Mark Graham and Catherine Graham
How We Built A Promotional Products Business Software
commonsku
from Toronto, ON, Canada
started September 2010
2
Founders
28
Employees
81.2K
alexa rank
2.65K
followers
2.22K
followers
market size
$25.8B
starting costs
$17.2K
gross margin
40%
time to build
7 months
growth channels
Brand Authenticity
best tools
Evergage, Hubspot, Upwork
time investment
Full time
pros & cons
35 Pros & Cons
tips
1 Tips
Discover what tools Mark reccommends to grow your business!
productivity
analytics
freelance
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Start A Promotional Products Business

Hi there, I’m Mark Graham, one of the founders of commonsku. commonsku is a CRM, Order Management, and eCommerce software platform designed specifically for the promotional products industry. I co-founded the company with my partner in business and life, Catherine Graham.

We have grown quickly since we launched in 2011. commonsku is the fastest growing software platform in the promotional products industry, currently powering over $1BN of gross merchandise volume.

If you have ever ordered promotional merchandise for your business (think products with a company or organization’s logo), chances are that commonsku was the software that powered the transaction. Much like Shopify is the backend e-commerce system that powers a merchant’s store, commonsku is the backend system of a promotional products company that designs and produces promotional merchandise.

Our vision for commonsku is to streamline the entire ideation and ordering process for the promotional products industry. Since our launch in 2011, commonsku has become the leading operating system for the promotional products industry powering over $1 Billion of gross merchandise volume.

we-built-software-to-solve-our-own-problem-built-a-12m-year-company

we-built-software-to-solve-our-own-problem-built-a-12m-year-company

we-built-software-to-solve-our-own-problem-built-a-12m-year-company

What's your backstory, and how did you come up with the idea?

I have been an entrepreneur for over 20 years. Most of that time has been spent in the promotional products industry.

I got my start in the late 90s out of university in Canada when I was looking to escape from an investment banking job that I didn’t like. I was in my early twenties and was good at sales and marketing. I had also been successful in running several student businesses, so I had some entrepreneurial chops that gave me the confidence to start a new business now that I was an “adult” and fresh out of school. There was an opportunity in the promotional industry, and before I knew it, I had started a company called Rightsleeve in 2000.

At Rightsleeve, we designed and produced promotional merchandise campaigns for some of the world’s most demanding brands, including Red Bull, Shopify, Facebook, and Google. We sold Rightsleeve in 2019 to Genumark, one of the industry’s largest and most respected promotional agencies.

In the early days, as Rightsleeve grew, our organization became more complex, and balls started dropping (this was around 2004-2005). We needed a better way to manage and grow our company, and that meant investing in a more robust piece of software. The problem was that the software designed specifically for the promotional industry was not very powerful (okay, the options were downright clunky and outdated). Non-industry solutions like Oracle, Netsuite, SAP, etc., were too expensive (and arguably, also bloated and clunky) for a small business. This meant the only choices available to an SMB like us were to use a mix of small off-the-shelf software (Microsoft Office and Quickbooks being the most prominent options) or design our own software solution.

“How hard can it be?” We asked ourselves as we considered the ease of building our own custom software solution—famous last words.

In retrospect, building your own software is very hard and expensive. But we felt it was the best choice for our growing business.

“Scratching our own itch” by building our own software to address our growth challenges at Rightsleeve is what paved the way for commonsku, a solution that we could sell to the entire promotional products industry. We had this realization in 2011, after five years of tweaking and perfecting the software for our own company’s use.

We were not software engineers, but we had a tremendous asset: industry experience and a successful track record of using this software to grow our own company. This gave us a considerable advantage when competing against non-industry solutions that were expensive and very difficult to customize.

We had the benefit of launching commonsku after years of operating a successful company (Rightsleeve). This gave us a financial cushion to help us survive the costly early stages of launching commonsku in 2011.

Since our launch in 2011, commonsku has become the leading operating system for the promotional products industry powering over $1 Billion of gross merchandise volume.

The team in 2015;

we-built-software-to-solve-our-own-problem-built-a-12m-year-company

The team in 2017;

we-built-software-to-solve-our-own-problem-built-a-12m-year-company

The team in 2020 (just before Covid when we last saw one another in person);

we-built-software-to-solve-our-own-problem-built-a-12m-year-company

Take us through the process of building the MVP.

We had the luxury of building the product for our own business in the early years, so this gave us a chance to “eat our own dog food,” so to speak.

In the very early days when we developed the software for Rightsleeve, we had a very primitive user interface as we were more interested in how the workflows worked vs. how they looked. The name was even primitive - we called it ROMAN for “ Rightsleeve Order Management.”

Here’s an example of what the early prototype looked like in 2010 (before a formal UI was applied)

we-built-software-to-solve-our-own-problem-built-a-12m-year-company

The early software was built by sharing all of our manuals, and disparate workflows (paper, excel, word, PowerPoint, QuickBooks, etc.) with our developer, who helped stitch together a workflow that combined everything in one place so switching between applications was no longer required. It’s hard to state how revolutionary this was at the time (still is, in fact), given the complexity of the promotional products industry.

We then tested it by trying to build presentations and estimates and then convert them to orders that could be sent off to our customers and suppliers. We broke it many, many times, but this gave us the feedback to improve the product. Countless hours were spent testing it in the real world.

A typical promotional product professional has thousands of customers, hundreds of vendors, thousands of orders, and products SKUs to manage. Layering additional complexity on top of this is that each order is unique because every product is customized with a different logo. Organizing these different elements in different software applications creates a lot of inefficiency for a typical promotional company. This inefficiency creates a ceiling on how large a business can grow in this industry. commonsku streamlines all of those interactions, thus eliminating the growth ceiling many entrepreneurs in the industry face.

By using commonsku, the time a business would otherwise spend wrangling production and operational elements can now be devoted to sales and growth.

Here is what commonsku looks like today;

we-built-software-to-solve-our-own-problem-built-a-12m-year-company

we-built-software-to-solve-our-own-problem-built-a-12m-year-company

Describe the process of launching the business.

We incorporated the business in 2010 and spent 12 months creating an enterprise-class, multi-tenanted software application (migrating away from the initial app, ROMAN, that we had designed for Rightsleeve).

In 2011, we opened the product up to a small beta audience and collected feedback for another 6-8 months. During this time, we had regular meetings with our beta customers about what was working and what wasn’t. This was a tricky stage to manage as some requests were outside the scope of the software and we had to be disciplined to stay on task. Other feedback was incredibly important as we saw the software through different sets of eyes. This feedback loop was critical as it allowed us to incorporate suggestions from businesses other than Rightsleeve. It also helped manage the inevitable bugs that are common in new software applications.

We have learned that you can make up for technical shortcomings if you deeply understand your customer and create a relevant product for them.

We bootstrapped the business from day one as we had a financial cushion from Rightsleeve that gave us some flexibility. We tried to raise some money from VCs in the early days, but many investors struggled because we were non-technical founders, and some even disliked that we were married. The tables have indeed turned, as we hear from interested investors all the time these days. More lessons on that later.

We did attract the support of a seed investor who invested in commonsku a couple of years after we launched. He was a strategic choice for us as he deeply understood our space and was an incredible source of knowledge. This investor is still with us today, and he remains a crucial part of our team.

We launched commonsku with a free industry social network that allowed for promotional products professionals to create a free industry profile that allowed them to connect and collaborate with other industry peers. This was a revolutionary concept at the time, and it allowed us to create a brand based on openness, trust, and transparency across a notoriously closed industry. We attracted a tribe of like-minded entrepreneurs who wanted to run their businesses in a modern way through this approach.

We employed the “Crossing the Chasm” approach this way by catering to an early adopter audience. This early audience validated our product which led to a critical mass of customers, which helped us “cross the chasm” into the mainstream market.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

We attribute our success since launch to a few key factors:

Customer obsession.

We invest a lot of resources into our support experience, so customers are taken care of when they join and as they grow. A lot of people overlook or underinvest in support as it’s seen as overhead. We have found the opposite to be true as a strong support team minimizes churn and also creates raving fans who spread the word about the software.

Support is our monthly fee - nothing is hidden or extra. This has generated a tremendous amount of trust and loyalty with our customers.

Product.

Our development and customer success teams work in tandem to make constant improvements and enhancements to the commonsku application. Due to our feedback loop, the application is always growing in lockstep with our customers.

Our “we built this to solve our own problem” mindset continues to this day which puts us on the same plane as our customers.

Community and education.

We spend a lot of time cultivating and nurturing our community through our online social network (mentioned above), a popular blog, podcast (skucast), and education portal in-app (Learn), not to mention the several events we host throughout the year which brings our community together.

Our content strategy has been a critical pillar of our marketing strategy as we have used it to build trust with a customer base that is nervous about change. Our customers are not technical and many realize that an investment in business management software is a mission-critical decision for their business. As such, they need to trust that commonsku will be the right partner for their business. Our content is solely focused on running a successful promotional products business. This is highly relevant content for our audience and it helps build that connection with our brand.

Generating content takes a lot of time and patience. It also has to come from a place of authenticity and expertise otherwise your customers and prospects will call you out. We are domain experts in this space because we ran a promotional products business for almost 2 decades so our voice carries a lot of credibility in the industry.

Brand.

We are obsessed with our brand, voice, and how we show up in the marketplace that’s quite traditional and conservative. While this helps us differentiate, it also speaks to the aspirational side of our company and the kinds of entrepreneurs we attract.

Our customers (like Whitestone, Brand+Aid, or Whoopla) are among the savviest, and creative entrepreneurs in the industry, and they do exceptional work for their clients.

Connected workflow.

commonsku streamlines the entire workflow for a promotional products distributor from initial ideation to final purchase order in one elegant application. The entire supply chain is connected in the application so a promotional company can interact with colleagues, supply chain partners, and their end customers. This creates tremendous value for all stakeholders because everything is in one place.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Our biggest lessons and learnings include:

Understand the customer

Understand your customer inside and out so you can build a highly relevant product. We had this advantage given we built commonsku to solve our own problem. Many people underestimated us in the early days as we were not technical founders. What we have learned is that you can make up for technical shortcomings if you deeply understand your customer and create a relevant product for them. You can hire technical talent, but it takes years to understand your customer.

Hire the right people

Speaking of the technical side, our best decisions were hiring a CTO and a UX/UI designer early on. (we probably should have done both even earlier despite the cost hurdles)

Bootstrap!

Bootstrapping early and being patient as you build a revenue base. Many software companies sell out to VCs way too early, which creates incredible pressure to grow or else. Many early-stage companies flame out due to this pressure, and we saw many tech colleagues suffer this fate.

We avoided that path and instead focused on revenue and customer validation to grow and scale our company. Of course, this comes with different pressures as we risked our personal assets instead of outside investor money.

As mentioned earlier, VCs can be incredibly risk-averse in the early stages. This means you spend a lot of time trying to convince them when you don’t have a lot of leverage. We learned that it was far better to spend the time perfecting our product and finding product-market fit than trying to impress VCs.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Across the company, we rely on several tools to develop our product, manage our customer interactions, grow sales and collaborate internally. In no particular order;

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

The Purple Cow, Seth Godin

  • The gold standard on how to be remarkable

Crossing the Chasm, Geoff Moore

  • An important book on how to launch a company and grow into the mainstream

Positioning, Jack Trout

  • How to position your company and stand out from the competition. A classic.

How I Built This

  • In-depth interviews with founders and their business journeys

Invest Like the Best

  • Deep dive interviews with business leaders on their business models

Planet Money

  • Short, quirky, but very informative podcasts about business and economics

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?

  1. Don’t do it for the money. If you find product-market fit and you keep at it, the money will likely follow, but that’s less thrilling than building a company and product that makes a difference in people’s lives. Instead, start a business because you are passionate about the problem you are solving. It’s more fun that way.

  2. Be wary of VCs in the very early stages. You are better to find a product-market fit on your own terms and find customers who will validate your model first. Reinvest and repeat. VCs can be a valuable partner as you grow and scale, but you will have way more leverage if you bring them on once your product has been validated.

  3. Find the right partner. In my case, I have built commonsku with my partner in life and business, Catherine Graham. She complements me in all of the key parts of the business, and it would be impossible to imagine building commonsku without a partner (and especially her).

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

We are always looking for extraordinary people to join our team. See our jobs page here.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

-  
Mark Graham and Catherine Graham,   Founder of commonsku
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story

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