Customer Growth Journey with Whitestone Branding: From Start-Up to the Inc. 5,000 List

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While average industry growth is around 5%, the commonsku distributor averages around 20%. We're passionate about growth. It's why we exist, to help entrepreneurs grow quicker, faster, and with less stress and more joy in their work. This is a new series that highlights the journey of our clients and how changes to their structure and their systems ignite exponential growth.

Joseph Sommer is a young entrepreneur who founded Whitestone Branding in 2013, a boutique branded products agency based in New York City. Whitestone Branding’s growth has propelled them onto Inc. Magazine’s list of the 5,000 fastest-growing private companies in the U.S., not just once, but twice. Resilient, relentless, and a generous leader, Joe sat down with us as we sought to understand his journey, from start-up to skyrocket growth.

Joe, at skucon a few years ago, during the Entrepreneur Jam, you presented the audience with a problem you were having hiring salespeople, and the audience was trying to help solve it. It was extremely raw and vulnerable, I saw a much more nervous and unsure Joe Sommer. You remember that moment?

I remember it too well, actually.

What do you think now? Looking back at that young Joe Sommer?

You know, I reflect on that a lot. What was so hard for me to admit in that moment, was that I didn't like my business at the time. The challenge I should have really presented on wasn’t about hiring salespeople, I realized later that I didn’t like my business.

From nervous Joe Sommer presenting at skucon to twice being honored on the Inc. 5,000 fastest-growing companies list: Congratulations, man - What a ride! What do you attribute as the primary reason for growth?

So much of it was re-positioning to attract the types of clients we wanted. We re-branded. New logo. New name. It was Whitestone Works, now it's Whitestone Branding. But much more than that, we created a philosophy of operating, that no two stones are alike, that understanding about the uniqueness of each of our clients helps with our approach. The stone is symbolic and a representation of us as their brand partner. This shift in our philosophy and our re-branding revitalized me and positioned the business for growth. Once we re-positioned the business, prospecting became easier, on-boarding clients became easier, and servicing them was our natural ability. On top of that, we identified our core. Our core clients were experiential marketing agencies, we realized we work really well with those types of businesses. So, we positioned our business to be attractive to those types of agencies. And then, we put a plan in place to go get those types of clients, that really helped propel our growth.

You also focused on your infrastructure?

Um, yeah, it was a conscious effort to grow. That meant building out the org chart. Infrastructure was key. We had no infrastructure before. At the time, salespeople and project managers would manage their own orders. We didn't have a financial person. We outsourced graphic design. So, it was a deliberate effort to really say to ourselves, “salespeople should not be managing orders after production.” So we hired a production manager. Now, salespeople and product managers can concentrate on serving clients, focus on current projects, and ensure they have their client's best interests at heart. Also, the finance person was key. When you grow, you need cash. Without a finance manager, we weren't collecting cash fast enough. And design, hiring a designer allowed us to flex our creative arm, which helped our positioning, which attracted the right clients. It was about defining roles, taking five … six of us, and saying, “you sit here, you sit here, you sit here,” and then building out all the processes to enable growth.

So, restructuring + re-positioning + re-branding ignited your passion. And focus. I hear you use the word “focus” a lot.

You must be focused to grow. You need to make it a conscious effort. And when you pivot to change, be very upfront with your staff to say, “Here's where we’re going, here’s the change. It's gonna be bumpy.” Then you gotta get out of the bumpiness fast. Also, putting the management structure in place like daily huddles, weekly meetings, quarterly off-sites, annual reviews, doing those daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly check-ins to ensure you're meeting your metrics.

What other types of clients do you serve?

In addition to the experiential marketing firms, we ‘re predominantly focused on finance right now but have also navigated our way to a pretty large mix of agency clients.

You sound like you had to go through your own personal growth transition, from salesperson to leader-manager, you had to learn how to empower others to get things done through a team. Was that a tough transition for you?

It was incredibly hard because it's not something that could happen overnight. To grow from being a great salesperson to becoming an entrepreneur was, ironically, about letting go of sales. Letting go means you have to relinquish control and learn how to grow sales through other people. It’s not an overnight process. For example, going into fourth quarter this year, I have a goal to not write one single purchase order. If I can get through this quarter without processing one order, it would be the culmination of a three-year journey going from salesman to becoming a full-blown leader of the organization.

How has commonsku empowered you to do that?

It’s vital to growth, an example: tags and statuses will give you all the right data to make decisions. Forget about all the other amazing features. The tags and the statuses alone can give you so much information about your top clients, your top prospects, how you're getting leads, where the best leads are coming from - then double-down on what's working. commonsku has allowed us to see the data and make informed decisions fast.

What do your customers think of the sales process?

commonsku is sexy to customers. The world is digital, the world's online, and commonsku allows your business to engage with clients, they can approve orders quickly and comment on presentations, that's a feature that we never had before. It’s fresh, new, different. It allows us to look really sophisticated. Deep diving into commonsku and embracing it for all it is makes us look and operate bigger, more robust.

How has the commonsku community contributed to your growth?

It’s the vibe and the people you meet at the events, and there’s an infinite amount of sharing, it’s a generous community, you know? Hearing the success stories of others, what's working well for them, their different perspectives on how to approach different situations, that has made us do things differently in our business. Just talking with and meeting other entrepreneurs in the community revitalizes me every time I'm in a room with them. And the podcasts and webinars have really been an added muscle. Plus, the community feed is like a university of knowledge that you can learn as-you-go, anytime, all the time.

What has commonsku freed you up to do, that you weren't able to do before?

The platform is effortless, we can present in minutes, we can write purchase orders in seconds. It allows us to make the most out of an eight-hour day and we get more minutes in a day. It has been, in every way, monumental to our success.

I also just want to say, from the top down, the whole commonsku team has really been rock stars. Mark mentored me early on and continues to be in my corner. He has been so generous with his time. Catherine is the smartest operations person I've ever met, so, anytime she speaks, I have my antennae up. Samantha, anytime I call her, she’ll just say, “okay, what's the problem, how can we start creating a solution?” Recently she shared with me hiring questions, which were pivotal for recent interviews. Kate plays matchmaker, she'll introduce me to other entrepreneurs in the commonsku community. Aaron is always patient in showing us new features. I think the commonsku team has been the impetus to a sharing community in the industry. We've certainly embraced it, but you can clearly see others have as well. It has given people an environment to be vulnerable and that's key. It makes you feel like you're not alone in this journey and that there are other people, far and near, in your corner cheering you on as you go …. and that? That's vital.

Any last thoughts on growth?

Just, whoever reads this, it’s about positioning. If you’re out there struggling with your business and not happy with where you are, take a step back and reposition yourself to attract the types of clients that you want. You can throw many ideas against the wall but I think that’s it in a nutshell, reposition and focus. Oh, and, if you want to contact me to talk about it, email me,, I’d love to chat.

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