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The promotional products industry isn't typically known for technology or innovation, but Rightsleeve is recognized as a leader in both.

"The innovation was in adding the technology," says Mark Graham, president and founder of Rightsleeve, an online promotional products and design company offering custom branded merchandise for corporate and retail clients such as Red Bull, Expedia and Virgin Mobile.

The Toronto-based company recently won the Dell 2009 Small Business Award for innovative use of technology. "The combination of our internal operations as well as how we rolled out our online platform is what caught Dell's attention."

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When Rightsleeve was launched in 2000, promotional products were traditionally marketed through direct sales, with clunky paper catalogues delivered directly to the customer. Always "curious about the impact that technology could have on a business," Mr. Graham used technology to differentiate Rightsleeve right off the bat.

"I wanted a Web presence," says Mr. Graham. "I recognized that technology and branding combined could give us a competitive advantage."

While it was trendy to go online at that time, the technology available didn't have the flexibility the fledgling company needed, nor was it cost effective for a small organization. So Mr. Graham decided that the only route was to bring the development in-house. The challenge the company faced was that its industry is complicated, with a number of suppliers throughout North America, multiple decoration methods and customers all over North America.

"We needed a system that would tie all that together and we wanted to make the software social," Mr. Graham says. "We wanted the system to be able to spit out information so that all the people in the company had access to it."

They used open-source tools because doing so gave them enormous flexibility to customize their system.

Innovation at Rightsleeve Company's leader talks about integrating technology at his promotional-clothing firm

"It was like Lego," says Mr. Graham. "We started out with a basic block and added blocks on top of that to create a more elaborate infrastructure."

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Customers can log onto Rightsleeve.com and see the entire promotional products catalogue as well as order and set up accounts. High-profile clients such as Red Bull and Expedia enter private portals that have all of their merchandise pre-priced and pre-programmed specifically for that organization. That allows them to manage their promotional spending because they can see their entire order history, Mr. Graham says.

Another big challenge in the early years was awareness. "We had no marketing footprint, no sales staff," says Mr. Graham, who started as one person working out of his house with $1,000 of personal investment. "It was a challenge just to establish ourselves as a legitimate vendor. But I had a vast network of people whom I could call on. We built out one client at a time and created the idea of a Rightsleeve community that evolved online. We went to trade shows, got the word out and from there it was like dominos."

Awareness is still a challenge today, with which all companies of their size - Rightsleeve has a staff of 11 and revenue "just shy of $2-million" - struggle, Mr. Graham says. To increase awareness in 2010, the company will educate its sales force about what it has to offer, profile customers on their site who have had great success, deliver helpful product reviews and ratings, and step up their presence on the trade show circuit.

What's the secret behind the company's approach to innovation?

"Our physical environment has been absolutely critical to us," Mr. Graham says. "There are no walls, no carpets - it's all open. We get together in our common meeting space and hash out all our problems. Plus, we built out a newsfeed, like in Facebook, so that everyone - clients, vendors and staff - can see the actual core of our business - our challenges and success stories - as soon as they log in. All of that is linked so that someone at the office or on the road can see exactly what's going on. The newsfeed ties all the departments together and drives home that we're all on the same team. And it's fun."

Mr. Graham's advice to entrepreneurs?

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"Embrace technology! It doesn't cost as much as a decade ago and allows for collaboration across the organization so that you no longer have silos."

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