Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Mark Edward Davis, and I founded Dream Connections, an international romance tour company.
We invented a new way for singles to meet who are all looking for long-term relationships with people from different countries. We call this the Quest Romance Tour. To make this work, and easiest for our ladies, the men travel to the women’s home countries and participate in elegant dinner events, and then date those they sensed a connection with. We’ve had men come from 26 countries to Ukraine, Colombia, and Thailand to meet ladies we know as friends to our staff in those locations.
Since 2011, we’ve helped create more than 400 marriages with less than 5% divorced. We’ve expanded our services to include relationship, personal development, and fitness training. Our clients are men ranging in age from 25 to 65 since they pay for the programs. Our annual revenue crossed the one million dollar mark in 2018.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Creating a romance tour company isn’t something you plan on when you’re in college. The idea wasn’t even mine! I had written a book about international dating after meeting my wife in Ukraine, and we were invited to be guests on the TODAY Show, Dr. Phil Show, and 2 cable TV specials to help tell the story of sincere people looking for love around the world.
You become like those you spend time with, so spend time with those that inspire you.
I didn't get into this as a business, but to tell my story in a book. But my life radically changed after the 2008 crash when my computer distribution company folded and I lost everything. I was carrying boxes from the house I lost into a moving van when I got a call from Rick Butts, a guy who had followed my book and TV appearances and wanted to do a documentary where I would host a romance tour event in Ukraine. I told him it wasn’t a good time, but we talked later and he assured me he would set everything up.
His idea of “setting everything up” was to create a website to start selling tickets for this tour, and he wanted me to start hosting a weekly webinar to tell my story and teach what I’d learned. At any other time I probably would have passed, but I had time now, and it was a personal passion of mine, so we spent hours talking about how we could create a system for sincere people to meet from different countries, who might not even speak the same language.
The features of our Quest Tour program included assigning each man his romance coach. This would be a local woman who would be much more than a translator, she would help him to break through the cultural differences to win a woman’s heart he was interested in.
We hosted the first event in June of 2011 and it took my breath away. The tenderness and sincerity of these men and women who were hoping to find love captivated me, and the system worked! Even though I only had 3 clients on that first tour, they all started beautiful relationships. I was hooked!
I doubled down on my efforts to engage with our small, but growing audience. Rick taught me email marketing, YouTube marketing, and social media engagement. I learned the concepts of building a Tribe from Seth Godin’s book, Tribes, and created a loyal following. There is nothing that compares with the energy of a like-minded community. They become your best promoters.
Over the years, we took a couple of stabs at running ads, but we dropped them. One time we spent $6,000 with an ad agency that claimed they could get Google ads to work for us. We had 15 leads and no sales. Another company convinced us to spend $24,000 to create a commercial they would run on Bloomberg and CNN but got no responses.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
In the early days, I had to rely on tour payments and a $10k investment from a friend for cash flow. I didn’t take a paycheck for myself until we were well into our second year in business. But this passion project was quickly becoming part of me.
To create a travel tour program, you have to consider the customer experience from beginning to end. They have to know what to expect, you have to hold their hand through the entire trip, and find ways to exceed expectations. Since our clients came from all over the world, we didn’t get involved in buying their flights, but offered our help in making those selections, and had training videos for travel tips. Getting social proof was critical. We milked every moment of our tours into videos and testimonials, so we would hire a local videographer when we were on location.
The next step was to make them feel comfortable and excited at the same time. The romance coaches became their friends and guide, so we knew they would feel cared for. The introduction events had to be simple and classy, so we developed a hybrid speed-dating type of event where the men and their coaches would move from table to table to meet 3 or 4 ladies at each, and just chat for 15 minutes so everyone could get a sense about each other.
When the 15 minutes were over, the man would stand and the coach would stay for a minute longer and ask the ladies if any of them would like to be asked out on a date by the client. This gave us a way to detect mutual interest early, so the rest of the week would be filled with dates between two people who both expressed an interest after meeting in person.
The 9 days would conclude with a “Finale Dinner” event, that was more like prom night, with each man inviting a lady he had begun to share feelings with.
It was all very magical. It captivated the imagination of many, and our tours grew to more than 25 clients and 120 ladies attending the Meet & Greet Events.
Describe the process of launching the business.
The backend of the business was critical to us. We had to have a web presence for validation - and to look established, even as a startup. We needed to have a forum for community interaction, a webinar software platform, and a merchant service account. You have to look like you are reliable and well established, even if you are working from your garage or home office. I spent money on logos and branding to create a visual sense of confidence. We relied almost exclusively on YouTube for our traffic and it worked for us. Most of our clients are single men with time on their hands in the evenings, so they watch YouTube videos.
In the early days, we were just taking payments from paper. We’d email a document that had the lined spaces to write credit card information. Then we’d have the client fax back or take a photo and email it back to us. This is certainly not user-friendly. We were fortunate enough to have eager customers who jumped through the hurdles anyway.
My advice for startups and entrepreneurs has more to do with you than your business. Your number one task, above all others, is to keep yourself motivated and inspired by your vision.
The other challenge we still contend with is the black mark that dating companies have with many services. Facebook won’t let us even boost posts. We were blocked from advertising, and most merchant service providers refused to work with us. We had to get a piggyback account with our email provider from a friend’s account, just to have email broadcast services.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
The challenges we have faced, because of our niche, forced us to be very creative in many ways. We focused on live weekly Webinars, YouTube videos, email marketing, and the power of the tribal community.
Our weekly Webinars grew to as many as 200 live participants. We covered topics such as relationships, travel, personal development, and testimonials. At the end of each, we would ask the audience to take the first step and complete a free profile form.
Once we received a profile form we had basic contact information and a paragraph about the man who wrote it. They would receive an automated email and a phone call within 24 hours. On those calls, we would urge them to take the first step and put down a deposit toward a future tour.
We created a 30-day email drip sequence as a way to introduce them to all of our services and philosophies which drive our success.
YouTube is a channel partner and we were getting as much as 65% of our views from YouTube recommendations.
The need for community is deep in the hearts of all people. We were able to capitalize on this and create forums and other ways for the men to interact with each other.
To expand our reach organically, I began teaching personal development for men at men’s conferences. We launched an online men’s magazine at Authentic Man. I also hosted many ‘mastermind’ programs; 12-weeks of personal development, goal-setting, and small groups.
I should also mention that I own a non-profit corporation, Abundance International, Inc. We get donations from our base and have become a source of critical aid to two orphanages in Ukraine in the cities where we operate. I think this measure of goodwill speaks volumes for our credibility and authenticity. Although that is not why we do it. I’d formed the non-profit long before we started the company, but I’d encourage you to find ways to show your heart for the world you can touch.
We built the entire company on these strategies and continued to steadily grow year upon year.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
The pandemic hit our business, as you can imagine since we’re a travel-based company. What we did to adjust and move with the challenge was to develop an online version of our program. But now we are seeing group tours and individual clients coming back at levels similar to our pre-pandemic numbers. We kept the momentum going with our base.
We operate at a 45% cost of goods margin, which makes it possible to survive the storm of 2020. Our company overhead is low, since operating overseas is significantly lower than it would be in the US.
In 2022 we will be expanding to new locations to create new energy and options for our client base. Our programs for men are expanding to include a fitness course and mobile app called Authentic Strength. This will be a revolutionary fitness solution because it combines exercise programs and instruction with accountability and inspiration to make the changes you want.
I took the best webinar episodes I’d taught in the past and made them into courses. These courses include Confidence of the Authentic Man, How to Lead in Crisis, The Science and Fun of Flirting, and more. All of these, and new courses, are part of The Total Man Club, a monthly membership program that we charge $57/month to join.
Once you know your core audience, the question to ask is, “What else do they need/buy that we could provide?”
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
As I’ve shared our story with entrepreneurs in our group, I give them the same advice:
- Love your base and share your pains - authenticity and genuine care are your most valuable assets
- Focus on the most excited - the others will feel the fire and want to join
- Share as much as you can - give them tips for winning so they will trust your intentions
- Demonstrate that you are the bridge from their pain to their dreams
- Use video - there is no better way to tell your story
- Show social proof - others who loved your product or program
- Give them a taste of what it will be like to own or experience your product or service
- Find ways to overdeliver
- Establish yourself as the thought-leader for your niche
- Write a book so you carry authority - and it will be your best business card
- Start a Podcast to expand your audience and add to your credibility
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We’ve changed services and providers over the years, but here are the ones we use today:
- InfusionSoft / Keap - for email marketing and shopping cart integration
- Stripe.com - Credit card processing and merchant services
- Zoom.us - Webinar platform. We had previously used expensive services and came back to this because of the broad adoption and familiarity they created in 2020.
- In-House - Web development, graphic design, social media marketing
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The most impactful training and education I received is still coming to me. Yes, I gained a lot in the early days with the book TRIBES by Seth Godin and the niche books in my industry. But I’ve not been to a new training or personal development course. Just keep learning and growing. This is your source for the content that makes you valuable to your business and clients.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
My advice for startups and entrepreneurs has more to do with you than your business. Your number one task, above all others, is to keep yourself motivated and inspired by your vision. A man or woman on fire will change the world and find the answers they need. I start each day with a motivational video on YouTube. It may just be 5 or 10 minutes playing in the background as I make breakfast, but I join minds with the greats. There are many composite videos with talk segments from Les Brown, Ed Mylet, Tom Bilyeu, David Goggins, and others. You become like those you spend time with, so spend time with those that inspire you.
Be prepared for the haters. Some people don’t have a life, and so they have nothing better to do than tear down those who are trying to have one. Don’t react back to them. You can block some, or let your Tribe counter-attack for you. Their comments will hurt but remember that there are a thousand fans for every hater. Keep it all in perspective.
Focus on what brings in the cash. Most problems can be solved with cash flow, but it’s easy to get distracted by the urgency of being CEO and bottle washer. There will be no ending to the demands on you, so pick the ones that make you money.
Where can we go to learn more?
- iTunes: Dream Connections Podcast
- iTunes: Authentic Man Podcast
Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
We interview successful business owners and share the stories behind their business. By sharing these stories, we want to help you get started.
Interested in starting your own business? Join Starter Story Premium to get the greatest companion to starting and growing your business:
- Connect + get advice from successful entrepreneurs
- Step by step guides on how to start and grow
- Exclusive and early access to the best case studies on the web
- And much more!
Email, SMS, and more — Klaviyo brings your marketing all together, fueling growth without burning through time and resources.
Deliver more relevant email and text messages — powered by your data. Klaviyo helps you turn one-time buyers into repeat customers with all the power of an enterprise solution and none of the complexity.
Use Klaviyo to turn hard-earned customer data into hard-working emails and texts.
Try the platform that 265,000 brands use to grow their business.
Try it now (it's free) ➜