PPAI Magazine April 2024

Joseph Sommer | Must Read The undisputed hub of first-of-theyear business meetings and events, The PPAI Expo 2024 included a new gathering at the largest and longestrunning trade show in the promotional products industry. Joseph Sommer, founder and president of fully remote distributorship Whitestone, hosted a “meeting of the minds” among nearly two dozen leaders of distributorships generating eight figures in revenue. The forum covered profitability strategies, the sales cycle, customer service, e-commerce and the future of the promotional products industry. “When I’m talking with other owners is when I’m most inspired and learn the most,” Sommer says. “Getting a group of us in a room together to talk shop can only help ourselves and our businesses.” The meeting at The PPAI Expo, which Sommer intends to make an annual event, is just the latest example of his burgeoning status as a thought leader in the industry. Hungry For Independence Sommer, 35, has always wanted to control his own destiny. Perhaps that stems from being adopted at birth. He came into this world as a Texan, but his parents raised him in Bethesda, Maryland. A selfdescribed terrible student, Sommer says he was often written off by his teachers. “I felt that trend would continue as I entered the job market and took a traditional corporate job,” he says. “I could live with failure, but I couldn’t live with rejection. You can’t control rejection, but you can decide how you want to learn and grow from failure. Failure is just a stepping stone to success, so entrepreneurship checked all the boxes for me.” Sommer graduated from Johnson & Wales University in 2010 with degrees in entrepreneurship and business administration. His interest in promo was piqued along the way while working as a camp counselor the summer before sophomore year. A fellow counselor he was supposed to be splitting duties with was preoccupied with selling swag from his BlackBerry. After pestering his colleague with questions, Sommer learned that promo is “an industry where you can work with any business and sell any product.” The aspiring entrepreneur figured that as long as he hustled, he could achieve his dream. So, for his first job out of college, he moved to the Big Apple and worked in new business development for a New York City-based promo firm. A natural salesman, Sommer achieved rapid success. But after a year and a half of grinding, he was owed about $35,000 in back commissions. At just 22 and living in the most expensive city in the country, the recent grad was unable to pay his bills. Instead of working for somebody else and not getting paid, he reckoned that it wasn’t much of a gamble to just strike out on his own. Whitestone was launched in his Manhattan apartment in January 2013 – but not before Sommer negotiated out of a noncompete clause, giving up significant money and the ability to work with customers he had built relationships with. ‘Classic Entrepreneur’ In 2016, Whitestone joined commonsku, the Toronto-based business and sales software provider serving the promotional products industry. Mark Graham, president and chief brand officer at commonsku, identified Sommer as a “classic entrepreneur.” “I remember being inspired by him,” Graham says. “I’m in a position where I hear from a lot of distributors and a lot of them talk in such language, particularly if they’re younger, but not everyone delivers the goods.” Sommer sure did. In fact, he delivered pizza in custom-branded boxes to prospects, asking for a slice of their time. Delivering just 10 pies in 2020 led to $250,000 in new business. Whenever clients switched employers, he sent them butterflies in a wooden box wrapped in a beautiful frame because “butterflies signify transformations and new beginnings.” The gift contained a message congratulating them on their new role and wishing them continued success. In 2020, new business from the butterflies equaled more than $500,000. The clever approach generated Whitestone more than $2 million the following year. These goodwill gestures (and savvy marketing tactics) illustrated his business philosophy of surprising and delighting clients and prospects. PPAI • APRIL 2024 • 57