By: Adina Levin Co-founder of Collab
A few weeks ago I was reflecting with a colleague about this quote:
I had etched it onto blocks for our Invent-Her Pitch Party, and one of the guests loved it so I gave it to her. She told me she now keeps it on her desk at work.
We laughed because we both love it and she explained since putting it in her office, she secretly wondered if her co-workers understood it or if it made them question her execution strategy when she said "Yes."
The conversation reminded me of a moment in my own life, which may have been the pivotal "yes" that ultimately started the journey to Collab.
In 1998 I was living with my then boyfriend Marc in the East Village in Manhattan. I think of that time in life as a shedding of my skin from the years I had been working in sales, learning how to do all the 20th century things that could provide me with an income. My path has always been somewhat unique. At this time in my life, I was coming out of my first lesson related to going into business with friends. I'll save that story for another time.
But at this particular phase, I was trying to understand how I could use my abilities to create a career for myself that felt right. I felt confident in my skills, but I didn't want to apply them to selling things that didn't excite me. I wanted to nurture my entrepreneurial spirit.
I was pondering my past, and I started to think about all the chachkas I used to take with me to sales calls. Stress balls, pens, mugs, keychains, bags. That kind of stuff. Surely someone must sell that stuff and it kind of intrigued me because gadgets have always seduced me. In that moment, which was still dial up era (the internet was a bit of a desert) I turned to the yellow pages. Dare I say, I let my fingers do the walking?
Towards the lower part of the page, there was a small ad that said Corporate Image.
It was a standard ad with some jargon about bags and totes and rush service. It wasn't the most significant ad or the smallest, but it jumped out at me. I picked up the phone, and I called the number. A man answered. As you would expect he said “corporate image.” I said, "Hi, my name is Adina, and I know this is going to sound strange but I'm curious about your business and wondering f I can meet with you.” He was somewhat guarded and asked if I was looking for a job and I told him a little about my current status. He said, "Sure, come in."
The name of the company somehow made me assume I needed to dress up for the interview. As a seasoned sales rep, I had an entire closet filled with suits that I had very little interest in ever putting on again. I dressed for the occasion and went to my interview in midtown Manhattan on 40th and Park Avenue.
I entered the building and went to the 3rd floor. Off the elevator, there were lots of doors. I found the one I was looking for with a paper sign that said Corporate Image. Hmm, I thought, what kind of corporate image is this? As I opened the door, all I could see was mounds of dusty catalogs and boxes overflowing with trinkets. The office smelled kind of like a grandparents attic from the 70s. There were a few old empty desks piled with junky electronics, and behind all the madness there was a bearded man with a baseball cap on with his eyes closed and his hands folded in his lap. I peaked my head around the maze of obstacles and shuffled some trinket gently to stir him. He jolted a bit. I said, "I'm sorry I startled you, are you Chris?" He was glassy-eyed and confused and I'm pretty sure he was in a deep sleep. He had a bit of a beer smell on him and seemed uncomfortable by my presence. I could tell he forgot about our meeting. As I was standing in front of him in my interview suit, I felt like he thought I was overqualified. Little did he know how badly I wanted to change out of my suit and explore his office.
We went downstairs to have a tea. It got weirder because he started to act very professional and I felt a little sorry for him. He was what you would imagine from a guy who named his company Corporate Image. I'll leave it to you to envision.
I probed a bit about the promotional products industry. I quickly gathered there were distributors and suppliers and he was a distributor. I was connecting dots in my head.
We left the meeting by agreeing he would think about how I may be able to work with him. I knew he didn't think he could afford me. It was clear this was a commission only opportunity, if anything at all. I don't think he imagined I was that kind of girl.
It was a Friday.
Saturday morning I was schlepping my laundry to the corner laundromat in the east village. It was late spring, and I was wearing a t-shirt, boxers and flip-flops. On my way back I walked through the Saturday street fair on Avenue A. As I was walking through the market I heard someone yelling “sign up for a credit card get a free t-shirt.” I kept walking, and then I replayed the man's voice in my head. Hmm. I walked back to the man. He was standing in the street with a pile of t-shirts in his hand and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. He asked me if I wanted to apply for a credit card and get a free t-shirt. I said no thank you, but do you know who handles ordering your t-shirts? He said, “is that what you do?” I paused and said, yes. He asked for my card. I explained I was dropping off my laundry and I didn't have anything with me. Will you give me your information? He tore the pink part of his credit applications and wrote on the back of it Joe Salani with his phone number. Cigarette still hanging out of his mouth. He then said something thrilling. Do you do umbrellas and six-pack cooler bags? I told him, of course! I remembered a few things from my meeting with Chris on Friday. How many do you need of each and can you tell me approximate budget per piece? He said he needed 5,000 of each and wanted them for $8.00 or less per piece, including shipping. It was about a two-minute conversation. I said I’ll call you first thing Monday morning Joe Salani. He yelled at me as I was walking away, "I need samples by Wednesday!" I smiled and yelled back, no problem!
My boyfriend Marc was in Woodstock working on a screenplay at the time. He called and I told him the story, and he laughed and said he couldn't imagine this would turn into anything. It sounds a little ridiculous to me now as I write about it. But I could feel something brewing.
I called Chris from the corporate image on Monday morning and asked him, "if I want to go out and get you business, what kind of commission will I receive on the orders I bring in?" He paused and said, uhh well, umm how about 50 percent of the profit. I asked him what he considered profit and he explained it. Then I asked him, do you know what a six-pack cooler bag is? He laughed very hard when I asked him this. I had no idea what it was? He said yes, I know what a six-pack cooler bag is. I told him about my first potential client, Joe Salani. He seemed a bit skeptical and surprised but we went over the details and got Joe his samples by Wednesday. Weeks later we delivered 5,000 umbrellas and 5,000 six pack cooler bags to the Atlantic City Boardwalk. Joe Salani wired $80,000 into the corporate image account, and my commission on the order was $15,376.27. Chris split it right down to the penny with me.
It was that single "yes" that turned me into the Chachka Queen of the late 90s. It was like opening a big brand new book and what followed was an incredible journey into design, production, distribution, and manufacturing. That "yes" unlocked so many of my hidden skills, and began my journey to where I am now. I'll reserve the rest of the story for future posts.