Every conference, company party and trade show has one thing in common: swag. Promotional products are an over $18 billion industry, and companies like CafePress and Zazzle dominate the landscape, helping brands print their logo on everything from coffee mugs to golf shirts. New startup commonsku is trying to help promotional products companies manage their back-end with a new cloud-based business management and collaboration tool that helps companies with order management, CRM, and internal communications.
The Toronto-based company was started by the founders of RIGHTSLEEVE, a promotional design agency founded in 2000. Co-founder Mark Graham said the idea for commonsku came from the challenges his own team faced managing their back-end. They couldn’t find software that tied their website to back-end CRM and order management, so they built an internal solution. They had several requests from companies who wanted to license the technology, which is when they decided to spin it out into a separate company.
“Imagine if we could create a fantastic business management software program but tie it in with the social architecture so companies could now run in a truly social way, and introduce the innovation that we had learned at RIGHTSLEEVE to other people in the marketplace,” Graham said about the idea. “If we were to license this the size of the software business could be exponentially larger than what we could ever build selling promotional gear to companies.”
Commonsku provides promotional products companies with an enterprise-level platform to help employees interact inside the company, and to help companies manage their orders, CRM, and communicate with external suppliers and other distributors. On the order management side, companies can manage presentations, purchase orders, and sales orders. The CRM component lets salespeople enter customer information and log phone calls, among other features. And the internal communication component provides a Facebook News Feed-style stream of what Graham calls “critical business activity” – estimates, sales orders, product reviews, and CRM updates. It also provides social supply chain integration, so companies can invite their suppliers to the platform to communicate in real-time. The company provides reports on all activity, and releases data to a master news feed.
Graham said his team at RIGHTSLEEVE uses it to share info about client proposals, post updates about orders and share information about distributors and suppliers. “It completely changed how we communicated and collaborated within the office, and it meant that everyone had a stake in everyone else’s transactions,” he said. He also believes suppliers have benefitted from interaction with distributors. “What we found being a distributor is that our suppliers were effectively blind to our business,” he said. “They didn’t have any context, they didn’t know why we were buying t-shirts.” He said giving suppliers profiles on commonsku gives them more insight on how to sell to distributors. “That’s the big disruptive vision on the supply side. We’ve made all the business information available to our supply chain partners, who see it in the same Facebook-style newsfeed,” he said. “No one’s going to be smarter about their product line than the guy who sells pens all day.”
The platform comes as a free version which only includes the social collaboration features, a version that provides the social features plus CRM for $50 per user per month, and the full suite of features for $99 per user per month. The company launched in beta in January 2012, and recently debuted an update to the website based on beta feedback. They aren’t releasing user numbers, since Graham said they’re focused on testing with a small group of clients, but they have a group of distributors on the platform, and are beta testing the features for suppliers.
Commonsku looks to join the busy enterprise 2.0 space, where players like Yammer and Salesforce help companies marry business processes with open and collaborative ways to communicate. Graham said he doesn’t view platforms like Yammer as competition because commonsku addresses the needs of one specific industry, and it’s focused on providing a full suite of functionality beyond just internal communications.
Graham said the promotional products industry isn’t always tech-savvy, and many companies use a combination of QuickBooks and Microsoft Office to track order management and CRM. And even when companies are using software like Salesforce, it often only addresses one aspect of their business. “What people are using right now is a real hodge-podge of systems that don’t speak to one other, and they’ve developed a series of workarounds to allow them to run their business semi-efficiently.” Commonsku takes clients through the process of switching from their existing system to the platform, something that isn’t necessarily an easy task (on their website they take clients through what switching involves, and offer specialized training to get clients acquainted with the functionality). He said the clients that have been the most responsive are the ones who are relatively new to the industry, and who are interested in the social enterprise.
While now commonsku focuses on the promotional products industry because the founders are familiar with it, Graham admits that anyone who sells a product could use the platform.”We are not limiting ourselves to the industry, but since this is an industry we know so well and it does represent a great opportunity, we’d rather be as focused on the user pain point as we can,” he said. “We could then go and take the same concept and take it over to other industries, absolutely.”
Graham also wants to create a promotional social network, and give every distributor and supplier free access to the system (with paid accounts for the CRM and order management tools). That platform will be launching in the next two months, and will basically resemble a business-focused Facebook-style network to connect distributors, suppliers and brands. “We’re kind of going down a path of re-imagining how the supply chain works, which is really the big idea behind commonsku,” Graham said.
Whether they can get traditional companies to switch (no easy task when businesses have already invested heavily in the tools they currently use), and find enough clients in a niche industry to fuel further expansion, will be the biggest challenges commonsku faces.