Innovation at Work: A Conversation with Mark Graham
Filed under: Entrepreneurship
About 10 years ago, Mark Graham was a recent graduate working at his first "real job" on Bay Street. By his own admission, he lasted about six months. "I felt like a fish out of water. I just wasn't enjoying myself," says Graham. "So I thought, why don't I just go back and start my own thing again. I'd done it many times before. Why not?"
Graham is talking about the many entrepreneurial ventures he had started since he was a young kid. So in 2000, at the age of 22, he left his secure job on Bay Street and started RIGHTSLEEVE, a promotional design agency that is anything but your traditional product peddler.
"My whole premise for starting the company was that I wanted to create a promotional products/apparel company that was really special within the industry. I wanted to approach the business differently," says Graham. Clearly, Graham was onto something. RIGHTSLEEVE's technology innovations and social media strategy have been written about by the Globe and Mail, the National Post, and Profit Magazine, to name a few. The company also won the Dell Small Business Excellence Award in 2009.
You say you've been an entrepreneur practically since birth. What made you leave a stable job on Bay Street to start your own company?
I was always the kid with the paper route, the kid with the lemonade stand. I ran a window cleaning franchise in University. I also ran the student newspaper. I was entrepreneurial from an early age, and it seemed natural to me. Going out and making money and not answering to anyone but myself. When I graduated from school, I felt it was time for me to grow up and get "a real job." When I got the real job, I thought "This is great. A lot of people would like a job like this. I'm set." But I just didn't enjoy it.
Why the promotional media business?
It was an industry with low barriers to entry, which was good for someone young, relatively inexperienced, and without a lot of money. Also, the industry was very big, so there was big opportunity. And after a bit of research I found out that the landscape in terms of competitors was made up of small players. It was fragmented, not very professional, and not terribly highly regarded. The final reason was that I inherently understood the industry. I had a sense of what was good and what wasn't, and how excited people got about this stuff. At 22, I wanted to hit the ground running, and this industry allowed me to do that.
What do you think makes RIGHTSLEEVE different from the other companies?
In 2000, the general perception of the industry was that of a relatively unprofessional sales force. There were a lot of people pushing product that wasn't of a terribly high quality, and they weren't adding a lot of value to the equation. I wanted to do it differently.
I used two things. One was a heavy design and marketing focus for the organization. And when I talk about marketing, I mean how the company markets itself in a way that's memorable. The average distributor maybe sets up shop, gets a couple of salespeople, arms themselves with some generic catalogues, and off they go. I wanted to create a meaningful business that had its own recognizable brand.
The second thing I used was technology. Back in the day, that meant creating a website, which was fairly original for the industry in 2000. Not a lot of people had a web presence. They were still focused on in-person selling and mailing catalogues. Since then, our technology investment has grown considerably, as has the sophistication of the kind of products we have online, which extends to how we run and manage the business using the web. That's been a cornerstone of our business.
Design, promotional media, and technology. How do they work together?
If you were to go to the front page of our website, you'd see our mission statement, "RIGHTSLEEVE uses design, promotional media and technology to deliver outstanding marketing results." Our ideal client is a client that values all three of those things.
Take a summer camp organization, for example. They're looking for a whole merchandise line to be developed. So we'll go in and show them a cross-section of styles that are relevant to the camp market. That's the promotional media side of the business. Then we'll talk to them about their design expectations and how our designers can create something for them that will really pop on the clothing. We'll get feedback from them, take elements of their traditional logo, look at youth trends, and incorporate that into a brand identity for their clothing line. That's the design side.
Finally, the technology side. We'll work with the organization to set up an online store where all of their merchandise can be showcased and ordered, streamlining the process for them. That eliminates a lot of the administrative hassles that these organizations have.
What's next on your agenda?
For me, the next real opportunity is looking at the "how" of our business. After 10 years, the "how" is what gets me really excited. The business practices we've created around social media are an example. Another "how" is the way we brand and market ourselves. There's also our corporate culture. And probably the most important "how" is our technology infrastructure and strategy. There are 15,000 other people selling promotional products, but the "how" of our business is the reason we get the attention we do. For example, we won that really cool award from Dell.
The market has changed. That's why I spend so much time thinking about being innovative and staying ahead of the curve. It's to make sure we stay relevant and take market share. If we've got competitors who are sticking to old-school methods, and we're innovating and connecting with customers in a different way, then that's good for business. That has a lot to do with what's next. Identifying the principles that have made RIGHTSLEEVE interesting and applying them to other companies or other businesses, that's what I'm spending most of my time on these days.