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A business lesson: Branders.com

© Jerry McLaughlin

Jerry McLaughlin is co-founder and CEO of Branders.com, the leading online promotional products business. With over two decades of marketing and operations experience in the financial, technology, and advertising industries, he developed Branders into a successful domain, i.e. from the “world’s first” online promotional items company to its “largest.” Recently, Counselor Magazine – the leading industry publication – recognized McLaughlin as its Entrepreneur of the Year. Serving more than 100,000 customers, Branders has the greatest selection of instantly customizable promotional items for marketing, sales, and event-planning professionals. Under the leadership of McLaughlin – a former U.S. Marine officer and an active member of the Young Presidents’ Organization — Branders has established itself as the largest interactive and lowest-priced promotional products source in the world.

Interviewed by Stephen M. Thompson, Ph.D.

What made you initiate Branders.com and especially during the hype and uncertainty of online shopping?

I was working at a venture capital firm on Silicon Valley’s Sandhill Road when my co-founders came up with the Branders.com concept. It was such a compelling idea that I left the VC firm to join Branders as its founding CEO. We developed Branders.com to enable customers to shop at any time they found convenient, access a wide selection of products, see their logo on any item before committing to a purchase, and save about 20% on a typical purchase. To us, that seemed like a business worth building, irrespective of the e-commerce boom. But it’s certainly true that during that period, we, like many others, were under the thrall of Amazon’s astounding growth, which seemed to suggest – incorrectly, as it turned out – that a huge percentage of Americans were on the verge of shifting their shopping from traditional retail to online.

Branders.com is an on-line shop, but yet you added call centers to help take customer orders. What was the reasoning, especially when that contributes to increase in operational costs?

We tested the idea of adding live customer service to Branders.com, and found that customers liked it. The combination of do-it-yourself online shopping and friendly, easy-to-access customer service resulted in greater customer satisfaction and a boost in sales.

Around 2007 you swiftly changed Branders as a low-cost provider and that did have a great positive business outcome. However, in this day and age, where price is not the only factor, wasn’t that a big risk?

In order to bring our prices down by 15-20%, we had to restructure our entire business to make it much more efficient. That was a lot of work, but I would not say that it was especially risky. We felt strongly that customers would respond to the lower prices, especially because we were determined to preserve our top-notch quality and customer service. These days, many of our customers are small businesses, owner-operators, and nonprofits, and we find they really appreciate our help in stretching every dollar.

Though Branders is the industry leader today, given another opportunity would you reconsider your decision of “lowest price guarantee” model?

In the business hall of fame, the all-star companies are distinguished by their ability to do something that really matters to their customers, and to do it better than any of their competitors. That differentiator can take any form; what counts is that it’s perceived by customers as unique and important to them. Branders is very happy to offer our customers the lowest prices anywhere on the exact same merchandise our peer competitors are selling. We wouldn’t change that for anything.

“See Before You Buy” though was a non-traditional approach then, was the catalyst for Branders.com. Could you explain the concept and why was the idea accepted as a differentiator?

Customers could order logo items long before Branders came along, but they couldn’t see what the final product would look like – how their logo would look, where it would be positioned, what size it would be printed, and so on – until the order actually arrived. We thought it would be less risky, more satisfying, and a lot more fun for customers if they could see their logo on their chosen product before committing to a purchase. Our patented technology made that possible, and it turned out we were right. In addition to the many industry awards we’ve received, 88% of visitors to our site tell us in surveys that the “See Before You Buy” feature is the coolest part of the Branders.com website.

Is there any big strategy changes for Branders you would like to disclose today?

We are going to lower prices further in the next few days.

What are your strengths and how did those help your entrepreneur spirit and business career?

Succeeding in e-commerce proved to be tougher and trickier than most people assumed. Every one of our earliest competitors has closed – though, of course, others have come along. I think we have become the leader in our industry partly because of our tenacity and partly because of our unwavering belief that we could be of real service to promotional products customers by offering a better, more convenient, and more affordable way to shop.

Your business success story is an awesome material for a non-fiction. Any plans to publish a book?

I am flattered by the suggestion. I contribute columns to Smart Business and other publications, and I enjoy speaking publicly about my Branders.com experiences – especially to student audiences and young entrepreneurs. But I have no plans to write a book.

Any tips for raising fund, especially during un-predictable economy?

Yes. Be sure that you can articulate the opportunity you see in the market, and why your company will be the one to capitalize on it. And make that pitch both compelling and concise. If you can’t fit your idea on the back of my business card, you don’t have a clear idea.

Any leadership advice for our readers?

You will get success when you deserve success. Work less on getting it and more on deserving it. Ask yourself, how have you made your business important to your customers’ lives? What does your company mean to those it serves? Would customers miss your company if it was gone?

Would you like to add anything?

Branders.com sells high-quality pens, mugs, and shirts to businesses and other organizations and groups for 20% less than what our peer competitors charge for the exact same products. That’s what makes us unique in a way that matters to our customers. What is your unique differentiator?

Thank you so much for your time.

Thank you. It is a pleasure.

To learn more about Branders visit www.Branders.com.

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