Mark Graham

PromoPath with Mark Graham

Welcome to the fifth installment of what will be an ongoing series of blog posts. Our aim is to explore and learn from the various career paths of promotional product industry leaders.

Our guest interviewee is Mark Graham. Mark is a true superstar entrepreneur in the promotional product industry and was part of the driving force in creating three unique organizations that are changing the way our business works.

Mark Graham

PromoPlacement: First things first, how did you wind up in the promotional product industry?

Mark Graham: I finished university in 1996 and started my career in the corporate banking sector. After 3 or 4 months working on Bay Street (Canada’s equivalent to Wall Street), I realized that I really, really hated it.

I’ve had an entrepreneurial streak my entire life and thought that it could be the way out of my job. Turns out a friend of mine was selling branded t-shirts. It wasn’t a formal business by any means at that time, but there was something there. We partnered up and ran the business together. That business became RIGHTSLEEVE in 2000 when my partner left for law school.

 

PromoPlacement: What were the early days of RIGHTSLEEVE like? Did you ever doubt that it would work?

Mark Graham: Every day for the first two years, I was in desperation mode. I felt like I didn’t really know what I was doing. Most of peers had attractive corporate jobs, and I was running a t-shirt business out of my parent’s house. It wasn’t the sexiest business.

I had no network that could mentor me. I had to learn by doing. It was a really tough time.

 

PromoPlacement: You spent 18 months as the President of the Toronto chapter of Entrepreneurs’ Organization. What does the promo business need to do to spur more entrepreneurship and innovation?

Mark Graham: That’s an interesting question. I’m a huge advocate for the entrepreneurial journey, and I consider myself an entrepreneur first and a promotional product professional second. I never set out to sell t-shirts. I set out to build a business and make a difference.

As an industry, I think we need to create an environment where it’s OK to take risks. Where it’s possible to learn what running your own business is really like. Move the focus of our business from pushing products to solving marketing problems for our customers. If we can foster the mentality that we are problem solvers, we can move up the chain in the eyes of our customers. But here’s the important thing, you have to develop a skill set as an organization that solves business problems, as opposed to being an organization that simply processes orders.

This is how our industry can grow from $20 billion to $50 billion. I think that we can, but not with the current outlook.

If you start a business and your only goal is to sell coffee mugs to companies, my feeling is that you aren’t truly an entrepreneur. You’re a distributor selling someone else’s product. It can be very lucrative and there’s nothing wrong with it, but you aren’t creating much value beyond the margin spread.

 

PromoPlacement: You helped to found both PromoKitchen and commonsku in January 2011. How crazy was the lead up to both of these launches? What was your initial vision for these two organizations?

Mark Graham: Well, both organizations are near and dear to my heart. PromoKitchen was born out of a time when I was very involved in the PPAI education circuit. I connected with others on this circuit. PromoKitchen was born out of this trend of younger, tech-savvy, promotional product professionals embracing video, blogging, and social media. We thought that we should create something to bring the industry together.

It became an independent resource to help younger people who are getting started in the industry and to share really interesting content. That’s where the idea for education and mentorship came from. Today, PromoKitchen is the leading independent non-profit within the promo industry. It’s made up of a fantastic group of people and is open to everyone. It’s been a real joy to be a part of.

commonsku came out of internal challenges we were having at RIGHTSLEEVE. In 2004 / 2005 we were growing and running into problems with our technology and processes. We looked at what was available on the market and didn’t find what we needed. Then came the question: “How hard can it be to write our own software?” Famous last words. Turns out it was very hard.

Our passion and, in some part, our naiveté saw us through. Fast forward to 2010, we saw that we had something very interesting. We wrote a business plan and decided to market it to the promo industry. The whole idea was how can we offer a world-class, easy to use, beautifully designed, software for the modern distributor. We’ve really been humbled by the response to commonsku. It’s really struck a cord with a certain segment of the industry.

 

PromoPlacement: What’s been the most satisfying moment of your promotional product career?

Mark Graham: There’s two that come to mind. The highest high that I’ve gotten with RIGHTSLEEVE actually happened at PPAI Expo this year. Seth Godin was keynoting. I’ve known him for some time and have had the chance to do a couple of podcasts with him. He gave an amazing speech. He mentioned a few companies that have pushed the envelop and weren’t afraid to challenge industry conventions. He mentioned RIGHTSLEEVE as one of these companies. I had no idea it was coming. It was a enormous surprise that a hero of mine had recognized my business. It was great for all the people who helped build our company.

Our second skucon this year in Las Vegas was really a high for me. It was extraordinary to be in the presence of all of these great people who we have the privilege to serve through our platform. We got to see our original vision come to life. That this little idea we had is actually making an impact with these amazing people was really wonderful.

 

PromoPlacement: Your wife, Catherine Graham, is a well know industry leader as the CEO of commonsku and President of RIGHTSLEEVE. What is it like working so closely with your spouse?

Mark Graham: It is a wonderful experience. We’ve been able to make it work through a clear separation of our roles. She handles things that I’m not particularly good at or fond of and the inverse is true with me. When it works, it’s all about respecting those divisions. However, those divisions are porous and we do collaborate a lot.

When it doesn’t work so great is when neither of us know the answer to something or one of us is giving an uninformed opinion of the other’s job. I’m usually the one committing that offense, but it never works out well. Outside of that we really make it work and are able to do a lot of things together while still growing individually. Mutual respect is critical.

Working together also gives us the flexibility to spend as much time as we can with our three young kids.  Working together isn’t a possibility for some couples, but for Catherine and I it makes everything work a little bit better. We have a shared interest and a common vision. It makes everything exciting.

 

PromoPlacement: You mentioned Seth Godin’s participation at the PPAI Expo this year and it seems that he’s had more exposure to the promotional product industry over the last few years (largely due to PromoKitchen). Is there anything from Seth that has particularly resonated with you?

Mark Graham: I think that his best book, and perhaps the best business book of all time, is Purple Cow. It’s written in a very light way, but it’s extremely powerful. It’s Seth’s take on how to be remarkable in business. It hit me like a ton of bricks when I read it. It was May of 2006, and I was a time in my life when the business was doing OK, but after reading that I looked at everything in different light.

This single biggest idea of his that sticks with me is from his keynote at Expo: don’t be afraid of risk. “The inventor of the ship is also the inventor of the shipwreck.” Failure is part of the journey, but it should never hold you back from anything.

Jeff Solomon

PromoPath with Jeff Solomon

Welcome to the fourth installment of what will be an ongoing series of blog posts. Our aim is to explore and learn from the various career paths of promotional product industry leaders.

Our guest interviewee is Jeff Solomon. Jeff is a successful distributor with 23 years of experience, the publisher of FreePromoTips, and an industry leader and innovator.

Jeff Solomon

PP: First things first, how did you wind up in the promotional product industry?

JS: I stumbled into it at the direction of my brilliant wife. We had a successful screen-printing business and she thought it would be a good idea to also offer promotional products. Of course she was right. Wives are always right aren’t they? Promotional products added a completely different dimension to our company and gave us more tools to be creative with.

 

PP: You’ve been with All American Marketing Group since 1992. In any industry, 23 years is a long time! What about All American has led to such terrific job satisfaction?

JS: We truly care about meeting the needs of our clients. It’s never been about selling stuff…it’s always been about providing effective marketing and branding solutions. We have also been involved in our community and I have served on the board of directors of a few organizations. Currently, I’m the Vice President and Legislative Chair of Ad Pros LA, the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Advertising Federation (AAF).  Serving adds to your credibility.

 

PP: Have you ever been tempted to make a move?

JS: I’m always moving. While I enjoy parts the product side of this industry, 10 years ago I created FreePromoTips.com, a content driven program that distributors and suppliers benefit from.  This gives me the opportunity to address what’s happening in the industry, with the help of a few colleagues. We are able offer useful business building information and industry commentary.

FreePromoTips has become a valuable resource showcasing what some great suppliers offer. Our new YourPromotionSolution.com video resource website features easy to share, short end-user safe product videos that reside on YourPromotionSolution.com. The distributors who use them love them and suppliers love that their products are being shown to end users through distributors.

 

PP: Throughout your almost 40 years in the ad specialty business, what have you found to be the biggest motivator of distributor sales reps?

JS: One might think it’s money, but from my perspective it’s the opportunity to be creative. This industry seemingly revolves around commodities, but being able to effectively use promotional products to convey the desired message motivates me.

 

PP: What do you think the perfect distributor workplace looks like?

JS: I believe the perfect distributor workspace is about freedom. The distributor gig is typically not a 9 to 5 job…and that’s attractive to most people. I also think it’s about relationships with colleagues and supplier partners. The connections I have nurtured through the years have made the industry special to me.

 

PP: What advice would you give an experienced industry professional looking for a new home?

JS: The business culture needs to be the right fit. There are many great organizations in our industry. What is good for one person may not be right for another. People need to be comfortable in the corporate culture.

 

PP: PPAI, ASI, and the various regional associations offer promo professionals opportunities to network at events year round. What advice would you give an industry newcomer about networking with peers?

JS: I believe networking and building relationships with peers is critical. The great relationships I have developed through the years is one of key reasons I love this industry. It’s also important to take advantage of the education opportunities that these events offer.

 

PP: Jeff, you’re very active on social media and with your award winning website, FreePromoTips.com. What value do you see in social media?

JS: I love social media, but I think our industry doesn’t get it. Distributors and Suppliers need to avoid posting a steady stream of product specials. Social media is “river” with content flowing rapidly down it. It’s important to share content in addition to always promoting products.

I love to share this quote from Dave Kerpen, CEO of Likeable Media, “At a cocktail party, you wouldn’t walk up to someone and say, ‘Hey, I’m Dave. My stuff is 20 percent off.’ What you do is ask questions, tell stories, listen and relate to people.”

That’s Social Media 101 and it’s one of the reasons we are adding social media management to our business. While I hardly consider myself a social media expert, my team and I have invested time and money learning about this powerful communication tool. We can help others be more effective online.

Following up the preceding question, social media also keeps us connected to colleagues even though we may only see them personally once or twice a year. We see what’s happening with their families and what they do for fun away from their business lives.

Early on, I felt that I didn’t want to have “colliding worlds” with my business and personal life…but now I really don’t care. If people see a video of my son playing drums at church, or my running and cycling pictures it’s OK.  They just get to discover who I am. Unless you are posting your crazy antics out being drunk, I think online social engagement is good for business.

 

PP: Can you tell us about your latest project, SuccessFit?

JS: SuccessFit was born from my own personal journey and I’m very passionate about it. I was a cripple for most of my life from a motocross racing injury.  A few years ago I had my ankle fused and encouraged by my wife and an amazing group of people from Team Runners Lane I started to run…albeit very slowly. But that’s OK.  I’ve lost over 25 pounds and by the time this is published I will have completed a half marathon.  (I hope!)  13.1 miles is a LONG distance!

From my experience our team has developed SuccessFit 4 Life! a content driven program to share, inspire and motivate others in their journey.  We are putting together a turnkey program that a select group of distributors will be able to offer their clients. Businesses and organizations benefit in many ways from incorporating a health and wellness program. SuccessFit 4 Life! makes it simple to provide this type of program. If distributors want to learn more about how they can be a part of this, they can contact me directly.

 

PP: Do your friends and family know what you do?

JS: Of course they do…and many are clients.

Reagan Holm

PromoPath with Reagan Holm

Welcome to the third installment of what will be an ongoing series of blog posts. Our aim is to explore and learn from the various career paths of promotional product industry leaders.

Our guest interviewee is Reagan Holm. Reagan has led several of our industries largest supplier firms, served on the PPAI Board of Directors, and is currently the owner of the consulting firm TRH & Associates.

Reagan Holm

PP: First things first, how did you wind up in the promotional product industry?

RH: I started right after college working in the insurance business and the first time I ever heard of promotional products and their uses came from that business model.  I used calendars and Parker Pens as handouts to build my brand and business with college interns and medical professionals.  The Parker Pens were a big hit with the interns and students at the med schools in Dallas and it really pushed me to answer an ad I saw in the local paper when Parker Pens was hiring for a Territory Manager for Texas and the surrounding states.  I worked there for several years, I enjoyed the people I met and the opportunity I saw to grow in the industry and was hooked!

 

PP: Many industry leaders spent time at Hazel Promotional Products early in their career. What was your experience there? Have you been able to network through your career with those Hazel contacts?

RH: Hazel was a fantastic place to learn the dynamics of the industry and the intricacies of the supplier distributor relationship.  Back then, Hazel was a sought-after and desired franchise and our distributor network was a basic list of who’s who in the Promotional Products Industry, at least for the time.  Hazel also had a great retail presence and as that business was changing dramatically, the promotional division always stayed consistent and profitable.  Hazel was a fun place to be at the time and a great group of people came out of their program.  Most of them are still leading the industry in one way or the other.

I learned about networking from Hazel and Glen Holt.  Leveraging the right industry relationships was the nature of the business and to this day those friendships and relationships are very important in growing and managing a reputation in our business. Whether supplier, distributor or industry partners like ASI, PPAI, etc… the network of people are why I’m still in the business and hope to be for some time.

 

PP: You served on the PPAI Board of Directors and was Chairman of the Board for PPEF.How did the opportunity to take on such visible leadership roles come about? Did it lead to any opportunities?

RH: The opportunities I had to serve on these boards held a direct correlation with attending and volunteering in educational seminars, Presidents Forums, industry committees, presenting in classes and roundtable discussions.  I feel honored and lucky to have been elected to the PPAI Board and consider the time serving on those boards as some of the most important time I have spent in the industry.  As for opportunities from my board service, all I can say is that I learned much more then I feel I will ever be able to give back to our business.  This industry has been very good to me and my family and I will continue to do all I can to pay it forward for the rest of my time.

 

PP: You’ve managed several industry supplier businesses (either as COO or President). What common challenges did you run into on the supplier side?

RH: The most significant challenge, for any business is to be able to determine the infrastructure needs both as you are growing, the when and how to add and manage people and when you hit the critical growth milestones of $5MM, $10MM, $20MM, etc…, when investing in updated and larger capacity platforms, controls, systems, protection and efficiencies are no longer a luxury but a necessity to run the business and maintain profitability.

 

PP: When moving from one company to another what was your main motivator for making a change?

RH: In almost all cases, I felt like my job was done so moving along wasn’t sad but a way for the business to grow in a new and probably different direction.

 

PP: There’s always been a lot of job movement on the supplier side of the promo business. We’ve even heard it compared to a “revolving door” because territory reps seem move from supplier to supplier. Why do you think this is?

RH: I think that most small companies and their owners don’t allow sufficient time to train and develop new talent.  Especially in the sales and marketing rolls where you see talented people seemingly beating their heads against the wall because there is no real plan or support for them to base their success on.  If a plan of substance is developed and agreed to within a company and metrics are defined and utilized to support the plan’s progress you have a 70% chance of success with those associates.  So imagine what your odds are if you don’t have a workable plan in place to run your business? Most businesses fail because of poor implementation and training not because they didn’t want to plan.

 

PP: We hear from people everyday who want to land a supplier sales job. What advice would you give a current supplier rep to get noticed by an employer? What advice would you give someone wanting to make the leap from the distributor side?

RH: Be creative and accurate in your pitch to a potential employer. Show them that sales people are not just a dime a dozen but critical thinkers with a process on how to manage, work and grow a sales area in this business.  Get involved in the workings of the industry and its associations.  Build your network from performers not just “funsters” and stay involved with them as you grow your career.  The long term effects are invaluable.

 

PP: Our industry is constantly changing. What does the future look like for big suppliers? What about the smaller ones?

RH: Consolidation is continuing to happen across all fronts of our business.  Though we remain very excited about the future of the industry we don’t exactly conform to bigger is better and huge is great!  Technology is driving improvements in production art, graphic art, order processing, change request, communication, imprinting, manufacturing, inventory control, supply chain, freight delivery and almost every other place you can envision.  This leaves the door wide open for all opportunistic suppliers to manage, grow and implement change in their businesses faster than they have ever before.

Niche suppliers are being sought after by all distributors for their creativity and dependability in their niche.  Become one of these niche quality suppliers and make sure the distribution can find you with all of the new methods that connect us together.

 

PP: You started TRH & Associates about 18 months ago. What motivated you to start this business? What kinds of things do you help suppliers with?

RH: I have successfully help people manage and grow their businesses over the last 30+ years in this industry and have learned a lot of what to do and what not to do during that time.  I would like to share and develop that knowledge with several non-competing suppliers to the industry and build a cooperative and sharing network within the business where we can learn, build and grow our businesses together.  Plus, the business is based in Park City Utah!

 

PP: What advice would you give an experienced industry professional who is looking to change jobs? Would you recommend the industry to a recent college graduate?

RH: Educate yourself on new technologies, platforms, social media, marketing to todays’ younger demographic.  Build and work your network.  It is more important today than ever before.

Yes, I think it’s a great business for a college graduate!  The major market demographics are 20 to 35 and the business to bright, creative and inclusive!

 

PP: What was your most triumphant moment/sale/negotiation—when you felt you really had a mastery of this business?  Have you ever mastered this business?

RH:  Biggest moment was getting married to my wife “Lael” and being named President of Visions Awards / Awardcraft.  Still working on mastering this thing we all love!

Jeff Jacobs

PromoPath with Jeff Jacobs

Welcome to the second installment of what (we hope) will be an ongoing series of blog posts. Our aim is to explore and learn from the various career paths of promotional product industry leaders.

Our guest interviewee is Jeff Jacobs. Jeff has years of high-level promotional product experience, is very active on social media and is currently the Executive Director of the QCAlliance.

Jeff Jacobs

PP: First things first, how did you wind up involved in the promotional product industry?

JJ: Quite by accident, really. I happened to be speaking about supporting a travel publishing project with the chairman of Michelin North America without knowing that he had an interest in changing the way brand merchandise was managed. He discussed his thought of opening a flagship consumer store in the home of the N.A. headquarters, Greenville, SC. Just a case of “right place, right time”, as that discussion ended up with us starting a feasibility study for what became Michelin on Main, and a new business direction for identity merchandise.

 

PP: During your 12 years with Michelin, you held the position of Director of Brand Merchandise. What were the main functions of this role? In what way did you interact with promotional product companies?

JJ: The opportunity ended up being  a logical progression from other roles at Michelin within the Travel and Lifestyles group. Previous assignments with publishing and licensed merchandise groups had been about a way to connect with consumers not currently in the market for new tires, and promotional products were a great connector, too. Everyone loves the Michelin Man, and we had a great time creating merchandise to connect him with his fans, and communicate brand messaging. Like many Global 500 companies, we looked to traditional distributors to help us develop product that was safe, compliant, and manufactured consistent with our CSR positioning.

 

PP: In 2012 you become involved with the industry in a more direct way. What led to the creation of the QCAlliance? What need did you see that needed to be served in the industry?

JJ: QCA really started back around 2007 or 2008, when a group of 14 suppliers realized that there was a need for standardization of expectations in the industry on things like social accountability, product safety and quality. It was really more like the wild, wild west when it came to documenting processes and having a transparent supply chain back then. After a couple of missteps in Europe and China with suppliers for Michelin merchandise, a global committee on quality for non-tire products was established. As part of that initiative, I approached our distributors in North America for answers on how we were going to work together to make sure it didn’t happen here. That’s when QCA was brought  into the discussion for me.

 

PP: What’s the QCAlliance accreditation process like? How do you support supplier members?

JJ: Accreditation is really two parts, the self-assessment where a gap analysis is developed, and then the supplier moves into third-party audits of the corporate facility and the factories, domestic or off-shore. The current average to completion is 15-18 months, with the accredited supplier then able to prove, through the certification from an independent non-profit organization, that they have the processes in place to detect and deter non-compliant product from reaching the distribution channels. Interested suppliers can learn more on our website from the tab labeled “Getting Started”.

 

PP: When moving from one company to another what was your main motivator for making a change?

JJ: The answer is rarely the same for any two moves. For example, I spent 8 years in commercial television news, and I joke that I left each TV station for “health reasons”. They were sick of me. The reality was that I honestly thought I was moving for a better opportunity in a bigger market each time, but it didn’t always work out that way. In publishing, I worked for some larger publishers- Simon and Schuster, Macmillan, and Paramount. But, the fact is, with consolidation, I actually changed jobs 5 or 6 times without changing my desk or phone number. It was a time of great upheaval as the printed product was becoming less and less relevant and publishers were gobbling up more and more imprints.

 

PP: You have a really big following on social media. What got you started and what value do you see in social media?

JJ: I have been very fortunate to be able to grow followers on Twitter, but it has been slow, but sure. I started in April of 2009 – by Twitter standards, those are the “old days”. It is something you have to work at, but I can say I have truly met people from all over the world that I would not have met any other way. It’s a bonus when you get a chance to meet a few of those same people in person, you just can’t deny the magic. The most important thing to growing your following is to be genuine and reach out to engage with people. You also have to do the digital janitor work – putting people into lists, running searches for your interests, and constantly refining your followers and following. As an example, for people I am following on my account, if someone hasn’t posted in 30 days, I simply unfollow them. If people are not active, you need to move on.

 

PP: What advice would you give an experienced industry professional who is looking to change roles?

JJ: I think the old adage of “it’s who you know” is true now more than ever in our industry. We are in a time of great change, and networking is so important. Make that one more phone call each day to stay connected. You never know what you might learn. Be anxious to share experiences, and you just might find someone looking for exactly what you have to offer.

 

PP: Do your friends and family know what you do? If so, how did you explain our industry to them?

JJ: I think that is a great question! There really isn’t an elevator speech for the accreditation process we undertake with suppliers at QCA. I even have a hard time explaining it to my Mom – I just tell her I work for a non-profit. But I have experienced the draw promotional products have for people. It is such a great emotional experience when something you make connects someone with the brand you are promoting. I’ve even seen it with industry folks who should be the most cynical- after all, it’s something that they do every day. But, if the product is right, there is no one more excited than one industry pro showing that great product off to another. That’s what make me think it works, no matter what.

Steve Woodburn

PromoPath with Steve Woodburn

Welcome to the first installment of what (we hope) will be an ongoing series of blog posts. Our aim is to explore and learn from the various career paths of promotional product industry leaders.

Our first guest interviewee is Steve Woodburn. Steve has 29 years of promotional product experience, is very active on social media, and recently became a Regional Sales Manager with Prime Line.

Steve Woodburn

PP: First things first, how did you wind up in the promotional product industry?

SW: People seem to get into this business in one of two ways; either their parents or some other relative was already in it or completely by accident. I was the latter after leaving my first career in radio. I was selling billboards and called on an electronics company that had a promotional products business on the side. They didn’t buy my billboards, but when I needed a job a few months later I called them and they hired me on the spot 29 years ago. I can assure you however that neither of my two boys will ever get into this business.

 

PP: Your distributor side experienced was mostly made up of medium sized businesses. What was it like working for a corporate giant like Staples?

SW: Staples got into the promotional products business by acquiring two very different companies and cultures and integration was not easy. Change does not come quickly to a company of this size and while they have a great infrastructure to handle the largest clients imaginable, they don’t respond quickly to the needs of smaller companies who must be nimble to survive. I learned much from working with Staples in terms of what to do and what not to do to stay relevant in business.

 

PP: From 2006-2008 you served on the PPAI Board of Directors. How did the opportunity to take on such a visible leadership role come about?

SW: I’m blessed to have had the opportunity to be part of a group of professionals who understand the importance of giving back. I initially worked with the local regional association in Georgia (GAPPP) and became President in 2000. I then became their Regional Association Council (RAC) delegate and rose to RAC President in 2004. I was fortunate to have been elected to a seat on the PPAI Board in 2005 and served almost three years. My experience as a volunteer leader has benefited me in so many ways including meeting scores of people I never would have known otherwise, many who remain my dear friends to this day.

 

PP: Your background is a bit unique, in that you’ve worked for distributors, service providers, and, currently, a supplier. Have the challenges that you faced in each sector of the business varied? In what way were they similar?

SW: The challenges we all face in this constantly changing industry are similar in many ways no matter what sector one works in. The internet has changed and continues to change the way distributors and suppliers go to market with both facing the commoditization of products and margins being squeezed. To survive on either side you must sell the value you bring to the table, be it great customer service, creativity, speedy delivery or anything else that sets you apart. Selling on price alone creates a downward spiral that I believe is hard to ever recover from.

 

PP: When moving from one company to another what was your main motivator for making a change?

SW: Like most of your readers, making more money is certainly a consideration when changing jobs. However, I’ve always made a change based on a variety of reasons including the financial stability (or lack thereof) of a company, ethical lapses, management disagreements or the chance to take on more responsibility with a different company. With one exception, every new job has led to better opportunities and put me where I am today.

 

PP: You’re currently a Regional Sales Manager for Prime Line. What’s been the biggest surprise about working on the supplier side?

SW: I absolutely love being on the supplier side and see it as a natural extension of all I’ve done over the years. My biggest surprise has been in seeing how both suppliers and distributors have a hard time putting themselves in the shoes of the other. Both sides have their challenges and neither is an easy gig. Empathy goes a long way in building relationships and at the end of the day; relationships are what success is built upon.

 

PP: Steve, you’re active on social media and with your blog BrandExtenders.com. What networking or career opportunities have come your way as a result of your increased exposure?

SW: My goal with blogging and being active with social media has always been to build a personal brand by sharing my knowledge and expertise with others. I can’t specifically point to opportunities that have arisen because of my exposure, but I can tell you it puts me on a different level. One must earn respect and by being myself online, I’ve made friends and landed jobs I might not otherwise have been exposed to. Besides, I love to write and my blog gives me the chance to hone my writing skills on a regular basis.

 

PP: What was your most triumphant moment/sale/negotiation—when you felt you really had a mastery of this business?  Have you ever mastered this business?

SW: At one time, Xerox was a client and I received a call from them during the Vegas show in 2004 saying they wanted to send every employee in the company (63,000) a gift from the CEO to say thank you. Xerox had gone through some very tough times, but had turned the corner due to their new CEO at the time and the company’s dedicated employees. We created a custom MP3 player (seems quaint now given the dominance of iPods & Apple Music) made in Xerox red, custom earbuds and packaging and a message from the CEO embedded on the player. It was a $1.6 million sale and as you can imagine, I was on top of the world. However, I don’t believe one can ever master this business given the constant changes in technology, decoration methods and product specs. This in turn leads to the need to always be learning and never being afraid to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out for you.”

 

PP: What advice would you give an experienced industry professional who is looking to change roles?

SW: There is no perfect company so you must first assess what motivates you and why you are seeking change. Then look at the pool of potential employers and learn as much as you can about them through research and talking with others. What is their reputation in the industry, do their values seem to be in line with yours and do they have an overall vision? Is there opportunity for growth and promotion, is the company healthy and stable and are there leaders there who will motivate and inspire you? Understand this process will take longer than you expect, so don’t get frustrated…

 

PP: Do your friends and family know what you do? If so, how did you explain our industry to them?

SW: I’m usually referred to as the tchotchke guy, but for those who don’t understand our business I’ll ask them if they have a key chain, T-shirt or pen with a logo on it (they always do!). I tell them that’s what I do, help companies keep their brand visible with useful, logoed products.