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Young Ones to Watch: Brent Dowling, CEO of Raintree

Dowling spoke with 1851 Franchise about how he entered the franchise industry, what advice he has for up-and-coming business owners and more.

Brent Dowling started his career as a professional snowboarder in Colorado, but he always dreamed of working at the General Assembly of the United Nations. After realizing that wasn’t the career for him either, he accidentally entered the world of franchise development and helped to grow the brand Doc-Popcorn. Today, Dowling is the founder and CEO of Raintree*, a franchise development sales and marketing firm that’s helped to grow some of the largest names in the industry.

As part of our Young Ones to Watch series, 1851 spoke with Dowling to learn about his experience in the franchise industry and his advice for other young industry professionals.

1851 Franchise: How did you get into franchising marketing?

Brent Dowling: I was a competitive snowboarder, and I was going to school for international politics. You become a veteran in snowboarding when you’re only about 17, so when that was winding down I took a job at the U.N., which is what I always thought I wanted to do — and long story short, I learned that it wasn’t what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. So, I went back to my girlfriend in Colorado and planned on taking the first job I could find. That ended up being a franchise marketing job for a company called Doc-Popcorn. From there, I got really interested in the industry, and I realized this was a really cool business model and opportunity. I became attracted to the idea of marketing and talking to folks who were first-time business owners and entrepreneurs. 

It was at Doc-Popcorn that I met my now-partner, Mike Edwards, and together we helped take the brand from five units to over 300 — getting a bunch of ideas along the way. Other brands saw the success of what I was doing and reached out to me to do the same for them. After about the 30th request, we figured that there are a lot of franchises who need our services and that we should probably open up our own franchise marketing and sales shop. That’s where Raintree came from.

1851: What do you love about the industry? 

Dowling: Franchisees are a group of risk-takers, and I deal with 50,000 of them every year. That was the one thing I didn’t like about snowboarding, was that it was just me competing to win — I’m more of a team player. With the development team, I get to achieve results with a tribe, and to me that’s really fulfilling. That’s true with how we run things at Raintree and with the brands we represent. Brands are growing during COVID-19 and in spite of it, and we’re seeing people channel their skills into opening a local business.

In the industry, everybody is pumped. That’s something that is unique to franchising. People throw around the term “franchise family” a lot, but it’s true — we're all close. There are so many people cheering each other on and working towards a collective goal, and that’s the best part about it. 

1851: What makes someone a good fit for the franchise industry? 

Dowling: For franchisees, it’s really hard to drill down. Each of the brands we work with has a pretty defined target — some are looking for franchisees with great sales skills some are looking for skills they’ve developed in a business before. They have to have a certain sense of entrepreneurial adventure. When it comes down to it, you’re signing a 300-page agreement heavily weighted against you and trusting folks you barely know with your money. When you look at it from that perspective, it’s risky, but it’s an adventure. Those are folks I really like and I can talk to. A good franchisee is someone who's going to take that risk and play by the team rules. 

If you’re an executive in the franchise industry, you have to understand that it’s huge and that there’s a lot to it. You have to be studious to keep up and have an appetite to learn a lot. It’s important to understand how a brand works for a franchisee and a franchisor. 

1851: How do you feel about the industry's response to the coronavirus crisis so far? 

Dowling: I’m super proud of this industry. I keep an eye on other industries, but there’s nothing like franchising. There was wave after wave of webinars, emails and conference calls to share best practices or ideas like, “Here’s a little win” or “Here’s what might be helpful to you.” I don’t think that’s happening in the same way in other industries — it’s been awesome, and I’m proud to be a part of it.  We’ve come together as a community to help the entire industry identify best practices. 

1851: Are there challenges or opportunities that the industry still needs to address?

Dowling: There are. I think as an industry we have some ground to cover still in the sales and marketing spaces. Brands have come to me not being able to grow, and typically the tools and approaches they have are dated — as an industry we need to update that. The question is: How can we improve and utilize other best practices for potential buyers in a more efficient way? There's some catch-up to be done from tech and strategy.

1851: What advice do you have for other young up-and-comers in the space?

If you’re new to the industry, don’t feel pigeon-holed. Your skills cross over, and you can take them and roll them over into a different department, different brand or different industry, and in doing so, you further expand your skillset along the way. 

1851: What do you have planned next? 

Dowling: A lot of folks are down on food franchises right now, and I’m seeing things from a development standpoint. Don’t quit on growing your food franchise right now, especially if you’ve already got it in place and believe in your model. Raintree has seven or eight food brand clients right now, and they’re growing — including my own brand, Voodoo Brewery.

We’re really excited about Voodoo. It’s a brewery first, but there’s also an extensive menu. We believe wholeheartedly that the restaurant space is coming back and that it will be enormous once things return to normal. It’s great because if I can get in the food space as a franchisor, I will develop empathy and a new level of understanding to apply to make Raintree stronger for all of the other brands. We’re just excited to grow Voodoo. There’s a lot to love. I’ve never seen a franchise brand with a cult following like this one has gathered already.

*This brand is a paid partner of 1851 Franchise. For more information on paid partnerships please click here.