George Kepnick, CEO of Custom Comet, tells us how they’re bringing “Out Of This World” custom merchandise.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Custom Comet.
George Kepnick: Since entering the workforce over 20 years ago, I’ve been involved in a number of internet companies. Early on, my passion was in internet marketing. Initially, I worked for other companies in the field before branching out and co-founding a firm based in Chicago in 2004.
Being able to work with companies in varying industries provided a great experience and the ability to view things from different points of view. It led me to want to start something unique, and custom merchandise seemed like an industry that could really use some innovation. That’s where Custom Comet came from, and my business partners and I have been able to rapidly expand our line and become a leader in a number of products.
Do you have small habits that made a meaningful impact on your life and business?
George Kepnick: I’ve always been a planner, and I think a lot of the habits formed from that have had a meaningful impact on my life and business. Keeping meticulous notes, setting schedules, and planning for both good and bad are important to me. I like to think those habits get passed on to others I work with and have helped us all grow the business together.
As a planner, the plethora of online apps and resources have been invaluable. Being able to jot down a quick note on my iPhone when I’m out to eat and then have it show up on my desktop when I sit down for work the next day is great.
How does Custom Comet market its product/services online?
George Kepnick: Most of our marketing is done online. We have some unique products and try to target potential customers who are searching for them. So Google, Bing, Facebook, Instagram, and even sites like Reddit have potential customers for our products.
Word-of-mouth is also incredibly important to us and something that has come as a pleasant surprise. It seems like every day we have someone being referred to us by another customer who enjoyed our products. To us, that’s the best because it means you’re making a product that a customer is happy to share with others.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to manage your online marketing?
George Kepnick: One of the benefits of being involved in internet marketing for so long is that I’ve had the time to build out my own tools for online marketing. While there are a lot of great options out there, being able to create stuff in-house that is built specifically for our needs has been invaluable. It’s something I’d recommend to any business looking to grow.
Beyond our own, basic tools from Google have been helpful. They let you see trends developing and what products are becoming popular.
What is your hiring policy/process, and how do you retain your employees?
George Kepnick: We love people who have some experience in the promotional product industry. Things can get a little chaotic, and there is a lot of personal attention required, so those who have experienced it tend to have the easiest transition to our company.
We look for creative people outside of that, especially for our art team, which we take a lot of pride in. Usually, that includes looking through candidates’ portfolios and seeing what they can do. The goal is to find that mix of someone who can think outside the box but also take direction from our customers.
Retaining employees is something we’ve been proud of as well. We try to be flexible with scheduling and share in the success. As the company has grown, we’ve prioritized compensating everyone for their hard work. I think it comes down to putting yourself in place of employees and seeing how you’d like to be treated in that position.
How are you funding your growth?
George Kepnick: We’ve been able to grow through our own revenue. That, of course, can change if there is ever a need for major expansion, but we’ve been in a great position where we’ve been able to grow organically without outside funding. I think that it’s been helpful not to have those outside investors breathing down your neck for unnatural returns.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
George Kepnick: Anyone in the promotional product industry is a competitor, whether that’s a huge company like Custom Ink or a small print shop.
We feel our personal touch and exceptional product are what keep us in the game. Most of these companies want to interact less with the customer. But we view it as the opposite. If you’re buying 5000 air fresheners for your new car wash or 1000 pins for your youth baseball team, you want to talk to a real human being. You want to be able to explain what your vision is to someone. And that’s something we can offer that they can’t.
Tell us a customer success story of yours.
George Kepnick: While I can’t reveal the actual customers, we’ve been able to help companies create brand new product lines out of thin air. Our air fresheners, for instance, are the best in the George Kepnick: industry. Die-cut to any shape, customized with different scents, and even fancy retail packaging. So whether you’re a big retail chain or a small, local artist, we can create a professional product for them that they can immediately put on the shelves and start generating revenue from.
Where do you see business moving?
George Kepnick: One thing we have stressed from the beginning is adding a personal touch to every interaction. I mentioned earlier how many companies are looking to interact less with their customers. This helps them cut costs, but it makes the customer feel like a number. While there are ways to improve efficiency, I think many companies have gone too far with it.
So I think you’re going to see a shift in the other direction soon. People want to work with other people directly. They want to be able to express their vision and ideas to their vendor. And as a vendor, we want to be able to provide valuable feedback to them since we have the experience with the product.
Your Final Thoughts?
George Kepnick: I want to add that we take a lot of pride in our pledge to the environment. We understand that our products use resources from the planet. So we’ve pledged to plant a tree with every order we make. This allows us to replenish the resources we use and be carbon neutral.
As of this article, we’ve planted close to 5000 trees in the past 3 years. While our initiative is focused on our home state of Oregon, we’re looking to expand as we expand and reach out to other parts of the United States.
We think it’s incredibly important for all companies to be good stewards of the planet. If you use resources, you replenish them. Don’t leave the planet in shambles for the next generation.