Sterling Wilson’s “a-ha” moment came at a football game. As a college student who recently returned from a stint working in China, he looked around the stadium in sunny Southern California and saw a problem he thought he could fix. That moment led to the launch of Pop Promos, a leading supplier of promotional products that has experienced significant growth. So significant is that growth that Wilson’s team has outgrown their office in the Northern Liberties neighborhood of Philadelphia.
Wilson recently joined Mike Verrill, VP of Strategic Development at The Sharp Financial Group, to share the story of how he launched and grew his business on Money Matters TV’s segment Growth Stories. When he sat down with Verrill, he was in the midst of purchasing an old dairy building in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia to convert into a mixed-use facility including both residential units and new office space for the global headquarters of Pop Promos.
Wilson’s story begins in Indiana in a small town called Cicero, population: 600. As a child, Wilson, his brother, and his dog, roamed the rural countryside. When he was four years old, Wilson began to display a precociousness that would eventually lead him out of his small hometown. It started at Sunday school. The self-described “difficult child” asked questions about God and spirituality beyond his years, prompting one of his teachers to encourage his parents to send him to a private school 50 miles away in Indianapolis.
Wilson was accepted and carpooled with the PE teacher for the next 10 years. As a teenager, he again displayed that same precociousness when he took the SSATs – and caught the attention of a New England boarding school. He took his first step away from his small town and went to the Kent School in Connecticut, which became a steppingstone to enrollment at USC. Before he left for school, his father handed him a newspaper that would kickstart the next stage of his journey.
“My dad bought me a subscription of The Wall Street Journal…he said, ‘just read it, hopefully something good comes.’ Between 2008 and 2012, China was on the front page of the newspaper constantly. I thought to myself, ‘I really would like to go see this place for myself.’ I decided to take a leave of absence from USC, went to the Alumni Office and said, ‘I want a job in China,’” Wilson explained.
Eventually, he booked a one-way ticket to China where he took a job with a USC alumnus in the pharmaceutical supply and manufacturing business and had the opportunity to meet people from around the country. Soon, he came back to finish his degree – and that’s where he kickstarted his business.
“I looked around the football stadium and thought, it's LA. It’s sunny Southern California. So, I got on Skype and called every single person I knew in China to ask if someone could introduce me to a sunglasses factory. My girlfriend at the time got on Photoshop, designed some glasses, and soon enough we had our first prototype,” he said of his a-ha moment.
The first order of university-branded sunglasses sold so well that Wilson called up his old Kent School classmates and was soon selling promotional sunglasses to universities across the country. Eventually he put up a website and inquiries from outside of the educational world soon started rolling in. This led Wilson and his growing team to rebrand away from a collegiate promotional company to a company that would serve a wider range of customers.
As he reflects on his growth, he credits his success to two factors. First, Pop Promos has developed a habit of listening to their customers and responding to their needs to build what they want. Second, Pop Promos offers a degree of personalization that his many competitors don’t offer. Where others stock pre-made items in a fixed number of colors, Wilson’s team will inject any color a customer wants into the promotional item. This has allowed his team to build highly customized products – and has fueled his company’s rapid growth.
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