AMSTERDAM -- In a tale of two Christmases, separated by 10 years, Amsterdam-native Anthony Constantino found a way to save his family's business and rebuild it into a thriving e-commerce company called Sticker Mule — an enterprise doing so well that he decided to give every employee a $1,000 Christmas bonus on Monday.
Ralph Tambasco, a resident of Amsterdam's South Side, has worked in the Sticker Mule warehouse for three years. He was shocked when the company told him about the bonus.
"It was unbelievable, I was very thankful," he said. "That's well over a week's pay for me."
Sticker Mule primarily makes stickers as well as buttons, magnets, labels and a few other products, but mostly stickers that can contain images uploaded by customers, including corporate logos from companies as famous as Google and small customers who've uploaded pictures of their cats.
Amber Neahr, who lives in Amsterdam, works as a first-shift printer at Sticker Mule. It's her job to take orders Sticker Mule customers place with the company on its website and feed them into one of the long rows of high-end industrial printers at the firm's Elk Street plant.
"I love my job. I love seeing the designs that customers come up with," Neahr said. "We've gotten bigger since I started. A lot bigger. I didn't realize how much people like stickers until I started working here."
Neahr has a 2-year-old son named Jay W. Ritchie Jr. who has been diagnosed with a learning disability and has gone through the prescreening process to be a pupil at Whispering Pines Preschool in Amsterdam, which provides rehabilitative services to children up to the age of 5.
Neahr said she spent her $1,000 bonus, more than 2 1/2 weeks of pay for her, partly on learning toys, such as a tablet computer, suggested by the Whispering Pines faculty, and on the expenses of keeping a roof over her family's heads.
"That’s bills paid for me for a month, and for my child that's Christmas," she said. "That was really unexpected and really appreciated. I was very shocked."
So, apparently, were many people on the social website Twitter. After Sticker Mule tweeted the announcement of the bonuses on its twitter handle @stickermule, which has the symbol of a white donkey against a brown background, the tweet was retweeted 39,300 times and liked 24,300 times, resulting in more than 5 million different "impressions" from users seeing it, according to Twitter analytics.
Constantino said he was partially inspired to give out the bonuses when he heard about the Walt Disney Company's decision in January 2018 to pay $1,000 bonuses to approximately 125,000 of its employees.
"Two weeks ago, I asked our financial [officer] to send us our year-end results and she sent them to me, and I was like ‘Wow, we really blew away expectations,’ and I was like 'We've got to do something," he said.
According to a November survey of 100 human resources executives by Chicago-based recruiting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., about 65 percent of America’s full-time, private-sector workforce will get holiday bonuses this year, while 30 percent said there will be no year-end award of any type, down from 44 percent in 2015.
Constantino said he's hoping Sticker Mule's bonuses will help promote a local trend of reviving Christmas bonuses.
"Imagine if thousands of companies started giving out Christmas bonuses again," he said.
Constantino said another reason for the bonuses is that Sticker Mule has also struggled to retain and hire new workers for its three-shift operation amid low unemployment in the area. He wouldn’t divulge how many employees he has, but he said the company spends about $250,000 annually on community events and media just for the purpose of raising the name recognition of the company for the purposes of recruiting. He's hopeful the bonuses will help that.
Saving the family business
Maintaining a growing workforce is a business problem completely unlike the problems Constantino started with when he stopped attending RPI one-class-shy of graduating with a degree in economics in the mid-2000s to help run his family's business, Noteworthy Industries, once one of Amsterdam's largest employers with an approximately 325-person workforce and an estimated $35 million in annual sales.
When he took over the day-to-day operations of the firm, he was 26 years old and it was on the brink of bankruptcy.
"We didn't want to wind it down, I walked into it and it was failing. I had no choice but to try to revive it," he said. "We kept trying to revive it, and really we spent almost ten years on life-support."
Constantino said 2019 has been the culmination of 10 years of growth for a new company he founded on a fluke in 2009 after explaining to a longtime family friend how to use his new computer.
Sticker Mule emerges
Anthony Constantino, 37, is the son of Thomas and Carol Constantino. Thomas Constantino founded Noteworthy Industries in 1954. He died when Anthony was 8. His mother Carol ran the business for years, but it fell to him around 2004-05.
"There was nobody else to run it," he said. "We were in rough shape. I left school without graduating, and really within the first few months, the first thing I did was fire the head of [Human Relations], then the vice president of operations. I consolidated two locations into one location.”
And the business, which made bumper stickers, non-woven totes, notepads, plastic bags, folders, coloring books, yard signs, and other products, had continually shrunk its operations, dwindling down to about 50 employees. Constantino said he felt pressure to save the business, but for years he couldn't figure out how to do it.
"If I failed, it would be a hard story to sell," he said. "I don't know how I would have explained that in job interviews."
Constantino said during the Christmas season of 2009 his father's best friend, a man from Schenectady named Tom Cummings, then age 68, asked him to come over and show him how to use the first computer Cummings had ever owned.
Constantino said he started showing Cummings the internet, including a few websites where manufacturers were starting to get into the business of direct sales to customers. He said he thought it might be cool to run that type of business.
Constantino said problems with distribution companies were one of the major factors killing Noteworthy.
"Traditionally, manufacturers sold through distribution companies, and were totally dependent on those distributors, and generally they were fairly big in size, and they had a lot of leverage over you, and they would exert that leverage whenever they wanted," he said.
"They would just beat you up, making you take on strict requirements, telling you to handle things in certain ways, dictating different types of boxes, and sometimes they weren't even honest about how much sales volume was on the other side, and they'd get us to do this, this and that, promising to get us orders, and then the orders never came."
Constantino showed Cummings that internet technology in 2009 had progressed to the point where it might be possible for a printing company to bypass distribution companies completely with an online customer interface, but he said he had no intention of selling him on investing in any kind of new business.
"The next day he says, 'I thought about our conversation and I think we have to start a company together,' and I was like a kid at that time," Constantino said. "I told him I wasn't ready for that, and he said, 'No way, you're seven years too late, if you want to do something like this you have to do it right now, and I'm going to put up money to help you get started.'"
Constantino said it was a $50,000 start-up loan from Cummings that enabled him to hire a web designer and create the company that became Sticker Mule. He said he was able to lease printing equipment for about $100,000 after he determined stickers would be the product. He said the idea behind the company was to take a long process and make it so short it would create a new customer for a product people didn't realize they would want.
"The thing about it is we were the first people to make it easy to go online and if you draw anything, or have a picture or a logo, we can make it into a sticker, and we can do it in like 30 seconds," he said, adding that the company offers a three-day turnaround for the printed products. "If you have to spend four hours and it takes 20 emails, you're not going to make stickers of a picture of your cat, but if you can do it in 30 seconds, people will say, ‘Hey, I've got this cool picture of my cat, I want to make some stickers of it.'"
Sticker Mule sold 20 stickers in its first day of operation, and proliferation of online buzz from websites impressed with the company’s web design led to a rapid growth in sales.
"Who the heck wants to talk to a sticker vendor?" he asked. "If you can just go online and do it without talking to anybody, that's way better. We were getting people who’d never bought stickers before.”
Constantino said eliminating the concept of a sales department and shipping direct to customers with no distribution companies resulted in surging revenues. He added back Noteworthy employees, started buying all of the equipment he needed and engineered new machines to streamline the printing process. He said his floor space needs kept doubling each year.
He said he was running Noteworthy side-by-side with Sticker Mule for a few years, but then decided to convert his remaining workforce entirely over to Sticker Mule. He said the only product he continues to manufacture from Noteworthy is poly mailers, light-weight, protective mailers made from a durable plastic.
"We did save the company, but things were going so good we just absorbed it into Sticker Mule," he said.
New products, old hobbies
Constantino said in 2020 he's rolling out new products, this time taking back-end software technology he developed to allow customers to easily edit people out of digital pictures they've taken and put them against new backgrounds, or easily upgrade pictures that would have been considered too low quality in the past to be used for printing purposes. He said he’s offering the software free to users of his website. He said they don't have to buy anything, they can upload a picture, edit it and keep the edited version, or easily turn it into stickers. The software is also available through a smart phone app.
He said things have gone so well with his company he’s decided to return to the sport of boxing, something he enjoyed doing before taking over operations at Noteworthy.
"Now that things are going good, I figure I don't need to worry about losing brain cells as much," he quipped.
Sticker Mule warehouse manager Roosevelt Glass said he was one of Sticker Mule's first employees, and it's his job to organize all of the many boxes that go in and out of the company's two plants, the other being on Forest Avenue. He said he started his relationship with Constantino as his boxing coach about 15 years ago.
Constantino showed him everything about organizing a warehouse, and Glass still trains him, including for an amateur match in Mexico in July.
"I do anything Anthony wants me to do," he said. “I was like wow when the bonuses were announced. That was tremendous. He's like Santa Claus to me now."