How many people can say that they brought an entire industry back to America?
Craig Wolfe can.
As the President and founder of CelebriDucks, Craig took some major risks in trying to bring a lost industry back to the States. Luckily for him, not only did he manage it, but the business is thriving! I was very happy to have the chance to chat with him about his struggle to revive a lost industry, his amazing success, and advice for other entrepreneurs.
Tell us about your business in as much detail as you can. What is it that you do and who are your customers?
CelebriDucks is the original creator of the first ever celebrity rubber ducks of the greatest icons of film, music, athletics, and history. We have produced CelebriDucks for the NBA, Major League Baseball, the NHL, NASCAR, NCAA collegiate mascots, and also famous people such as Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, James Dean, KISS, The Blues Brothers, Mr. T, Shakespeare, and the world’s first ever 100% recycled “Green” duck. To date, we have sold millions of CelebriDucks and have pioneered a whole new collectible. We are also considered the top custom duck manufacturer in the world and the only ones manufacturing rubber ducks back in the USA where the industry originated!
What made you choose this path? Is it a family legacy or are you a pioneer? Did you go to school for it or are you learning as you go?
You know, it is funny – I was the largest publisher of artwork from television commercials, creating the first-ever animation art lines for Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Bush, M&M/Mars, Nike, etc. When I came up with the idea of celebrity rubber ducks, it seemed so different and unique that I just had to try it and see if the concept would translate. Fortunately, it did! In twenty years, the company has continued to evolve more and more and now we are creating our new line of Costume Quacker parodies which is our best work ever. I had no manufacturing or business background at all. I was an English major in college. I just picked it all up as I went along!
They say that to be successful you have to be passionate, so share what drives you every day. Why do you love what you do?
If you don’t have a love and passion for what you do, then in difficult times it will seem overwhelming. The same difficulties in a job you love become a creative challenge that brings out the best in you. I have always pushed the limit in terms of what is possible here. I have that opportunity since I own the whole company 100% – no one can stop me from putting my ideas into action. For example, it was so disheartening to hear that the traditional soft yellow floating rubber duck was invented in America and then the whole industry went overseas. It just seemed so wrong. So I decided to bring the industry back to America, to be the only one making them here once again!
Also, I saw that babies are always chewing on rubber ducks and for a newborn, ideally you want to have a PVC-free rubber duck for that. There were no soft PVC-free rubber ducks on the market, so we came up with one using food- and medical-grade materials, our Good Ducks, which are now considered the safest rubber ducks in the world for babies to teethe on. It was a lot of work and I took a big risk, but that is what drives me. If you look at the detail and humor and depth of our new Costume Quacker line, it will amaze you. It’s a parody line and is the finest work we have ever done, and it is now our top selling line. People love them. I always like to push the boundary of what is possible in terms of creativity and design.
Has it been smooth sailing or have you overcome adversity to get where you are?
I went through tremendous adversity to bring the industry back to America. It was seemingly my biggest failure and clearly seemed like my biggest mistake ever, but eventually it became my biggest success. Fortunately, I was able to persevere over time to change it. I decided to take our foreign competition head-on by becoming the only one in our industry making our products in the USA! I have a very unique company here. No one did licensed rubber ducks, as the intricacy in the sculpting and painting we offered was unheard of. We ended up selling millions of ducks and creating a whole new company with a line of celebrity rubber ducks that were voted one of the Top 100 Gifts by Entertainment Weekly and were featured on hundreds of TV shows, magazines, and newspapers – including The Tonight Show. We’re also considered the top custom duck manufacturer in the world.
But, over time, I also wanted to do something right and make some kind of difference in the lives of people here in America. I got so tired of seeing the loss of jobs and industries and all of the outsourcing. It was very sad to see so many Americans losing their jobs. I saw companies unwilling to take the risk of bringing their manufacturing back here. For me, it was very important to bring a whole industry back to America.
You read a lot today about industry returning to America. I really want to make something clear about this: You might see bigger molded plastic parts and robotics coming back here, but the small hand-painted toy industry which also uses rotational molding is virtually gone and is NOT easily coming back at all. It is just too much hand work to do the painting of small toy-like items, plus with all the EPA regulations, most of the rotational molders could not survive. Still, there are a few of us left and out of the ashes, and in our own small way we are helping to keep this industry alive.
I knew from the start that it would be very expensive and a big risk. But I never knew just how much the technical skills had been lost here and how much work it would take to get it all re-established. Honestly, it was a disaster, which is why I first called it a failure. No one could make them correctly and we were getting our asses kicked. I was on the verge of losing so much money, plus missing deadlines with our custom work – that was unheard of for us.
I always joked that if I didn’t own the company 100%, I would have been fired. There was no way I was “maximizing shareholder value” in the short run. But I knew there would be benefits in the long run. And the quality and safety of our items is as good as it gets.
In terms of other benefits, we now have companies from Harley-Davidson to The Future Farmers of America wanting us to make American-made ducks for them and we are getting national PR, which has been wonderful for the company. It has been very emotionally rewarding doing this, and they are now some of our most successful products. In fact, a national TV show just shot an episode of how a rubber duck is made at our factory, which will air in May all over North America and Europe!
I’m a big fan of Milton Hershey who failed in business so many times that it seemed there was no hope for him. And yet, not only did he persevere and make it work, but he donated his life’s fortune while he was still alive in order to do good for others. That’s the way to live your life. Also, I learned a lot of good lessons, the biggest being that nothing is impossible if you really hang in there and have faith in your vision. I also realized that like any good business venture, do all your research and then really do a LOT more.
I will say that, without a doubt, this is the most stressful and financially difficult venture I have ever taken on in my life. That being said, sometimes you just have to do what is right and look at a bigger picture. We chose to embrace change and never look back…..or, as it says on the hang-tag on our new 100% made in America Pork Chopper biker duck, “live free, float free!”
Bottom line, I am now doing things in America that even Asia cannot duplicate, which really is a pretty unique story.
Pink Flamingo Celebriduck
We all know that crazy happens. What’s the wildest thing that’s happened on the job?
Today a client in Dubai sent me $78,000 by mistake for a custom job I’m doing for them! They only were supposed to send $5500. But hey, it was fun for a day. Fortunately, they sent it to an honest company, so a refund is no problem. Actually, some of my favorite things are when celebrities call and want to be a CelebriDuck or buy them or share their enjoyment of them with us. I don’t like to mention names, but it’s always very very cool!
What do you do with your time off? Are you familiar with that concept?
Time off? What’s that?
Actually, I always make time for my music. You have to have a creative outlet in life and I have a beautiful Steinway baby grand and a fantastic Korg Triton studio 88 synth that I write and compose on daily. Also, I make sure to spend quality time with my lady by phone or in person every day. And remember, I also own a chocolate company, Cocoa Canard. So I ALWAYS take a Spooning Chocolate hot cocoa break at 1:30 every day!
This is the age of the social network. How important is social media to your business and how do you make it work?
I do think it’s important, but it is not the be-all and end-all for any company’s success. What is to me more critical is your use of the web in terms of SEO and being found, and of course social media does affect that too. I mentioned that we are the top custom duck manufacturer in the world. So many of our clients, a very very high percentage, find us by just Googling. Most of our custom work comes in that way, to be honest. It is not our reaching out, but them finding us by looking for a custom duck manufacturer, or a rubber duck company in America, etc. Bottom line, the web is now the main way you are going to be found today, more so than traditional advertising, in my opinion.
How are you involved in your community?
Apart from donations to small local things here, we’re a bit unique in that we’re not centered in any one community since my staff, factories, etc. are all over the country (and the world actually.) My bigger picture is to set up this company so that on my passing it is all going to non-profits that I have picked out. To be honest, I feel like a steward of the funds I have earned here and my biggest responsibility is to ensure that they are actually preserved so as to be left to do good in the world after I am gone.
What does supporting local mean to you?
To me, it means supporting the vendors and employees in my town who in a real sense are my neighbors. Together we all have an inherent responsibility to ensure that our local community gets the help and attention it both needs and deserves.
What does the future look like for you and your business?
Actually, it is brighter than ever. I was amazed at how big the Costume Quacker line took off. And now that we are making the safest PVC-free rubber ducks in the world, we will be exporting them all over the world. Plus, our custom work continues to grow and grow as more and more people are finding out about us. It’s a bit intense at times, but I am grateful for all of the work!
Do you have any advice for aspiring business owners just starting out?
It’s not how much money you make, it’s how much you keep. Excessive overhead can bring down any business no matter how much you make. Lean and mean is the key to survival, especially in the beginning before a business gains traction.
Do not try to be all things to all people, or you become nothing to anyone. Focus like a laser on your niche and be really clear on what you stand for.
Reflect your core brand ethics and quality in every marketing communication to the public.
Compete on the cheap end and someone can always make it for less. Quality like the tortoise will ultimately win out or, as I like to say: “Live by the penny, die by the penny … Don’t compete on price alone! Quality is the hardest thing to knock off.”
So goes your mind goes your reality – yes, your mindset really does affect how things transpire in your business!