Where a business owner’s journey starts, and where they end up is the topic of today’s Success Stories podcast.
In 1997 Mark Graham founded Rightsleeve, a promotional design agency in Toronto, Canada. The firm specializes in merchandising aimed at businesses, schools, camps, and organizations. Mark successfully operated that business for 22 years before selling the company to Genumark in 2019.
Along the way, Mark founded another company, commonsku, which is a trusted CRM, order management, and social collaboration tool for the promotional products industry.
Today’s Success Stories podcast will focus on the origins of Mark’s career, the beginnings of commonsku, and his journey into building it into what it’s become today.
A Transcript For The Readers:
So Mark, welcome to the success stories, podcast.
Marshall, it’s such a great pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me on the show.
I’m so happy that you’re here and we get to talk about the arc of your career.
I’m honored. I’m honored. Thank you. And it’s great to be podcasting with you again, sir. Yeah.
Yeah. So for those of you that don’t know, Mark was one of the founders of PromoKitchen and I’ve been a PromoKitchen chef for, I don’t know, four or five years now.
And so I’ve known Mark for a while and we’d done a couple of podcasts together. For promo kitchen about the promotional marketing industry. So, you can look us up there at promokitchen.org.
Absolutely. So it’s tough to be on the hot seat right now. Uh, so I’ll see if I can do my best here today.
That’s okay. This isn’t 60 Minutes, so, all right.
So let’s start with the tail of your origin story. So talk about Right Sleeve. How did you get started? Who are your customers and what was your main focus? Cause you did that for two decades.
Yeah. It’s, it’s hard to believe that you said it was two decades. It makes me feel old because I’ve always felt very young in this industry, but, maybe not so much.
So the story of Right Sleeve goes back to around the late nineties, or 2000, when I got into this business as someone who is escaping the corporate life. I had just graduated from university in Canada and I had gotten into, of all things, the investment banking industry.
So I suited up with a slick suit and tie, and I went down to Canada’s wall street…a place called Bay street in Toronto. And I did that for about half a year and I couldn’t stand it.
I was in my early twenties and I was an entrepreneur at heart. Uh, I, I was the kid who had paper routes. I had a lemonade stand. I did businesses all throughout high school and university, and I was really looking to get out of this boring corporate job and get into something entrepreneurial.
And the promotional products industry. It was a calling. I had a friend who was in the space and we started a partnership, uh, in the late nineties.
And that business then was the foundation for Right Sleeve. And the reason I say that is we got into this space. I didn’t know anything about the industry. I didn’t know there was a PPAI.
I didn’t know there was an ASI, I didn’t know where t-shirts were, I didn’t know the difference between SanMar and Alpha and S&S.
And I didn’t, I didn’t know anything, and getting into this space at that time was intimidating, but also very exciting because I felt like there was a complete blank slate and I was able to go out and apply my sales and marketing skills and my entrepreneurial skills in an industry that was interesting to me but mystifying at the same time.
That’s how I started. The initial customers that I served in the very early days of Right Sleeve were quite honestly the customers that I had relationships with.
Um, as I said, I was in my early twenties. I had just graduated from university. I had a lot of contacts in the university system. I had a lot of contacts in the summer camp world where I had spent a lot of my time as a kid.
And I knew these were markets that valued creative. Cool merchandise and specifically apparel. I know you’ll be interested in that Marshall…and I just went out and I sold the kind of apparel that I thought was cool. And that, uh, that, that I knew would resonate with this particular demographic.
And looking back all these years later, I think that that was a very successful approach, even though I didn’t quite know it at the time.
And the reason being is that it was an approach that was highly personal. And one where I deeply believed in what it was that I was selling, as opposed to just selling crap out of a catalog.
So I was very proud of the merchandise that I was selling to these universities, into these camps, with these taste-makers and these cool kids that were loving the products that we were putting together.
And that really became the foundation of how it is that I saw the promotional products industry and the kinds of clients that we ultimately expanded, uh, from that initial customer base.
So naming your company, Right Sleeve was the tip of the hat to apparel, obviously.
A fun fact for those people that are curious about it.
Um, I was looking to rebrand the company in 2000 and I wanted to create a cool brand that was a little bit quirky and creative, which was kind of my personality and the DNA of the company.
And I was looking at my purchase orders.
Because I was like, can I look at some things that are right in front of me for, for some inspiration for the company name?
And I started looking at embroidery and screen printing, uh, decorating locations on my PO’s, which were very basic at the time.
And you’d see things like, left chest you’d think, you know, nape of the neck, right sleeve, left sleeve, so on and so forth and Right Sleeve does seem cool.
The URL and the domain was unique and it was available.
And I thought, all right. Let’s go with it.
It’ll be a fun story. And, uh, and I’ve told that story like thousands of times and it works. So…
Yeah, that’s a great name and it makes me think, “it’s a correct decision.”
Yeah. Well, I didn’t want, I think, I think just a quick point on that, uh, is that for me, I was always deeply fascinated by the business of branding and marketing.
And I knew that one of the opportunities in the promotional products industry was to create a distinguished brand because this is an industry that is somewhat commoditized. There’s a ton of competition. Barriers to entry to get into the business are low.
I mean, look at a joker like me. I was able to get in work out of my parents’ house when I was in my early twenties for literally no overhead.
So I knew that the competitive landscape was extreme. And I knew that one of the opportunities that a small tiny guy like me had in this space was to create a unique and memorable brand.
And that, that learning I’ve taken with me to this, to this very day.
And when you’re building your company, did you have a mentor? Did you read a lot of books? I mean, did you take some “how to sell” classes? I mean, what…what really pushed you?
It’s interesting… Bobby Lehew and I just recorded one of our commonsku podcasts just two weeks ago where we were talking about our early mentors.
And I met a gentleman by the name of Barry Holtz, who sadly has recently passed away. And Barry was a promotional products veteran.
He’d sold his company and he had turned into the consulting business and he had a studio in Toronto where he, I think it was called the School for Promotional Marketing.
And I signed up for it because I literally knew nothing.
And I sat down with Barry and he taught me how the business works. Uh, he taught me, he taught me all sorts of things about how to run a profitable business, uh, how to run a responsible business, how to build culture, and, uh, I’m forever indebted to, uh, his, his expertise.
And I think Marshall, you mentioned PromoKitchen, that it was my experience with people like Barry in the early days of my career. That motivated me to want to become a good mentor to other people in the industry so that I could help other people just like I was helped myself.
Yeah. If you’ve had success send the elevator back down to help other people out.
A hundred percent.
And during that time, did you like you weren’t happy with the software?
How do we make the leap right from selling branded stuff? Right? And granted, you’re doing a great job with it, but it’s still branded stuff. I’m selling branded stuff too. You know what, “I need to invent my own software and I’m going to sell that and work at that instead,”you know?
So how did you start dabbling and building your own software and how, and why did you get into doing that?
I think like all interesting businesses that are launched, Marshall, I think it’s born out of extreme frustration.
So my story was that Right Sleeve was started in 2000, the business was growing nicely.
I was pretty good as a salesperson. I had maybe three people within a couple of years of the business. Uh, someone that was in SA uh, about four people. I think it’s someone in sales I’m going to production and someone that was handling the books, but I was the.
I was primarily driving the sales. And what I was finding is that I was constantly bumping up against the ceiling because of lack of process and operational deficiencies.
And I know when I say operational deficiencies, I get a guy like you, Marshall, very excited because you’re, you’re a genius when it comes to operations.
You’re singing my song, Mark.
Yeah. And, so as a sales and marketing guy in my business, I was bumping up at about, you know, $750,000 – $900,000 in sales, where my way of doing purchase orders and managing my team and managing my suppliers and my customers I was able to do it with, to be quite honest, embarrassingly archaic way of running the business, like handwritten purchase orders, entering PO’s and sales orders and invoices and multiple different systems.
And I say that the moment that was really like this a-ha moment was when the pile of paperwork, purchase orders, invoices, all that stuff literally fell off my assistant’s desk.
And it just was unbelievable. And it was just so frustrating because the business was doing so well, but we were hampered by operational deficiencies.
So I went out into the market as an entrepreneur.
I said, alright, now we’ve got to take the business to the next level. And I went out into the market and then looked at industry software as well as non-industry software.
And I couldn’t find anything that was up to my standard what it was that I was looking for.
So it was critical at that time, so this is around 2004-ish. It was critical that the software was in the cloud. I know the cloud is ubiquitous now, but at the time it was not ubiquitous. Because I wanted to be able to run my business from wherever.
I had to have something that was e-commerce enabled because we were dabbling in that space and also wanted to have something where the entire workflow was in one system. So that if I created a presentation, all the products and pricing, and margin and all that stuff would flow right through to the sales order, the purchase order, the invoice, and all that without having to duplicate effort because duplicating effort was causing mistakes and was hampering growth.
Um, so some people listening to this podcast might be thinking, “yes, that describes me!”
That was totally me in 2004. And I was so frustrated that I couldn’t find anything industry or outside the industry that could help me, that I said, “Alright, well, how hard can it be to build my own?”
Okay. And you’re laughing, you’re laughing and I should be crying to be quite honest.
And any people who are listening to this who have also said the same thing, they may be crying too, because listen, if you’re a, uh, an entrepreneur problem-solving kind of person that’s the kind of attitude that you have now.
I had some technical experience getting into this. We had a pretty progressive website. I did have a creative designer and a developer that were on contract up until that point because we were starting to make some inroads into the technology and e-commerce space at Right Sleeve at the time.
So it wasn’t completely intimidating to me.
So I made the decision largely out of ignorance and also out of extreme frustration because if you think about it at Marshall, I was literally standing at a crossroads. I was like, I could be a million-dollar distributor and make good money doing that, and that’s going to be my career and I’m just going to stay at a million and I’m going to be happy with that.
Or I’m going to have to go down this other path where I’m going to have to invest in order to take the business to the next level.
I made the latter decision because I worried that I would just get bored if I was just capped out at this particular sales volume as, a 25-year-old. Right?
It’s the quandary in the conundrum that Seth Godin writes about all the time.
And he’s a mutual hero of both of ours. I know, but…but I think that this is a real challenge in entrepreneurship. And to be clear, I don’t think either of us are making a judgment to the person who decides that they just want to stay at a certain sales volume versus the person who makes the decision to invest in the business.
Anyways, um, I chose to invest in the business.
And ultimately built this piece of software to the specification that I just mentioned, e-commerce capabilities, one system to manage the presentation all the way to the invoice, without having to duplicate information, and all completely within the cloud.
So I didn’t need those expensive and clunky servers that I just felt were like old school… was your
Was your intent to build this just for your company or was your intent “Hey, I can build this and I can sell it to other people?”
So remember I use the word ignorance. Naive, uh, when I started talking about this, which, which I actually say jokingly, it was probably an asset to be honest with you. So I think the quick answer to the question of Marshall is that no, I didn’t think that there would be a commercial opportunity.
I was literally thinking that this investment, which I knew was expensive, was going to be a great investment that we could amortize over several years of growth and it would be something that would benefit Right Sleeve alone.
You have to keep in mind that my understanding of the promotional products industry, like other players was actually fairly limited at the time.
I really only saw the world through Right Sleeve’s lens and didn’t really think too much about the broader industry. And I think that that’s a product of my naivety and ignorance because subsequently when I opened myself up to the industry, I was able to learn from all of these amazing other people.
But yeah, to answer the question, um, I thought that this would be a Right Sleeve product only. Uh, why would I ever want to share something with my competition? It was kind of my attitude at the time and, and, and we ran it that way internally for the better part of about four or five years.
So let’s talk about making that transition from selling products to selling a service.
And how did one thing kind of help the other?
So they’re there. Uh, if I take a half step back in terms of talking about this transition, 2009 was a very interesting year for us. We, uh, entered this global competition, a technology competition that was hosted by Dell computer, in Texas.
And, or at least they had offices in Texas and it was, it was around this competition for businesses that use technology to differentiate themselves within their industries. And we entered this thing because we thought like, “Hey, why not? Maybe we’ll get some PR out of this.”
And we didn’t think we’d win at all. We were this little company out of Canada, who did we think we were?
And, uh, shockingly, we actually won the contest, there were winners in the US, a winner in Canada and a winner in, I think Europe and South America, and we were the Canadian winner.
We flew down to Texas to Austin. We had a meeting with Michael Dell. We had meetings with all of their executives and we got a huge amount of PR from this.
And I can tell you at that point, we knew that there was something bigger that we had created that was beyond just Right Sleeve and that we now were exposed to all of these really successful software and technology people that also served as mentors for sort of this next stage of our business.
And that’s, that’s when we really realized that there was an opportunity to switch. This software was internally focused on Right Sleeve to something that we could sell to other people like Right Sleeve and the promotional products industry.
That’s interesting. So it’s the epiphany moment when you show what you created to somebody and they go, “Oh, Hey, that’s really cool.”
And at that point it was just, you’re just doing it for yourself and you hadn’t even called it commonsku now. it was just the Right Sleeve platform.
What did, what did you name it?
Of course, it had a name…the internal name was called Roman. And, that stood for Right Sleeve Order Management.
It was a terrible name, but we loved calling it that. And, uh, yeah, it was called Roman and, uh, it, it. But it’s interesting that you say that because that’s exactly what happened.
We were so proud of this great system that we had created for our own use. And it’s interesting, as soon as you step outside your own little narrow world and you show it to someone else who’s in a totally different industry and their first comment is not, “Hey, you should be really proud of that great system that you built for your own company.”
“They go, why the heck are you not making this available at a global level?”
And for me as this promotional products entrepreneur, it completely blew my mind and opened me to all of these additional possibilities. Um, and that started a journey that completely changed my trajectory in the promotional products industry and beyond.
So it’s, it’s interesting. Now, Marshall, you did ask the question about how to, how to switch from selling a product to a service. And I wanted to make sure I answered that question. I thank you for letting me take a half step back in terms of just telling you that particular story about the, uh, the date, the aha moment date.
So what I have learned about that transition is that in the promotional products industry, when you’re selling as a distributorship, it’s mostly an at-once relationship with your end client.
So if your end client is Microsoft, and they need product for their company store, or they need it for this big new developer conference that they’re creating, you’re the person who’s brought in to create a great product for them.
And that can be creative and strategic and awesome and all that stuff, but it’s largely an at-once transactional experience, and moving into the service space is, is actually fundamentally different because you have that customer potentially for life and you’re interacting with them literally all the time because they’re paying you on a monthly basis from a subscription model.
And so now your relationship is not so much. “Hey, Microsoft, I can work with you six times a year on your six conference opportunities.”
You’re going to give me now I’m working with a customer literally. All-day, every day for as long as they choose to remain a customer. And I think that that took some getting used to, to be perfectly honest, um, in those early days, because it requires a different mindset around customer service.
It requires a different mindset around how you support the customer. And, um, the fact that you’re hearing from them all the time, it’s just different, but that, that’s been a transition that I think we made fairly well in those early days.
And it’s been very, very rewarding.
Yeah. And the pressure is much higher, isn’t it?
It is much higher, I think for sure.
Um, there’s no question that you don’t want to screw up that product order for Microsoft and their huge developer conference, uh, that, that. Can definitely screw you up. No problem.
Um, I think in the case of what we’ve experienced with commonsku is that since the software that we’re providing is the guts of a distributor business in terms of how they run their backend that you are literally a partner in their business.
They’re running their own business. They’re independent operators, but our software, if it’s not buttoned up, then the distributor literally can’t run their business.
And so the responsibility that you have is at a whole different level in terms of your ability and requirement to support them. And that comes with a lot of pressure, to be honest, but it’s, uh, I think also an incredibly humbling honor to be able to do that at the same time.
Yeah. And I think that you’ll agree with this is that once you start doing something differently, you start noticing how other companies are handling the same thing. Yep and going, “Oh man, that’s a great idea. I’ll do that.”
Or I can’t believe they’re at the Neanderthal level, you know, and you kind of like privately chuckled to yourself.
Yes, yes, absolutely. It’s a great observation.
Yeah. So, I’ll tell you a really cool moment for me was during this pandemic when I was with my son. We were going through Chick-fil-A and I don’t know if you have Chick-fil-A up there in Toronto, but down here in America, it’s, you know, it’s the, it’s the thing, especially for a 16-year old kid, they, they like Chick-fil-A and they totally had everything perfect.
The language, the thing, the smiles they’re wearing masks. They’ve got ice chest vests on. Cause I live in Arizona. It’s crazy hot here. Right? You got portable coolers blowing cool air on their people. During lunch…the lunch rush, the cars are backed up around the block. It’s still five minutes to go through because they’re so efficient.
And then you go to another fast-food chain and it’s just like the Three Stooges.
They can’t get anything. Right. And it’s just a mess.
And then what we saw was their competition adopting Chick-fil-A’s model because they’re watching what people are doing. And I always mean that that’s kind of what I was going with. It’s just watching what people do and then bringing that into your own business and like, Hey, what’s.
Let’s change something, let’s improve something.
I love that observation and I couldn’t agree more, I think, regardless of the businesses, whether it’s in fast food or promotional products that I think you’re highlighting two things there, Marshall.
One is the unsexy backend operational side of a business like that. Doesn’t get a lot of glory in a lot of cases because when you don’t see it, it’s, uh, it’s working well..and brand.
So when you, when you bring a great brand and a great operational backend to any business. You know, I don’t care what you’re doing. Life insurance or fast food or promotional products or screen printing.
Those are the businesses that consistently outperform. And, and, and I think those are the two areas that for me, I’ve, I’ve always been profoundly interested in, uh, just investing in those spaces, exploring those spaces. Um, because I think that the fundamental differentiators,
Right. So let’s wrap up here with the last question and, you know, just really about commonsku in the future.
So it’s a really great tool…it’s widely used in the promotional products industry. Are you expanding into other markets? You’re changing stuff for the future. What, what are you guys kind of working on?
Yeah, there’s a big, big list of things that we’ve got on our roadmap. Uh, I think that we, uh, I was gonna say maybe two or three things here, so number one, we started off native inside the promotional products industry.
I came from the promotional products industry. I experienced firsthand the stresses and the problems experienced by a promotional distributor and wanted to create a solution for that market.
So when we launched, we were very, very intentional with going everything that we had into this one vertical, because we had domain expertise there and did not want to be distracted by chasing all sorts of different markets, which I think for a lot of businesses can kill them out of the gate.
So, so the first step was how can we go really deep into the promotional products industry, where every customer has got a lot of, a lot of things in common.
And I would say the second area of expansion is really a global strategy. So the wonderful thing about software is that it can scale beyond borders very, very easily. So we have, when we first started, we focused primarily on the North American market. Uh, we’re based in Toronto. Uh, we have customers all across the US that’s our biggest market. Uh, Canada’s our second-biggest market.
And then we have been focusing on other markets. Uh, we’ve now have European, uh, we have Australia, New Zealand, Asia, and that’s exciting to see some additional growth opportunities there because they can all use the software. It doesn’t matter where they are. So that’s, that’s kind of a second of expansion.
And then the third is looking at adjacent markets. We’ve already started to see some success in this area and we’ll continue to be more focused on this in the next year or so as we look at spaces like the print and promotion markets.
So if you look at specifically the paper printing market, there’s a lot in common between how someone who is in the print space would be running their business, just like someone in the promotional product space.
And of course, there’s a lot of adjacency there because if you’re selling business cards, you’re probably selling t-shirts. Um, and if you’re not, then that’s a great additional revenue opportunity for you.
So tapping into adjacent markets where there still is something in common represents this, a huge blue ocean for commonsku.
And we’re very excited about that because I think people in promotional products probably have an opportunity to sell into print as well. So. Um, we’re excited about that. And, uh, I think that that’ll keep us busy for, for some time yet, given the fact that both industries globally are in the tens and tens of billions of dollars.
So I think that should keep us busy and out of trouble for a bit.
How is the way that, you know, we’re working now…we’re all working out of our houses, right?
Do you guys, do you guys have an office? You guys, I know you have a lot of people here in the U S like, or do you have an office somewhere here in the United States?
Talk about that…
We, we, so we do, uh, our head office is a physical office in Toronto. We have had a physical office, right from the very beginning where our entire Toronto based team would come in and work every day. So our whole development team is all out of Toronto. We don’t outsource that to offshore all right.
Within, uh, right within Toronto. Um, the majority of our team is based in Toronto, but as we grew, we, uh, brought in a number of people that are in the U S., as well as across Canada, those people will come into our head office several times a year.
Culture building is very, very important to us where we bring them into our office.
Now that we are in this unusual pandemic time, we, uh, we had to close our office like many other people in the middle of March. Uh, we have not gone back to that office since the middle of March. And, uh, maybe not surprisingly, we were able to work in a remote environment, like literally without batting an eyelash, because everything that we do is on the cloud, I should say.
And, that has created some additional opportunities for us in terms of efficiency. Um, But at the same time, it’s also created challenges.
To be honest with you, Marshall. I mean, if you’re not seeing people in person, you have to work really, really hard, extra hard, I would say, at creating that culture and finding new ways to build culture.
When you have a remote team. Uh, because you can’t get together because of this pandemic. So we’re figuring that out.
But we’re very, very proud to say that we have not lost or laid off or had to furlough a single employee. Uh, we’re actually continuing to grow. And, everyone is very happy and efficient in this new environment.
We’re looking forward to getting back in person, but, um, right now where we want to focus on the health of everyone and making sure that everyone is safe.
Aren’t we all, I can’t wait till we can get together in person.
I know. I know. It’s nice to see your face right now, but I can’t, you know, give you a hug or a high-five, which sucks.
All right. Well, so thank you so much, Mark, for your time today, sharing your story of success with us.
If someone wants to learn more about what you do or commonsku or whatever, what is the best way they can contact you?
So, we’re literally a Google search away.
commonsku.com is where you would find our web property.
You can also send me a direct email. I’m email@example.com. I’m also very visible on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Instagram just put my name into the search box and you’ll find me and I, and I mean this very sincerely what I’m about to say that if there is anyone who’s listening to this, that wants to just send a note and ask me a question or has got a, an issue that they’re trying to solve.
We’re trying to get through whether it’s in the service provider space or on the distributor side. I am more than happy to spend any time with, uh, folks that have questions.
And I think that Marshall you’re the same way, the spirit of mentorship and giving back and helping other people is something that has really guided me and helped me.
So if I can do the same for others, it’s an open invite.
Yeah. I’m a big believer in a big tent. I, if I help you, you can go off and have success. That’s awesome. I don’t believe in the notion that for me to win, you have to lose. Right? Cause I think that’s just wrong.
Yeah. A hundred percent. And that’s why this industry is fantastic.
If you think about, you know, the experience we’ve had in PromoKitchen, for instance, it’s just, it’s a, a, a big, uh, big tent mentality. And I think this industry has done a very, very good job of opening its arms to newcomers and old comers. I don’t even know if that’s a word, but knowing that maybe the establishment and I, and I think that for the most part, it’s a pretty open space and that.
So that’s amazing to see.
All right, well, Hey, well, thank you so much, Mark. Appreciate you, buddy.
You bet. Thanks for the opportunity Marshall take care, man.
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