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30 Best Small Companies to Watch 2017

Metro Detroit’s imageOne finds success in a people-first approach to business

thesiliconreview-rob-dube-joel-pearlman-founders-imageone-17This document lifecycle management company is prospering through open-book management, purpose-driven leadership, and extraordinary customer experiences

Based in metro Detroit’s Oak Park, Michigan, imageOne offers a progressive approach to document lifecycle management. The company takes care of the entire document environment: from managed print to process automation to document security. Founded in 1991 by Rob Dube and Joel Pearlman, imageOne is driven by a passion for extraordinary experiences, executed with an open and honest approach.

Ranked on the 2017 list of Forbes Small Giants: America’s Best Small Companies, imageOne’s unique approach to business has driven the company to success in its industry and as a top workplace. Today, the company has 57 employees and climbing profits. We sat down with the founders to talk about what sets their company apart.

Silicon Review: Take us back to the beginning. How did it all start?

Rob Dube: Joel and I have been best friends since the fifth grade. We actually had our first entrepreneurial endeavor in high school, when we began selling Blow Pops out of our lockers to classmates. It was a huge success! Students were lining the hallway each day to buy from us. We had huge profit margins, no overhead, free rent, and we got to eat a lot of our inventory.

Joel Pearlman: That also led to our first heartbreak in business. Eventually, the school principal called Rob and I down to his office and said, “Guys, I’m sorry, but I have to shut you down. You’re competing with the school store." But we love telling the story because it captures the moment when we first became really interested in entrepreneurship. We kept working together to start business after business, which eventually led to founding imageOne in 1991.

SR: Where does the company’s passion for customer service come from?

JP: In college, we started a business selling U of M apparel to students in Ann Arbor. We spent many of our lunch breaks at Zingerman’s Deli. Zingerman’s is a remarkable business and the food is incredible — but what really interested us was the lines wrapping out the door and around the block. Their sandwiches were delicious, but Zingerman’s employees were truly amazing.

RD: They all had this super helpful, caring, and friendly energy. They would come out from behind the counter to take your order, pass out samples, and just chat with you. They appeared to genuinely love showing up to work every day. It was the Zingerman’s experience that inspired us to make delivering an extraordinary experience to both our customers and team members the core of our business philosophy. We’re obsessed with bringing that vision to life at imageOne every day.

SR: What prompted you to implement open-book management?

RD: At the end of 2014, we needed to reverse a slide where revenue and profit growth had gone negative. At the beginning of 2015, we decided to roll out the Great Game of Business, a form of open finances. It was a risky move, since there were aspects of company finances that might cause concern. But we wanted to create transparency, ownership, and the opportunity for our team members to gain financial literacy.

JP: We were very strategic and intentional about how we implemented the program. We hold a company-wide huddle each week where the team reviews financial metrics and shares business successes and challenges. We also have a training component for financial literacy, imageOne University. Every team member is required to take the class at least once per year. They learn how to understand both the company’s finances and how to better manage their own finances.

SR: Did it work?

RD: Definitely. During the first year of playing The Great Game of Business, we ended the year with a 10 percent growth in revenue and a 517 percent growth in profit. It also provided leadership opportunities to our team members, and has positively impacted our culture. We’re proud to share that we are recognized as a 2017 Great Game of Business All-Star.

SR: After 26 years in business together, what’s been one of your biggest lessons?

JP: We’ve learned that the most important things to us are our team members, our customers, and our community. In 2003, we sold the company. We were approached by a billion-dollar, public company who wanted to buy imageOne and have us stay on to operate it as a wholly-owned subsidiary.

RD: It was a good deal, and there was additional security and opportunity for our current employees. So on the surface, it felt like a no-brainer. 

SR: What happened?

RD: We went from owners in a small company to employees in a large, public company with more than 3,000 employees. Despite working with some great people, Joel and I both realized we didn’t fit in well with the culture and that we missed our company. While selling was a strategic move, it didn’t serve our purpose as leaders. 

JP: Fortunately, we were offered the opportunity to buy the company back. Rob and I took back ownership and renewed our passion for the kind of company we wanted to build.

SR: What kind of company is that?

JP: imageOne is driven by the iO Cycle of Care. It’s the idea that by truly caring about our team and about the success of our clients, we create integrity and trust that ultimately inspires our clients to genuinely care about our success, too.

RD: It’s important to us that we care about our team members in the totality of their lives. We operate under the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS), which requires that our entire team is involved in creating the company’s 2026 Vision. Our vision details the company’s future and the path to reach it. Every team member has visibility and responsibility for quarterly rocks that feed into 1, 3 and 10-year company goals. Because everyone has a voice and a say in the direction of the company, the entire team is laser-focused on doing their part to move the company forward.

“Our process works because each and every team member cares about their role, understands how it impacts client results, and works to deliver an extraordinary customer experience. In fact, we’re obsessed with it.”