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My Weird Business: CelebriDucks

Author: Chuck Ulie Date: June 02, 2014

Jesus. Marilyn Monroe. Babe Ruth. All shaped as rubber ducks. Behind the making of a small business that almost never was.

What do the Cowardly Lion, Marilyn Monroe, Babe Ruth, William Shakespeare, Betty Boop, Mr. T and Jesus have in common? If your answer is “there are people who worship them to the point that they walk on water,” you’re almost correct.

They float on water.

That’s because they’re rubber ducks available at CelebriDucks.com, which sells them in the themes of food, movie stars, musicians, religious and historical people, storybook and literary characters and more.

Weird Business Inspiration

The company began in the late 1990s as a side project to president Craig Wolfe’s main business: developing a line of artwork for advertising characters, including the Pillsbury Doughboy, Budweiser Frogs and Coca-Cola Polar Bears.

Then one night at a party, inspiration struck. “I had this idea,” he says. “What about rubber ducks that look like celebrities? It just came out of nowhere, and it’s the type of thing I should have just dismissed immediately.”

The next day, Wolfe called King Features, the company that owns the rights to legendary cartoon Betty Boop.

“I could tell they thought they were talking to someone crazy,” he says. “You know, like couldn’t get rid of me quick enough, thinking they’ll never hear from me. And probably wondering even how I got through.”

But Wolfe thought if the executives at King Features could just hold a Boop rubber duck, they would be on board. He contacted a manufacturer and paid to have a prototype created and sent to King Features.

Weeks passed, until he received a voicemail from the woman he spoke with at King Features. “She says, ‘We’ve got your Betty Boop duck. It’s really cute. Let’s talk,’” Wolfe says. 

Small Business Growth

For the first few years, sales were slow-going. Then, in 2001, Entertainment Weekly named Wolfe’s James Brown duck a Top 100 gift for the holidays. "I found out immediately I was in over my head trying to fill orders, had to get a warehouse, fulfillment centers, expand," Wolfe says.

The Entertainment Weekly incident helped Wolfe understand that the reason behind lackluster sales is that no one knew about the ducks. To generate buzz, news outlets needed to report on his business. He sent out hundreds of press releases to reporters across the country. A writer in New Jersey received one and ran a story in a local paper, which was read by an executive for the Philadelphia 76ers, an NBA team.

He contacted Wolfe about commissioning a rubber duck that looked like then-basketball star Allen Iverson for a special giveaway at a game. “That duck looked more like him than he did. We matched every tattoo. It looked astounding. The night of the event, the game was sold out,” says Wolfe.

The 76ers promoted the giveaway, and several TV networks followed with news stories. Soon, requests went into “hyper drive,” says Wolfe. Phone calls poured in from pro sports teams and Fortune 500 companies. Today, more than 1 million CelebriDucks have been sold, says Wolfe.

Weird Small Business Naysayers

“I’m an English and religion major from Hobart College,” says Wolfe. “I can barely read a profit and loss statement.” But here he is, running a successful small business.

Had he known anything about operating a company, Wolfe admits he may never have launched CelebriDucks. “Ignorance is bliss,” he says. But his saving grace was this: “The one thing I’m good at is surrounding myself with people a lot smarter than me. So I always would find the people who would be able to fill in for all my deficiencies.”

When Wolfe looks back on his success, he believes it came from the fact that his business was weird. “When you own a niche,” Wolfe says, “that’s where you can make a lot of money as an entrepreneur.”

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