skucamp 2019: The Aha! Moments (Act I)


The scene: The Ace Hotel, Pittsburgh

The setting: 3rd annual skucamp conference

Mood: Electric

Across the entire gym, nearly every cell phone suddenly lifts in the air for a pic.


It’s a quick shot. If actual cameras were used (and not cell phones), you would have heard the shutter click of over a hundred people, like paparazzi, collecting a moment. But instead of capturing a celebrity, they captured lightning in a bottle.

It’s that decisive moment in a presentation when an idea sparks, then ignites. It’s the lynchpin. The money shot. 

Whatever you call it, it’s a wildfire. 

It’s explosive because it’s more than a thought. It’s the culmination of sweat, blood, and tears behind the experience that brought the speaker to the stage. It’s the reason the speaker is standing in front of the crowd; it’s not their speaking talent, it’s because they’ve done something extraordinary. Something magical. Or maybe just something really damn hard and we suddenly realize it at that moment. And because of their vulnerability and willingness to share unselfishly, it’s our catalyst. It’s what Proust called a provocation: The speaker’s insight is our starting point for action. 

Every speaker at skucamp had this moment.

Craig Dunlap / Meyer Dunlap

For Craig Dunlap of Meyer Dunlap, it was this slide that triggered all cell phones to be raised: 

Craig screen shot.png
Craig Dunlap.JPG

Craig was leading a session on proficiency but more than that, he was giving a masterclass on rightsizing your portfolio, exporting unessential tasks, and freeing up your team to do their best work. His title was “There’s Always a Better Way: Unlocking Secrets to Proficiency.” He talked about how they wrestled with saying yes to everything. How it almost buried them. And how they emerged healthier, happier. It was a refreshingly honest glimpse of a season of turmoil that led to a breakthrough. And because he was frank and revealing, it inspired us to change.

Steve McBee and Carson Roncketto / Creative

Steve McBee and Carson Roncketto were among those who attended our very first skucamp. They took the stage at Pittsburgh and showed how, in the intervening two years, they radically reinvented their business. Their presentation, “Revolution to Renaissance: How to Disrupt Your Own Enterprise,” provided many camera moments, but it was this one that got the most attention:

Creative screenshot.png
Carson and Steve.JPG

It was disruptive because when most entrepreneurs think of reinventing themselves, they rarely do so from the inside out. Most simply rebrand, which is like applying new cosmetics to the same-old-self. But this was a radical revolution, a risky and painful experience that was necessary in order to create a renaissance, not only in their business but in their lives. Steve’s vulnerability was raw and unfettered and many audience members commented on the guttural honesty it took to stand in front of your peers and share from your heart. But much more than vulnerability, Steve and Carson showed a way to reimagine yourself so that you could stay inspired, so that you would love hitting the office door every day. Cameras were lifted when they gave everyone in the room a framework through which to reevaluate their business. The audience knew at that decisive moment, they could begin their own revolution-to-renaissance using the same framework, one audience member wrote, “Carson and Steve’s presentation was amazing for laying out a path to change.”

Johanna Gottlieb / Axis Promo

Johanna Gottlieb from Axis Promo, -a multi-million dollar producer and sales mentor to many- talked about, “Never Enough: How to Stay Hungry Despite Success.” She shared how she used facebook messenger to find the name of a buyer, a buyer who eventually awarded them a million-dollar contract. She talked about the combination of a kick-ass, creative self-promo campaign tied to follow-up tasks that would eventually land a $150,000 customer. And she shared a lifetime of learnings in this shot: 

Jos shot.png

Jo ended with, “Be cool to your clients. Be cool to your vendors. Say please. Thank your clients. Thank your partners. Be yourself. Be better than you were yesterday. It’s a really rewarding and challenging industry. We are really lucky to work in such a limitless environment.”

Jamie Watson / Certified Marketing

Jamie Watson with Certified Marketing, peeled back the curtain on a topic virtually no one talks about: how to compensate your sales team. Jamie shared the three basic structures around compensation: 1) commission only 2) salary, and 3) salary+commission, plus the pros and cons from each. Though she shared the details and formulas, Jamie’s cell phone moment was this: 

Jamie compensation.png
Jamie Watson.JPG

Jamie said, “There is no magic one size fits all formula for compensating salespeople. We have seen many different compensation models succeed and fail. It’s an important topic that deserves thoughtful implementation and constant reevaluation.”

Amanda Delaney / IMAGEN Brands

The audience shared a knowing laugh and an audible cringe when Amanda Delaney from IMAGEN Brands shared what and how suppliers really think. Cameras were raised when Amanda shared the simple real-life story of how two different distributors collaborated with her on the same project, and which distributor made her go the extra mile, she called it a “supplier hack”: 

supplier hack.png

But there was another moment of brutal honesty when Amanda shared this: 

Supplier insight.png

Nate Cunningham and Claire Hosteny / East End Development Partners

At our events, we never specify a theme to our guests, but almost always, a theme surreptitiously emerges as if by design, but it’s purely organic. At skucamp Pittsburgh, the theme of revitalization recurred again and again; a perfect theme for our setting, The Wall Street Journal put it this way, “no other modern American city [as Pittsburgh] has worked so hard for so long in so many ways to reinvent itself.”

Our special guests for Day One were Pittsburgh developers Nate Cunningham and Claire Hosteny with East Liberty Development Partners. Nate and Claire talked about “Building a Boutique Experience in a Commodity-Driven World” and they shared their journey of taking a 110-year-old vacant and deteriorating YMCA facility and transforming it into a world-class boutique hotel now known as Ace Pittsburgh. Nate and Claire discussed defying the odds by creating and holding to a unique vision, the implications of loneliness through that unique journey, and the joy of attempting something simply because you dreamed it. "No one builds a historic property into a boutique hotel, in a secondary market, in a transitional neighborhood,” stated Claire, “that is not a business plan that is written because it’s a pretty crazy thing to attempt.” Nate shared, “the more unique your vision, the more it’s going to take: more time than you think, more energy, more money, and more perseverance.” And finally, Nate left us with the most critical lesson learned from their story, a lesson absolutely vital to the suppliers and distributors listening to their advice: “Nothing matters more than your partners.”

Nate and Claire.JPG

Jason Lucash / Hub Pen / Origaudio

The irascible Jason Lucash with HPC shared Origaudio’s Principles for Wickedly Creative Product Development and talked about packaging like no one has ever talked about packaging before. After sharing how much of his inspiration comes from just being aware of what’s around him in his daily life, he also shared one of the sources of his inspiration, the beautiful packaging site, The Dieline. And Jason shared the story of how a box design sold a hell of a lot of headphones. Cameras were raised when Jason shared that the packaging development actually came first, before the product was developed: 

Box 1.png
Box 2.png
Jason 2.JPG

John Vo / Whoopla

John Vo with Whoopla shared “Custom Swag That Can’t Be Copied (Carving Your Custom Path),” and discussed how his unique and completely custom projects are often won through ingenuity. One story John shared was how the client gave him a budget and a quantity but, because he wanted to do something cool and memorable, he got them to quadruple their budget and limit their quantity, creating a limited edition experience: 

J Vo 1.png
John Vo 3.JPG

Brian Stidham / EMT

Brian Stidham with EMT, taught us how to inspire through imagery in his session on “How to Enchant Your Audience Through Visual Storytelling.” With an Instagram following of over 10,000 people, Brian showed how he was able to capture his most astounding images and gave pro-tips on framing, patterns, the rule of thirds, and more. But Brian’s camera moment was when he shared the one tip that everyone had to know: 

lighting is everything.png

He then shared some extraordinary images he was able to capture with a cheap light that he bought off of Amazon, you can buy that same light through Brian’s Amazon link here

Brian Stidham.JPG

Arcade Comedy, Improv

The first day’s sessions ended with Arcade Comedy leading an improv on collaboration. The improv team brought “volunteers” from the audience to the stage and shared tactics on how to think quickly on your feet, how to utilize the power of “yes, and” and more: 

Arcade Comedy.jpg

Finally, the night ended with what has become a skucamp tradition: dine-arounds. Carefully curated by the commonsku team, participants were thoughtfully paired into groups that would inspire conversation. Seasoned vets sat by beginners, with both willing to learn from the other. This seemingly simple trade in ideas is the heartbeat of what inspiration and change is all about. The brief moments shared over a glass of wine can begin a lifetime of shared ideas, and where many smaller, collaborative communities (within the larger skummunity) were born.

dine around 1.jpg
dine around 2.jpg
dine around 3.jpg

No two skucamps have ever been the same, but this one was different. Electric. But this wasn’t just our bias: 

“This was my favorite Skucamp yet, although the others follow closely! I came home with a notebook full of takeaways and actionable items.  On the plane home I was actually able to take some of my new knowledge and put a program together that had previously been challenging me. There were many carefully curated collisions where I was able to meet more new people than ever.  Thank you for always going the extra mile to make sure every single detail has been covered. You're an inspiration to us all." - Brenda Speirs, Buzztag

"THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!! #skucamp2019 was amazing! The community is like no other in the industry and everyone was so kind and hungry to grow and disrupt our ever-changing promotional advertising environment." - Daniel Jenne, Tekweld

To our friends who joined us at skucamp this year: 

On behalf of the entire skucamp team (Kate, Aly, Mark and Catherine, Aaron, Dave, Sam, and Bobby) we want to say thank you. As we design each of our events, we always design it based on the type of conference we would want to attend ourselves and we build the content around the most essential things we would want to learn. And then we show up and are knocked off our feet by the community: your energy, your passion, your friendship, and your love. The reward we receive from playing a small part in your success is fuel for our journey. Thank you for being you. Thank you for encouraging us and challenging us to reach ever higher.  

To our friends who missed skucamp:

Though we’ve closed the curtain on skucamp 2019, skucon 2020 is right around the corner. Join us as we, once again, meet to ignite our imaginations, dream together, and inspire one another to become even greater versions of ourselves.

Your friends at commonsku - 

(Stay tuned for our next post featuring Act II, Day 2 of skucamp!)

*This post was inspired by Jamie Mair, who said, at the end of skucamp, that a great content idea would be to write about “the camera captures,” thank you for the inspiring idea (as always), my friend.


Want to receive more helpful articles and tips on how to grow a thriving promotional products business? Subscribe to our blog and we’ll deliver weekly ideas straight to your inbox!

commonsku is an effortless business management platform that empowers you to process more orders and handle more business. Learn more at