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 products industry leaders.
Our guest interviewee is Mark Graham. Mark is a true superstar entrepreneur in the promotional products industry and was part of the driving force in creating three unique organizations that are changing the way our business works.
PP: First things first, how did you wind up in the promotional products industry?
MG: I finished university in 1996 and started my career in the corporate banking sector. After three or four 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.
PP: What were the early days of RIGHTSLEEVE like? Did you ever doubt that it would work?
MG: 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.
PP: 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?
MG: That’s an interesting question. I’m a huge advocate for the entrepreneurial journey, and I consider myself an entrepreneur first and a promotional products 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.
MG: 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 products 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 chord with a certain segment of the industry.
PP: What’s been the most satisfying moment of your promotional products career?
MG: There are 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 envelope 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 an 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.
PP: 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?
MG: 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.
PP: You mentioned Seth Godin’s participation at the PPAI Expo this year and it seems that he’s had more exposure to the promotional products industry over the last few years (largely due to PromoKitchen). Is there anything from Seth that has particularly resonated with you?
MG: 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.