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.
float on water.
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.
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.
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.”
next day, Wolfe called King Features, the company that owns the rights to
legendary cartoon Betty Boop.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”