The philosophy behind the formation of Community Office Solutions was very simple from the outset: to create a B2B office supplies company that helped businesses support their local nonprofits by donating a proportion of every sale to a charity of the customer’s choice.
However, despite a career-long pedigree in the office supplies industry (having worked at S.P. Richards before building and selling an Inc. 500 office printer service and supply company), CEO Jenifer Rose readily admits that the early years for the dealership were anything but easy.
“I’d be lying if I said we didn’t struggle,” she says. “When we launched the company [in 2011], it was the middle of the recession; I’m not sure that was the world’s wisest decision! It took us longer to get to break-even than we anticipated, which I think was caused by two things.
“Firstly, I don’t think we had the right product mix initially, and we hadn’t really factored in that the recession was going to continue for so long and go so deep. But as Nevada came out of the recession and we fixed our product mix, we learned a lot. We won a couple of large bids to really get us launched. And then we started to grow very quickly.”
Originally, Community Office Solutions simply sold office supplies, but over time it added breakroom, jan/san and furniture to the mix. Now it delivers on its own trucks across Nevada and Northern California, stocking its top 50 products and picking and packing just-in-time deliveries from its wholesale partners. Jenifer also admits there was a learning curve when it comes to competing for sales online.
“I think for me, I had to understand the game that Amazon and the Big Boxes play; and although they’re lower on certain items, they’re still much higher on others,” she says. “So, I came up with creative ways to show my customers that they might be saving on those five things, but if they look at their overall purchases for the month, they’re actually spending more. We found a way to show that and it has been very effective.”
As one would imagine, given the company’s ethos, Jenifer is heavily involved in the Reno community. She has served on the board of the Reno Tahoe Airport Authority for six years—the last three as its treasurer—is on the County Manager’s Advisory Council and is a member of the Sex Trafficking Taskforce. She has also been a board member of Western Nevada Development District and the Organizational Effectiveness Committee for Washoe County.
She has also tweaked the original give-back model, after the nonprofits themselves requested a rethink.
“Our original concept was that we would allow the customer to choose the charity of their choice and a specific percentage of their purchases would go to that organization,” she says. “We kept that model for years, but it didn’t really work well. We ended up with over 100 different charities, and the charities themselves said they would really prefer that we didn’t pay them every month, but gave them larger, less frequent checks they could apply to something specific. We decided to switch to a feature charity of the month; that way, we could move the charity around every month and cover all the different causes that our customers might be partial to, but give one larger check to that feature charity.”
So, with sales rising as the country hopefully starts to come out of the pandemic, what are Jenifer’s secrets of success?
“The single-biggest secret to success in anything, I believe, is not to give up,” she concludes. “I mean, there were many years during the recession when we were asking, ‘How much money are we going to lose before we bail?’ I just kept saying to myself, ‘No—we only fail if we give up. We have to keep going. We have to figure it out.’ And that’s the single-biggest secret to success for any company. You can’t give up and you have to be flexible. You have to be willing to adjust your model. You have to be willing to alter your product offerings. You have to be open to change.”
Key management team members: Jenifer Rose, CEO
Products carried: Office supplies, breakroom, jan/san, furniture
Year founded: 2011
No. of employees: 7
Key business partners: S.P. Richards, Essendant, Clover Imaging, ECI
% of sales generated online: 90%