CEO Jason Black and COO Henrik Johansson lead Boundless Network beyond industry boundaries.
“No risk no reward. Take some risk today!” tweets Jason Black, a promotional products professional who’s been in the industry for more than a dozen years. He should know. Black is the CEO of Boundless Network (UPIC: BOUND784), an Austin, Texas-based distributorship that experienced more than a 340-percent growth rate in its first three years of business. Now, five years later, with the help of its investors, Boundless is ready to take off once again.
But first things first. On the eve after this interview, Black, his business partner, COO Henrik Johansson, and his Boundless team are preparing to have some fun by hosting five Swedish bands and a couple hundred guests for a party to celebrate the famous SXSW music festival that’s put their hometown on the music scene. Like the alternative bands featured at this festival that push the envelope to create innovative sounds, Boundless is taking a similar approach in making its mark on the $20 billion promotional products industry.
Prior to launching Boundless, Black worked for Hotlink, another large distributorship. It was there that he began to see a gap in the industry, one that could be filled with the right people and the right investment.
“I had a really big vision for wanting to run really fast with technology. I found some investors that saw what we were trying to do and saw the vision within the industry and signed on for it,” explains Black.
What was his vision? He saw a $20 billion industry that basically had no technology to support it. It was highly fragmented throughout the supply chain. He saw an opportunity to create a disruptive model that can take a significant marketshare if done properly.
Black knew that he couldn’t achieve this vision alone, and upon recommendations from business acquaintances, he met up with Johansson, a self-described serial entrepreneur who also had a strong background in management consulting. From the beginning, it was the perfect yin-yang partnership.
“He’s like my work wife. We have a really solid relationship. We were both looking for the ‘what’s next?’ when we met,” says Black. “We both recognized that there’s power with aligning yourself with people that complement your weaknesses. We had a shared vision with very different skill sets.”
Johansson brought to the table his process re-engineering background that made him the natural fit for running the company’s day-to-day operations and overseeing the technology development. Black is the self-described visionary, always looking forward and trying to figure out how to fit the needs and gaps of the promotional products industry.
“This industry hasn’t changed in a hundred years, yet there’s nothing normal about this industry,” states Black. “You have to know the small intricacies of the industry, and know how to use technology to improve those intricacies. If you take a wide brush to it, you’ll fail extremely fast.”
And indeed many have failed. It seems until now, those who tried to make a technological impact on this promotional products industry have not fully met the vision they were trying to achieve.
One reason for the success of Boundless is that it had the capital backing to fully develop and distribute its technology solution in a way that it could achieve a return on investment. Leading financial partners include investment firms Austin Ventures and Silverton Partners. The result of this vision, entrepreneurial spirit and financial backing was an end-to-end technology platform, including seven pending patents, that’s putting new or renewed power behind purchasing logoed items and managing a brand culture.
Until the Boundless solution, companies maintained expensive company stores and inventory programs, which led to maverick spending and poor visibility and control. Boundless stands behind a bold value proposition, claiming to achieve up to 40 percent savings by indentifying various buyers in a company and aggregating the purchasing power. It’s a technology that Boundless calls GroupBuy, which connects buyers across departments and locations.
“It’s Facebook meets Amazon.com,” says Black. “There’s a social element to our solution where people can share and pass along information. We believe there’s power in the ability to share information and leverage this across the supply chain. It benefits everyone involved.”
In addition, the Boundless platform also empowers its 100-plus sales force to provide tools for managing promotional spend, such as tracking orders, searching for products, enterprise reporting and sharing approved brand assets.
Boundless developed its platform through both an in-house technology team and key technology partners who could design technology to the specific needs of the promotional products industry. Most of the technology is designed with the latest IT practices and is proprietary to Boundless. It’s also part of an aggressive technology roadmap that Boundless will continue to follow in the coming months.
As a result, Boundless, it seems, has met no boundaries. This fast-growing company achieved a 40-percent growth rate in 2009, a year in which there was an average decline in revenue of about 25 percent throughout the promotional products industry. Plus, it reached its 6,000th customer milestone and now has 20 locations throughout the United States, Canada and the U.K. It’s a success that’s drawn such accolades as Austin Business Journal’s Fast 50 list of fastest growing companies.
Its success lies in the fact that it comes to the table with a distributor point of view and uses technology to add value for the salesperson. While Boundless has been successful, Black points out that this has probably been the most difficult time the promotional products industry has experienced.
Sales professionals can no longer just rely on relationships and products as a way to make a sale. Boundless helps them use technology so they can start making money. As a result, Boundless attracts salespeople who want innovation and a different story to tell their customers.
“The world around us is changing at such a fast pace that you have to provide more value than just a capital resource. That’s why we are applying social commerce platforms. Innovation is happening at such a fast clip that people who stay with the traditional view of this industry will continue to lose marketshare.”
It has indeed been a powerful story. The Boundless portfolio includes such top corporate names as AT&T, State Farm, HP, Valero, Frito-Lay, Motorola, MillerCoors and more. With its strong value proposition, Boundless has won 20 significantly large accounts in just the past 14 months. And with multiple offices across North American and in the U.K., Boundless is able to follow the global footprint of these clients and service them locally.
This fast growth rate is partly due to smart yet nimble growth strategy that has included more than 13 acquisitions since 2008. “We have an organic and inorganic growth strategy,” says Black. “We have acquired some companies in the past, but this can lack predictability of revenue due to the high relationship nature of the industry. We’ve been very fortunate. Going forward, we will continue to believe that there’s a lot of innovation that we can bring to our business that will round out our value.”
In April, Black and Johansson hosted 70 of its sales professionals plus 15 preferred suppliers for a three-day Founders Day event in Austin, where they focused on their successes as well as discussed the future of Boundless, which includes another $5 million investment in technology in the next 24 months. While Black won’t reveal all the bells and whistles of their next technology shot in the arm, he does point out that they will continue to develop tools that will add more value to sales professionals and to the customer experience.
I’m most excited about what we’re about to do in the next 24 months,” says Black. “There’s a lot of opportunity to add value from a technology standpoint and I think suppliers, distributors, salespeople and customers are all hungry for it.”
As Black and his team prepare for the future, his advice to others is to not look back, but look for the opportunities in front of you.
In his most recent blog, Black writes “The question that you now have to answer is: Are you ready to man up, run through the wall, beat the demons and rebound, or will you go back to sitting on the couch feeling sorry for yourself? If you are willing to work hard, believe it or not, you can completely transform your business in a way that will pay dividends for many years.”
Distributors who look for the gaps and fill these gaps with a value proposition that can directly impact the customer’s bottom line can also succeed. Black acknowledges that it’s not easy or simple. It takes passion.It takes hard work. Most important, it takes vision.
“My message is more about how you have to move on,” says Black. “You have to define your position and capitalize on it. Working smart will separate the winners from the losers. Even if someone has no technology expertise, but they have the relationships, we have the resources to make them successful.There’s not many times in our lifetime that we’re going to have an opportunity make as big of an impact on as large of an industry as this opportunity we have with Boundless. We can do something pretty significant.”
Cassandra Johnson has spent 15 years as a writer and marketing communications consultant. She is a frequent contributor to both PPB and Promotional Consultant magazines.
Boundless Network (UPIC: Bound784)
Headquarters: Austin, Texas
Sales professionals: 100+
Offices: 20 offices in the U.S., plus Canada and U.K.
Sales: $36 million
Jason Black, CEO & Founder
Henrick Johansson, COO & Founder
Cindy Goldsberry, VP Sales
Jason Broadhead, VP Finance
Jason Walker, VP Business Development
ABOVE COO Henrik Johansson (left) and CEO Jason Black founded the company with the goal of delivering an unprecedented level of value, service and savings.