The undisputed hub of first-of-the-year business meetings and events, The PPAI Expo 2024 included a new gathering at the largest and longest-running trade show in the promotional products industry.

Joseph Sommer, founder and president of fully remote distributorship Whitestone (PPAI 666851, Silver), 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 self-described 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.

“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 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 commission-only 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 million-dollar producers. Our sales reps are cut from a different cloth in that they’re not commission incentivized, 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 products” was a foreign concept.

  • She joined the company as its operations manager.

“I believe in building something from scratch and creating a culture with people you respect and who have a similar work ethic,” Volker says. “He gave me the leeway to help run the business, which was very appealing to me. He was very all-in, no hesitation. I appreciated that coming from a boot-strappy background.”

Within two years, Volker transitioned into sales, quickly bringing in $1.2 million, and is the company’s longest-tenured employee.

Lee Ann Mazzarisi met Sommer when she was working in design services for fashion house Kenneth Cole Productions. The company was hosting an in-store event and needed some T-shirts, so Mazzarisi Googled “millennial-owned T-shirt companies in the New York area” and stumbled upon Whitestone.

“He took the time to pick up the phone, even when I didn’t have an active opportunity, just to check in on how I was doing and to see how the business was doing,” Mazzarisi says. “I had never received that level of service before. Our interactions never felt transactional. He was always anticipating our needs and wanting to make me look like a rock star. It felt like he was my partner and at times an extension of the Kenneth Cole brand.”

The feeling was clearly mutual, as Sommer asked Mazzarisi if she would join Whitestone as director of brand operations. In February 2022, she made the leap to promo.

Change Agent

Sommer’s meeting of the minds in Las Vegas is not only an indicator of The PPAI Expo’s role as a central forum for conversations within the industry, but also an example of the organic conversations that can foster growth and change in promo.

Those that know him well say that Sommers often stakes out territory in discussions like these.

Wesley Danson, president of industry distributor organization The Partnering Group – of which Whitestone is a member – and president and CEO of Houston-based BMP Partners, has coined Sommer an “industry disruptor and change agent.”


“Differing perspectives, fresh ideas and a wholesale new way of thinking help all of us to be better leaders in our organizations and the industry at large, and Joseph is paramount to leading that charge,” Danson says. “Whitestone’s success is largely due to the fact that he strives to do things differently than most everyone else and create an organization that is best in class.”

People like Sommer are reinventing the industry, giving it a new reputation and bringing in new buyers that look at promo in a totally different light, adds commonsku’s Graham. “That fresh perspective is why he’s a great example of up-and-coming entrepreneurs in this industry who are setting the bar higher.”

The Las Vegas meeting highlighted another aspect of Sommer as a business leader – seeing the value in mentorship and being a mentor. Those he’s worked with credit him with empathizing with the struggles of young business owners and say he’s always willing to impart wisdom.

Coming from the tech space, Dillon Vassallo wasn’t sure where to begin when he co-founded Boston-based distributor BizGifter in 2017, so he joined PromoKitchen, an all-volunteer organization that provides mentorship in the industry. He was paired with Sommer, who “cut the learning curve exponentially.”

“I wouldn’t be anywhere close to where I am today without his support and guidance,” Vassallo says. “He had a big impact on how we not just target customers but retain them, as well. He’d always talk about how we’re all working with the same suppliers and products, so you have to differentiate yourself to be successful. Ensuring clients are happy and successful is the key to differentiation in the industry.”

What’s Next?

Five years ago, Sommer vowed to take Whitestone from $1 million in revenue to $10 million by 2023.

  • He exceeded that goal by $6 million, and now he’s hell-bent on achieving his “big, hairy, audacious goal” of $100 million in the next 10 years.

To help reach that landmark, Whitestone created an enterprise sales team with seven individuals dedicated to winning and securing program and contract business, helping companies with e-commerce stores, pop-up shops, franchise uniform and apparel solutions, print-on-demand portals and annual service recognition programs.

“This industry does an incredible job creating sales reps who are transactional sellers,” Sommer says. “Where the industry doesn’t do a good job is selling in a team environment that focuses on more complex sales that involve contracts, longer lead times and more senior buyers and decisionmakers. So, this will be a little internal incubator.”

Ultimately, Sommer says, his job comes down to three things: employee health and satisfaction, high-level relationships, and strategy and vision.

“I’m just glad to create a company that I would be proud to come to work for every day,” Sommer says. “I rate my success on the health and satisfaction of the people in my business. When your people enjoy what they do, it rubs off on their work, and clients can feel that. As an employer, you have certain responsibilities to your people, and I take that role very seriously.”