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Doing business in a new way wins him Dell’s approval

Doing business in a new way wins him Dell’s approval

[photo of Mark Graham in an office with Michael Dell]Mark Graham, left, chatting with Michael Dell.
Photo courtesy of Mark Graham.

Mark Graham, Artsci’96, is the founder of RIGHTSLEEVE, a Toronto-based promotional design agency that recently received the Canadian Small Business Excellence Award from Dell.

RIGHTSLEEVE was lauded for its innovative use of technology to better serve customers and for its unique technology-based business model.

Mark says his BA in History and Economics has helped him as an entrepreneur. “An Arts degree teaches people how to think, to ask questions, to apply critical thinking. That is absolutely essential as an entrepreneur. You never take things at face value. There are a lot of people who will tell you ‘No’ and tell you that your ideas are stupid. [An arts background] gives you a strong platform to build on, to defend your ideas, and be tenacious.”

Mark always had an entrepreneurial streak, from selling lemonade in front of his parents’ house as a kid to starting a window-cleaning business in university. At Queen’s, he was the business manager for the Journal. In fourth year, he worked with Summer Orientation to Academics and Registration (SOAR), which introduces Queen’s to high-school students and their families. “I gave presentations in front of large audiences. It really honed my presentation skills.” His ideal job, he realized, combined the business skills he learned at the Journal with the marketing and presentation skills learned at SOAR. But after graduation, he felt he had to get a “real job.”

Mark worked in investment banking for six months until the novelty wore off. “I didn’t fit into that culture. I was always looking back at my experiences at high school and at Queen’s.” He saw that promotional design was a big industry with a lot of opportunity. “It didn’t require a massive capital investment. The industry also, traditionally, lacked professionalism. It was trinkets and trash.” But coming from Queen’s, he understood the value of Queen’s-branded clothing. “I knew there was a side of the market that valued retail-inspired promotional items. I thought, ‘Why don’t I focus on this market?”

He started RIGHTSLEEVE as a web-based company when his competitors were still using print catalogues and direct sales. “We began with a basic website and created our own universe of products online. We’ve continued to invest more into online marketing. We have created our own platforms. We control the content so we can develop recommendations to customers, based on their user searches.” It was this type of innovative thinking that brought RIGHTSLEEVE to the attention of Dell.

In November, Mark traveled to Round Rock, TX, the home of Dell headquarters, to receive his award and take part in a weekend of professional development and idea-sharing with the national award winners from the U.S., Mexico, and Brazil. The winners were interviewed by international media, an experience Mark describes as “surreal, like being on Oprah!” He also got the opportunity to talk business with Michael Dell, who famously started his (now global) computer company with $1000. Mark describes Dell, tongue-in-cheek, as “the most down-to-earth and laid-back billionaire I have ever met.”

Watch Mark’s webcast discussion with Michael Dell at www.rightsleeve.com/michaeldell 

[Queen's Alumni Review 2010-1 cover]