Filmmakers Fitch Jean and Weggon Allen opened Lenz Studios in 2020, shooting videos, commercials and films and renting their studio to other producers. Because they often had to rent equipment, they had the idea of buying their own, which they could use and rent to others in the industry. When there was talk of a $40 million soundstage opening five minutes from their studio, the opportunity to start a rental business seemed too good to pass up. Lenz Rental was born.
The thing is, the production equipment rental business is a capital-intensive endeavour. A lot of upfront investment is required. That way, companies like Lenz Rental can rent to everyone: individuals looking for a weekend rental, small video producers, and even large production companies that need equipment for an entire movie shoot.
“This is very expensive equipment,” says Jean. “And you can’t just buy one camera — you need to have the complete package so people can come to you for everything they need.” A full offering of production equipment is essential — it’s not a business that can be run with a limited supply.”
Getting started and getting capital
While accessing capital can be one of the biggest challenges entrepreneurs face, it’s a particularly stubborn and well-documented barrier within the Black entrepreneurial community.
For example, an Abacus Data survey of more than 300 Canadian Black entrepreneurs, commissioned by the African Canadian Senate Group and Senator Colin Deacon in 2021, found nearly eight in 10 respondents said it would be difficult or impossible to find even $10,000 to support their businesses. Most Black entrepreneurs surveyed said they don’t know how to access support or advice when challenges arise in their businesses.
And while the need for equitable and inclusive financing solutions is critical, Black entrepreneurs also say they need access to advice, educational resources and networking opportunities to support them in building their business plans and applying for financing.
Jean and Allen admit they faced many challenges getting Lenz Rental started, revealing that looking for investment was probably one of the biggest.
“As film equipment rental requires you to have a full package before you can rent anything, we needed to make sure we had all the capital we required to get all the equipment. The problem with raising investment is that we couldn’t guarantee we could move forward until we secured all the funding we needed, which made the process longer and more difficult.”
It was a classic chicken and egg conundrum faced by many entrepreneurs who need capital to bring a strong vision to life.
A financing solution tailored to their needs
“Our journey with Lenz Rental started about four months before we landed on RBC as a financial institution,” explains Jean. “We initially sought out help from other institutions we thought were dedicated to small businesses.” After a few challenging months, the pair decided to approach RBC, given the long-standing relationship Allen had with the bank on a personal level.
They were introduced to Business Account Manager Eric Long who worked with them to try and secure the financing they needed. During this process, Long introduced them to the RBC Black Entrepreneur Business Loan (BEBL) solution. Designed to help Black entrepreneurs overcome systemic barriers, the BEBL provides access to financing, access to resources and expert advice. The financial solution involves a five-year commitment of $100 million to fund small business loans to Black-owned businesses, one of which is now Lenz Rental.
“Getting support from RBC through the Black Entrepreneur Business Loan has been paramount to the development of Lenz Rental,” says Jean. “I believe that the funding we received from RBC has allowed us to fast-track some of the things we needed in terms of growth, in terms of earnings and income and set us in the right direction for our business to get to the next level.”
The support has also enabled them to hire two employees, purchase more equipment to complete their offering and remove themselves from the day-to-day operation of the business so that they can focus on growth and opportunity.
The advice they have received from Long about developing their business plan and setting their projections has been invaluable. “Eric always gives us the advice we need when we need it,” says Allen. “He took the time to understand what we were going through, what our goals were and how he could help us. He also introduces us to other film businesses that come into RBC — he’s always thinking about us.”
Opening the door to opportunities
The capital and advice offered through RBC and the BEBL program have enabled Jean and Allen to seek out and seize new opportunities for Lenz Rental.
As they develop a strong reputation and track record in the industry, they have both the credibility and the financial stability to grow. For example, Lenz Rental is looking at expanding in Toronto, as well as into Kingston, where the film industry is growing quickly. They have also been in talks with Northern Ontario’s film and television industry, where there is significant opportunity for a business like theirs.
“We saw a lot of opportunities at TIFF and met many people,” says Jean. “We also see a gap in the market: We are the only Black-owned equipment rental house in Ottawa and Toronto. When someone in the BIPOC community wants to work with a Black-owned business, we can fill that need.”
“The most important thing is to believe in yourself,” Allen advises other entrepreneurs. “In the beginning, we didn’t think this was going to be possible, but we stayed the course and put together a good plan. If you’re not confident in your approach, you’re not going to succeed.”
“And don’t be afraid to ask for advice because there are people who have done it before you,” Jean says. “Seeking professionals to help you on your journey will only make whatever you’re creating better.” For example, he says they could have benefited from knowing more about the auxiliary costs of running a rental house. “Things such as insurance and constant equipment repairs were not properly accounted for at the beginning, and we had to pivot and adapt to these. Knowing these costs initially would have helped us better understand and prepare for them.”
The future is bright for Lenz Rental as Jean and Allen explore opportunities, network with businesses and nurture relationships to help them grow. Support from resources like the Black Entrepreneur Business Loan can be a meaningful contributor to their success.
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