Thad James started SAMMY J Balloon Creations in 1998 with a pump, a bag of balloons and a desire make kids smile. His passion for creative balloon sculptures developed into building a successful balloon decoration business. Thad works with event planners on corporate events and fundraisers to create unique, memorable celebrations.
Thad continues to improve his décor learning new techniques, keeping up with the latest trends and studying the best ways to market to potential clients. On the business side, Thad is a member of the Fenton Area Chamber of Commerce, Experts for Entrepreneurs (e4e), Balloon Coach Community, and is on the Board of Directors for It’s Your Birthday.
SAMMY J Balloon Creations is the premiere balloon sculpture and decoration business. Headquartered in St Louis, the company works with corporate and private event planners to create unique, memorable events. Through collaboration, discussions and continuing education, SAMMY J Balloon Creations has grown to one of the most creative decoration companies in the area. They work with event planners and function producers to design amazing décor for imaginative occasions.
You can contact Thad here:
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About Steven Denny: Steven Denny co-founded Innovative Business Advisors in 2018 and serves as a Managing Member of the firm. Steve has been actively engaged in M/A activities in a wide variety of industries for the last 14 years and has developed specific products to assist clients in growing their profitability and enterprise value. His specialty is working with established private companies in the lower middle market with annual revenues from $1 – 50 million.
Welcome to the You Don't Know What You Don't Know podcast, by Innovative Business Advisors, successful business owners who have started, grown and led businesses share their journey and direction for the benefit of those traveling the same path.
So today we're talking with Thad James that is the business owner and founder of Sammy J Balloon Creations. And they're in the business of creating unique, extraordinary and memorable experiences with balloons. You absolutely must visit their website at SammyJBalloons.com and look at their portfolio, events page, and in particular, watch the balloon projects video to get a true sense of what these guys do. It is absolutely incredible. And if you're like me, your imagination just isn't big enough to capture what they do. You're going to be amazed. Thad is a balloon artist whose skill is in demand throughout the country and we are honored to have him today. Welcome Thad I’ve really been looking forward to this.
Aw, Steven, thank you for inviting me. I'm looking forward to it.
Yeah, my pleasure. So the first thing I got to ask is, you’re Thad, where did Sammy J come from? Where did Sammy J Balloon creations come from?
It's, it's an interesting story. Actually. When I started doing balloons, I was a balloon maker of sculptures, dogs, swords and things for kids. And I found that the small children had a hard time saying Thad. Because when they would come up to me and ask for a balloon, I would ask them, so what's your name? And they'd say, Michael, or Shelly or whatever, and they'd and they inevitably say, Well, what's your name? Because they want to know who I was. I would say my name is Thad. And we'd spend several minutes trying to get them to understand the word Thad. And it was confusing, and it wasn't a lot of fun. And it stopped me from making the balloons and entertaining the kids. So I needed to come up with a fun name to be as I made balloons for the kids. And at the time I owned a cat. He was a big black cat. His name was Sam. Sam the cat. And we nicknamed him Sammy J because my last name was James. So he was part of the family. He was named nickname was Sammy J. I thought that was a cute name. So I borrowed the name from the cat. He is long since gone but I've kept the name. And Sammy J just became a really fun name to be as I made the balloons. So Sammy J is the fun balloon guy. Thad James is the businessman who handles all the phone calls and invoices and bookkeeping. So Sammy J gets to be fun. So the name stuck and the business has grown with that name. So there are still people that are out there that call me Sammy all the time. So I answer to it.
I'll be darned, that's, that's incredible. That's incredible. You know, you are the first person I've ever met outside of a, outside of a carnival or state fair or something like that that did this and what you do is not in comparison to that experience at all. So I'm curious, how did you get into the business? What was the moment that you said, Hey, this is, this is a business, I gotta I gotta make a business out of this.
I think that came the first time somebody gave me money for it. Um, I did, I started as a hobby. I was just gonna be a cool uncle to my nephew. He was three years old at the time. And I wanted to do something cool to be the cool uncle. And I happened to stumble upon this book that is how to make balloon animals. And it came with a little bag of balloons, and a hand pump and instructions on how to inflate the balloon and tie the balloon and how to make a dog and a sword and very simple things. And so I started practicing. And then when I saw my nephew, I made him a sword, a dog and a flower and some simple stuff. He was thrilled. He just ran around the house just just giggling the whole time. But I was really hooked on it. I loved using this this strange medium, this air filled tube of latex to create things that people were amazed by. And my brother and sister in law that, my nephew's parents, were amazed. How do you do that with those balloons? Will they pop or just scared you? No. And so I started doing it more and more. Started working at a flea market for tips. And I worked a deal with a guy that owned the flea market. He said Well, we usually rent space here so you'd have to pay me. I said, Well, I usually don’t get paid to do this. So I said why don't we, why don't we just work out equally. We don't pay each other. I'll just work for tips and your guests get something fun. And he loved that idea. And so I was working working for tips for several weeks until some mother came up to me and says hey, listen, little Jimmy is having a birthday party. Do you do birthday parties? I said sure. She said great, we'll pay you of course. I said yes you will. And that's when I realized that something that I thoroughly enjoyed doing could be a business. And I did it part time for another eight years before I finally jumped in full time to make this my full time business. And so it kind of grew step by step. There wasn't, there wasn't a moment when I said, Okay, I'm open for business. It was part time. But while it was part time, I ran it as a business. My balloon clients didn't know that I was also working in a corporate job. And not that I was, didn't want to tell them. If they asked, I would certainly tell them, but I wanted to keep it separate, because I believed that a professional should act professionally. And if this was my business, fun as it was making balloons and telling jokes, that it should be treated professionally. So I got business cards, I started using, I got a logo. I started doing things professionally that professional companies do. And then when the balloon business got in the way of my nine to five job, I had to make a decision, whether I cut back on the balloons, or just get rid of the nine to five job.
Was that a tough decision?
That was a scary decision. That was a scary decision. Because people with, people with jobs have a foundation of security. You're gonna go to work, you’re gonna clock in, you're gonna do your work, clock out and you go home. And every two weeks, there's money in your bank. When you work for yourself, the roller coaster is much, much, much more wild. You don't get paid every two weeks, you get paid when you work. You eat what you, you eat what you kill, basically. And that was, that was something that was very scary for someone who had worked a real job for so long. But I had a lot of encouragement from a lot of people that had done this before. And spent many years learning from professionals, both balloon professionals and small business owners how to do this, what you need to do to be successful in the business world. And honestly, I spent the last 10 or 11 years learning more about how to run a business than I have learning how to how to make balloons. Because I know how to do that. I know where to go to learn that kind of stuff. I know how to follow the trends and learn techniques and that kind of thing. But the business end I didn't have any, any history. And I found that it's, there's much more to it than anything else.
Well you're in good company, I mean, there's 36 million small businesses out there that were started by people just like you, right, that are what I'll call, what I like to refer to as technical experts in their business, and generally don't have a lot of experience on the basic blocking and tackling of business, right? So, but that's, but that's fascinating. But, you know, again, you know, I think when people think about balloon creations, I'm maybe I'm just myopic, but I tend to think of, you know, the, like you see at the State Fair, or the or the, or the local carnival. We have a, we have a little deal in our association every year where we open the, you know, open the pool and open the clubhouse. And there's a guy that comes and sits on his stool and makes simple balloon, balloon animals primarily for for kids. And that's what you think of. But but your business is a little different than that. Right? I mean, I was totally blown away with some of the stuff. I mean, when you did our, when you did the reception that we had at the country club for e4e, I was astounded. And then as I was going through some of the stuff on your website, I was just amazed. Absolutely amazed.
Yeah, I mean, like I said, I started doing the balloon dogs and swords and the things for the kids. And then I realized that I liked doing bigger and better, more complicated things than a lot of people were doing. I was just something that was the artistic side of me, the creative side of me liked doing more complicated sculptures to hand to kids and then I realized I liked doing more complicated sculptures for decorations and centerpieces. And before long I was making bigger and bigger pieces. So I needed to find an audience for those those pieces. And I stopped looking for the jobs that were just me making one balloon animals and looking for jobs that allowed me to be creative with larger sculptures. And I've been very fortunate that I've found a lot of those audiences and being able to make bigger and bigger projects, huge projects with teams of balloon professionals that I've been able to put together. And that has really opened up a whole world of possibilities for me. I'm not, certainly not the only person that does this. But there are not a lot of us that do it on a large scale.
Yeah, it sounds like you're one of the few that thinks big enough to do things like the balloon garden that that you guys created, which was unbelievable.
Yeah, we created that for the St. Louis Home and Garden Show. And they called me up to produce some balloon bouquets to sit around.
Your balloon bouquets are absolutely beautiful.
And then we had balloon bouquets all over the convention center. And I said to them, you have 500,000 square feet of space. Some balloon bouquets sitting around aren't gonna make a bit of difference. It’s not going to have any impact whatsoever. I said, you want something with a large impact. And they said, Well, what you mean? So I went on to describe a 600 square foot balloon garden, interactive walkthrough landscape, made out of balloons. We had entryway arches, and landscape walls, and we had a pond, a fountain, a wishing well, everything, you can, and hundreds and hundreds of flowers all out of balloons.
With little insects and all?
Oh, yes, we had little bugs everywhere. And we had little creatures. We had our garden gnome was our mascot. And they just fell in love with that whole concept. And that allowed me to expand the art of balloon making into a landscape project that people got to walk through. And they got to take their pictures next to the flowers and next to the fountain and stand under the big floral arch. And it was something that was very impressive. And it was so impressive that we did it a second year at the St. Louis Home and Garden Show. So we did a tropical balloon garden. That turned out to be 800 square feet with almost 8000 balloons. So it was a huge project.
Yeah, and you're, the Beatles project. I want to hear about that because that's that's kind of near and dear to my heart of my generation. I thought that stuff was absolutely spectacular.
Oh, it was, that was so much fun. An insurance company was holding their national convention in St. Louis. And they were having, their final night Gala was a Beatles theme. And they were going to have a Beatles band come in and play and they were gonna have a concert there. And then they the gala, they have to feed their attendees, and they have 3000 attendees. So they had four buffet lines. And each buffet line has four, or buffet stations, each station had four lines. Because they had to feed 3000 people in just a couple of hours. So in the middle of these buffet stations they have these stages. And they called me and said on one of the stages we want something Beatles themed all out of balloons. I said, Okay, that's something that can really be done. This is 20 foot high, 14 feet wide, want it spectacular. I said, Okay, what are you doing on the other three stages? We have four stages. One is gonna be balloons, what's the other three? And they said, we're not sure. Maybe some you know, some cardboard cutouts or something painted or something like that. I said, Why don't you do all four of them balloons? And they said, Tell us more. We can have each one being a different Beatles theme balloon sculpture, 20 foot high, 14 feet wide, but each one would be completely different than the other. And they said, Okay, let's do it. I immediately had to get on the phone with balloon people that I knew from around the country and get them to St. Louis so they could, so we can all build these four different sculptures. So we had one that was a Yellow Submarine theme with a giant 12 foot submarine on top of it. We had one that was an octopus garden. So we had a 20 foot tall octopus with his tentacles coming down over the luscious under the sea garden.
Big beautiful purple octopus.
Yeah. Oh, the giant purple octopus was beautiful. And the one was a menagerie of Beatles themed items. So the main focus of it was a 20 foot tall, long and winding road from the Beatles song. And on the long and winding road there were anything you could think of that was Beatles themed. There was a Rocky the Raccoon. There were rocking horse men from Strawberry Fields. So every song lyric that, we just poured through song lyrics and anything that could be made out of balloons, that's what we put in there. And then our fourth one was the Beatles instruments, 20 foot tall guitars, three guitars, one for each of the three Beatles and then the drum set that Ringo played all out of balloons. And it was, we had two and a half days to build it.
How many people did you have to bring in to do that?
16, we had 16 people. Holy cannoli.
I really. Yeah.
I got to imagine that there, you know, there are probably not, I don't know what, a couple 1000 people in the whole country that do this kind of stuff, right? So you're bringing in 16 experts from around the country. It's not like you pick up the phone and, and get 16 folks from South St. Louis to come help you. Right?
No. And it's, it's wonderful. And at the time, I had been in the balloon business for a little over 10 years. So getting to know your, your fellow balloon artists, is really important. And I've been building relationships with these people at different conventions and seminars and talking to them and just, you know, throwing out ideas, because when you have something you need to bounce the idea off of somebody, who better than somebody that does what you do. And having built these relationships with these people, it all it took was a phone call. I told them about the project, and they said, we'll be there. And that that made it so much easier to be able to, because they knew what, they knew what it was going to take. I told them I said, we got about two and a half days, from the time we start building to we have to be set up on stage. So they knew what it was going to take. It was basically two days of no sleep, making balloons and and building sculptures and coming up with ideas and it, knowing other professionals really helped that that project come together because there's there's just no way you can do it without a large crew.
Yeah, it's it's astounding. People just gotta go to your website and view it. I was totally blown away by it. And, you know, it's just not a business that you see every day. I mean, if I were to, if I were to look up balloon artists in St. Louis, what do you think there's been there's a few of you guys that do that kind of stuff?
There's quite a few people that make balloon animals for events, company picnics and church bazaars and birthday parties and things like that. There's quite a few people that do that. People that get into the large balloon installation projects, there's half a dozen. There's a lot of people who do decorating for receptions and parties and baby showers and things like that. Quite a few of them do that. But the the ones that really get into large projects there's not a lot of them because it's it's it's not something for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of organization and production skills.
Is large projects your real specialty? Is that really what kind of sets you guys apart, makes you different than, better than most of the folks in your game, or is there something else that?
Yeah, it really is. It's, it's something that I've been able to do because because of my contacts with within the balloon world and my ability to expand on a concept. If somebody wants a little something for an event, I want to make it bigger, I want to make it better. I want, and it's really for the, for the event itself. The 3000 people with The Beatles project have no idea who did that stuff, because I don't get to stand there and shake their hands and hand out business cards to them. Yeah. So it's really for the benefit of the event. You want to make the event more memorable and more special and more unique for the guests of that event. And whether it's the wedding reception, or it's a convention final night Gala that they want to go over the top, that's what I'm all about. I'm all about going over the top and making it as big and as fantastic as possible.
Well, you've done some amazing work. It's unbelievable. As you, as you think back over the years, and I know you're not stopping anytime soon, but so far to date, what are you most proud of in your business?
Gosh, I'm most proud of is, the balloon garden was a project that was my first really large project that I produced and that was something that I was very proud of. But that never would have happened had I not worked on other projects that were large projects. And the first one that I worked on was called Balloon Manor. It was a balloon haunted house, produced in Rochester, New York. And a friend of mine named Larry Moss, who's one of the godfathers of the balloon world. Larry Moss called me up and called up about 15 other balloon artists around the country. He said Listen, I've got an idea about building a balloon haunted house, and it's gonna be a walkthrough thing and people are going to walk through and take a tour like they would a normal haunted house but ours is all gonna be made out of balloons. He said, Would you like to help? I said yes and got on a plane and went to Rochester. And so 15 or 16 of us showed up at this empty drugstore, it was an old Wal, Walgreens, and it was empty. And he got, he leased it for a month. And we built an entire 10 room haunted house in about a week. Wow. And we had very little go on on what we should build. Well, we knew we needed walls for the haunted house, because the 10 rooms all needed walls. So we had a bunch of volunteers in the community building these balloon walls. They had to inflate them and tie them and inflate them and tie them and they did that 1000s of times. And while they were doing that, all the professional balloon artists were building things to go in our room. We had a kitchen, there was a torture chamber, because it was a haunted castle, and a weapons room, a bedroom, a dining room, and in the middle of it all was this beautiful garden. And we just got to build this. So it was incredible, because we all, most of us knew each other, just from being in the world. But we got to sit there and just create and just make what we what we knew would fit in the theme of each room. And watching that process, I was amazed by what we were making but I was really amazed by the production the behind the scenes, how do you organize this? How do you put this together? And I sat with Larry who produced this, and I sat with him and and asked him about that. I said, How do you produce this? How did you get this together? Because that's the interesting part. I understood the balloon thing. I knew how to get balloon people and how to put stuff together. But the production end of it was was so much more out of my realm of what, out of my history. I didn't know how to do that and he really helped me a lot with that. So those lessons I learned is what I brought into my own large projects. When I did the the balloon garden, and I did the Beatles projects and other projects too. It really helped me make it a cohesive project that I can sell to a client. I can't go to a client and say, Oh, a bunch of balloon people are going to get together and put balloons together. What do you think? That's not something you can really, you can't sell that to a client. You just sell them a project that has a good foundation of production value line.
I'm also really curious, because I would imagine, you know, the business model of your business is such that you are creating events, you're creating fun stuff, right? And and you know, your cost of goods would include balloons, you got a, you got a lot of, you got a lot of balloons, a lot of latex, but that stuff's pretty darn cheap. The expensive part I imagine is the labor, right? Not only your labor, but other labor that you got to bring in, and the labor and the time to actually put it together. And then you gotta have some premium for the whole design and the artistic part of it.
Right. And that's, one of the things that balloon artists have a hard time doing, and an emphasis on the word artists because artists fail at this a lot. What do I charge for my services? Yeah. Because I don't sell balloons. Right. You know, you can go to the store and buy balloons. Right. What you're getting with a balloon artist is the creativity, imagination and the ability to put something together. And a lot of balloon people think because we're having fun and enjoying what we do, that it’s worth less. And I argue that it's worth more. Because we do something that 99% of the public cannot do. And if you have a service that does something that other people can't do, it's worth a lot more. And yes, you're gonna pay a heart surgeon a lot of money to fix your heart. It's not because he's saving your life as much as there's not as many people that can do that. And that's the service that balloon artists provide is doing something with, especially just something you're very familiar with. You're familiar with a balloon. Everyone knows what a round balloon is. You see them at birthday parties usually filled up with helium. But we take those balloons and we do something spectacular with them. And I think that's what, that's what you're selling. You're selling the atmosphere and the feeling that the balloons bring to an event.
Yeah, I equate you with Chihuly. You know, the famous glassblower who brought all this stuff into the botanic gardens here and did these exhibits, right. He's heating sand, and he's making stuff that you you know, most of us can't imagine and you're doing I think exactly the same thing with latex. It's just astounding. Yeah.
Yeah, it's really cool. It's very, it's very similar to that. It's, it's the artistic side of it that I think people, that's what they like. I mean, any, like I said, anyone can blow up a balloon. But it's it's taking hundreds or 1000s of them and making something amazing out of them.
So you were telling us earlier when you started, you know, you were you were fearful of making the jump, right? Not sure that you were going to be able to make it. Obviously, obviously, you've done well, you've been doing this for many, many years now. And, and you've got an incredible reputation. As you think about when you were first starting your business, you know, potentially before the jump or right after the jump, you probably had some challenges to overcome, right? And kind of walk us through, what were some of your early challenges, what were some of the things you kind of had to overcome in the, in the middle years of your business, and now that your business has matured somewhat, and you've, you've got a reputation, you have a brand out there, you've, your phone probably rings a lot, I imagine. You know, your challenges potentially are a little different. Give us a sense of where you started and what, what you face these days.
I think the early the early challenges were trying to figure out how to price what I was doing, how to charge enough that it was worth my while to go to an event. And not too much to scare people away. And that's when I started finding the, the term target market started to enter into my phraseology, because there were some people I, some events I liked working at and some events I didn't like working at. And there were some venues I preferred and some types of venues I didn't like so I wanted to weed those out. And I needed to find a way to speak to the clients I wanted and not speak to the clients that I didn't want. So early on it was, you know, what do I charge? How much do I charge for this this service that I've got, realizing that it is a very unique, desirable service. So that makes it worth something. And it's needed to be worth enough to make it worth my time to do it. In the mid years, it was really about targeting, targeting my marketing, to really hone in on the clients that I wanted. When I got a taste for the larger pieces, the larger productions, I really liked going after those types of things. The smaller jobs, I realized that I was pricing myself out of. And once you price yourself out of a market, you don't need to go back there. Because one, there's going to be people that fill that void. There's going to be, there are gonna be people in your industry that fill that void, whether they're just starting out, or that's where they've they've decided to land. If that's what they want to do, that's wonderful. That's great. I like the fact that there are people out there that do events that I don't want to do, because I can then tell clients, here's who you need to speak to, you need to go to these people. That's not really my realm. There's nothing wrong with it. But I'll be happy to help you get somebody who will help you out. And that has really helped out a lot because a client is much happier if they call me and I say listen, that's not really in my wheelhouse but I know someone that can help you out and I will refer you to someone who I know, I like and I trust. And that makes for a happy customer. And they may call me back for the next time they need something that's more in my wheelhouse. And even if they don't, at least they're happy. I'm not going to, I don't want to tell somebody, no, go away, go find your own, you're on your own. That's not what they want to hear. And I'd rather, I'd rather, I'd rather turn them away with a suggestion or referral than just turn them down flat. I think that's, that is the better way to do it. You don't burn bridges and you just keep people happy. I think that that the challenges that I have now are dealing with the ever expansive world of marketing. When I started, we didn't have websites. That was one, 21 years ago. Wow. There were no websites, there wasn't barely an Internet. In fact, the way that balloon people used to talk to each other 20 years ago was via text messages on the computer. We didn't have texting on our phones. We didn’t have smartphones, we had message boards. And for the younger people. Forums
and message boards. On Google
Message Board, see how we, exactly, we had to speak and Larry Moss, the person I mentioned earlier with the balloon haunted house, actually happened to be a bit of a techie guy and was on a message board through a university in Rochester. And so he knew about message boards and he got one set up just for balloon people. So we used to type in questions like, how do you make a frog? And then someone would type in the instructions on how to make a frog. And I equate it to, give somebody who's never had shoes before a pair of shoes. Now type out the instructions on how to tie your shoes. Because it’s something you do just automatically, but they've never seen a shoelace before. Now teach them how to tie their shoes by typing the instructions. And that's how we used to learn. So that was hard enough as it is, I think today it's even harder because you have so many avenues for marketing. You have so many phrases that you need to learn. SEO and websites and back end of your website and the front end of your website and your title pages and your images have to be named, and they have to be named the right way. And how does Google find you. And this is the type of stuff that you need to know about but you don't need to know. And alliances with people that can help you do those things, I think is the most important thing for small businesses today. You know what your business is, you know that very well. You're running a business doing it. And and as you, as you find the best widgets to sell the best widgets to the people that need the widgets, you need people helping you with the website and the marketing and the the graphics on your postcard and where is your logo go. And what's the best way to place yourself in front of your audience and there are people that that are experts at that. And that's who you need to find to help you or else you’re trying to do everything yourself. It’s probably the number one mistake I think small businesses do is they try to do everything. And you, you have to wear a lot of hats, but you don't need to be an expert at all of them.
Yeah, I agree. A guy by the name of Dan Sullivan, he and Ben Hardy wrote a book, Who Not How, and it's an amazing concept. We talk about in our business, you know, the the business owners being the chief everything officer and they really need to become the Chief Executive Officer. Do the things they're good at and find somebody else to do the things they're not good at. Right? But I agree with you completely. And it's, it's astounding. I mean, you just talked about in many regards the entrepreneurial journey, right? As business owners we’re, some of the first thing we start with is, you know, figuring out how to price to make a profit. And then you become, you know, you're you're kind of focused on the transactional, but what I heard you say is you've kind of learned how to become relational, and really focus on the target market, the customers that are most important to you that value your work. Now all of a sudden, you're not priced as a commodity anymore, you're priced as a, I want this, price is secondary, it's the uniqueness that, the extravaganza, the you know, the the unusual aspect that's so important. And you're now free to choose your own customers, rather than, you know, having to serve every customer, you can choose the customers where you can do the best work, so it's phenomenal. And the marketing side used to just be you know, we used to, the biggest decisions were what categories in the Yellow Page and how big of an ad do you want? How big of an ad, that’s true. Yeah. My company is AAAA Balloons.
And, you know, and nowadays it's find, find the right URL to, to, to, to name your name your company for your website. And that's true. And you used to go to the Yellow Pages and open the book. And that was the advertising. I mean, nobody could afford TV ads, radio ads, or maybe a newspaper ad on a special occasion. And that gap garnered a lot of of eyes, because that was the only place eyes were going. And now eyes are everyplace. They're, you know, they're on Google. They're on Instagram, they're on on, they're still on Yahoo, they're on the phone, they're on the news site. They're everywhere. They're just everywhere. And you've got to find out how to get your message to them.
You talked about some of the things that were challenging when you first started, kind of in the middle of your business, and then you know today I certainly understand, and I'm somewhat challenged on this whole marketing thing too. It seems like we got to know so much more than we ever had to, right? What are some of the real successes? What were, were there some, were there some benchmarks you know, as you grew that there were a couple of successes that kind of propelled you on to the next level?
I think changing my mindset. I always thought I was bad at sales. I didn't like sales or selling. And I think that just came from, from an incorrect belief that salespeople wore plaid jackets and checkered ties and worked at used car lots and said, hey, hey, hey, you know?
That WKRP guy, right? Yes.
Yeah. And, or they hounded you at the furniture store and tried to sell you an extra Ottoman with your, with your sofa. And that's how, what I thought of as sales. And it's like, that's not, it's not the way sales is. Sales is understanding your client’s needs, asking them where they want to go with this process, and fulfilling that and exceeding their expectations. And when I, when I discovered that, that's what really opened up my eyes to sales is not pushing somebody to buy something they don't want. Sales is, is fulfilling their expectations. And, and, and exceeding what they believe is possible. And that's true of just about any process. And I go back to the balloon garden, which was one of my first, the first times that somebody said we want a little something and I turned it into a big something just by explaining what was possible and the effects it would have on their customers
Changed your business forever, right?
Yes. The project is, was not about me doing really cool things because they don't care. The client didn't care if I was doing really cool things or if I was really excited about this or, or, or if I'd be able to use that for marketing material for the next 20 years. They cared about what the impact would be on their guests. And I knew that because I knew what the Home and Garden Show was. I knew what my clients were doing. I knew what they wanted out of their convention, if either their, their Home and Garden Show. They wanted people to come in and leave that, leave their Home and Garden Show amazed. So that's why they have all these vendors and that's why they have the the landscapes and they have all these products and services that are available because they want to, they want their customers coming in out of the cold into this nice beautiful Home and Garden Show and to be amazed. They wanted them to be Wow, they want them to come back the next year, they want them to clamor for the next Home and Garden Show. Knowing that, on my part, allowed me to sell them a beautiful balloon project that would would have a huge impact on their guests. And because that was their mindset, we got to run with it. And we just kept, I just kept building up this balloon garden project until we actually ran out of time. They said, Okay, you got to just send us a proposal of what we're going to do. We're going to do this, this is going to happen. That's what, that was a very key turning point to instead of selling customers what they wanted. When they called me, Hi, we'd like you to do for, you know this kind of balloon for this type of event and me saying Yes, I'll do it. That's what turned the corner for me to be able to fulfill and exceed the expectations of my customers. And I had to know what those expectation expectations were. And either I knew ahead of time, or I had to talk to them and just simply ask them, What do you expect? What are your expectations? Give me a small glimpse of that, and I'll run with it. I will make it the most impressive, amazing thing you've seen because those are your expectations. I will exceed those. That is, that's selling on a whole new level.
Yeah, yeah. It's really fulfilling what they're looking for. It's really helping the client get more than they're looking for in that regard. And that's how you build raving fans, right?
Yes, it is. Yes.
Did that, I, I would assume and imagine that that probably created a lot of referral and then buzz for you once once those things happened as well.
Yes, after the St. Louis Home and Garden Show, the balloon garden, of course it was all over the internet and Home and Garden Show people all know each other. Just like any industry, okay, you know everybody else or you know of everybody else. And so all these home and garden shows around the country were calling me up wanting a, wanting a balloon garden in their Home and Garden Show. But none of them wanted to pay for it. I had somebody from Tennessee, in Nashville have their home and garden show they called me up and say Hey, listen, we'd love to have this balloon garden thing. It's fantastic. Can you like recreate that? I said I can do a half a dozen different themes, what kind of theme are you looking for? And they said Well, that really doesn't matter and they said, We'll give you the space for free. I said What do you mean you'll give me the space for free? They said, Well, we charge vendors to be here. I said, I'm not a vendor. I'm a special feature for your show that's going to drive attendees into your event. Right. I said, You have to pay for that. They said, Oh, we don't, we don't pay for those things. I don't know how you're gonna get somebody to come in and do something like this for free. They said, Well, it would be great word of mouth for you. I said, I don't need, I don't need customers in Nashville. I've got all the customers I can do in St. Louis, plenty of business in St. Louis area to fulfill me. I don't, I'm not gonna go to Nashville and do something for free. This is a business and you need to understand that. And I got easily half a dozen calls from places all over the country that wanted to have this balloon garden thing but wanted me to do it for free. They thought I would just do it for the fun of it, I guess. And that was, that was quite a lesson in understanding that they didn't get it. They didn't get the reason to have this type of project in their home and garden show. And as I was getting a little despondent about that the St. Louis Home and Garden Show called me back and that's when they asked me to come back the second year and do an even bigger balloon garden. They had such an impact with it. And. Yeah, they got it. They got it, they got it all right. And then the Tulsa Home Builders Association called me and they said they would be more than happy to pay for me to come down and do a balloon garden at the Tulsa Home and Garden Show so we were center, center space in their, in their convention center. And they got it big time and loved it and promoted it and sold it and put me on their morning news programs and I did lots of interviews promoting the balloon garden at the Home and Garden Show. And people came by just to see this balloon garden. And that was the, that's the enticement. Get people to come in to see this, this amazing balloon garden and they'll stay and watch and go walk, walk around to your vendors. Because nobody wants to say, hey, we've got a vendor that has topsoil. Well, of course, you got topsoil it’s a Home and Garden Show. You've also got the roofing people, and you've got the people that will do your greenhouse in the backyard. That's just expected at the Home and Garden Show. You'd be disappointed if you didn't have somebody selling shovels. Yep. But that's not a special feature. And so I learned that, I learned a lot about language, with home, with the balloon garden with the home and garden shows is that you speak to them as you are a a feature presentation. This is something to drive attendees to your event. And it's it's it's code words for, You have to pay me because this is my business. But the benefit to you is going to be an increase in traffic for your paid vendors and your paid vendors are going to be happy because there's more people going to their booths and asking about their products. Yeah,
we've been, we've been talking a lot about those because I think they're they're just spectacular. And people can't even imagine. They've got to go to your site and look at them. And I think it's astounding, but what's your bread and butter? You’ve got to have some bread and butter business that you do, I would imagine, you know, Monday through Friday, if you will. So what is, what's what's kind of the normal course of your business outside of these large extravagant events?
I mostly work with event planners and corporate functions. Okay. So an event planner’s putting together either a wedding shower or baby shower or wedding reception or some large private party. Yep. And they want something unique. They want something different. They've got made, event planners want clients that have a bit of imagination. Yep. They don't want the same old, same old. They don’t want something standard, they want something different. And that's why I like to be on the contact list of all these event planners. I used to say Rolodex, that I want to be on everyone's
Rolodex. I still know what that means. Nobody knows what a Rolodex
is either. So I like to be on the contact. You talk to those grey haired guys about that. So I like to be on the contact list of event planners and, and I explain to the event planners when I meet them, I say I want to do unique, different things that will push the boundaries of a phenomenal event. And if that's what you want, then I'm the one to call for that. So I deal a lot with event planners. And the corporate functions when they're having an employee appreciation, or they're having some sort of awards banquet. A lot of companies have awards banquets, mostly for salespeople because they met, they met their sales goals. But if they want something unique and themed, and something that really stands out, then that's, that's when I want to talk to them. And those are my main, my main bread and butters right there are the clients that have an imagination and have a little bit of creativity.
Awesome. Awesome. Well, that's amazing. You've built an amazing business. How many years total have you been in business now? Was it 21? 21 years
now, yes. Yeah. My, my nephew's 24. That’s how I keep track of how long I’ve been in business, however old he is minus three.
Are you still the cool nephew, or the cool uncle? I
am the cool uncle. Yes. They don't do balloons anymore. They haven't liked balloons for years. When my my nephew was about eight or nine and they they they live in Kansas and I went over there one time and my brother had told my nephew's teacher I would be in town so I went to go to his his classroom and did balloons for the kids. My nephew was just not into it because he had seen me do balloons so much it wasn't a big deal to him. He’s like, yeah, yeah, yeah, uncle's doing balloons again.
Too funny, too funny. Well, as you think about the future of your business, do you have a vision for your business in the future? I mean, at some point in time, you know, you're you're probably going to want to retire and then move on. What's your, what's your vision for your business after you retire?
I don't know a lot of balloon people that have retired. Most of them just keep on making balloons until they’re dead. And
That's the awesome part about what you do, right? It is.
But there are, there are plans for for stepping back from the business. I'm working right now on building a collaboration of balloon artists and decorators in the St. Louis area. And that's very important. And I'm trying to espouse to them how important it is. Because when you have a client that wants something big, you need people to help you with that. Yeah. And there's nothing better to help you with, with your, with your project than other professionals. If you're, if you're building a house, you're going to have, you're not going to do everything yourself, you're going to have to have people that do things that you don't do well or just to help you because it's a big project. And well, who's better to do that than professionals. So I'm building kind of a collaboration of competitors. And I'm hoping that through that, through those partnerships, I'll be able to find people that I can then pass on my, my repeat clients to because I've got a lot of, a good book of clients that just call me, they just when they have something going on, they call me and say here's what we're doing. And that's, that's it. And those are very nice clients to have. And so I built this reputation of being the person to call for those types of things and I'd like to be able to pass that along. I expect that when I step back from the cutthroat world of balloon building, I'll probably go back to making balloon animals for
kids. Some, something simpler, huh?
It's enjoyable, I love doing it. I have fun entertaining, and that'll be just a nice way to step back and, and sail off into the sunset. Well, you're
building brand equity, and you're building a following and those, and those have value. Don't, don't forget that those things are transferable at the appropriate time. So my hat's off to you Thad, you guys do amazing stuff. It's, I've been sitting here thinking about a couple of things, how we can we can get involved in doing some stuff with you in the future because you just do amazing stuff so. Thank you. So it's been a delight to talk with you. Anything you'd like to leave our audience with, anything you you'd like to share for for our audience?
Gosh, no, I don't think there's anything out, there’s anything else. Well, I
would say if you want to do something really unique and special, for your business, for your team members, for your customers, and you need some, you need a, you need a fresh set of eyes to help you think outside of the box, call Sammy J Balloon Creations, these guys are amazing. And we'll have all your contact information here at the, at the end of the show. So Thad it's an honor to be with you. Thank you very much for your time today. We wish you all the best and we'll see you in the near future.
Absolutely. Thank you very much for inviting me, I appreciate it.
It was a lot of fun. My pleasure. Thanks.
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