a sense of like, humility and oh wow, even though I’ve got all this, but there’s more to learn. I can, you know, and and I want to hear from others, and I think that’s awesome because I think sometimes when people from the outside, it’s like, okay, the more successful you are, like, the more closed in you are to hearing everyone else, but with you it seems like it’s actually opposite, which is so refreshing.
Eric Vardon Guest 22:56
Yeah, I think there’s a problem. I would hope that that’s the majority, at least from the I’m just trying to think of some of the experiences and other people that I’ve spoken to are you. You know, when you come from Nothing. When you come from, you know a place where you’ve had to work your whole life to get to where you are. You know, from the time I was 12 until now, I probably still work just as hard, maybe a little bit smarter and not as many hours.
But you know, within people that I can think of as yours, as you speak of theirs, there is not as much about the next thing or the next success. It’s not how it’s, you know, viewed in their mind. It’s really about a dedication to consistent learning and always being very humble, that there’s always somebody smarter, there’s always somebody more successful, there’s always always somebody that’s doing something that you never would have thought of, and if you know your place and you can learn from those, then then that will hopefully never stop. You know, I’ve always wondered why somebody that has made, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars and I’ve had lots of clients around and friends that have done very well for themselves always continue to work, and I’ve always wondered why, and it’s because they’ve done that one thing. But they’re curious by nature and they’re interested by nature and they probably love people, you know them.
You know I’m more of an introvert. I love time within myself and time to reflect, the time to really find energy within myself. But as part of who I am, I also have to or maybe like John, because he’s a complete extrovert, you know, he gets energy from other people, and so sometimes though, there’s a, there’s a balance between each of those, and I think back to the whole mentorship is they have to then understand how that balance works too. But yeah, there’s always a challenge and there’s always something to learn, and hopefully Everybody listening to this knows that it’s not just, hey, you get some money someday and you just sleep all day and you don’t do anything. I mean, I’ve never quite yet found anybody that has been okay with that. They’re always looking for something that’s next.
Danny Gavin Host 24:48
So I think this is a good segue. So, knowing that you naturally are more of an introvert, let’s talk about how you mentor others. So I know you have a small team at event connect that you mentor you also. You know I mentor a young agency founder. So naturally being an introvert, and for those introverts out there, how do you successfully mentor others?
Eric Vardon Guest 25:06
You know, naturally being that way, I think part of that too is being really open and humble too, and I see it as more of a friendship and a partnership. Then, you know, sort of I’m up here there, down here I’m a mentor, like it, though the word to me is definitely more inclusive than than anything but and I can go on and on about other relationships that I have with some of the passion, you know components, that I put my time and effort into it from a community perspective. But, yeah, that our event connects the team and it’s just. You know, we’re small, more mighty, we communicate well. I think we’ll always continue to communicate together.
But we’re all going through a journey in a new business with an industry that is changing Very rapidly. It reminds me very much of the early 2000s with what was going on in the internet so much fragmentation, a lot of, you know, private equity, a lot of money moving into the space, which means we have to really be accountable, to communicate with each other on what we’re hearing just as much, what it is that we’re saying and what it is that we’re doing so from from that side, and I think the one variable too is that one of my team members is in, you know, in Florida and I’m not. I hope to be more so, especially in the winter months. But you know there’s now a connection there that has to be managed through this format and from a mentorship perspective. I wasn’t sure how that would work and definitely we see each other, you know, from time to time in person and so on, so forth, and I think that helps extend it. I don’t think it’s a barrier, I just think it’s, you know, another hurdle that we have to figure out. But you know, I love engaging in new conversations and it’s also, you know, from a marketing and sales perspective and also leading A new brand that has to fit itself into an ever-changing you know world. Again, I’m used to that and so it’s very comfortable for me. So I think, whereas they probably have much more industry knowledge, much more Information at their fingertips in terms of, you know, best practices within our world of sports and within our world of technology, all the things that we’re going through I’ve done before. So I think that’s a natural you know Relationship that makes it work very well for us.
You know, from the agency front, I mean, I’m just, you know, was always born into the world of, like I said, building websites. I’ve always been in the world of agency, although I’m not really involved with, you know, with more feel hot or with our pain Maybe we’ll talk about that. I just love marketing and I love the hands-on, you know, sort of soft and hard skills that come with executing marketing campaigns, and we don’t have a lot of that, you know. I’ve been connected at the time, happy to talk about why that’s the case.
So I just, you know, but at the end of it, I just love people that really care, that work hard and that are interested in learning. You know that could be at home, could be with the family, it could be with, you know, cousins or or some random person like people ask me all the time on LinkedIn. I’ll pretty much have a coffee with anybody because I’m always looking to, you know, get into Relationships and conversations that are meaningful, sometimes a digital, sometimes it’s a person, but to me that’s what it’s all about all right, we’re gonna Go back and dive a little bit deeper into the past with selling Arcane, and you know your different sort of business ventures.
Danny Gavin Host 28:20
So, as discussed earlier, you co-founded Arcane in 2011 and then it was acquired by republics in 2020. You grew these marking powers from your basement literally right. So many people would be very hesitant to let go of that control. How did you approach that decision to sell the business?
Eric Vardon Guest 28:37
I think part of you knows one of our earlier partners and mentors that was involved in our business in a suitable way, also very successful, but was also very hands-on, you know, in his business. And I could think of other examples too where I had seen Successful people still highly, highly involved in the day-to-day of their business. I had to have conversations with them and they didn’t love everything like they did. They. If they could pick and choose which they could, I could do this versus I could do that. I often just challenged a few of them and said well, you have the power, you own this company, you’re the CEO, but you don’t have to be. Why don’t you just figure out what it is that you’re good at and just do that? And I don’t know if it was ego sometimes, or if it was just I could never do that, or if there was family involved, like there’s a whole bunch of other reasons, but I think it came down to John and I fairly early on and maybe this just comes from the way we grew up and we’re at the same age. I always make the joke because he’s a little bit older than me and I’ll hold that over for him for a long time. But I think we knew what we were really good at, and that’s the whole zero to one kind of thing of getting an idea going, working very hard, figuring out to the point of scale and then figuring out how to put people in place that could do things in a better way that we could, and so that was always something that we had talked about from day one. We had to answer your question. We had a five year business plan when we started the business itself. That grew into a seven or eight year business plan.
But one thing that I’ll share is that in 2000 and I’m gonna say 18, John and I both sort of stepped down. I stepped down as the CEO and John had moved into working more specifically with Event Connect. At the time, Dave Bunce became the CEO, Lindsay Schneider became the CEO, and that was the first really sort of step I’ve been getting to a long-winded answer to it, but a first step in. We know what we’re good at, or at least we think we know what we’re good at, but we know what we shouldn’t be doing, and so that change was really difficult, and I think that was the first part of letting the baby go or letting sort of that control release. But we also were seeing such rapid success that it just felt right and we knew it was the appropriate thing to do sort of back around and fast forward a bit.
But in 2019, we always go to Tony’s Cottage. It’s a beautiful place up in Muskoka here in Canada and we had the partners come, the families would come, the kids would come and we’d have that time to actually just sort of talk about what we wanted to do. And so we had a really honest chat with each other about, okay, we had this five-year business plan. It’s now been seven years. What are we gonna do for the next 10 years? And we didn’t really know. And so we had a few of these other investments going on. We’re all in a little bit of different areas in terms of our life and the things that we wanted, but we made a list of what we hoped the next 10 years would achieve.
But we also agreed to see what’s out there in the market, because should we raise some money? Should we go international? Should we look at expanding? Should we go to? A whole bunch of different options came to the table and one of those was, well, let’s talk to some of friends that we had in M&A and see what’s going on in the marketplace and maybe there’s a hybrid there. But we knew what we wanted to keep the culture brand. We knew we wanted to protect our people. We knew we wanted to not be out of the business necessarily, but find someone who could answer the “what does the next 10 years look like?” Because we just didn’t have that answer. So that really became the crux of what happened.
And another weird sort of synchronicity moment is that we had the first sort of official okay with our friends in this little M&A boutique firm, had a phone call, everybody got together, we agreed to the principle of what we were gonna do and this was in November of 2019. And I got a random LinkedIn message from Thomas at Republics literally two minutes after that saying, hey, here’s what we’re up to. I’d love to have a conversation about Arcane. We’re right away, within a couple of weeks. We didn’t even go to market at that point, but what they were looking for and what we had on our list, that seemed fairly lofty, almost matched ideally and ultimately we went down that road and it worked out in March of 2020.
And of course, I’ll never remember cause we had this coronavirus plan. That was part of the deal structure and all this kind of stuff, but we got along and it was back to that whole. Connection is that it may have been bumpy and it go through those processes where you don’t know what you’re gonna get into and all those kinds of things, but based on where we were, the criteria and what we’re looking to do, that ultimately we took a lot from the universe kind of hippie side, saying hey, there’s something going on with why that person’s reaching out to it, and it worked out well for us. But it was a lot of planning, a lot of thinking and a lot of reason why we did it and we’re just kind of glad it matched up with the hopes and dreams that we had.
Danny Gavin Host 33:41
But it sounds like you guys were ready and then you got that call. It wasn’t like. Do you think it would have been different if you got that call and you weren’t necessarily ready?
Eric Vardon Guest 33:49
Absolutely. I mean from some of the things that we went through the year prior to that in terms of some difficulties in the business and obviously transitioning over to new leadership and all those kinds of things. But at the end of it, there’s never a perfect time and you can be as planned and prepared as you want and something’s gonna happen. So I am not one to look backwards and say, hey, what about this or what about that? But yes, to answer your question, I am absolutely.
Danny Gavin Host 34:14
So I mean, you’ve mentioned before how, like, you’re really good at going from zero to one. Do you think that there’s a different approach? You know, some people build a business so that they can have forever. Others are building a business because they know they’ll get to a point where they’ll hand it off. Do you think there’s a difference in, like the growth strategy or the strategy one should take, depending on that route?
Eric Vardon Guest 34:35
Well, it probably comes back to you know that true accountability, and it could come from a mentor of knowing what you’re good at and knowing what it is that you wanna do. I think that most often, ego is a very dangerous thing and it makes you do the things that maybe you shouldn’t do, or make decisions or get yourself into things. I mean Rand Fishkins, when he wrote this book about Moz. The timing was really good to read that book because it really kind of scared me about. You know where private equity was and how it worked and didn’t work, and you know we’ve been lucky enough to within service. The service business is great because you know cash flow is somewhat instantaneous, right, and so if you’re smart about it, you can manage your growth very well, and that’s you know.
We were lucky enough to go that route. We never really needed, you know, investments, so to speak, especially in that business, and if so, you know maybe we needed from an angel perspective. And so, to answer your question, it’s for us it was always yeah, we knew, but also we were gaining experience over time, and so when I look at the whole zero to one thing now, I don’t know if I could do a zero to one ever again, because that’s I think that’s a young person’s game in some respect. You can see the secrets to success in when businesses are in that sort of grow up phase and you know. Obviously that’s where we’re at now. So it’s probably a part of knowing who you are when and the timeframe within yourself and within the business, and then part of it’s probably the type of business that you’re in as well, because sometimes you just have to scale and sometimes you are forced out and you have to sell. It’s a tough answer in some respect, but I think part of it is an evolution.
Danny Gavin Host 36:13
So many digital agencies began around the same time as Arcane. Most of them didn’t survive. Many struggled with working so lean that they burned out their talent. Oftentimes this was because the agencies started out very small and the leadership was often very involved in the day-to-day operations and service fulfillment. So how do you get out of that daily grind work and move yourself into the business of actually?
Eric Vardon Guest 36:34
running your business. So, to sort of add on to some of the things I had mentioned earlier about always knowing what we should be doing, we had always a notion or an agreement between ourselves to no matter what it is that we were focused on. Whatever strategy is to replace ourselves as fast as humanly possible, no matter what, and probably being, from a CEO perspective, the last thing you want to replace yourself if you have everything going fairly well. But when we first started, we were executing campaigns. We were in Google ads as probably one of the most premier users in tools and agencies, and it definitely in North America at the time, which was a focus of the majority of our budget, but we were the ones in there writing copy. We were still building websites. I was still designing. John was actually creating them in the early days.
It’s kind of one of those things that I think we always said okay, we’re going to scale this, but it was never. We’re going to have 100 people, we’re going to have 20 people or we’re going to have whatever, but we’re always going to replace ourselves and move on to whatever the business needs at the time. And so then you hire designers, you hire better developers and then you move on to hiring new people and then getting into hiring finance and then when that business gets set up or that business unit gets going well, you move on into whatever’s next, and so we added on pieces over time, but I think it is always for us was a mentality of getting out of the way, but always finding good people. So we obviously didn’t pay ourselves for a long time early on, saved everything, always invested the dollars back into the growth of the business, always tried to give people everything that we could from a salary and benefits perspective. Over time. There wasn’t money for the founders. I drove up which I still do drive a truck, but I drove a really ugly piece of crap for a long time because I don’t need this money. My team members do, because I need them to fulfill our collective vision and also to live up to the I’m going to get out of the way and let you be the best digital marketer you can be. So that always kept going and that became sort of a theme within anybody that we would hire. They would do the same.
People would move departments sometimes wherever they could fit, but we found good people that cared and they loved the business and they were passionate, we would hire them, we would figure it out, we’d just go sell a couple of new clients and at the end of days we got into this sort of offensive, defensive kind of mode. I had talked about myself personally but I had moved clearly into the offensive side. I loved connecting with people and loved in the new business side and really figuring out early strategies. Then I had worked with Matt on our sales and development team but he was the best, closer and the best person to really build a proposal and execute and onboard. It was a great combination. On the defensive side we had Dave and we had Tony and John and working with Lynn’s here as CEO and making sure that there was money and that there was profit and that the people were taken care of.
I think the theme of offensive defense now we take to these other businesses because a focus on strength I preach that to anybody that will listen. I know what I’m not good at and I’d rather have support and people there that can step up and really tend to take charge. I think that theme started from hey, let’s get out of the way and let people do the best, to almost a strategy for the overall business.
Danny Gavin Host 40:04
I love how that’s so much a part of you. I know there’s people who pay hundreds of dollars to coaches to realize that, hey, you got to step out of the way. I think it’s cool that that’s part of your DNA, given that you’ve sold a couple of businesses in your career, but if you check out your LinkedIn, you’ve stayed with the businesses as well. How do you map out the timeline for something like that selling staying on and then also, how do you protect your employees and communicate with them through what can be a big shift for them?
Eric Vardon Guest 40:31
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, first and foremost, is the team in the set and going through the sales side. We probably over engineered it both with clients calling individually, making sure that they understood the why. The timing, I think, is tough for me to answer because at every business it goes through something a little bit different, but we had one-on-one conversations with pretty much everyone. We made sure that they had time with us when they needed to.
I feel like we did everything that we could do to communicate, and properly, from our hearts and from ownership and from partners that started this thing. As to the why, we didn’t hide anything. We would always share financials. We shared pretty much as much as we possibly could from day one around the profitability of the company, etc. I think I mentioned that because it was part of the grain, of the DNA of openness of the business itself internally, that I think it was something that they just felt like it was the right thing to do. What could have been worse? We’d step aside and we’re not involved in the business anymore or the other what-ifs. That could happen Again at the time. I think we hopefully did a good job of really just trying to over-communicate, listen and share as much as we could and, be honest, I think maybe that’s all you can do. I feel like we did a positive thing for most and we always tried to make sure that people were protected and still do that to this day Again. Part of that probably is I know it’s variable based on the type of deal, structure and who’s involved. But specifically from an arcane perspective, that was our list. We wanted to be involved. We didn’t want to just go away day one and not be involved because we loved marketing. We loved marketing Finding an opportunity where I could be an advisor at the time.
I could be a part of the board. I could be part of helping curve new business and being an agency leader and owner. I felt like that was an important piece of the step. That’s something that I wanted. It’s partly what the business needs, but it’s also what each individual is looking for at the time. Each of those will be different based on the scenarios.
For me, it was really around that process of being involved for as long as I could and for as long as I could add value. Obviously, it came into time and focused now with Event Connect and one had to win, but we’re fortunate enough that the timing worked out very well. Same goes with the Morpheo front. Again, I’m still a marketer, I still love marketing tech and I love where Hock is going Back to the part of I know. What I’m good at is.
It’s really interesting when you look at your business you’re like I’m not sure Same with Arcane what I would actually do here to add value anymore. That’s a really weird conversation to have with yourself, but that’s definitely one that I had from a Morpheo perspective, just because when you look at what it needed in the scale side, that deal made perfect sense because it was married directly with exactly what the business need that I could fulfill. I think that’s part of the gut check, whether, again, it comes from a mentor or if it comes from internally. Sometimes it’s dictated by the business and the acquirer, sometimes it’s dictated by the deal, but sometimes you just need to know what it is that you can do and you cannot do, and you got to be honest with yourself with it.
Danny Gavin Host 44:01
Are there any mistakes or near misses that you experienced in any of the handoffs?
Eric Vardon Guest 44:05
Always, yeah, I mean, I would say with anybody going through the process. Specifically with Arcane, we had an unbelievable group handling our M&A process that has done it before, that knew what to ask, that could deal with the due diligence, because we’re still running a business. At the same time, it could be a highly distracting process. When I think about it, that is the best decision we’ve made. It wasn’t cheap by any means, but we would not have made it through. I think we made it through unscathed because they knew what to ask. They knew how to hold our hand through it. More than not, they knew how to handle the emotional component with it, which is probably a whole nother podcast on how people do not prepare mentally At the end of it. That was the best thing we do. No real mistakes, probably a few things that we caught at the end of it, but it was open, it was communicative.
I think, given the buyer, given where we were at the process although a lot of work and a lot of time and effort shared by many people it went pretty well overall. Nothing I can really say there, danny, the afters of things that you maybe could have done differently, etc. People’s reactions to certain things. Overall was pretty good. Again, a whole other conversation on where we’re at now, almost four years past. When we first started those conversations, which is a crazy amount of time I think we had enough of us with the iron on the ball to make sure that it went pretty smooth.
No horror stories that I can share today.
Danny Gavin Host 45:39
How is Arcane Republic doing now?
Eric Vardon Guest 45:41
Again. I think it’s a constant grind. Marketing is I wish I could say it’s not being disrupted yet again but obviously a whole other podcast on where things are going. I think partly we saw that and that’s why Morpheo started was just the idea that you can’t always throw people at problems, that you really do need to live within a pseudo stack of tech. That makes sense.
But Arcane it’s interesting. You peel out four owners and you peel out expensive salaries and some of us at the top, the business of Arcane. What they’ve done is continue to be smart about the clients, that they have to understand, probably better than we ever did, the types of brands and the type of business that they’re in that they should work in and focus on. I think Arcane, as I can speak to my limited involvement, continues to still do well. All new people, lots of different faces living in a virtual world is so weird and different, as I am still in the building that Arcane used to be in but still in contact with, obviously with republics and leaders at Arcane in some respect too. Yeah, it’s different and great and probably very frustrating at the end of the day for some of the things, but that’s just marketing. It’s like that’s when I started. That changed a million times and I just think that’s part of the nature of the beast.
Danny Gavin Host 47:05
All right, so it’s time for our lightning round. I know, outside of business, you’re very involved in sports and health and wellness. Tell me about the top three things you like to play or like to do, to work out or just to get outside and enjoy yourself.
Eric Vardon Guest 47:19
Summertime tennis, golf. I live pretty much in the middle of nowhere now, so I have all sorts of things that I have to do to keep up, such as bare feet in the grass and hanging out and playing with the kids and playing baseball or whatever it is that they want to do. My passion is that. And then I have been increasingly addicted to being healthy. I think that’s part of what happens when you get older. But I’ve got into a whole bunch of alternative things and breathing techniques and exercise and stretching and cold plunges, and I’ve challenged myself every year to do a few different things both one mentally and physically that are new. So I picked up a few this year that are fun and interesting and just really just trying to learn and grow and explore and part of that comes with homeschool or kids too. So trying to, but with my wife’s support, who does everything. I’m not a teacher in that respect, so I’m not taking any credit, but having as much time with them as I can, and balancing that with work is obviously a priority.
Danny Gavin Host 48:22
Can you give an example of one of those physical challenges?
Eric Vardon Guest 48:24
Yeah, well, I mean the cold plunges probably the biggest one I started in the winter here in Canada, which is a cost effective way to do it. So so you know, I I just said, okay, I’m going to try this thing. So I bought a cheap rain barrel from Walmart and I put it outside and I filled it up and, of course, within a few hours it was ready to go. And so the next morning I woke up and I needed my sledgehammer and I had to get in and I had my gloves on, that I be any took there and boots on and obviously nothing else, shorts on and I get in there and yeah, it was horrible.
It was absolutely the worst experience of my life, but I loved it enough where I’m like okay, and I’m committed and it’s part of who I am, so I’m going to do it and fast forward a month. I just when walking in snow and I’m jumping into the thing and I’m again hating every minute of it. There isn’t one day that I don’t not look forward to it. But now when I travel, I go to hotels and I can’t take my cold punch with me, but I just have a cold shower. But I’m like this is not even cold enough in the hotels anymore.
So it’s like so that’s one that I I’m proud to say I continue to do. I think it’ll always be a part of it.
And I read Wim Hof’s book after that and I got into some of the kind of breathing stuff that he does. So yeah, very into, you know, the brain and the balance between it, because I think probably why it’s relevant is you know I didn’t do enough of that when I was working. You know heavy days. So I would and I do strongly suggest that anybody I’m speaking with or chat with that’s getting into businesses, you know, gotta take care of yourself because it catches up to you Absolutely.
Danny Gavin Host 50:08
All right, eric. So as we wrap up, just wanted to talk a little bit about Event Connect, just so that the people who are listening know about it, and sort of what’s your next big steps?
Eric Vardon Guest 50:16
there. So, again, this business is now 10 years old. It was something that we built the MVP, originally at Arcane, and so we’ve been in and around it for, you know, since inception, again, sports families, both John and I he’s coaches as kids. You know, I coach mine. I also run a bit of a local league too in the summertime, so it’s great to be involved in a business too that in a very different way, you know, we have a passion of both bus growing and sports as well.
But, yeah, so you know, joining officially in October of 2020 after Arcane kind of transitioned off. It’s been, you know, an unbelievable ride. We’ve had to, you know, going in tourism and in travel and in sports, when obviously everything kind of shut down was a difficult business to be in. But with Don and with the support from an investment perspective, we knew that if we could continue to focus on the build of the product and double down on the execution of the development side, you know that we would come out on the other side of it, you know, hopefully successful in having a product that is exactly what the market needed. So, you know, I started just really learning about the business, even though I had been around from an investor perspective and owner. I really wasn’t involved in the day to day and I thought the business was easy.
But wow, is it a complicated, intricate, unbelievably deep business and many, many different players.
You know we compete against the likes of NBC with their sport engine product, the gaps, others that if you’ve used or went to kids with registration or tournaments or whatever, I mean fairly well known. And then there’s the whole relationship politics side underneath and all the things that go on with it. But at the end of it we’re helping kids play and having great experiences and that feels amazing every single day. But, as I sort of made akin to the early 2000s, this business is exactly that where most of the tech is built on stacks that you really don’t want to build on anymore, if I can say that. You know, it’s such a we’re just so far ahead of everybody because of that doubling down investment that we have a head start and by no means is that anything but a bit of an advantage and we don’t take it for granted, but it’s allowed us to continue to secure, you know, really great business. You know, in through specifically into the US with the majority of our businesses.
So at the end of it yeah, we help people that run tournaments. You know with software and the technology that they need to be as efficient as possible registration and scheduling and you know rostering and messaging and anything that you would need to kind of a similar to what HubSpot does for a marketing company, if you will, we do for these people that run these massive, massive tournaments. We help them with their travel components as well. So, when you have a team of 15 kids on a baseball or hockey team, with parents and grandparents and homes and dads all going to somewhere that they don’t live, they got to stay in hotels and that is a logistical, you know matzah ball and so, like, how do you do that? Well, is really where I think we shine.
We’re a service-based company too at heart, with great tech, but we, you know, we take our pride in how we can support the service of needs of those people that are traveling and do some really cool things behind the scenes in terms of dashboards and business logic and really lots more to go. So, yeah, we’ve got some disruption going on. The brand is growing, but still a ton to do. Now it’s almost three years. I’m finally learning most of the business, but there’s still another 10 years to go. So I see ourselves running this business for a long time and learning how to be in growth phase, I guess, as opposed to the zero, to one.
Danny Gavin Host 54:07
Where can listeners learn more about you and your business?
Eric Vardon Guest 54:09
Well, eventconnectsports.com, easy enough. If you Google search us, you can do the test too, Danny, If you want. Hopefully we’ll rank accordingly, as we should with our best practices. But yeah, always there and I’m on LinkedIn so anybody ever wants to connect. You can find me at Ford slash, Eric Vardon, or just type my name in there V-A-R-D-O-N and. Happy to chat, happy to connect.
Danny Gavin Host 54:32
Eric, this has really been awesome, super inspiring for me personally. Thank you so much for sharing your journey and being a guest on the Digital Marketing Mentor, and thank you, listeners, for tuning in to the Digital Marketing Mentor. We’ll talk to you next time. Thank you for listening to the Digital Marketing Mentor podcast. Be sure to check us out online at thedmmentor.com and at thedmmentor on Instagram, and don’t forget to subscribe on Apple podcasts, spotify or wherever you listen to your podcasts for more marketing mentor magic. See you next time.
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