I Built A Multi-Million-Dollar Presentation Folder Company From Scratch [From United States]
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Vladimir Gendelman, and I am the Founder and CEO of Company Folders, Inc. We are the ultimate boutique presentation folder company. I founded the company in 2003, and since then, we have won multiple awards, including making Inc.’s list of 5,000 fastest-growing private companies in America for three consecutive years. We have the largest selection of folders available anywhere, and we serve everyone from the travel agent working at home to schools and universities, government organizations, and large companies such as Google, Chick-fil-A, Sony, MGM, and the NFL.
Our main product lines are presentation folders, 3-ring bindersand envelopes. And our flagship product is a two-pocket presentation folder. We have printed over 20 million products for over 5,000 loyal clients. Our blog and design gallery have seen more than 5.5 million readers. We have hundreds of Google reviews with an average rating of 5 stars, and we’ve been featured in over 500 publications, including Forbes and Time.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I grew up in the Soviet Union where the government-owned all production. This meant there was no competition, no incentive to innovate, no variety. Everything was the same. You didn’t see hundreds of choices of anything there. The wallpaper was the same everywhere you went. We wore the same clothes. Everyone had the same refrigerators, TVs, everything. It made it hard to stand out. When I came here, I was amazed by the variety. I would go to the grocery store and see all these different kinds of cheese, salami, fruit. You just didn’t see that in the Soviet Union.
We moved here when I was a teenager and after a bunch of odd jobs, I started a computer repair company. The idea for Company Folders began to sprout when one of my customers came in asking if I could help him find a cool “company folder” on the internet. The internet was jumping then, and I thought for sure we would find a huge variety. But I could hardly find anything. This frustrated me, so I called around and eventually started driving around to printers to see what I could find. There wasn’t much out there and eventually, we got him a kind of plain folder.
Trying with the possibility of failing is more important than failing to try.
About a year later, a friend of mine was looking for folders and there still wasn’t much to choose from. I thought somebody should do something about this. Then I realized I should be that somebody. It just felt like I had to fix this gap in the American presentation folder market. While I had many other business ideas before and after – this is the only one that felt like my mission.
Describe the process of launching the business.
This gap was a problem I felt driven to fix and nothing else mattered. I didn’t start with due diligence. I didn’t think about those things. I had two customers that asked me about it – that was enough validation. I just jumped right in. Company Folders, Inc. was born and I named it after that first request.
I knew from the start that it needed to be an online business. I identified the problem as a national problem and building an online business was the way I saw to make it a national rather than a local company. At the time I had no money. I maxed out my credit cards to get started. My first step was to hire a web designer to create an original website. It took about three weeks to get the first version of the website out and then another month to get the first customers. I started sharing the website on discussion boards and forums to bring awareness to it and within several months I started getting traction from customers.
I started with the bare minimum of products and staff and kept building as I got more and more customers. The additions I made to the product selection were based on customer feedback and on keyword research that showed me what kind of products people were looking for. We get a lot of custom orders and when multiple customers ask for a certain configuration of the folder, I make it a standard product. It’s always been important to me to give our customers the best chance to stand out and create an image they’re proud of. That’s the vision that has driven me and Company Folders from day one.
Doing the right thing was always more important to me than doing the profitable thing. Even if it causes short-term loss or discomfort, long-term it’s always the winning formula for building your name and your brand. Our Google five-star reviews attest to that.
Eighteen years later, Company Folders, Inc. is the ultimate presentation folder boutique. We have more variety than anyone else. If you factor in all our folder styles, stocks, and imprint options, we offer over 100 million variations in products.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
All our sales generation is done online. So, we have focused on driving traffic to our site, making it easy for customers to find what they want, and offering free design tools that make us the easiest company to order folders from. One of our key strategies is working hard to establish ourselves as leaders in the print design space. Our content marketing strategy includes blog posts with infographics that target graphic designers and get our brand name out there. And we partner with sites where our target audience spends a lot of time.
When designers come to CompanyFolders.com, we have a whole range of design freebies to help them design using our products. These include presentation folder mockups, cheat sheets, print-ready design templates, die-cut templates, and high-resolution paper texture images.
For non-designers, picking a presentation folder can seem complicated and we have a lot to choose from, so we’ve invested in streamlining the visitor experience and making it simple to see what’s available. We have a gallery for each presentation folder that shows customers what other companies have done to personalize it. Those also show that we work with brands that are well-known household names. And we have a folder design gallery with a collection of over 300 products we’ve printed to provide inspiration and to rank for longtail keywords that drive traffic to our site.
Our secret is focusing on quality. We offer very high-quality products, so much so that we can offer a lifetime warranty. I believe we’re the only company that does that. And we make sure our customers get a personalized design and ordering experience. We have everything from the very top end to our budget presentation folders, so we can offer budget-conscious companies great products also. And we send out free sample packets so customers can experience our quality first-hand and select the perfect product.
In terms of retaining customers, we make the whole process as easy and pleasant as possible. We have great customer service. And when a customer orders, we ask questions to determine how long the product should last them. We put that information into a follow-up system so we make sure to reach out by email and phone about the time their supply will run out. We always want to be top of mind when they’re ready to reorder.
In 2003, we started with nothing and through all these strategies we’ve grown to a multi-million-dollar national company. As you can imagine, that was quite a trip. Growth is an amazing thing. However, if not managed properly, it could destroy a company. Financially, culturally, and operationally. We had years where we tripled our sales and handling that growth was very difficult because what works at one level doesn’t work at the next. Systems and processes need to be changed or updated. I didn’t always know that ahead of time and because of that, it was a very bumpy ride.
Now, when we grow, we anticipate that growth because it is more strategic, and we are usually prepared for it. My advice for growing companies is to constantly monitor where your bottlenecks are and address them as soon as they come up. The moment you address one bottleneck, you will have to go through the whole process again because as soon as you resolve one, another one will come up. As long as it’s not the same one as before, you know you’re doing something right.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We have been very profitable, except for the past two years. The pandemic was horrible for us, as it was for everyone. Right at the beginning, we lost 69 percent of our sales. But it was sink or swim time and we started getting creative, as people do when faced with problems.
Our products are generally used for face-to-face interactions, and nobody was meeting in person. So, we had to get a bigger percentage of the people who were using them for things like real estate closings and tax returns. We concentrated on converting the traffic we still had to get a larger percentage of our visitors to buy from us. And we started a loyalty program to capture more reorders. Having fewer customers gave us a unique opportunity to spend more time with each one, so we decided to offer design consultation, which we’d never had the manpower to do before. And we worked with a consultant to improve cross-selling and conversion on our calls, crafting phone scripts to improve sales and get more leads into our sales funnel.
Going forward, we’re going to continue with all the changes we’ve made in the last two years. Since we’re already starting to outperform our pre-pandemic numbers, next year is looking to be very bright for us. We’re currently in the process of adding the first of several new product lines. We’re building out a new website that will launch in 2022. And the new product line will launch with it, with additional new product line launches planned out for the next five years. We also plan to create more landing pages to target additional search engine traffic for queries related to specific industries.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I got lucky with the timing because in 2003, the internet, while it felt like it was already in full swing, looking back, was just starting to shape up and that allowed me to build the name for the company and secure a prominent position that would be much harder to achieve right now – or much more expensive to achieve right now. Plus, the cost of entry is much higher right now than it was in 2003. But I went with my vision and following your best instinct is always a good lesson.
When you do something that truly feels right, it usually works out well
In the early days, I micromanaged people because I was more concerned with seeing them working than about what they were producing, and that made people feel like they were not trusted or valued. Over time, I learned that it’s best to let people do what they do and hold them accountable for productivity. Now my mentality is I don’t care what you do as long as you get done what you need to get done – if you need to take a personal call and everything you need to get done is done, that’s fine.
Another lesson I learned – in the beginning, the only channel of marketing was through organic search, and I hired a company to do that for us. As it turned out, they were building links from spammy websites. And when Google changed their algorithms in 2012, we lost our ranking and 80 percent of our traffic, and we had no other marketing channels. Since then, more of our strategy is around establishing thought leadership through social media.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
For the website, because we are providing all these different options, we cannot use any existing platforms, because they don’t allow for a lot of variation. We had to build our platform from scratch, which is expensive but gets us the results we need.
We use Jira, Confluence, Slack, Dropbox, Google Suite, QuickBooks, WordPress, Google Analytics, Google Search Console.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
There are hundreds of books that I find influential, but one I’d like to mention is Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek. It reinforces the idea that as a leader, your job is to serve your team and make sure your team is always more important than you are. Another book that I find incredibly enlightening is The Diamond Cutters, by Geshe Michael Roach and Lama Christie McNally. The authors share Buddhist Monk principles that help you influence the environment around you by changing your behavior.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
The advice I have is when you get a feeling there is something that needs to be done and internally you feel that you are the one who has to do it, the important thing is to not judge that. As people, we are quick to think that our idea is stupid or too hard or we can’t do it. In those moments, trying with the possibility of failing is more important than failing to try. When you do something that truly feels right, it usually works out well as long as you do it the right way for the right reasons.
Since day one, doing the right thing was always more important to me than doing the profitable thing – that’s how I live my life. I believe that doing the right thing is always right. Even if it causes short-term loss or discomfort, long-term it’s always the winning formula for building your name and your brand. Our Google five-star reviews attest to that.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Yes, we are looking for several full-time positions - sales managers, a technical analyst, a business analyst, an executive assistant, and an administrative assistant.
Where can we go to learn more?
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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