LA Business Podcast

51. Craig Wolfe, Founder of CelebriDucks

Craig Wolfe, Founder of CelebriDucks
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In this episode, we discuss how a fun idea turned into Craig Wolfe’s lucrative business.


Intro: [00:00:00] Welcome to the L.A. Business Podcast, a forum for business owners and senior executives to share the experiences about the elements that drive their success. Your host is Robert Brill, the CEO of Bril Media Dutko, an INC 500 company delivering the power of hyper local advertising. Robert writes for Forbes Inc and trade publications. Our goal is to bring you the stories about successes and failures of people who are making big things happen in marketing, entrepreneurship and management.


Robert Brill: [00:00:36] Hey everyone, welcome to another episode of the L.A. Business Podcast today our guest is Craig Wolfe, president at CelebriDucks. Thanks for being with us.


Craig Wolfe: [00:00:48] Thank you very much, Robert.


Robert Brill: [00:00:50] I really like the name. Tell us about CelebriDucks and how you got into the duck business.


Craig Wolfe: [00:00:57] Well, you know, what did John Lennon say? Life. What happens when you’re busy making other plans? I mean, I wasn’t I didn’t suddenly get the idea. I want to make rubber ducks of celebrities. I mean, it’s crazy, right? I was publishing or from television commercials for Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch. I mean, in March, I take the artwork. I produced it for the art market. No one had really done that for them. That was our business one night at a party, a friend drank too much alcohol. So, you know, I had this idea to make rubber ducks that look like celebrities. And I think most people would have ignored it. I thought it was an amazingly cute idea if you could translate it in real life. And so I decided to make a little sample called King Features on the Rise of Betty Boop. They probably couldn’t get me off the phone quick enough, but they were polite enough to say, make one, send it goodbye. And I did. I found someone to make me one overseas, sent it to them in one morning. I come in, there’s a note from the head of licensing for North America. They say, we got a little Betty Boop duck. It’s really cute. Let’s talk Fox was born.


Robert Brill: [00:02:03] And what year was this?


Craig Wolfe: [00:02:04] This was like 1997.


Robert Brill: [00:02:07] And so what happened with Betty Boop,, like what do they do with that?


Craig Wolfe: [00:02:12] You know, we saw selling in stores and people really liked them.


Robert Brill: [00:02:15] So you’re selling it?


Craig Wolfe: [00:02:17] I’m selling it. Oh, yeah. They’re just licensing it.


Robert Brill: [00:02:20] Got it. OK, so the licensing world is you get the rights, you have the right Betty Boop.


Craig Wolfe: [00:02:26] Right. You get the right to pay them money for the great business to be a right.


Robert Brill: [00:02:33] So you get the rights to do this and so how do you get into retailers?


Craig Wolfe: [00:02:38] You know, it’s just a lot of calling around and sending samples and this and that. But we really weren’t getting huge traction, to be honest with you. I mean, on it, because if you call someone say, look, I’m a rubber duck, but, you know, they’re not going to. And you only had one day then we had Groucho Marx, Groucho Marx and Betty Boop. That was it. So I’m always doing my own PR, sending out press releases all the time. I just everywhere I go. And one day I get a call from the Atlantic City Press in Jersey and they go, we got a little press releases about your ducks. They go, why should we do a story about you? I go, Well, I’m from Jersey. I go. And I used to go to Atlantic City. They go good enough, you know. And that story ran in the Atlantic City press and the vice president of the Philadelphia Seventy Sixers happened to read it. And they’re always looking for the next promotion. So they called and they wonder if we do Allen Iverson, if you know him, their superstar and they can match all his tattoos. I mean, he has elaborate tattoos going down his arms. And this is a little little duck, right? Little duck arms about half an inch thick. Right. I said yes, yes. We can do that. I hope we could. And long story short, that duck looked more like him than he did. It came out fabulous. And next thing, the Yankees called, the Cubs. We a whole new company and we sold off the animation became all ducks. We’re getting all this PR. And, yeah, we started to get known very much to the PR side of it.


Robert Brill: [00:04:10] So what type I’m really interested in the press release component of it. What type of press releases like what were you saying, these press releases?


Craig Wolfe: [00:04:20] I said, you know, it’s kind of like CelebriDucks announces a brand new art form- rubber ducks. Our first releases, Betty Boop and Groucho Marx, I might have had at that time. I go, you know, it’s really cute. They float in the tub. They’re this, they’re license celebrities. And, you know, for some reason they thought it was whimsical and crazy enough that it would be a fun little story.


Robert Brill: [00:04:43] Were you sending out like monthly press releases?


Craig Wolfe: [00:04:47] You know what I did? I bought these books back in the days before the Internet, pretty much was so big, big books. And it lists all the reporters, all the newspapers, everything all over the country. One by one, I’d address envelopes. I type out a press release, print it out, and I put it in envelopes, mail them, mail them. That’s back in ’97. I was mailing them to hundreds of newspapers, but you see it only takes one and it changed the whole company. And now we’re considered the top manufacturer in the world. But it really changed. I still kid the guy there, the 76ers he’s left since I call him the patron saint of CelebriDucks. He had that vision to see what it could be and was a hugely successful promotion for the Sixers. He saw what it could be and then all these other teams and companies came calling, all based on that one little thing.


Robert Brill: [00:05:47] So what kind of so fast forward to 2020. What types of CelebriDucks. I’m fascinated. Where can I buy celebra dogs. What types of CelebriDucks are there. Like tell us about that.


Craig Wolfe: [00:05:59] We sell them all over the world. And the other thing is we’re also, believe it or not, the top custom dump manufacturer in the world. So when people come to us from Harley Davidson to SeaWorld to Amazon, Zappos, Jersey Boys on Broadway, they come to us, Larry, the cable guy, they come to us to create Conan Conan O’Brien. They come to us who create ducks for them, for their brand to give away for the companies as promotional giveaways or for celebrities who are doing tours to give away as merch. So it really grew. And so we get companies from all over the world contacting us to create ducks for them. And it’s a huge part of our business. In addition to the retail line that we sell, we have distributors around the world who sell them. We sell to them. They sell to stores.


Robert Brill: [00:06:52] So where can I say you’re selling to the distributors? So what types of stores can the end consumer go about their lives and then encounter a


Craig Wolfe: [00:07:02] OK, well, you know, there are stores, believe it or not. They just cater to rubber ducks, like just duck stores, if you can believe it, all over the world. I know you wouldn’t, Robert. You wouldn’t know how big this market is. Rubber duck shooting is crazy, right? They sell hundreds of thousands of them all over the world in duck stores. And then there’s gift stores and then just regular gift stores. When we first did this, we did like ten thousand sets for KISS, the rock band Kiss. That was with a huge hit for us. Jean Jeanson loved them. They just came out fabulous. So they got into stores, they got into the merch outlets for the celebrities and those particular companies and it just expanded. So right now you can buy them on our website., you could buy them on Amazon, you can buy them in stores. Some stores in your neighborhood might have them. They may or they may not. It all depends on the store. Retail is a little bit funny right now, right? I mean, a lot of stores have big problems.


Robert Brill: [00:08:04] So if I want to resell celeb redux, could I do that?


Craig Wolfe: [00:08:10] Yeah. Oh, absolutely. People call all the time to say, hey, I want to sell my store. You know, the thing about us is we don’t care if it’s the biggest store in the world or some guy who’s just going to buy a small number. It’s the same to me. I’m happy to have them. You can go and they can always call us on our phone numbers in big letters on every page. We always based our company on the really accessible people in our smallest customer. You can say they could be Sea World in the Amazon, New York Yankees or the guy who’s selling on eBay.


Robert Brill: [00:08:43] And what type of marketing do you do today? Is it primarily I mean, do you do any marketing? Let’s start there.


Craig Wolfe: [00:08:50] Honestly, it’s PR. I mean, we were going over the top one hundred Entertainment Weekly. We’ve been on The Tonight Show, then on Conan, you know, Jimmy Kimmel and we are always the PR side of it big time. So we pretty much run on PR. We do not really advertise. For the most part, we don’t take out as we do our blog, we do our Facebook or Instagram, social media, I think today is really big. For some reason, when we try to do traditional advertising like ads in magazines, it never really works for us. Even though the funny thing, Robert is Yucatec, our Harry Pontotoc or Ghostbusters or or even take back America. You know, this this is a Harry Potter will sell tens of thousands and thousands and thousands. Thousands of them will sell up every store we put them in. That doesn’t mean we can get into the majors. They buy what they’re familiar with. And we are a quirky project. The fact that we sold millions of them still will not get us into the giant stores necessarily. But we don’t have to get into the giant stores right now. I mean, you can still create a top notch brand without having to have your stores be Walmart and Target.


Robert Brill: [00:10:12] Sure, direct to consumer totally is a total opportunity. So what do they cost retail?


Craig Wolfe: [00:10:23] Well, we are at the top end like people have a rubber duck, they think, oh, two to three dollars. Now you can see how intricate these are- crocodile rock. I mean, look at the intricacy. You know, I mean, ours sell for closer to on our website at $12.99. But still the amount of work with these are in the gift box and the whole thing, it is not that much or even in any type of economy up or down, we’re selling thousands and thousands of ducks. They’re great gifts.


Robert Brill: [00:10:52] So there’s so many places. So basically anyone who’s listening, who wants a drop ship opportunity, like I could set up a store, a storefront, call it something with a nice little duck pun set up. Yeah. And sell your products and you would fulfill on it.


Craig Wolfe: [00:11:14] We don’t really drop ship. I mean we can but the fees would be too much because our minimums are so low. Most stores can easily afford to buy a really small quantity and just ship them from their local. It’s a better thing for them in terms of saving costs because we don’t have huge minimums. A lot of stores, they say you got to buy 12 styles and 20 for each one. We’re not like that. We cater to our smallest customer, the guy who doesn’t have big problems so anybody can carry them and sell them and create their own website.


Robert Brill: [00:11:48] I love that. That’s so cool.


[00:11:52] And then the other thing, Robert, is, you know, we also the rubber duck was invented in America. I don’t know if you’ve caught it, but the whole industry went overseas. Not one rubber duck is being made in America anymore. So we are the only ones who brought the industry back to the USA. We do our artwork and sculpting here. I would make the really complicated ones here. There’s not one factory in America that can do the final production. We’re going to do the half the beginning. But the good docs, the PVC free ones for baby teeth are 100 percent made in America, a factory in Michigan and it’s both. We make those all here medical and food grade materials. I mean, it’s our biggest hit because most people don’t know. They go, oh, I want to get my babies something really safe because they’re chewing on it 24/7. Right. So they get in latex ducts, they go, oh, it’s real rubber, but they have no idea of the latex allergies. And what is the problem, real latex craze for very young babies. So we have an alternative that not only has made in America, but it’s latex free paint free, BPA free filing for you can almost eat this thing. So it’s the safest rubber duck in the world. And we actually think we’ll be exporting. We already export them around the world, even right back to China as far as the safest and only rubber ducky would give a newborn. So that’s a whole nother division. The good duck vision. Good duck, as we call it, the good duck.


Robert Brill: [00:13:17] Do you do any, like, business tchotchke like stuff like if I wanted a Brill Media duck, could I do that? 


Craig Wolfe: [00:13:26] All the time. People have us create boats, floating otters, Sea World, an octopus. I mean, you should see the things we get asked to create because we’re most people don’t know 80 percent of the rubber ducks out there will not float the lay on their side or they have a hole in it which gets water in it and you get mold. So we learn the head of our art department, just so you know, I mean, the guy’s a genius. His father created the Easy Bake Oven. He invented it and made Plato safe for kids. He knows how to sculpt. So we know how to sculpt them so you can throw them in on their head. They’ll pop up. Right. And so our stuff is really, really a step above what you would normally find on the market. So a lot of people come to us because they want to create something for the company to give out to their customers. And unlike the little cheap little ducks that have a logo on it, Joe’s plumbing, that they give it to the customer, the customer throws it away. These we can create for them are so complicated, unique. Joe’s plumbers holding a hot dog, a plunger. He’s got a hat, sunglasses. I mean, the detail we do is off the charts. And I’ll tell you something, people always come to us. They go, how do you deal with knockoffs overseas? I say, I’ll tell you how to deal with knockoffs. They’ll always make something cheaper overseas. They’ll never go upscale. Make it so difficult to make so complicated, so intricate, so expensive. No one will touch you. And in over twenty years, no one’s ever tried to make one of ours with our detail because they’re too difficult. And plus we put them in gift boxes, individual gift boxes, each with their own design. Robert, no one’s going to do it.


Robert Brill: [00:15:06] Do you have a place where people can see all the interesting types of designs you’ve built over the years?


Craig Wolfe: [00:15:11] That’s, we have the duck store where could see the whole line. And at the very top, it’s custom ducks and there’s a drop down. You can see all custom work we did for all the celebrities and sports teams and NASCAR and the NBA and the NHL and KISS and Larry, the cable guy, I mean, they’re real Snoop Dogg. I mean, they’re just they’re incredible.


Robert Brill: [00:15:35] What has happened with your business over the last six, seven months as COVID took a turn? Are you COVID proof?


Craig Wolfe: [00:15:42] You know, I thought we were really going to get hammered, to be honest with you, because I was thinking these people are going through. Will they still be buying ducks? So I was really surprised how we’ve stayed busy, nonstop custom. We’re still doing it. We continue to sell thousands and thousands of ducks. I mean, it is continued for us. And the only thing I can think is because we’re like not that expensive and they’re so cool that people still do give out gifts and collectors still love them. We really keep clipping on. Yes, it was busier before and we definitely a lot of our custom clients who were working on had had they hit the pause button. But we still keep going. The thing about us is if you want to do a custom up from scratch, like a Robert build up, any factory is going to want three to five thousand to do it. And it still may not flow to look like anything. We’re the only company in the world that will just do a thousand of them. So for any small player, we are the only option because I have the only factory that will run that few of them. So, you know, so that keeps us continual group of people who come to us because we’re can you get something that twenty years down the line is still going to be sitting on their client’s desk because they’re so cool and for out.


Robert Brill: [00:17:02] So you’re saying this is a collector’s item? You have groups of people who collect these ducks.


Craig Wolfe: [00:17:07] Oh, my God. We have a collectible gift guide on our website. If you scroll down, you can buy one. Yeah, I mean, there are limited editions. We’ve never we’ve done hundreds of thousands of these. So people collect them all over the world.


Robert Brill: [00:17:21] And as you think about direct to consumer marketing, like it sounds like you’re saying earlier, like PR and press has been the key driver of your business, is licensing a bigger part of your business than direct to consumer. How does that ultimately break out?


Craig Wolfe: [00:17:37] It was. We used to do a lot of licensing the beginning, like for instance, like the Collegiate, I did all the collegiate mascots, North Carolina, Texas, University of Kentucky, all of them. At a certain point, the licensing. We just were growing so fast, I didn’t want to do it. But I have a client who is called a rubber dubbers and we make them for him and he does all the licensing so he can deal with that side of it. And we do what we do best, which is making them. And then a few years ago, we had licenses with the state of Elvis Presley. Marilyn Monroe. Right. Kiss everybody. All right, Carmen Miranda, Charlie Chaplin, you go on and on, and then we had this idea. Robert, what about if we just made instead of more human mixes, we just did a as yellow ducks as a parody. So they’re just yellow dogs, but they give you the feeling of famous people without being that famous person. You get what I’m saying. So all of a sudden you get this duck and it’s it’s Crocodile Rock, right? It’s just a yellow duck. But you kind of get a feeling, right, who it is, you know, if you see this and then sometimes we just hit things at the right time, you know. Right. She’s now the top selling one, I imagine, along with the Donald Duck. So, you know, and who and people really like the other thing we did, we come up with all these quirky name squawk like squawk this way, duck looks like a lady. Know that’s the new one coming out. But we have goose busters. Give this a chance, Mr. Squawk. You know, people, they get the floating stones, Sergeant. They know, right. And you have traditional ducks.


Robert Brill: [00:19:22] So you know what’s interesting to me, it sounds like you’re really much more focused on being the manufacturer and the creator of these products. And you work with other businesses to distribute to license. It sounds like that’s a conscious choice.


Craig Wolfe: [00:19:36] It is. It is. We don’t have one salesperson. You know, if you can believe it, the work people call us, we always add new stores. We were always calling customers calling. I mean, like I say, we sell a lot of them, but we don’t really contact very many people. And honestly, I could take the good stuff and I could call a store like a bed, bath and Beyond or this. And you would think the safest rubber duck in the world for teething babies. They definitely put it in. Not so fast. 


Robert Brill: [00:20:08] I imagine, you know, we’ve worked with some some advertisers who are in retail spaces and like this such a really interesting, unique, convoluted, almost world that you have to have relationships, you got to know people, and they require you to spend a certain amount of money in advertising. So it’s like it’s it’s it’s fascinating to me because I’m sure some people might be thinking like, well, why don’t you just if you have such a great product, why don’t you do the marketing and advertising yourself? But the challenges, it’s such a different type of business to be a licensor, to be a manufacturer, to be a retailer like these are they sound like they’re the same thing, but they’re actually dramatically different businesses. Why? We’re not in the dropship business where the marketing business, because we know how to do that really well. So the specialization becomes very important in that whole process.


Craig Wolfe: [00:21:01] So. Right. So to do what you do best. Yeah. And put your energy into that, I realize we can make the finest rubber ducks in the world. I’m not going to be the top salesman in the world. You know, I don’t want to be the top license or I want to make the finest rubber ducks in the world. And I really feel we build a better mousetrap. The world will beat a path to your door. I’ve always believed that. And it’s certainly been the case with us. I mean, every day we’ll have people calls or new store and it grows organically. And that’s the beauty of social media today, too. People see it, they love it. It’s cool. They share it. It’s a whole new world.


Robert Brill: [00:21:39] Now, with that, do you what what has anything changed in your business over the last year since seven, eight months because of COVID? Like, what is it like? Are there any trends that you might be seeing or is it kind of like business as usual and you’re going to kind of continue on into twenty, twenty one the way you’ve been working? How does it look?


Craig Wolfe: [00:21:59] You know it, Robert is so strange. I really was expecting it to change dramatically and it’s almost like business as usual. In fact, some of our biggest accounts are even ordering more than than ever. And I honestly don’t I can’t say if I understand it, you know, but it hasn’t affected us. Maybe because, like I say, we’re such a unique niche product that you’re not going to want to be if you want to really cool it. If it’s a newborn and you want to get him a gift and you know about the good duck, well, why wouldn’t you buy it? You know what I mean? Even if it’s the safest rubber duck in the world, the only one made in America. Oh, that’s the other thing. We’re benefiting from the main America right now. You have to understand, people aren’t big on overseas stuff right now. Trust me. And look, I got a great factory overseas. I work with these people over twenty years. You’re like family, but they’re overseas, you know what I mean? And most factories are not like these guys. And so people don’t trust it. I mean, there’s more unsafe stuff that comes in and the illegal stuff from overseas. Robert, you have no idea how bad it is. So the fact that we’re are the only rubber duck company in America, even though we can’t finish the. Really complicated ones, but we do half the work here, people like that, they really like that. So that’s really produced an uptick for us. They actually want to support support us.


Robert Brill: [00:23:24] Amazing. Yeah, there are some there’s something I want to ask you. I don’t recall what it was, so, yeah, being in the right place at the right time is definitely helpful. Where I was going actually is I think there’s the three companies I talk to a lot of different companies, both for the business that we do and this podcast. And I immediately when I hear stories like what I hear from you, I immediately think that there’s a flight to value. When a company when a business is increasing and doing better during a tough economic time, I automatically default to you must be providing exceptional value and you’re the right product for the time. Meaning if I had hundreds of dollars to spend on gifts, now I have less than one hundred dollars to spend on gifts or everything gets lowered, which means if I have less money, I’m going to buy a really high quality gift. But it’ll be just a lower overall cost gift and you fit perfectly into that framework.


Craig Wolfe: [00:24:34] Perfect, right? You know, I always tell people I do business interviews all over the world and people always think that they’re going to make they’re going to compete on price, which is like the world’s biggest mistake. Because let me tell you this, Robert, and you probably know well, there’s always someone who can make a cheaper quality. Milton Hershey said if quality is the hardest thing to knock off, if you everybody thinks are going to be all things to all people, you can’t be. You think everybody loves the Beatles. Half the people don’t like them. They like the Rolling Stones. Everyone likes Coke. Half the people don’t they like it’s you can’t be all things to all people. Right. So pick your niche and become the best in your niche and go upscale because they make the point of entry so difficult, because you’re so good at it and no one’s going to try and knock off that quality. That’s how you grow your business. And so you can get through any economic time, to be honest with you, because you have no competition in with your particular niche quality.


Robert Brill: [00:25:33] So Craig, how can people reach out to you or someone in your organization if they want to partner with you?


Craig Wolfe: [00:25:40] Always very easy on the Web, on the website, every page,,, just like and you go docs, dot com, our phone numbers in big letters. Now you can’t find phone numbers on websites. You have to search for about an hour, big letters on every page they can call us. If we’re tied up, we will call them back. They can email us email info delivered We return every phone call of every I mean, that’s how I do business. Always have. I own the company. One hundred percent. I love talking to everybody. You know, it’s a strange business model. And I from day one, I’ve always run it, even though we’re the largest in the world and in the top, I’ve always run it from home. Even I was doing the animation, always ran from home.


[00:26:27] How long does it take to turn around? If someone wants to order ducks and they want custom made or whatever, like. Like what, what exactly happens there in that situation?


Craig Wolfe: [00:26:37] Well, I would say, you know, in the days now, things take long. I just had a container come in and it sat for two weeks in New York. People are furious. They go like, I can control this. Right. You know, we’re doing charge for the grand old opera. Where is it I go? It’s in New York. I don’t know. We often chant with covid. They pulled ships out of production. It pulled real chorus out because there’s less business. So they pull them out of circulation. That means things get is harder to find them and there’s less of them. I can’t control that. So things take a little bit longer. I tell people you want a custom job, give me four to six months minimum four to six months, start to finish. Robert, if I knew how difficult it was to make a rubber duck, the sculpting, the spray mask and the float rate, the engineering, the molds, I had no idea how long these things take. It is not like me I’m looking at. You got Funchal products behind you, right? Those little vinyl ones. Yeah. Those are not too bad to me. Nothing like making a floating rubber duck with rotational molding as opposed to injection molding. Very, very complicated. I admire Funchal tremendously. So I always say give us at least for six months now when Koenen needed him, when he went from the Today Show, from The Tonight Show to his new show on TBS, they gave us like a month and a half. It was a miracle. It’s almost impossible physically. But two days before it opened, two thousand Conan O’Brien ducks. We flew in. We’re sitting there for him to give way.


Robert Brill: [00:28:05] Where did you how did you make that happen so, so quickly?


Craig Wolfe: [00:28:09] It was a miracle how we did. I mean, a company came to us. They were already working. Someone else said, this guy, first of all, I look more like Conan didn’t think they were producing. I said they said, can you take over this job and they can salvage this thing. I said, took it over. It happens all the time. They try to make some cheap company in China. They come to us to salvage it because they’re losing a fortune. They’re going to miss their deadline. Remember, we do things with the Houston Rockets, you know, the Detroit Red, you know Detroit Pistons. You can’t miss a giveaway. So we’re known for this. And so they come to us and we have to take over the job. And we had a very short deadline, but we just really, really maxed out our factory, working day and night. And we had to airfreight them and they had the budget. And that saves you about maybe a month at least. So we did it and he loved it. I can tell you love what you do. You know what every day is like. Yes, every day. It does not seem like work if you’re making rubber duckies. A having so much fun to Duquan later. I’ll be back. What you see here coming up with names and products and now they will. I mean, it’s endless. It’s endless, right? Sometimes I’m going to do them. I’ll be sitting with D and she came up with so many of these ideas and she goes, I said, What do you think? She goes, squawk this way I go, Oh, we are so doing it. Everyone knows it. Right. Duck looks like a lady. Everyone will get it, everyone will get it. And that’s half the fun and the people love them. I mean it’s nice that people actually love our art form. So, you know.


Robert Brill: [00:29:43] Great, great. So CelebriDucks, is the website. All right, Craig Wolfe, president of, thanks for being with us today.


Craig Wolfe: [00:29:57] Thank you, Robert. I really appreciate it.

Outro: [00:29:59] Thank you for listening to this episode of the L.A. Business podcast. If you like what we’re doing on this podcast, please consider subscribing on Apple or Google Play, leave us a five star review and share with your friends. If you have any questions, comments or recommendations for a guest you’d like to hear on this podcast, please email me. [email protected]. Thank you. Have a fantastic day.

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