Women in B2B: Lessons in commodities and the cloud from Catherine Graham

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Catherine Graham is leading both the cloud and the commodity sides of the promotional products industry.

Graham is CEO of Commonsku, a cloud-based business management platform for the promotional product industry. She is also president of Rightsleeve, a promotional products agency that designs branded swag for media and consumer products companies. To say Graham is busy is an understatement!

The two Toronto-based businesses have a common origin that highlights the connections between cloud computing and commodities-based business. From Graham’s perspective, those connections are all about dealing with disruption, business growth and problem-solving.

Say farewell to the era of the tchotchke

According to Graham, the promotional products or swag industry, was ripe for disruption as Rightsleeve was coming into its own.

“Promotional products weren’t always part of communications strategy or brand building,” Graham says in an interview. “They were just tchotchkes and the approach was more about ‘OK, there’s a trade show coming up and we’d better get some pens with our logo on them.’ When the industry looked at what was happening with retail products, you wouldn’t see them in the commercial space until about five years later, which was just ridiculous from a trends perspective.”

Access to customization technology, changes to printing techniques and the ability to produce off-shore all developed in tandem and it shook up the industry.

“Suddenly you could start to add elements from what was being seen in retail and create promotional products that were trend-sensitive and valued,” Graham remembers. “Just the rise of the graphic tee for individual brands alone was a monumental change. People are happy to wear promotional merchandise. They get a real kick out of it.”

Rightsleeve successfully coasted on the waves of that disruption and found itself in a period of rapid growth.

“It was all about better design, better production and production of products that were meaningful to customers and their audience,” Graham says. “Now when things are settled, we ask ourselves how we can shake things up.”

Create your own solution

The growing pains that Graham describes are quite typical of a small business becoming more successful, and processes had to be automated and activities tracked electronically with access to that tracked data for more stakeholders.

“We started looking for a management platform that went beyond supply chain management that was suited to our industry,” Graham says. “It’s a complex industry with a lot of different relationships to manage and we found a solution that was robust, rich and flexible enough just didn’t exist.”

In response, they built the solution that was to become Commonsku. Graham credits having a developer in-house from the earliest days at Rightsleeve with their success.

“Being early-adopters, in terms of web site development and e-commerce, and having expertise in-house let us approach the development of Commonsku with curiosity and enthusiasm,” Graham says.

The development of Commonsku was parallel to developments in social media for consumers, which helped the company manage its own growth and provide that service to clients in the industry.

“When we started to spin Commonsku off as a separate company [Graham and her partner Mark Graham own both companies], we had three children under seven and the youngest was only eighteen months,” Graham says.

Stressful times are no reason not to start something new. Graham credits the integration of a timeline or newsfeed into the platform with making the process of starting a new enterprise easier when she faced demands from outside the businesses.

“The social media model really enabled us to promote from within and mentor the development of people we had already been working with,” Graham says. “Now, I can see what is happening when someone signs up a new client, when they have a meeting with a client. As a result, we have collaboration, transparency and community in our day-to-day operations and it frees me up to deal with larger strategic issues when we are face-to-face.”

This is the next instalment of our new profile series on B2B NN: Women in B2B, sponsored by SqueezeCMM. With these profiles, you’ll learn about the careers and business goals of inspiring female leaders in the B2B industry. Read our previous profile of Vicki Saunders here.

Photo courtesy Catherine Graham

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Kate Baggott

Kate Baggott

Kate Baggott is the Managing Editor of B2BNN. Her technology and business journalism has appeared in the Technology Review, the Globe and Mail, Canada Computes, the Vancouver Sun and the Bay Street Bull. She is the author of the short story collections Love from Planet Wine Cooler and Dry Stories. Links to recently published pieces can be found at www.katebaggott.com