Balloons for Bucks
The upside of being shot down on “Shark Tank”
By Terri Akman
When your kids restlessly await their meals at the local diner, Ben Alexander comes to the rescue. As head honcho of Balloon Distractions, he and his minions happily twist balloons into rip-roaring motorcycles or two doves kissing in a heart. But balloon art is way more than child’s play for Alexander. Hoping to expand his company into 200 markets in the next five years, the man who got his start in Mullica Hill appealed to ABC’s “Shark Tank” gurus for help. Though they didn’t offer him any money, Alexander says their advice was worth its weight in latex.
You didn’t get the money you requested on “Shark Tank.” Was that a big disappointment?
I think everyone wants to get an investment, but the exposure is worth more than the investment. How much would an ad on network TV that’s eight minutes and three seconds long, the length of the Shark Tank segment, cost me? A whole lot. Everyone wants to get a famous billionaire to invest in their company because there are a lot of benefits other than the money, so I don’t think anyone goes on and gets rejected and is super happy about that. But it is what it is.
What did you gain from the experience?
We’ve seen a big spike in our business because of the exposure, and it’s established us as a national brand. I filmed the episode in September of 2013, but it didn’t air until January of this year. I was in front of the sharks for over an hour, and they edited that down to eight minutes. When I got back to my hotel that night I took pages and pages of notes. From the time I came home until it aired, all the things they were talking about on the show that I needed to do, we started to do.
What were some of those things?
We had to spend money on increasing the capacity of our website. I’m proud to say that even though we got a lot of hits when the show aired, our website didn’t crash. We invested over $7,000 in additional server capacity. They talked about bringing on an executive, and I brought on a CFO. They suggested we have a different structure in our compensation, and I pulled the trigger on that. Forcing us to redo our website also forced us to look at the focus of our website. The real focus is to find people who can grow regions with us as regional leaders.
How did you first get involved in balloon art?
In 1997 I was a waiter in the Rib-It restaurant in Washington Township, which is now a CVS. They hired a balloon guy who had a small crew of two or three people. I worked for him for a while. They went out of business but they never structured their business for long-term success. I started Balloon Distractions in September of 2003 with one restaurant. By Christmas that year we were in 20 restaurants and had 10 artists. We go up to the table after people have ordered their food but before it arrives. So we distract them while they are waiting for their food. That’s why it’s called Balloon Distractions.
How does your company work?
We are in 17 states, and each has regional leaders who contract with restaurants and independent contract entertainers. They go through an orientation where we make sure they can make the balloons, and then they choose where they want to work each week. For example, if we have 20 restaurants in a particular area, we need 10 entertainers who generally do this as a part-time job. They work for tips and make about $20 an hour. We dress in dress shirts and dress pants – there are no clowns involved.
Is it difficult to learn how to make balloon art?
No, it takes two weeks but even faster if you’re good at math, because those people are good at sequential thinking. For example, a balloon motorcycle is 17 steps. It’s easier if you can remember the steps. Any reasonably intelligent person can learn 50 balloon shapes in two weeks if they have the right training. There are an infinite variety of what people make with balloons. For example, I’ve seen over 100 variations of a balloon turtle.
What’s the key to being successful?
It’s about making the kids happy more than the balloons we make. It’s about how it touches people in a positive way. I’ve had artists on our team who told me later that they learned confidence, poise and a skill that enabled them to make little kids happy, plus they made good money. Here’s an interesting story – 10 years ago I worked at a little breakfast place called Perkins in Tampa. I’d make a balloon for a little girl every Sunday morning. Years later, I had someone else running Tampa, but I went there to do the final training for a girl, and it turned out it was the same girl I used to make balloons for when she was 7. She joined our team and became an artist when she was 16.
What’s the most interesting balloon you’ve ever made?
Personally, I make the hovering eyeball of death inside a thermo-nuclear containment device. That’s a popular one! At the 2014 balloon conference, the Rochester Twist & Shout, some members of our team were involved in making a five-story Jack and the Beanstalk sculpture. That was the most amazing balloon sculpture I’ve ever seen. It was made with 50,000 balloons and weighed 300 pounds.
You’ve held over 20 jobs since graduating from Clearview Regional High School in 1992. What were some of the more unusual ones?
I went to Rowan to study opera, and halfway through, I heard about teaching English in Taiwan. I went to Asia for a year, then came back and finished a degree in economics. That’s when I learned how to do balloons, but I didn’t touch them for six years after I got my degree.
I was a nude art model for art classes at Rowan, a volunteer firefighter in Gloucester County and a package sorter for UPS. I sold cars, insurance and underwater cameras. I was a roller-blade instructor in Taiwan and a paid singer at the Presbyterian Church in Cherry Hill. Entrepreneurs tend to not find the right-fitting jobs.
Do you think you’ve finally found your niche?
Absolutely. If you have a business that brings joy to children, you’re doing something very special in the universe. I was deeply affected by the Newtown massacre. After that happened, I felt it was my mission to bring joy to as many children as possible.
I can’t prevent a Newtown or bring those kids back, but if I can bring joy to children in every city in America, I’m doing something that’s good, and that can counteract some of the awful things that happen. I think Balloon Distractions is a force for good in the universe.