When Opportunity Knocks: "How I Got Into the Promo Business"

Sue VonderBecke used her people skills she gleaned as a professional driver to start a home-based distributor business.

A silver 1929 Rolls Royce and a white 1931 Bentley, with right-side steering wheels, are a couple of sweet rides. Those were two cars Sue VonderBecke got to drive around New Jersey in the days when she was a limo driver, before she’d discovered the promotional products industry.

Since 2000, VonderBecke has owned and operated Inkling Ink Screen Printing (asi/387285) in Fork Union, Virginia. The company has its own home-based graphic artist, works on corporate logos, has an embroidery service and specializes in personalized messages.

VonderBeck fondly recalls the days of driving those classic sedans to and from weddings. Sure, she’d escort around local celebrities and sports figures in stretch limos, but it was being a part of the wedding ceremonies that were most memorable. Usually, VonderBecke would meet at a bride’s house and drive her, the mother and the maid of honor to the church. Then after the wedding, she’d drive the new bride and groom to the reception. At either end of the trip, there were always lots of pictures.

“There was this one wedding at Princeton University that I’ll never forget,” she says. “It was just gorgeous. The chapel was decorated around Christmas time with pine trees and poinsettias. The pipe organ was playing…”

Is VonderBecke an old softy at weddings?

Nope, weddings don’t make her cry. Plus, she has to keep a sharp eye on the road while handling the transportation side of the business.

When VonderBecke’s kids got a little older, she found it easier on her schedule to switch to driving a school bus. She drove high-school kids. You might shudder at the thought, but VonderBecke says it wasn’t that bad.

“In the morning, the kids are still nearly asleep,” she says. “And in the afternoon all the bad kids and the athletes are staying after school. So it’s just the quiet kids left on the bus.”

On one of her days off from bus duty, VonderBecke discovered the promotional products industry. Her husband, Alex, is always looking for ideas for projects he works on around the house. The pair was at a home show when a display caught their eyes. A man was pad-printing logos … on walnuts. That might sound nuts, but it got their attention and spurred them to take a free seminar the next day. The VonderBeckes were the only ones who attended the seminar. It turned out to be the right push for Sue, who’d always had an arts-and-crafts background. That aptitude was about to re-emerge with a little twist of business.

When they moved to Virginia, a main requirement of the new house was enough room for a real shop for VonderBecke to run her then-fledgling home-based start-up “Inklings Ink” business.

She encourages others to always keep learning about the promotional products industry, and to take classes, like the ones offered at ASI trade shows.

“You’d be surprised what you pick up just by talking to people,” she says.

VonderBecke credits her years driving sedans and limos with her ability to converse comfortably with people in a business setting.

“When you drive a limo you get very good at knowing how and when to start a conversation, and also at listening to people’s words,” she says. “You learn when to speak, and when to be quiet and just listen. There’s a very professional aspect to the art of a conversation. And in my business, that helps me hear what people’s needs are and how I can help them market their business.”