At Work: Roto’s Creative Space on Discovery Boulevard

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There are times when new companies are born out of existing ones. That was how the existence of Roto, a local exhibit design and production firm specializing in interactive exhibits and environments in the museum & entertainment industry came to be.

“Roto is led by a team of six principals with nearly twenty years of experience as a closely-knit team, originating with the exhibit department at COSI,” explains Joseph Wisne, President/CEO of Roto. “Over a five or six year period, our small, creative workgroup cultivated a set of unique skills that were no longer in demand for COSI, so it made sense to see if we could market them to a national, and eventually international, clientele.”

It did make sense, and the team of six has grown to a company of sixty-five. They have been through several office expansions and a then a move before finding their current home on Discovery Boulevard in Dublin.

The most impressive achievement for Wisne is the low employee turnover Roto enjoys.

“Nearly all of those employees who were with the company in its first years are still with us,” he says. “We have all matured, and grown stronger, and still recognize we have ample room to continue that growth, individually and as a team.”

New hires find a welcoming culture and “seem to fit right in just after their first few weeks.”

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To get the company off the ground, Wisne first considered finding private investors. The business model for Roto relies entirely on new projects for 100% of its revenue, so they would need working cash to allow them to take contracts and pay bills as they wait for client checks to clear.

“It was far quicker and more favorable to find a banker willing to help secure an SBA-backed line of credit,” says Wisne. “All we needed was a strong business plan and the willingness to pledge personal assets.”

The business began in an affordable office-plus-warehouse space off of Tuller Road.

“One suite became two, then three, then four, and pretty soon we were walking outside and down the alley to coordinate between departments, so that was a problem,” he says. “The good thing about flex space within a larger complex is, theoretically, your building can grow incrementally along with the company. Changing addresses is expensive, but for us, it eventually became necessary.”

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The new space is large and open, with room for collaborative with high ceilings. Long, open sight lines convey the message they are “one collective team with a single mission.”

“We liked the building and location well enough at first, but when we noticed the street was called Discovery Boulevard that clinched it,” he says. “Totally serendipitous, but that address happens to reflects our brand really well.”

The city of Dublin has been working to attract businesses in the creative design fields, and Wisne is pleased to have Roto housed there.

“Between Roto, WD Partners, and a handful of architectural firms, Dublin is home to a surprising number of professional designers and other creative types, many of whom are raising families,” he says. “The services and infrastructure in Dublin are excellent, as well as access to I-270, which is important when we are hosting clients. Competing with major firms in places like New York, Boston and California, it is critical that we “look the part,” and, frankly, Dublin’s zoning and building codes help us achieve that.”

Roto has made significant tenant improvements to their space including: constructing a block of flexible meeting spaces, each with built-in media and walls of Forbo for mounting drawings, custom-designing and building about 6,000 square-feet of flexible workspace furniture and engineering workbenches, and adding substantial electrical and related infrastructure to convert open warehouse into a fully-stocked fabrication shop, as well as running miles of high-speed data everywhere. Employees also have the option for standing workstations.

To build their team, Roto hires people from all disciplines, as Wisne shares that “nobody goes to school to do museum and exhibit work.”

“We’ve hired project managers with construction backgrounds, graphic and product designers, architects looking for more variety, cabinetmakers with retail experience, and a scruffy array of programmers, tinkerers and wireheads who would rather build funky robots than SQL databases,” he says. “There’s even room here for artists, provided their skills are polished enough and their attitudes are really collaborative.”

It’s a diverse team of thinkers that allows Roto to be a leader in the exhibit design and production industry.

“Our best work is generally the most recent,” says Wisne. “We are always getting better, adopting new techniques, learning new tricks, and I like how we apply what we learn on one project to the next. We are installing a couple exhibits at the Smithsonian’s American History Museum on the Mall in Washington this month, and we’ve managed to convince them to adopt some interactive elements that normally would occur in a children’s museum or science center. That’s a form of innovation that only a broadly-experienced firm like ours can deliver.”

While 99% of their work is outside of Ohio, Roto does have some local projects. They are working with Dublin City Schools. on an in-depth collaboration to give students the experience of participating in Roto’s process of exhibit development.

“Students meet working engineers, designers, fabricators, scenic artists, and others, and ask questions about careers they may otherwise have never encountered,” says Wisne. “At the heart of each encounter is student participation in live exhibit testing, peer observation, data collection, and collaborative feedback.”

Roto also does some pro bono services for various non-profits, and Wisne often meets with employees who are eager to learn, to give the experiences he received early in his career from those he looked up to.

“I learned from many people in my early career, including Roy Shafer, who built COSI’s international reputation for quality and visitor service through the 1980’s and early 1990’s,” he says. “I do believe that mentorship is a two-way transaction, and have great respect and support for those who actively seek it.”

For anyone looking to start their own business, Wisne says to move past the fear of failure.

“Focus on the things that make businesses successful. Talk to accountants about what those are. It isn’t (generally) the name or logo you pick, or where you open your office, or the colors you paint the walls. Be conservative when forecasting revenue, and liberal when forecasting expenses, not the other way around.”

“You do need strong fundamentals in order to be successful, like a positive cash flow model and effective sales prospects, but once that foundation is in place, there’s no reason not to give it a try,” he adds. “We stood at the end of the diving board for a while before jumping.”

Photos provided by Roto and lifestyle images taken by Britt Lakin of TwoMaries.com.

To learn more about Roto, visit Roto.com.

Do you know of, have, or work in, a creative workspace and would like to be featured in this series? If so, please contact Anne Evans.