I’ve worked with a lot of promotions companies over the years, but there is one that stands head and shoulders above the rest, VAVAVOOM.
Partners in business and life, Matt Cave and Sonja Mickoski in just a few years have built an incredible company based on innovation and exceptional service.
Not only that, with their investment into direct sourcing from China they are now doing it at a better price than some of the biggest players.
I recently caught up with Sonja to learn more about the inspiring VAVAVOOM story, in another Innovate or Die exclusive.
What is VAVAVOOM all about and why did you start it?
VAVAVOOM emerged from a conversation Matt and I had, while we were both working together in sales and marketing roles at a large multinational in 2002, about creating a high service promotional agency that offers creativity, quality and value for money.
We quickly got down to designing a business that over-serviced the promotional needs of Marketing and Events professionals. Our thinking back then (as it is now) was that the more responsibility we take; the more invaluable we become.
Where did the name VAVAVOOM come from?
VAVAVOOM was the name we brain-stormed that we believed would be the most memorable; which would in turn ensure our business was always top-of-mind with our customers and prospects. Even today, we get a giggle and positive response when we announce the company we’re calling from.
What are you doing at VAVAVOOM that is different and innovative?
Differentiation is a core value of VAVAVOOM. Our strap line, ‘Vive la Difference’, talks to our desire to help our client’s promotional elements stand out and get noticed.
In terms of Innovation, we strive to pitch relevant and creative promotional ideas to our stakeholders; we invest in our online systems to automate the management of our programmes; and we spend time re-engineering our processes to get our work done to the highest quality standard, in the most efficient way.
VAVAVOOM is known for its passionate, service oriented people. Where do you find them, and how do you build that culture?
We have a very flat structure and perceive our employees as colleagues. From a recruitment standpoint, we ensure that our new hires are people we respect and who are skilled in their fields.
Customer service-wise, we have an internal program called, ‘Customer M.A.G.I.C (Make A Great Impression on our Customers), which captures customer feedback after each and every project, as well as ensures we service our customers quickly and completely. The ‘Customer M.A.G.I.C’ thinking is ingrained in the culture of the business at every level.
Yes, setting up in China has been tough; but after a few challenging years, we’re really happy with the business we’ve got there. Our team is led by a Chinese born, Australian-trained General Manager, who oversees a team of approximately 10 full time people there. Our Shenzhen-based division is made up of Account Managers, Graphic Designers, Project Managers and Quality Controllers.
We originally set-up with a Chinese colleague whose local knowledge was of immense value in establishing VAVAVOOM in Asia, then about 18 months ago we acquired his share in the Chinese company.
The toughest part of working in China is being patient and acknowledging that the system there is distinctly different. Further, the Chinese are very astute and commercially-minded, so any business dealings must always be in all parties’ interests.
Today, having a China office means we can offer our client’s a more efficient service, high levels of customization, globally competitive pricing as well as very tight quality control.
The reputation of Chinese manufacturers can be pretty bad – child labour, unsafe working conditions and inputs. How do you overcome this?
We think China’s reputation is changing with the positive involvement of many Western companies.
For our part and in consultation with our major clients, we have developed a world-leading ethical sourcing and quality management programme called ETHIX.
To be ETHIX accredited, our offshore factories must meet stringent global standards such as SA8000 (or Equivalent) certification, ISO9001, sign comprehensive manufacturing agreements and take part in detailed product testing provided by Intertek – the world’s leading inspection agency.
For full visibility, we share our factory data with our clients using the worldwide ethical data exchange – SEDEX.
What were you doing before VAVAVOOM and what inspired you to start your own business?
Matt and I had a desire to be in charge of our own destinies and running VAVAVOOM gives us the freedom to express ourselves in many ways.
Prior to VAVAVOOM, Matt was a Sales Manager in a major Australian corporation and I was in Marketing. Contrastingly, in our own business, Matt has the Marketing flair and I have a passion for the sales side.
What has been the best part of starting VAVAVOOM?
By far the best part, is knowing that there is unlimited potential in what we do.
We both enjoy the learning and experiences that running a business provides. For instance, planning business activity, getting immediate feedback and then fine tuning our approach for a better result next time
Seeing products we’ve designed and produced out in the market gives us a buzz, watching our team evolve and grow into now 30 amazing full-time staff……there are so many ‘bests’!
What has been the hardest part?
Without a shadow of a doubt, maintaining consistently high energy levels is one of our challenges. You need to know when to take the foot off the accelerator (slightly) and when to put it down again. This is not always possible.
You started VAVAVOOM with your partner. How have you found the experience?
Thankfully, Matt and I have different skill sets and motivations. We can therefore co-exist in the same business; but do vastly different things. Matt loves Strategy, Marketing and Business Development. I prefer the customer engagement and product sourcing.
Pretty early on, we realized that we both couldn’t be ‘the boss’ and had to clearly define job descriptions and areas of responsibility for ourselves.
On the plus side, you get to share the wins together. On the downside, you can find yourself ‘talking shop’ at the dinner table a few too many times!
What is the best piece of business advice you have received?
I think the best advice I’ve ever received was from a book by George Cloutier, called Profits Aren’t Everything, They’re the Only Thing.
I learned a lot about financial discipline from that book – which was never a strength of mine and somewhat important when you own a business!
He also explained that as a business owner you should always ‘Eat Your Vegetables First’. Matt and I use this reminder to ensure we work first on the priorities even when they’re things we don’t necessarily enjoy.
(He also said, the best number of family members in a business is one – but that’s another matter!)
What’s next for VAVAVOOM?
This new venture along with our Corporate Awards, Promotional Marketing and Direct Sourcing divisions will keep us fairly busy for the next few years.
Not too far down the track, we have plans for setting up a VAVAVOOM office in the US.
Finally, what is one piece of advice you would give to someone wanting to start their own business?
As you embark on your journey, be prepared for some ‘character building’ moments and when facing what seems to be an insurmountable challenge, never doubt yourself – you’ll always find a solution.