By Andrew Macdonald
As part of my new focus on up and coming millennial entrepreneurs, I sat down with Dave Culligan who just days ago expanded his Halifax-headquartered video production, content, branding and strategy advice agency firm into Toronto.
He is the founder and proprietor of the firm ‘threesixfive’, now entering its second year of operation. He has also moved into a second office in Downtown Halifax, the Sovereign Building, owned by large Halifax-Hamburg commercial landlord Farhad Vladi.
The firm has five employees in Halifax, and Culligan last week positioned two employees at the new Toronto downtown office.
I teased this story earlier in the week, in The Notebook.
Culligan grew up in a military household in Timberlea, and as a teenager was a keen high school footballer, and later became a talented player with the St. Francis Xavier University X-Men in Antigonish and then with St. Mary’s University Huskies, where he graduated with a business degree in 2015.
He is a clever, determined and successful entrepreneur in our community and a finalist in the New Business of the Year competition run by the Halifax Chamber of Commerce. He will find out next week whether he is the winner.
When Culligan graduated from SMU, he spent a year doing social media and marketing campaigns for Mickey MacDonald and his son Colin MacDonald’s private wine store and the Chicken Burger franchises.
During that year of employment, he would go out after work, mornings before work, and on weekends, exploring with his iPhone and creating videos as if he was a tourist in his own city and province. On weekends, he also explored other parts of Nova Scotia.
For the whole of 2016, he shot a one-minute video each day — his 365 days project becoming the root of his firm’s name — featuring a different part of Nova Scotia. He posted the homemade videos on his Instagram page, and quickly developed a fan following in Halifax and around the globe.
“Then I started to develop a passion for video as it pertained to marketing, and started to see people on YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook social media in cities like New York, London and Toronto, and thought, that is really cool what they are doing, and then I noticed no one was doing that in Halifax.
“I’d get up early in the morning or go out at night. I had never really explored the province before – other than for minor hockey trips and I fell in love with the province, going to the South Shore, the Valley or Cape Breton — and it strengthened my connection to this place.”
From his project he created the complete agency media company threesixfive Media Inc., branded as threesixfive.
“I turned that video work into my career. It challenged me to find the beauty in the mundane,” he says of the year-long video project, an essential creative ingredient for his marketing agency now, where he represents a growing list of advertisers, and other organizations.
Initially, he freelanced for a year and half, using earnings to buy equipment.
“One of my first freelance gigs was with EllisDon, showcasing some of their buildings, and then I had a project with Dalhousie (University) and I worked with (housing developer) David Graham at Atlantic Developments on a project at Long Lake Village.
“Then it kept spinning and at the recommendation of family friend Robert Zed, he advised me to capitalize on the momentum, and to create an actual branded agency outside of ‘just Dave Culligan’, and build something bigger than myself, which I didn’t understand at the time.”
Zed is now keenly mentoring the millennial entrepreneur (see sidebar story on that).
“I can’t stress how integral Robert has been advising me on business acumen, building my confidence as a business person, installing just confidence as a young man, and a man. He also organizes a men’s leadership group that I am a part of. I have learned to really lean into the advice of other people. I know my craft, and I have some good ideas myself, but as far as best business practices and timeless business advice and practices, I am happy to surround myself with people who are smarter than me.”
Question: Aside from raising funds on your GoFundMe page, did you get any bank loans to buy equipment or pay the office rent for the first while of your startup?
“No, they wouldn’t give me any money. They gave me $40,000 to go to school, and I paid that all off in two years through freelance work and salaried work, and a combination of things. Then the bank would not give me a $5,000 credit line because I was too young and had no financial business history.
“I ran my credit card up to $22,000 buying equipment. I did that knowing that I would get there and make it happen but I was frustrated I had to pay 21 per cent interest.”
“We have two years now and there is no risk to a bank, and I am sure any bank would now be happy to help us out, and I am in the midst of getting our Year Two financials wrapped up.
“We need some bank cash as flow cash, because we are always waiting for people to pay, and we grew pretty fast from a two-man shop to a seven-person organization, which all happened under our feet.”
Culligan declines to reveal his annual revenues, but his camera equipment cost well over $100,000.
“What I would say is that we did about 400 per cent increase in Year Two compared to the first year. I can say business is good, it is growing, and 99 per cent of it is inbound, so we are not going out hunting for business.”
He says part of his job is to “develop strong client relations and be client-focused, and that has led to return clients, happy clients that sell us to their friends and their contacts.”
He makes commercial for companies for TV, and more often for social media. He just hired a creative director from Breakhouse, Sarah Leeson is tasked to build out the branding and design part of threesixfive’s offering. “That can mean designing a logo or brand assets for a company – it has helped us with web designs, and web development”.
Culligan wants to be an agency disruptor in Halifax
“We’re making moves to become more of a full service creative agency – that said were trying out best to disrupt the traditional agency model.
“We are trying to build a company that is value-added and keep as many services in-house as possible. Our clients are really digging that, and it is serving us well, but it has its challenges because you have to be lean, and the culture has to be tended to, and be very selective as to who you bring into the company so they are ready for the hard work and the variety of skills required of them.”
While Culligan is the oldest in the shop, he is just 27, the youngest staffer is just 21, Ciaran Roxburgh, a Cape Bretoner who was studying engineering at Dalhousie, and he was hired as the third staffer.
“He had been filming on GoPros, skiing in Cape Breton, and he came in for an interview and he had a great attitude. We hired him on the spot and it is amazing to see how much he has developed in the nine months he has been here. Now he is editing videos for us for (client) Puma out of Germany.
“The other day Puma sent a clip of Lewis Hamilton the Formula 1 driver that was specifically for Ciaran to edit in Halifax.”
Then there is a 17-year old high school student, who works one day a week at the shop.
“He comes in and works on social media content for us, does some edits for us, and chips in where ever he can, he is a really smart kid.”
Culligan says employing a 17-year old is part of a smart strategy.
“If I want to stay young in my mind and stay on top of how fast these technologies and trends are changing, then I need to find smart young people, and listen to them, and bring them in and tap into their knowledge because they know it better than anyone. They live and breathe it. I don’t want to become the old fogey at 27 who doesn’t know what is going on anymore.”
Question: How did you land a global brand like Puma, the giant clothing sports retailer?
“They reached out a year ago to me online. At the time I thought it was a mistake or a spam email, because it came from Germany, and they asked us to do video edit for them.
“I almost didn’t answer the email. But then I said, ‘it looks real’ and I looked up the person on LinkedIn, and we got the edits done in a few days and we tried to do a really good job of it, and it turned out they loved it, and the said their past agency had to do a round of edits, and they loved our work right away.
“Our dream has always been to make a big brand production here in Halifax — to bring Halifax to the rest of the world — and they sent a pair of sneakers and asked us to come up for a concept for the sneakers, and find some models and create a short video ad for them.
“So we went online and found two friends, we asked them to model, and we styled them, and we rented a black BMW, because it was like a motorsport shoe, and we went out at 4 a.m. and within two hours shot the video. It was intended to make Halifax look bigger and gritty than it might be. They totally loved the video, and they used it in presentations around the world and that led to a bunch more work with Puma.”
Over the last year, he has been to Puma’s German headquarters in Herzogenaurach for more work four times, as well as doing a shoot with them in Berlin and London, and recently did a shoot on Coney Island in New York.
Culligan Arrives Big Time
While in New York, he went to Puma’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue “and we were walking through the store and they had this big screen with their commercials, and I thought, ‘Man it would be so cool if I our stuff was up there’ and, lo and behold, the next clip was our Halifax ad on the big screen in New York.”
The Halifax scene was shot in front of Jim Spatz’s Maple apartment.
“That was really cool to see our work up in the biggest cities in the world, and that was instrumental and very eye opening for us. We didn’t have to stay necessarily as a small company just in Halifax.”
One business challenge for the millennial entrepreneur is that he is not a numbers guy, adding the company is run on feelings.
“But I want to become a more numbers guy, and I am working on that. I have developed a lot more confidence in my ability to anticipate demand, to anticipate a client’s needs and the business’s needs, and so far we have been pretty good at making hires at the right time. That allows us to be more strategic and allow us to be more efficient.”
As for last week’s expansion into setting up a two person Downtown Toronto office, Culligan says it is only possible that he can spend weeks at at a time in Ontario, because he has a strong second-in-command, based at the Halifax office.
“Gavin Hatheway is my number two at the company and is currently our lead producer. He’s really stepped up as a leader and has helped to establish systems that give me much confidence heading out to Toronto for weeks at a time”, says Culligan.
His clients list now includes Puma, eBay, Fossil, Red Bull, Saint Mary’s University, Nova Scotia Power, and Alexander Keith’s