Rhino Media: Crashing about till you make it

What does it take to grow a company like Rhino Media? Its customers like the combination of professionalism and fun. At Startup Grind, Kevin Romeo talks about the importance of delivering what you promised. 
When Kevin Romeo tells the story of the growth of his 4-year-old visual media company it sounds like a lot of things just fell into place.

But underlying that tale of rushing forward though they couldn't really see what was ahead -- that's a rhino metaphor, by the way -- a strong thread emerges of a business built on principles of delivering what you promise, communicating clearly, talking out creative disagreements, and strong leadership.

The owner of Rhino Media was the most recent guest to offer his insights to entrepreneurs and others at Startup Grind. Hosted by WMU's John Mueller, the discussion in the Maestro space above East Michigan Avenue is a chance for company founders and entrepreneurial-minded leaders from a mix of industries to talk about their successes and failures, sharing what they've learned.

Romeo is not one of those who knew at a young age what he was going to do and then relentlessly pursued it. He grew up in a rural area. His mother delivered the mail and his father was a grocery store clerk. Good parents, but not the type to offer connections that can help a beginning entrepreneur.

Romeo says attending Western Michigan University happened almost by default. While he was there he started to find his way and eventually fell into business management classes.

At about this time he found a strong influence in Jim Leyland, manager of the Tigers. "I have always been a big Tigers' fan -- my mom used to take me to the games -- they were terrible my whole life. When I was in college they actually started winning. I became intrigued with Jim Leyland and what it was about his style that made him unique."

Leyland looked at people's unique strengths and used those skills, Romeo says. "This was a person I looked to; someone I admired."

He graduated after five years at Western and took a series of jobs that taught him valuable business experience. From a telemarketing job at the call center on 9th Street he learned that when you don't think you have options you can make bad decisions regarding your career. He also learned how being in debt limits a person's decisions.

From a job with a concrete company he learned the importance of communicating well with customers. From a landscape company he observed the type of businesses practices he would put into practice.

"The owner was a good leader. He followed through on clients' expectations. He never assumed the worst. And he had an attitude of service. It was not about getting the money and getting out."

As a substitute teacher he found he had the ability to win over a tough audience. Teachers liked him because he followed the plans they left for him and students liked him because after the lessons were done he talked to them about things that were important to them. During that time he received three teaching job offers he had to turn down because he was not certified.

In the end, Romeo decided he needed to go back to school. He went to KVCC and took classes at the Center for New Media. There he learned that his business background would give him an advantage over many of the art students there with no business training.

He also learned he had an eye for what connects with a crowd.

This is where Rhino Media comes in. Romeo had a few friends who were running a video production company and they were having trouble making go of it. They wanted to call it Rhino Media because they loved the metaphor of the animal that blindly runs forward on faith though its vision is limited and it has trouble braking. (That's why a group of rhinos are called a crash, their website says.)

They started out taking videos of weddings and have gradually found their way into videos that tell stories of businesses, Romeo says. When the friend who invited him into the enterprise felt a need to go in a different direction, Rome says he asked to become the one to lead the company. "I said,' let me run this thing. He said, 'I feel the same way.' Since then I've been applying every good business principle I know."

The company started to grow after it saw success with a commercial for Taco Bob's Funny Taco. They liked the tacos, had an idea for a commercial, and presented it to the company. "It was as naive as that," Romeo says.

The next big break was a contest the company entered sponsored by the White Sox. When Rhino won, its spot was seen on national TV throughout the 2012 baseball season. Painful for the lifelong Tiger's fan, but good for the company.

The Michigan Beer Film, which premiered locally in September, has launched business with breweries, including Bell's.

In 2013 Rhino produced at least 250 videos, about five or six a week. "The year before that would have broken us," Romeo says. But that has been how the company has grown. Each year it is able to do an amount of work that it could not have accomplished the preceding year. He expects the same growth in the coming year.

In the process there are going to be mistakes made. In those cases, Romeo says the important thing is to handle it gracefully. When a client sees you at your worst and then sees you have corrected the situation well "they will stick with you forever," Romeo says.

When it comes to creative disagreements, Romeo says he follows the advice of the business management guru who says if you have a disagreement you have to bring it to the table. It can't be allowed to fester and ultimately undermine a project. Ultimately, Romeo makes the final decisions when necessary, but he also believes in getting a lot of feedback from those on his team.

Currently, Rhino's client mix is heavily based in Kalamazoo and Portage. Romeo says he really does not know how to beyond that and is not really interested in that kind of growth at this time. The company has a team of nine employees and six interns.

"One of our underlying goals is we want to make Kalamazoo look really good online. For example, if a person is looking for a job at Stryker, we want them to see a bunch of great videos. I guess you could say that's one of our noble purposes. We want Kalamazoo to be really well represented online."

Kathy Jennings is managing editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.

Photos Courtesy Startup Grind by Moh'd Albattiki and Stacey Burdette