Donna Benton: How I Scaled 'The Entertainer' To Become A Global, Digital Eco-System
Australian businesswoman, Donna Benton, moved to Dubai in 2000 and soon after founded the ENTERTAINER, the region's leading lifestyle app that provides 2 for 1 offers at a wide range of food and entertainment venues. They have recently sold a majority stake in the company, turning it into a global digital eco-system. Deals in High Heels sat with Donna to discover what it was like when she was in complete start up mode, her advice on how to scale, and the moment that she realised she was onto something BIG...
Thank you for interviewing with us, Donna! Congrats on all of your success with the Entertainer. Tell us more about it and how did you originally come up with the concept in 2001?
People always ask me how the Entertainer came about and, in a way, I simply happened to be in the right place at the right time. In 2001, I had just moved to Dubai from Melbourne for a job that didn’t turn out to be what I’d hoped.
But then a few weeks later, I came up with the idea for the Entertainer. I’d seen all the new restaurants and attractions that were opening up across the city at the time and quickly realised that there was no real incentive for residents to pick one over the other. The ‘Buy One Get One Free’ offer meant that customers got unbeatable value in a city that was pretty expensive to live in, and in turn restaurants and attractions got the right customers through their doors.
Our product range now includes 40 destination-specific packages, with offers from over 10,000 merchant partners across 15 countries worldwide - including South Africa, Singapore, Hong Kong, UK, Greece and all of the GCC.
You have scaled the company to a global company of 300+ people – what would your advice be to other entrepreneurs wanting to scale?
We’re fortunate in that we’ve seen positive growth every year since launch and the main reason for this is that we’ve scaled at the right speed. At the start, I worked alone on all aspects of the business and I only hired people as and when I needed, and I was specific about selecting staff that were committed to growing the brand and making it a success. I wanted to save all the money I could to put it back into growth and development.
We waited until the Entertainer was well established in the UAE before we started to expand into all of the GCC countries. In 2012, a private equity group invested and acquired 50% of the business. This allowed us to speed up our growth and do two key things: expand globally into Asia, South Africa and Europe and develop and launch our App and start our transition to the data-driven company that we are today.
People assume that if a start-up business is going to be a success it will all happen very quickly, but it takes a lot of hard work and patience to build a sustainable business.
My advice would be:
· Take it slow, but not too slow.
· You’re going to have to take some risks and go with your gut, but where you can try and make your business decisions based on data and fact.
· Don’t be afraid to stick to your business model and try not to be swayed by what your competitors are doing.
· When it comes to investment make sure that you find the right partner. It’s a commitment from both sides and it has to work for all parties.
· Do what you can yourself for as long as possible – not only will you save money, but you will also learn everything about all aspects of your business.
What was it like when you first came up with the idea and you were in complete start-up mode? Did you have a support system in place?
When I decided to start the Entertainer all I had was the $3000 that I had in my savings account when I left Australia, so it was a true startup. It was a personal labour of love at the start and I did everything myself for the first year. I worked from my kitchen and the internet café downstairs as I didn’t even have a computer. I dealt with all of the company set up, legalities and finances. I knocked on a lot of doors and faced many setbacks, but I signed up 97 merchants in the first year. I then managed all of the design and printing and the first book hit the shelves in 2002 – we sold 983 books that year. It was well-received and word of mouth from happy customers and happy merchants quickly spread.
I’d previously worked in events and so I had to learn everything along the way. But I knew I had a good idea and I had the energy and determination to make it a success. Of course, I made mistakes along the way, but I didn’t let them get me down, I just made sure to learn from them and not make them again.
Starting your own business definitely isn’t easy and it certainly comes with ups and downs. But as I always say – “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.”
When did you realise you were onto something big?
When the books first hit the market in 2002 and people really saw that it wasn’t ‘too good to be true’ and started telling their friends about how great it was – that’s when I knew it was going to succeed.
When I sold 50% in 2012 and had the investment and support to go digital and global - that’s when I knew that it was definitely going beyond where I ever thought it would.
It’s pretty crazy that 17 years ago I was in my local internet café researching merchants and putting together the business plan – and here I am today, the founder of an international, data-driven digital company. That was definitely beyond my wildest imagination.
How do you balance everything? What do you like doing in your downtime?
You can’t underestimate the hard work and resilience you need to build a successful business. I started when I was 26 and I didn’t have a family who relied on me. So I was able to commit all of my time, energy and passion into starting the company. I had my daughter in 2010 and my son in 2013 and having children does impact your business as you have to find equilibrium between your work and home life - a balance that makes sense for everyone.
I’m very organised and I do plan ahead. But since no day is ever the same I focus more on being flexible and less about sticking to a rigid schedule. Some days I might take the afternoon off to do something with the kids and then I’ll catch up on work in the evening after they’re in bed.
I’m also fortunate enough to have a great support team around me and the children. Never underestimate the importance of a great PA and a reliable nanny.
It’s really important to take time out for yourself. For me, I prioritise exercising as that makes me feel great. I tend to start most mornings with a 5:30am run on the beach. I find it the best way to clear my head and get ready for the day. I also love to entertain at home or go out with my friends.
Did you have any mentors throughout your career?
I’ve never had anyone in particular as an official mentor, but I’ve never been afraid to ask people for their feedback and opinions. Listening is learning, and I’ve been lucky to have some great people support me along the way.
You recently sold a majority stake of your company – what’s next on the cards for you?
As part of the deal, I’m releasing some of my own shares but remain a key shareholder. So I will be continuing in my current role - contributing to the vision, growth and management of the company alongside GFH. The next stage for the business will focus on expanding our reach and developing the ENTERTAINER into a global digital eco-system where all parties can communicate, discover, curate and enjoy even more about their experiences.
About Donna Benton:
Australian businesswoman, Donna Benton, moved to Dubai in 2000 and soon after founded the ENTERTAINER, the region’s leading lifestyle app that provides 2 for 1 offers at a wide range of food and entertainment venues. Today, the ENTERTAINER is a data-driven, tech company offering 38 consumer products and tailored B2B solutions in 16 countries, providing offers and discounts from over 10,000 merchant partners – driving over $1.3bn into the global economy each year.
Donna is also involved in a number of other businesses – she owns Chloe’s Salon, which focuses on affordable and convenient beauty treatments for the busy women of Dubai and co-owns Dawson Sports, a sports apparel and equipment retailer. She is a partner in some of the UAE’s latest F&B concepts including Black Tap’s two venues, Luigia Ristorante and Azure Beach at the new Rixos Premium Dubai hotel. Donna also invests in property and is keen to support companies in the region.