Borrowed $500 and Started CelebriDucks

Back in 1986, I started an animation company that over time grew to become the largest publisher of animation artwork from television commercials in the country having created the first ever animation art lines for Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Bush, M&M/Mars, Pillsbury, etc., etc. I started it by borrowing $500 from two different good friends and eventually paid them both back in about a year. The rest as they say is history! In 1998, I actually sold it off to start a whole new company that does a whole line of celebrity rubber ducks that were voted one of the top 100 gifts by Entertainment Weekly. I’ll post our press kit letter below. We do everyone from The Wizard of Oz to Barack Obama to ducks for professional sports teams and Fortune 500 companies.

Bottom line, I wanted to create a business based on my passions. I loved iconic advertising art and realized no-one was really exploiting the commercial value of this kind of artwork so I started a company based on my love of it. And then I realized that everyone loves rubber ducks and I wanted to something totally creative with the concept that had never been done before…thus CelebriDucks.

Actually, when I graduated college with a degree in business and religion I really had no direction. I always found that if I wasn’t moved to something emotionally, that I couldn’t really conceive of it as an area of serious livelihood for myself. One day, I saw an original drawing of Mickey Mouse in a store all framed up hanging on the wall…and for sale no less! I was instantly captivated by the raw energy in the animator’s hand drawing. It was one of the actual drawings that was used in a real 1930′s Disney cartoon short. I had no idea you people could own these things let alone that they even existed. Ah ha!…direction! I would soon seek out where to get more of these things and thus my original business Name That Toon was born where I would buy and sell original Disney vintage animation drawings.

The company expanded and eventually I hooked up with some people and together we were going to make a presentation to Fox to market the artwork from the Simpson cartoons. As it turned out, we didn’t get the contract. I was really disappointed, but knew that if I continued to follow my heart and move in the direction where I felt inspired, I would eventually be led to something even better for me. And it didn’t take long for that to happen.

I was watching TV and saw The California Raisin commercials. I was amazed! The combination of top notch clay animation with the Motown sound track and witty scenarios was absolutely captivating. To make a long story short, I contacted the studio doing the animation and ended up marketing the artwork from the commercials and cartoons featuring the raisins. So that was pretty much my business up to that point……until one day, fate again intervened.

One day I was walking down the street and passed a storefront window for Macy’s. In the window were all these old vintage Coca-Cola vending machines, old glass bottles of Coke, and other assorted memorabilia. I was dumbstruck. Honestly, it was probably the closest I ever came to having an epiphany. In an instant I felt all the power of those old time commercials, vending machines, all the feelings of nostalgia and old time feelings of time past. I immediately went inside and worked out a deal to buy their whole window display.

Then I called Coke and told them I wanted to market the original artwork from their commercials the way Disney marketed their original animation cells from their classic cartoons. It took about a year for them to totally get what I wanted to do. They were right in the midst of the Coke Polar Bear commercials. Part of the problem was all the animation was done via computer. So how do you get the images out of the computer onto an animation cell like a Disney was doing with their hand-painted work. I mean I’m an English-Religion major from Hobart College without a shred of business or technical training. But you know, how it is…when you feel passionate about something, doors open and you connect with the right people to help you make your dreams a reality.

Eventually I figured that all out and did in fact get a contract to do this for Coke. I worked directly with the animation studio who was doing the animation on coming up with a process to make it work. Bottom, line, not only did it work, but they went on to become one of Coke’s top selling art pieces at that time. We then went on to become the largest publisher of advertising artwork from television commercials in the country. We created the first ever animation art lines for Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Bush, M&M/Mars, Pillsbury, Campbell Soup, Hershey’s, etc.. It was all pretty amazing. And all from that one ah-ha! moment standing in front of a old time Coca-Cola display.

I loved the animation business I was involved with and it did very well, but at certain point I realized that at the end of the day, I didn’t create the Coke Bears or the Bud Frogs for instance, and was always working with other’s people’s creations. I think its common that many entrepreneurs want to create their own brand, their own characters and that’s the creative force that drives so many of us. So it was a little scary, but made a conscious decision to completely reinvent my business. Suddenly instead of creating our animation artwork I was going to focus on a whole other business and now we’re going to just be making celebrity rubber ducks!….But I always intuited from day one that the concept was unique enough and given time would definitely find it’s market…..and it did!

A common question I always get is: “You just make ducks?…you can make a living doing this?”…well, yeah!…if you make some of the finest ducks in the world and are the only ones in your niche producing them for celebrities, collegiate mascots, Fortune 500 companies, etc., you can easily become a millionaire doing it. We can make 1/4 million, a million, whatever each year. But from the start the one constant has been that we always made money and have never had a loss. And this is based on my innate sense that it’s not how much money you make, but how much you keep. Thus manage your overhead and you will lay the groundwork to give yourself the time to build your brand. And cnce you recognize that you have the means to create your own destiny, then everything becomes an opportunity, not an obstacle. So rather than wasting time thinking about what I could of or should of done, I found a way to create something different or better.

In my case, failure has created all my successes. When I didn’t land the rights to market the Simpson’s artwork, I detoured into commercial animation art which no-one was doing. When one of the first factories we were working with began to act unethically and they, with a shady client, took us for over $15,000, it led to us finding a new factory with some of the best people possible who we work with to this day. It never would have happened without that misfortune. Misfortune creates opportunities…. I’ll give you another interesting story about that:

Not too long ago we contacted Hershey about doing a Hershey Kiss rubber duck. It was so cute. This little yellow duck popping out of foil and holding Hershey Kisses. Everyone there loved it, the head of licensing, the buyer for all the Hershey stores in Hershey, Times Square, Chicago, etc. It seemed like a home run. At the last minute, the brand manager for Kisses didn’t give his final approval. Seems he didn’t quite understand the rubber duck concept. It just seemed so bizarre as everyone really loved it. Anyway, I interpreted all of this as a sign that rather than accept defeat, we should instead do our own chocolate themed rubber duck and our own line of chocolates….thus Cocoa Canard was born. Canard is French for duck.

So we then we developed this line of hand-crafted real Belgian duck chocolates to go with it. We designed the box of the duck and chocolate to look like a French chocolate shop. And we came up with the idea that people could send Canard Grams to people they love of a gift of the Cocoa Canard rubber duck, the chocolates, and personalized note. We contracted out with another warehouse in the Midwest so we could ship chocolate in a reasonable amount of time to most areas of the country. You can see the program at www.CocoaCanard.com.

And then we thought, hey, wouldn’t it be cool if people could do the same concept, but at the same time do something that was environmentally really unique. Thus Green Grams was born, a program to send the first ever totally recycled “green” duck along with a personalized note and our new green soap to anyone anywhere. Oddly, all of a sudden based on Hershey not moving forward, we had a whole new division of our company which has been more fun than you can imagine. We found this lady in Kentucky who made these fantastic hand-made soaps. She agreed (after a lot of gentle persuasion!) to make a green bar for us for our Canard Vert soap. You can see all that at www.GreenGram.net. We also plan to extend the green line over time and are even starting a new division to do Green Regattas to put an ecological twist on the traditional rubbery ducky races. So you see, you just never know…which is why I say every failure is an opportunity.

I personally never took a business course in my life. And it’s true that I can hardly read a profit and loss statement. But when you feel a passion for doing something, trust me, I find that you will draw in the people around you to provide the expertise for areas you are weak in. Bottom line, your passion and energy will drive the business more than having a traditional business background. I always say that people should read the stories of the people who created such amazing brands like Milton Hershey, Ben & Jerry, etc….it was their vision that made it all work. For me personally, these are the only kinds of business books I read – stories…stories about people…their hopes and dreams and how they made them a reality against all odds. Read enough books like that and you’ll feel you can do anything.

I always tell every budding entrepreneur I meet that they should always know that you are never without options. Or to put it another way….so goes your mind goes the reality in front of you. I’m not talking psycho-babble mumbo jumbo. It’s just the way the universe is structured and it’s workings are as tangible as touching a table. It’s easy to think that when things aren’t working out the way you hoped that you can feel trapped. Believe in that and that’s pretty much the way things will unfold. But if you can see every misfortune or difficult moment as nothing more than another moment ripe with potential and realize that you always have something you can do…then the energy gets freed up…things happen, orders arrive, people call, etc…so it really is best to never let your mind go into a space where you feel trapped. I don’t know why they don’t teach that in business school because to me it is at the heart of every successful business venture that had to overcome adversity.

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