Making It

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By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, January 13, 2008

Sonic Promos owner Seth Weiner started as a single guy working out of his business partner's apartment, which was equipped with one computer. Now he and his wife, Julianne, work out of a storefront in Gaithersburg with six employees and an intern, and there are plenty of computers to go around.

Seth grew up in Rockville, attended Ithaca College in Upstate New York and took a job selling fraternity and college clothing for a Greek apparel franchise there. He moved back home in 1997, when he and friend Marc Ronick, who was working for the same company in College Park, decided to strike out on their own in the logowear market. They started with $500 and a single computer bought on credit, on which they took turns banging out proposals. "We flipped every hour," Seth says. "I would work; he would watch Jerry Springer or take a nap."

At first, they called themselves Sonic Enterprises (Sonic is a combo of Seth's first and Marc's last name) and stuck to what they knew -- "fraternity, sorority and college stuff," Seth says. "No direction whatsoever." But, as time went on, the duo wanted to be seen more as marketing partners to businesses and less as the guys who made T-shirts. "I didn't want to be T-Shirt Guy," Seth says. "Promo Guy, I can live with." Their big break came in 1999 when college publisher Varsity Books ordered 150,000 printed book bags, which had to be stuffed, folded, boxed and placed onto shrink-wrapped pallets. It was a lot of work, but handling such a huge order helped Sonic recruit more clients. "It gave us a little more of a leg to stand on," Seth says. Now Sonic's customers include banks, realty companies and hospitals. (Seth bought Marc out in 2004.)

There are more than 1 million imprintable items -- from baseball caps to beer koozies to ice scrapers -- available in the promotions marketplace, and plenty of businesses willing to sell them. To compete, Sonic, which contracts with a network of suppliers, tries "to be more of a consultant when it comes to promotions," Seth says. "It's one thing to sell an item; it's another thing to sell an item that's going to produce a desired outcome."

Tasha Stancill, a marketing manager with Monument Realty in Washington, says, "I think they're a great partner in terms of coming up with some very fun, creative giveaways." When Monument was advertising its Randolph Square office building in Shirlington, Seth suggested a Rubik's cube covered with the company's logo, she says. It was "something a little bit different and catchy, and we heard some good buzz about it."

In 2004, Sonic did $500,000 in sales. Last year, sales reached about $1.3 million. As the company grew, Seth kept asking Julianne, a nonprofit fund-raiser who became a part-time consultant after the first of their two children was born, to come work with him. Initially, she'd resisted, worried about tying both of their incomes to the business. But last year she joined Sonic part time, handling human resource issues and working with its nonprofit clients. "As a couple, it's really nice because we get to see each other during the day and have regular conversations without anyone small screaming and crying," she says. "For us, it's been really great to be working here on a whole bunch of levels. And now, when we're talking about Sonic stuff, it's not so annoying to me."

Did you also start a business helping others to get a message out? E-mail changb@washpost.com.


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