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mark evans

Running a fast-growing small business is a challenge, so the creation of a second enterprise is either ultra-entrepreneurial or hugely ambitious. Or both.

For Right Sleeve Marketing Inc., its new standalone company was the result of being unable to resist an exciting opportunity that had the potential to disrupt the $18-billion promotional marketing business in North America.

The concept for Commonsku emerged when Right Sleeve was looking for technology to link its website with back-end systems. Lacking the software to meet its needs, the Toronto-based business, headed by Mark Graham and his wife Catherine, decided to develop its own.

"It was an order management/customer relationship management/business management tool that connected the front end to the back end," Mr. Graham says. "We created it because there was nothing in the market like it."

The software provided employees and management with more transparency and insight into the business. The most exciting feature was a "news feed," which showed employees both potential orders and deals that had been closed. Mr. Graham says the news feed "democratized" the company's data and dramatically changed how it conducted business.

When he spoke at industry conferences about how the web and social media were changing the promotional marketing business, the reaction he generated after showing people his new system was a combination of curiosity and enthusiasm, demonstrating Right Sleeve might have come up with something big.

"It was a tipping point," Ms. Graham, Right Sleeve's president, said during an interview at a conference earlier this week. People said: 'What are you using? What is it?"

The positive reception and additional validation from potential customers spurred the Grahams to push ahead with a new business that eventually became Commonsku. The process had its twists and turns along the way, a few mistakes, and it identified a lot of valuable lessons.

"It is an absolutely disruptive idea," Ms. Graham says. "It's a completely different way of doing business because it changes the relationship between suppliers and distributors by allowing them to collaborate. It gives suppliers insight into what's going on with distributors, and drives more creativity."

Now that Commonsku has launched and it's attracting customers, Ms. Graham says the new business has had an impact on how Right Sleeve operates. The big difference, she explains, is that the increased transparency and visibility into what each employee is doing has eliminated the need for micro-management, while encouraging collaboration.

Another benefit, Mr. Graham adds, is that it's making it easier for Right Sleeve to attract and keep younger employees, who embrace concepts such as social sharing and flexible work schedules that value performance over time spent in front of a computer.

Mark Evans is the principal with ME Consulting, a communications and marketing strategic consultancy that works with startups and fast-growing companies to create compelling and effective messaging to drive their sales and marketing activities. Mark has worked with four startups – Blanketware, b5Media, PlanetEye and Sysomos. He was a technology reporter for more than a decade with The Globe and Mail, Bloomberg News and the Financial Post. Mark is also one of the co-organizers of the mesh, meshmarketing and meshwest conferences.

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