Catherine Graham, Co-Founder Commonsku & Managing Director RIGHTSLEEVE: The Leadership Lesson I Learned The Hard Way

Catherine Graham is the Managing Director at RIGHTSLEEVE, a leader in the online category of the promotional products industry. Utilizing a unique mix of design, technology and promotional media, RIGHTSLEEVE develops online merchandise programs for leading companies across North America.

Catherine has over 13 years of experience in banking, management consulting and growing businesses through her time at TD Bank, eBay, A.T. Kearney and RIGHTSLEEVE.

RIGHTSLEEVE has recently launched commonsku, a SaaS based enterprise social software company focused on the promotional products industry, with Catherine as co-founder.

We spoke to Catherine about why her company created its own software; about the benefits of all-women networks; and about the leadership lesson she learned the hard way.

TNW: We understand that commonsku was born when you couldn’t find a software to meet RIGHTSLEEVE’s needs. What was the inspired moment that led you to take the leap and create your own software?

CG: We were growing rapidly and were heavily paper-based for our transactions.  The “tipping point” literally and figuratively was when a stack of purchase orders toppled off the desk and scattered.  We knew at that point that we couldn’t continue to work this way if we were going to grow the business to the next level.  After researching a number of off-the-shelf products, we couldn’t find anything that gave us the flexibility we wanted, so we decided to build our own.

TNW: In a saturated promotional products industry, how does RIGHTSLEEVE set itself apart?

CG: RIGHTSLEEVE focuses on what we refer to as the 3 legs of the stool – outstanding design and exceptional product selection facilitated by robust technology.  We feel strongly about delivering branded merchandise that will be both useful and wow the recipient.

If companies come to us looking to do a promotional product we know will end up as landfill, we tell them not to bother.

TNW: How important is technology to the success of your company?

CG: Technology has been a critical part of the company from its inception.  We were early adopters of the web, building a database-driven site in early 2000.  This evolved into the launch of a full-blown platform to run the back-end of the business and front-end ecommerce in 2005.  Technology is a key enabler and we view that to be even more relevant with the advent of social media and now social enterprise.  If we had to go back to running RIGHTSLEEVE without the benefit of technology, I think we would close the doors!

TNW: Who were your first customers and how hard was it to attract them? Who are your customers and partners now?

CG: We started off with a lot of customers in the non-profit and camp space.  It was difficult to attract them, as the company did not even have an office at the time and it was difficult to be taken seriously.  The customers have evolved over time as RIGHTSLEEVE has grown in reputation and size.  We focused on growing with corporate customers who believed in our philosophy that promotional products are a fundamental part of the marketing mix and a powerful vehicle to get your brand in people’s hands. 

We are incredibly fortunate to work with some really amazing and brand-driven companies like Red Bull, Virgin Mobile and Mini. 

We have also continued to foster the camp market through our Camp RIGHTSLEEVE division which has been a great source of retail-driven design inspiration that we also carry into the corporate side.

TNW: What is your marketing strategy and what has been the most effective source of new customers so far?

CG: Our marketing has been heavily focused on positioning our brand in the marketplace as being design-focused.  This is reflected in our own RIGHTSLEEVE-branded merchandise we do, our blog and all content posted through social media channels.   We never want to be viewed as product-pushers. This has resulted in a solid word-of-mouth strategy.  Treat your existing customers extremely well by providing outstanding customer service, send them hand-written thank you notes and host events to both educate them on products and thank them for their business.  When we do this well, clients have been very generous at referring us business.  These referrals happen in both a traditional way, but also through social media channels like Twitter.

TNW: What is next for your company? How do you see technology as a key growth driver?

CG: For RIGHTSLEEVE, we want to continue to innovate and grow, constantly finding new ways to execute amazing marketing projects for our clients.  We find great inspiration in retail and fashion and love bringing the trends seen there to the promotional space.

For commonsku, this is going to be a very exciting year as we launch.  Social enterprise is going to be a very hot topic in 2012.  We feel passionately that companies can run their businesses in more collaborative and efficient ways by adopting internally the principles of transparency and sharing that we have seen transform communication externally in social media.  Technology is at the heart and soul of this, so will be the key growth driver. 

TNW: What is one leadership lesson you learned the hard way, which you wish someone had told you at the beginning?

CG: When I was in business school, so much emphasis was placed on finance, marketing, strategy etc.  Nobody tells you the hardest thing about running a business is the people side of the equation.   There is no class on how to hire the right team, keep them engaged and build an amazing culture. 

We had a lot of mis-steps in this area in the early days, having made some expensive mistakes and learned the hard way.  

I now spend over 50% of my time on hiring, managing and developing people as I believe it is the single most important aspect of building a great business. 

We are lucky to now have an amazing team at both RIGHTSLEEVE and commonsku with very low turn-over.

TNW: What are your top tips for successfully scaling a business?

CG: Map out where you want to go and reverse-engineer how to get there in terms of time and resources. This applies particularly to people – what are the skill sets you are going to need as the company scales and how do you plan for that.  Building a management team is a very difficult thing to do, but is absolutely critical to getting to that next level.

Leverage technology to get you there.  There are so many ways you can use technology to scale and gain efficiencies.  The biggest area we have found technology has allowed us to grow in recent years has been through social enterprise.  Finding more effective ways to communicate across the company, share success stories and collaborate on projects becomes really important as the company expands.

TNW: How has Dell or the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network enabled you to grow your business? What do you see as the benefits of all-women networks such as DWEN? 

CG: DWEN has been absolutely phenomenal due to both the content of the information exchange, but most importantly the network that has formed.   When I went to the first conference in Shanghai, I had no idea what to expect.   I was nervous going as I knew there were going to be some incredibly successful women there.  I was the only one from Canada and only knew a few from the Dell team.  I came away from that conference with the most amazing friendships that have continued to grow over the past few years.  The ability to pick up the phone and call someone across the continent or across the globe to tap into their area of expertise when you have a question and know they will do whatever they can to help you is incredibly powerful.

The benefit of an all-women network is the honesty and transparency that you don’t see in a typical mixed environment. 

Those involved in DWEN genuinely want to help others succeed and exhibit a willingness to give and share that I have never experienced elsewhere.

TNW: Do you have a motto which sums up your approach to business, and to life?

CG: One step at a time.  I have incredible growth aspirations for both RIGHTSLEEVE and commonsku and being an impatient person, I often want things to happen now.  I have 3 small kids at home and a high priority on ensuring I keep a solid balance between them and two rapidly growing businesses.  This means I often have to allow things to happen at a more moderate pace than I would like, as there are only so many hours in the day.  The sheer size and length of the “to-do” list can be overwhelming and reminding myself to just take everything one step at a time keeps everything in perspective.

TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you’d like to share with our community?

Pay it forward.  We have a huge opportunity as women to foster female entrepreneurship.  I feel particularly passionate about this in the technology space which is currently so male-dominated. 

One of my resolutions for 2012 (yes, I made one even though I dislike the idea of New Year’s resolutions!) is to get involved in my community with organizations that help expose younger women to entrepreneurship and show them how amazing it is to run your own business.

The Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network (DWEN) celebrates the wonderful accomplishments of women in business, whilst looking forward at how we can progress and learn from each other. Natural networkers and relationship builders, women have innate flair for entrepreneurship. With DWEN, Dell is helping women in business to expand their networks while offering technology capabilities designed to help them innovate and grow their businesses.

The NextWomen is in partnership with DWEN to bring you a series of 40 interviews with the world's most influential female founders, investors and decision makers: The NextWomen DWEN Interview Series.

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