Vladimir Gendelman: How this Immigrant Entrepreneur Printed Over 15 Million Folders

Vladimir Gendelman photo on Official Natasha Miller website

Vladimir Gendelman is the founder and CEO of Company Folders, Inc., the standard-bearer of online folder printing. As a veteran tech entrepreneur, his first startup was a computer repair and networking company.  Since then he’s spent years perfecting his expertise when it comes to print design as well as technology. 

As head of Company Folders, Vladimir has a team of talented professionals servicing clients from small mom-and-pop businesses all the way up to government agencies and Fortune 500 companies. The company offers a huge range of professional presentation folders, each with an average of over 15 million unique variations.

Company Folders’ website uses custom-made software and templates to stay on the cutting edge of user experience as well as accessibility. Its dynamic folder design gallery encourages interaction from users with its versatile download options for both graphic artists and marketing clients. With his extensive knowledge, Vladimir also manages the Company Folders blog to help designers and business owners create impressive marketing collateral.

I talked to Vladimir about how he founded Company Folders, how it was affected by the pandemic, and what he plans to double down on this year.

From life in Russia onward

Vladimir was born and raised in the former Soviet Union where everything was owned by the government so there was not much variety of things. People had to wait in long, unpleasant lines to receive basic necessities. He recalled, “Everybody has the same wallpaper. And the same plates and the same furniture and the same clothing and the same, everything. So you can’t really stand out. You can’t really express yourself.”  It was impossible to deviate from the norm,

It frustrated Vladimir how high-quality products and friendly service were few and far between. What really got him down was that you could only have so many choices at any given moment with what little resources were available. So when he immigrated to America, he made it his mission to help provide others with the things he never had access to growing up.

When he realized that there is no variety in presentation or company folders, he decided to create a company that offers many different options and a selection of different customization in 2003. Now, they have the largest selection of die cuts, print methods, coatings, business card slips, binders, envelopes, and so on and so forth.

With over 15 million folders printed for over 5,000 customers, Company Folders landed on Inc. magazine’s 5000 fastest-growing companies for three consecutive years and has served clients like Sony, Hallmark, Ford, Nestle, and DHL International among many others.

How the pandemic affected the company

Without a doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced millions of people to rethink their professional activities. The printing industry had undergone major changes based on the needs of the dwindling of customers, and Company Folders took a tremendous hit.

In April 2020, one month into the pandemic, Vladimir shared that their revenue plummeted by 76%. When the traffic to their website went down, they realized that the conversion of the people to quotes to samples to orders became more important. “We started doing changes on the website that could provide higher conversion. And those turned out to be amazing changes because the more traffic we get, the way more sales we get now,” he said.

They started advertising for people to schedule a design consultant, which would be him first. People could connect and communicate their needs through Calendly at the time that is most convenient for them – as little or much 15 minutes dedicated per conversation session was all they needed.

Additionally, they also started offering consultation services for promotional products. Any business that has an event coming up or a trade show to go to is able to schedule a consultation. “We talk, you basically tell me what you’re trying to achieve, what your budget is, how many pieces you’re looking for and you do nothing else. I do all the work. I do all the research and find the best product for you and boom, it’s the easiest way,” he said. This way, clients can save time by talking to experts instead of scrolling through various websites trying to search for the right products.

Getting published on national media

Vladimir has authored articles on national and international publications such as Forbes, Inc., Time, Fortune, etc. As a member of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization in Detroit, he was sought after by several journalist acquaintances to contribute his opinion on their articles on multiple occasions. Eventually, he decided to share his experience and knowledge more regularly. Now, he writes about topics ranging from printing, print design to leadership and international entrepreneurship.

Some of it was also a direct pitch that Vladimir did in-house. In the beginning, he admitted having to hire a publicist. He said, “​​We actually hired a PR person. Tons of money did not get much of the results whatsoever. And then I started doing it myself, like internally and for a fraction of that cost, we got times and times the result.”

What’s next?

What Vladimir plans to double down on for the year is to grow design consultations, promo consultations, and their product offering as well. They are also working on a new version of the website that is going to be launched probably towards the end of this year. “That will be a completely different experience. Way better, not only than what we have, but way better than anybody else,” he said.

We are so excited to see what Vladimir and Company Folders have in store for us this year. Listen to my full conversation with Vladimir here.

Transcript from Podcast

[00:00:00] Vladimir Gendelman: My mindset is probably the biggest challenge, because I believe that as a entrepreneur your business. Could not know that will grow you. So therefore the more I grow, the more my business grows.

[00:00:11] Natasha Miller: Welcome to FASCINATING ENTREPRENEURS. How do people end up becoming an entrepreneur? How do they scale and grow their businesses?

How do they plan for profit? Are they in it for life? Are they building to exit these and a myriad of other topics will be discuss to pull back the veil on the wizardry of successful and fascinating entrepreneurs. Hey, can you do me a favor while you’re listening to this podcast? Can you open a web browser and type in OfficialNatashaMiller.com.

This is my brand new website that I built for you, entrepreneurs that want to scale and grow their businesses. It’s packed full of information articles, blog posts, podcasts, and also you can download the free profit finder guide that helps you find more profit in your current business. You can get on the wait list for my digital course and be the first to know when my book relentless is up for pre-sale.

Vladimir Gendelman is the founder and CEO of Company Folders, an online presentation folder boutique with rankings on America’s fastest growing private companies for three consecutive years. We talk about how he keeps his employees engaged what his biggest challenges today, and what’s next for his company.

Now let’s get right into it.

[00:01:39] Vladimir Gendelman: So that is the most interesting thing because in Soviet Union, there is no such thing as entrepreneurship and they have government owns everything and you got to follow all this rules, whether they make sense or not. But for whatever reason, I was not born like that. I was born to break every rule there is.

And because of that, I always had problems in school and problems with parents and on. And the actual thought of owning my own business believe it or not a hit since I was a kid. To the point where I don’t remember the conscious thought of that, other than I always negotiated that I’m going to wash my dad’s car for money and take the garbage out for money and whatever else.

But when we were leaving Soviet Union, which was in 1989, grandparents were staying behind and as we were getting on the bus, then I remember clear as day, my grandfather asked me, so what are you going to do in America? And out of nowhere, I said, I’m going to own a hotel. Now. I have never had an idea to own a hotel.

I don’t want to own one right now, but it’s that I wanted to own something.

[00:02:51] Natasha Miller: I love it. Think big, you were thinking big way back then.

[00:02:56] Vladimir Gendelman: I have no idea where I said that though.

[00:02:58] Natasha Miller: And how old are you at that time?

[00:03:01] Vladimir Gendelman: I was 15.

[00:03:02] Natasha Miller: Okay. So flash forward to today, you’ve printed over 15 million folders. Quality and design are important to you. What’s next in either your entrepreneurial endeavor or for the company. I see you have so many different things that you’re printing now, not just folders.

[00:03:23] Vladimir Gendelman: So I guess the important thing to talk about is why I’m doing what I’m doing.

And where did this whole idea came from? Because then it will answered the natural progression to what it could go into. And basically what happened was I started a computer repair company, which was a side hustle, just to make weekend money. And we’re talking about five, maybe $10,000 a year as best, but soon after a client of mine asked me if I can help them get the company folders.

And I said, of course, It’s 2003 internet as a full swing. How hard would that be? So I started to research the subject and turns out there really is nothing super interesting. In a presentation folder space. So that actually reminds me of Soviet Union because in Soviet Union believe it or not.

Everywhere you go, you see the same thing, right? Because government owns everything. So there really is no variety of things. There is no selection. There are no options. You have maybe five different wallpapers. And two of them are so ugly that nobody would ever buy them. So now you’re down to three. So when you go to people’s houses, guess what?

Everybody has the same wallpaper. And the same plates and the same furniture and the same clothing and the same, everything. So you can’t really stand out. You can’t really express yourself. So now I’m thinking to myself, “Oh my God, we’re in the country where you go to the store and seven to three different cheeses and another hundred and 17 different sausages.”

And when it comes to presentation folders, company folders, there is nothing or options. So if you’re going into my mission. So I started the company and where we different from everybody else is that we offer the options and selection of different customizations that nobody else does. We have the largest amount of bills, right?

So, this was back in 2003. So fast forward, 18 years now, 18 years now, we’re still doing the same thing. We have the largest selection of die cuts. We have the largest selection of print methods. We have the largest selection of coatings, largest selection of the shapes, the forms, the business card slips and so on and so forth.

So we were always positioned as a product company, and then we sell to everybody. Over time customers are asking about binders because buying there is like a folder, but instead of packets, you’re mostly using during mechanism. So we started doing binders and the same thing is we have all sorts of binders that you can imagine paper by binder, the vinyl, probably turned the edge on and on.

So now the next step is the envelopes, which we now carry going forward. We actually started doing all the promotional products within past couple of years. So that is ramping up quite nicely. And to answer your question directly, what’s next for the company, it’s really development of more products while staying true to.

[00:06:24] Natasha Miller: Do you consider yourself having a folder company or is it more of a printing or more of a design company?

[00:06:32] Vladimir Gendelman: Yeah, that’s a great question. You know how sometimes our mind is set a certain way and no matter what happens, it just that’s the way it always was. So in my mind, we’re unfolded company. If you take a sober look, you will quickly realize that we are just the printing company.

[00:06:50] Natasha Miller: You’re not a folder company to me. If I look at your website, even though it says Company Folder.

[00:06:56] Vladimir Gendelman: Correct? Correct. But in my mind, because that’s how I started with just folders. It’s a folder company, but no, in reality, we’re printing company and we offer the wide range. A marketing material, packaging, right?

Folders, binders, envelopes, things like that. We offer boxes. But then of course we do other stuff like brochures and postcards and business cards. And of course all those promotional-

[00:07:20] Natasha Miller: Do you do all the printing in house? You basically own a printing company.

[00:07:24] Vladimir Gendelman: So yes, we do. Most of the staffs here in Michigan, we do have some partners that we’ve worked with on promotional credits because there’s only so much you can do under one roof.

[00:07:34] Natasha Miller: Yes. Unless you keep acquiring other people’s businesses, which is a way to scale and grow.

[00:07:41] Vladimir Gendelman: Well, promotional products are not there yet.

[00:07:43] Natasha Miller: Yes. So I see that you’ve been published in every business magazine, newspaper, et cetera, et cetera. How are you getting published in the national media?

[00:07:54] Vladimir Gendelman: I think it started get published here.

I think originally it was literally just write an article and submit. I also do the hydro. They help report their thing and sometimes through responding to those queries, they have an interest to interview me for longer articles.. So that’s how I got a lot of those, but then of course you get published somewhere and then other people reach out and be like, “Hey, I saw the article in Inc. or Forbes about you. “We are with Oakland Press.”

Which would be a local newspaper here. “We would like to interview you” for whatever something else. So a lot of it happened that way. Some of it was direct pitch, as I mentioned. And yeah.

[00:08:31] Natasha Miller: How are you pitching yourself or do you use a publicist?

[00:08:34] Vladimir Gendelman: So we do everything in house. So we do have somebody in house who did that on my behalf. I take you back.

When they first started doing that, we actually hired a PR person. Tons of money did not get much of the results whatsoever. And then I started doing it myself, like internally and for fraction of that cost, we got times and times the result.

[00:09:00] Natasha Miller: It’s a mystery to me, how publicity firms are still getting five to $12,000 a month and not being able to guarantee anything.

[00:09:12] Vladimir Gendelman: Yeah. I was paying 6, that was long time ago.

[00:09:15] Natasha Miller: Yeah. That’s a lot of money for no guarantee. Moving back to your company, how many employees today? Full-time employees do you have?

[00:09:24] Vladimir Gendelman: So we are I think 16.

[00:09:27] Natasha Miller: Yes. Okay. How do you keep them engaged and motivated in their jobs?

[00:09:34] Vladimir Gendelman: I am extremely lucky and very fortunate, and I’m very grateful for that.

I actually have amazing people. Like everybody here is really an expert at what they do, from what I can tell, we don’t have anybody who’s just coming here to punch the clock. Everybody’s really engaged. So we’re a small company, and everybody has stuff to do and everybody’s busy. So everybody’s always going from one thing to the next and the next to the next, there really is no downtime to get bored outside of that.

We do celebrate every birthday. So we do the lunch and then the choice of dessert for the person, because they think that getting together over a meal is really one of the best ways to connect with people. For that reason, when we have somebody new start, we always buy lunch for them together as a group, and we all eat together so that we can talk about the weekend and tell us about your story and tell them about us.

It just quick way to connect and get to know each other better. We actually do the same thing when somebody is living. We give them lunch once again, so we can all get together and wish them farewell goodbye. So we do parties periodically. We’ve done bowling. We’ve done axe throwing. When we’ve done cooking classes and annually –

[00:10:49] Natasha Miller: Wait, wait, back it up, axe throwing that has become a thing. What is up with that? I’ve never done it. Was it cathartic? Was it amazing? Were you scared that you were going to get your head chopped off?

[00:11:01] Vladimir Gendelman: Oh, none at all. So first of all, you should do it because according to the guy who trained us, he said that women do way better than men do because man, try to show how masculine they are and they do.

And they throw with a really hard force where women just throw it. And when you just throw it it lands better, but it’s actually fun. It’s way easier than you think. Then at least I thought. So you’re in this cage. So X doesn’t have anywhere to go. And the target itself is wooden targets with a lot of water on it.

So it’s a softer wound and it goes in easily.

[00:11:39] Natasha Miller: They make it easy for you and safe. That’s good to know. Great. So in the business today, what is. Your growth strategy for the next year. We’re at the end of this year, you’re planning for growth or you’re planning for next year. What are you looking at doing for scaling and growing your company?

[00:12:01] Vladimir Gendelman: Every single year in business each year in business was always higher than the year before. And we’re talking about anything from 10% growth all the way to three times growth in a year, depending on the year, of course, last year was different. Last year was the first time we actually lost revenue because of COVID and this year it’s definitely let’s take a step back.

So the COVID starts in March, right? So I think sometime in the middle of March, maybe March 17 or 23, we already do know about COVID and that’s when we learned that we cannot work from office. Everybody goes home. So then April comes in April, our revenue. You ready for? This is 76% down. 76%. I’m pulling my hair out.

That’s why I have no hair.

[00:12:50] Natasha Miller: We went from multimillion dollar to zero.

[00:12:53] Vladimir Gendelman: Oh, wow.

[00:12:54] Natasha Miller: But keep going.

[00:12:58] Vladimir Gendelman: We lost all that. And I don’t know what’s coming next month, because if that’s the trajectory, then it’s not even zero. It’s like me paying somebody just to be here. So long story short, the one thing I did not want to do, I did not want to do anything short term.

Because a lot of people may industry, they got into masks and some other PPE stuff. And while I didn’t mind doing that with the customer, We did those. I did not want to spend too much time on it because it’s shortly. And in the beginning of COVID, what happened was like nobody had it and everybody needed it, but they also realized that once it comes in, the demand is going to be filled very quickly.

And then as my prediction turned out to be right, a lot of the people got stuck with all this supply that they either couldn’t do anything with, or they have to sell it for less than what they paid for. Because by the time the container got here from China, by the time it went through the customs, by the time all of that happened, nobody needed the product anymore, right?

[00:13:56] Natasha Miller: By the way Vladimir I’m in events and entertainment, I was actually selling masks and nitrile gloves to my corporate clients for a short time, we were doing whatever we could so –

[00:14:08] Vladimir Gendelman: So well, yes, in our case, all of our business comes from the website. So we don’t necessarily have those people to call and have those conversations with.

So it was a little different in our case. But so I figured I didn’t want to necessarily do that. So where are we? We’re back to the website and that’s how the people come. Our traffic to the websites went down drastically. So the conversion of the people to quotes, to samples to orders became way more important.

So we started doing changes on the website that could provide higher conversion. And those turned out to be amazing changes because the more traffic we get, the way more sales we get now. But another thing we instituted was once again, for the hurricane version, we, in certain places, we started advertising for people to schedule a design consult.

And that would be with me personally. First, so people would schedule time and they through Calendly when they would like to speak with me. And the dedicated time was 15 minutes, 20 minutes. And what happened through that is I could take my time and I could talk to people. And the guy’s good amount of orders definitely.

So then we stepped it up a notch and now we’re also offering consultations for promotional products. So now you have an event coming up. Trade show to go to. So on and so forth, you schedule a consultation. We talk, you basically tell me what you’re trying to achieve, what your budget is, how many pieces you’re looking for and you do nothing else.

I do all the work. I do all the research. I find the best product for you and boom. It’s the easiest way. If you have to go online on somebody else’s website, while it’s really fun for the first 90 seconds, then it gets boring. Because there is 737 variations of the same thing you’re looking at. And you cannot tell the difference between them.

And you don’t know whether this supplier is better than that supplier and vice price and totally different than the same product. I know all those things and they can do that quickly.

[00:16:06] Natasha Miller: That’s what you’re double down for next year is to grow the design consultations and the promo items.

[00:16:14] Vladimir Gendelman: We’re growing design consultations, promo consultations.

We are growing out product offering as well. As I mentioned before, we added envelopes, we have another whole series of envelopes to add like different sizes and stuff. So that is common. We’re also working on the next version of the website that is going to be coming out probably towards the end of next year.

And that will be a completely different experience. Way better, not only than what we have, but way better than anybody else.

[00:16:45] Natasha Miller: And why is it going to take so long? Why end of next year?

[00:16:49] Vladimir Gendelman: So remember I’m not the printing company, I’m a folder company, at least what I’m thinking and say, for us to be able to offer all the options that we could do, there is no out of the box system that can allow for that .

Therefore, we have to build everything from scratch and of course, very small company with limited resources. So now I can not hire 57 developers to go in and do it in three weeks.

[00:17:12] Natasha Miller: Yes, I got it. The next question. And the last question is what is your biggest challenge in your business right now? It may be not having the funds to hire developers, but it could be something else.

So today, when we get off this interview, is there a challenge that’s waiting for you that you still have to figure it out?

[00:17:32] Vladimir Gendelman: So the funds I’d definitely challenge, but money’s always a challenge and it’s always challenge for everybody. So technically I would not use that as a challenge because it’s almost like a cop-out, but at the end of the day, my mindset is probably the biggest challenge, because I believe that as an entrepreneur your business could not outgrow you.

So therefore the more I grow, the more my business grows. So the challenge is to grow me quicker, if that makes sense.

[00:18:06] Natasha Miller: And how are you doing that? How will you plan to do that?

[00:18:09] Vladimir Gendelman: So how they do that, I read a lot of books and I’ve been doing that for decades. So that helps me grow and expand my worldview. Obviously I’m an EO, so through EO I’m exposed to a lot of speakers to my forum helps me quite a bit because sometimes we have blind spots and they help expose those. So you can learn once again, I have amazing people who work here. I learned from them also, and really that’s pretty much covers it.

[00:18:42] Natasha Miller: Vladimir talked about his dreams as a young man in the former Soviet Union, how he saw a white space opportunity that became his now thriving company and how he’s gearing up to scale and grow again next year.

For more information, go to the show notes for your listening to this podcast.

Want to know more about me? Go to my website, OfficialNatashaMiller.com. Thank you so much for listening. I hope you love the show. If you did, please subscribe also, if you haven’t done so yet, please leave a review where you’re listening to this podcast now. I’m Natasha Miller and you’ve been listening to FASCINATING ENTREPRENEURS.

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