PPAI Magazine April 2024

“You will lose 20% of your business every year if you’re not prospecting,” Sommer says, adding that it’s critical to perpetually look for new accounts, as well as further develop existing relationships. “You always have to be trying to get referrals, cross sell and enter new departments. If you don’t have the mentality to always be prospecting, you’re not going to grow.” Overcoming COVID-19 Sommer was three weeks into a three-month trip full of hiking, fishing and volunteering in various countries when COVID-19 shut down the world. Instead of flying to Peru for jungle conservation, he flew back home and laid off many employees after Whitestone had just doubled its sales staff to a dozen representatives in the three months before the pandemic. With business grinding to a halt, the company reduced its remaining employees’ schedules to just 10 hours a week. Nearly all the company’s licenses with commonsku were also canceled. Fortunately, Whitestone had laid the groundwork to meet the demands of the new marketplace. The company was experienced with kitting, drop shipping and online stores and had connections to third-party logistics providers. Plus, with several employees already comfortable working from home, going fully remote was a smooth transition. Dominque Volker, Whitestone’s executive director of enterprise sales, credits great relationships with clients for the company maintaining the same level of revenue in 2020 as it had in 2019. “Most of our growth is organic and referral-based,” she says. “We had no outside sales before a year or two ago. It was all clients either referring us to family and friends, or a client leaving one company and bringing us to another.” The following year, Whitestone doubled its revenue and then not only reinstated regular working hours, but also brought back most of its laid-off workforce. “Joe took advantage of macroeconomic trends and moved to a virtual environment, which saved a lot of overhead and allowed him to hire employees from all over the U.S.,” Graham says. “He was very good about tackling the new trends, and he’s ridden the wave to phenomenal growth in a way that’s probably bigger than he ever thought.” Whitestone’s revenue has grown from $5 million in 2020 to north of $16 million. The company has also made the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. for six consecutive years, ranking No. 2,207 in 2023 with a three-year growth rate of 252%. “We always have our foot down on the gas on new business development,” Sommer says. “We hire whenever our account managers have no more bandwidth to take new leads.” Building A Team As revenue has grown, so has Whitestone’s headcount. The company now has nearly 50 employees, spread throughout the country. They come together once a year at an annual corporate retreat to build camaraderie. “We all feel like we’re a big family,” says Madeline Hardy, senior account manager at Whitestone and a 2023 PPAI Rising Star. “It’s nice that we all feel comfortable being vulnerable with each other. If one of us makes a mistake, we communicate it to the rest of the company. Everyone is very comfortable sharing their experiences with each other, which is all thanks to Joe cheering us on and educating us when things go wrong.” Sommer doesn’t believe in the commissiononly sales model, arguing that those types of reps are 1099 contractors rather than “real” employees. “They’re independent by nature – you can’t tell them what to do,” he says, explaining how that model means less control over revenue and growth. “One thing we’ve done really well is take a lot of people from outside the industry and groomed them into becoming milliondollar producers. Our sales reps are cut from a different cloth in that they’re not commissionincentivized, but they’re still throwing up high six and seven figures.” For example, Volker had just returned from studying abroad in Italy when mutual friends introduced her to Sommer at a bar in New York City’s Financial District. She was finishing up her last semester at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and Sommer was three years into building Whitestone. Having studied product development and merchandising, she was attracted to entrepreneurship, even though “promotional Must Read | Joseph Sommer Madeline Hardy Dominque Volker Mark Graham 58 • APRIL 2024 • PPAI