Joseph Sommer's Winning Ways
Joseph Sommer, founder and president of Whitestone (PPAI 666851, D4), 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,” Sommer 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.”
After being owed about $35,000 in back standing commissions from a New York City-based promotional products firm, Sommer decided to strike out on his own at just 22 years old. He launched Whitestone Works (later shortened to Whitestone and named after a small town in Virginia where his parents initially retired to) in his Manhattan apartment in January 2013.
Ten years later, the now fully remote company has generated $16 million in revenue year-to-date. It has also made the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies in the United States for six consecutive years, ranking No. 2,207 in 2023 with a three-year growth rate of 252%.
‘Always Be Prospecting’
Instead of “Always Be Closing,” Sommer attributes his company’s jaw-dropping growth to “Always Be Prospecting.”
“I have two people dedicated to business development who actively prospect every single day,” he says. “Email sequencing, cold calling, taking intro calls, etc. We always have our foot down on the gas on new business development. We hire whenever our account managers have no more bandwidth to take new leads.”
Striving to differentiate himself and his business in the crowded marketplace, Sommer is always willing to go the extra mile. In fact, he landed Whitestone’s first company store and its largest sale at the time after a Goldman Sachs executive’s second-in-command marveled at the 50 branded tie labels he shipped over a year before to no response.
He’s also 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 need to be perpetually prospecting new accounts and within existing relationships,” Sommer says. “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.”
From Client To Employee
Lee Ann Mazzarisi met Sommer about six years ago 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.
That first order led to a life-changing relationship.
“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.
“I left an industry I knew for a decade and like the back of my hand to work in an industry I didn’t know existed before I met Joseph,” Mazzarisi says. “That’s a true testament of who he is and how he treats his clients – he had a client come work for him.”
As revenue has grown, so has Whitestone’s headcount. The company now has nearly 50 employees and provides a bevy of benefits and perks, including full healthcare coverage for staff and their dependents, a 401(k) match, stipends for home office supplies and gym memberships, paid time off for volunteering and more. After five years of service, employees are also rewarded with a free trip of their choosing.
“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.”
‘Cut From A Different Cloth’
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. “So, you don’t have a lot of control over your own gross, whereas a lot of companies that have commission-only sales reps, the growth strategy is really through acquisition.”
“One thing we’ve done really well,” Sommer adds, “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.”
Even competitors like Joshua White, head of strategy and general counsel at Los Angeles-based BAMKO (PPAI 242148, D11) – promo’s fourth leading distributor in this year’s PPAI 100 – proclaim Sommer as the type of leader that “this industry should be taking notice of and learning from.”
“He’s built a people-first organization obsessed with creating the best culture imaginable,” White says. “He’s been able to attract, develop and retain high-quality employees who are passionate about their work, their clients and what they're building together at Whitestone. It's incredibly impressive to see what they've done thus far and it's clear to me that they're only just getting started over there."
"I'd love to see more companies taking a cue from Whitestone by really investing in the growth and development of their people," White adds.