If you take a look around right now, there’s a good chance you’re sitting within reach of a promotional product. The Advertising Specialty Institute reports that almost 60 percent of U.S. consumers own a promotional t-shirt, and half or more own outerwear, drinkware, bags and writing instruments adorned with the name or logo of some brand or organization. It’s a $21 billion-a-year business, according to the Promotional Products Association International, and, in the eyes of one entrepreneurial Colorado family, an industry ripe for disruption through technology.
Noleen Zasman and daughters Bryony Zasman and Donna Lomazini launched ZOOMcatalog in 2009. Noleen, a veteran promotional products distributor, serves as president, Bryony as director of marketing and Donna as director of business development. Husband and father Gary Zasman provided the startup capital and has served as a mentor from the very beginning, making this truly a family enterprise.
As with so many disruptive innovations, the concept behind ZOOMcatalog has its roots in an entrepreneur’s dissatisfaction with the status quo--in this case, Noleen’s frustration with the paper-based nature of the promotional products industry. It made the process of finding interesting products for her clients time-consuming and labor-intensive, and it required her to keep a massive library of printed catalogs on hand and up-to-date.
“As a distributor, my mom was getting endless catalogs in the mail, and every January it would start all over again. It was completely inefficient and very hard to find products in those catalogs,” Bryony explains. She and Noleen came up with a concept to create a system where all those catalogs could exist online. “We’re not talking about a database of individual products. We wanted to digitize the catalogs in a way that would replicate the user experience online, but we also wanted to extract the information in a way that would make them searchable.”
The promotional products industry traces its roots back to 1789, citing the use of commemorative buttons in George Washington’s election as the first president of the United States as its starting point. Perhaps not surprisingly, it has a reputation for hidebound thinking, or, as Bryony puts it, “It’s kind of a dinosaur.” It lagged in technological innovation at the time the Zasmans were launching their venture, and they knew selling the value of a disruptive technology to an industry widely seen as being stuck in its ways would be no easy task. The challenge fell squarely on the shoulders of the young sisters, just 23 (Bryony) and 25 at the time.
“We were young, we were women, we were family-owned,” Bryony recalls. “So we got a piece of paper, drew up our concept and started going to trade shows and talking to the suppliers who were paying to print and ship all those catalogs every year.” While they got a fair amount of positive feedback, they also ran into a lot of naysayers. “The ones who told us this would never happen and that we were bound to fail were the ones who really fired us up. We were like, all right, we’re definitely doing this now.”
ZOOMcatalog bootstrapped and self-funded the entire development process. One early challenge was what Bryony calls the “chicken and the egg” problem. “We needed to have a search engine, but we needed to have content in it in order to get distributors to use it. But how could we get suppliers to take the time to put their catalogs into something that wasn’t being used yet--or didn’t really even exist?”
The answer was another road show for the sisters, where they offered suppliers free inclusion of their catalogs for a year in order to demonstrate proof of concept. They set 100 suppliers as their critical mass mark, and once they hit it, they started marketing heavily to distributors. “Being a young, techy, disruptive company, we did things differently,” Bryony says. “We relied heavily on social media, especially Twitter, at a time when everyone else was still trying to figure out how it worked.” They also took steps to project an image of ZOOMcatalog as a bigger company than it actually was at the time, attending lots of trade shows with their big, custom-designed booth.
Those efforts paid off in several ways, leading to multiple patents for the technology they created for their digital catalog management system and opening the door to additional revenue-producing channels and solutions. Suppliers now pay to be included in the company’s distribution channels, and with a rapidly growing and geographically dispersed workforce, ZOOMcatalog is getting ready to expand its custom technology solutions into other industries.
“Being chosen as a winner in the T-Mobile Unleash Your Business contest could not have come at a better time for us,” Bryony says. “While we’ve gotten a lot of recognition for what we’ve done within our industry, this is really the first substantial recognition we’ve received outside the industry for our accomplishments--and our continuing promise--as a technology developer and provider. And being able to equip all our remote staff members with mobile communication devices and services on a common platform is just going to add to our momentum.”