Joseph Sommer is the founder and president of Whitestone Branding, which helps companies ignite or extend their brand of image through the products they produce. Whether it be 10,000 t-shirts for a race or marathon or a well-thought out corporate gift, Whitestone Branding are importers and distributors of highly-personalized items which are carefully developed to help enhance or extend any brand of image.
How did the concept for Whitestone Branding come about?
The concept for the business came about during the summer between my freshman and sophomore year in college, while working as a counselor at a summer camp. I had previously wanted to own restaurants, and was going to Johnson & Wales University with the hopes of becoming a restaurateur. After worked in a restaurant the year before, I quickly learned this was not what I wanted to do with my life! While at camp, I met a guy who was running a promotional products business from his Blackberry. I saw all the cool things he was making for Tequila Patron and saw one six figure check that changed my outlook on the business altogether. From that moment on, ten years ago, I knew this would be the business for me. I learned that I could work with businesses I look up to and align with, and have a positive impact on their marketing strategies. I went back to college, and starting writing many different business plans in the branded products space.
How was the first year in business?
My first year in business was agonizing. I was bound by a non-compete, and spent most of the year building a website which never made a big impact. I really hung on by a thread, living off of savings and paycheck to paycheck. My biggest challenge was being so young and inexperienced. I was twenty-two, and really only had one other job in the industry, and while I had success in that role eighteen months prior, I had absolutely zero management skills or entrepreneurial experience. It was an uphill battle from day one.
What was your marketing strategy?
My business was entirely bootstrapped and still is 100% self-funded close to six years later. We’ve always had to be super savvy with how we prospect and market the business. In the beginning, my marketing strategy was based on pure gumption. The strategy was to cold call, ask customers for referrals, and rely on family and friends to help make introductions for me.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
We were $12.00 shy of $1,000,000 in our second full year of business! We went from a few hundred thousand to a million after two full years and I attribute a lot of that success to grit and determination. The mentality was that I could not fail! I had quit my job and risked it all, and the mindset was to really make my parents proud and prove to them and myself that I could make it on my own.
How do you define success?
Success to me is defined by the number of people I employ and careers I am creating. It truly means the world to me being able to employ people and share my passion with them. Our business is service-oriented at its core. We take a hospitality approach to the customer experience, and because of that, our growth is rooted in our people. The more people we have thriving in their respective roles, the more successful the business will be and the more accomplished I will feel.
What is the key to success?
Hard work, compassion, a can-do attitude, and the right amount of support, both professionally and with family and friends. To become a successful entrepreneur, I believe firmly that you have to outwork the competition and go into each new opportunity with the mindset that existing relationships are likely already in place, and that should motivate you to work harder and offer a higher level of service or a higher-quality product. Also, to let the people you’re working with know that your goal is to win their business. I’m a firm believer of calling a spade a spade. That relates to anything, but in business specifically, when I want to work with someone, I tell them that I want their business and I show them why I believe I deserve it through actions, not words. That attitude has helped drive success with our business.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
The greatest lesson I have learned is that there are four P’s to ensuring a successful business, not three, and that the fourth P is critical and so very important. You need to have the right Profit, People, and Process…but you also have to be well-Positioned!
Positioning is such a big piece of the puzzle. Figuring that out, and then having positioned our business for the best-fit clients was one of the greatest lessons I have learned.
What are some quotes that you live by?
My two favorite quotes are “The world is your oyster” and “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
Having been adopted at birth, I always think about how I hit the lottery of life, and every day I work towards making the most of my winnings – day in and day out.
What are some of your favorite books?
Two amazing books I’ve read and have implemented in our business are by Mike Michalowicz, which are The Pumpkin Plan and Profit First. Absolute must-reads for entrepreneurs.
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
Having to lay off fourteen employees and announce the shutdown of a business I had acquired eigtheen months prior. In September 2016, we acquired our go-to screen printer and financed embroidery machines. While in the Goldman Sachs 10K Small Businesses program, I had identified in-house decoration as an area in which could help me drive growth. I was approached by our go-to screen printers coincidentally, and we ended up purchasing their business through an asset purchase agreement. After eighteen months, we ended up never turning a profit and we pulled the plug on the venture, having to lay off the people and put a plan in place to liquidate the business. That was by far the hardest day of my career, but I’m proud of how we managed the layoffs and how fast we were able to liquidate and put everything in the rear view mirror. We helped find everyone new jobs and get them back in the workforce, while also giving them two weeks severance.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
When faced with adversity, the thought that keeps me moving forward is that I’ll only be faced with this once, because I’ll learn and grow from it. Knowing that if I keep a level head, make informed and calculated decisions, and base my decisions also off of past experiences, I’ll grow from the obstacle and be ready to tackle a different challenge the next day.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
The advice I would give to a young entrepreneur would be to seek out mentorship from within your industry. There is always someone willing to help and give their time to teach you what they learned. I would tell he or she to be a sponge and soak up all the knowledge and wisdom from people who have gone through the journey and by listening, you’ll pick up a bunch of golden little nuggets that will absolutely save you time and money.
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This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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