Sales organization meshes with talent agency
Balloon Distractions engages restaurateurs
[USPRwire, Wed Jul 29 2009] Casual restaurant customers marvel at the fanciful balloon shapes being crafted at their tables while dinner's on the fire. Little do they know the helicopter presented to young Johnny is the product of a sophisticated intertwining of human resources savvy and motivated salespeople.
Ben Alexander, former car salesman and natural gas marketer, drew from his previous successes and disappointments to create Balloon Distractions Inc., a talent agency that sends independent contractors, aka artists, to twist balloons in restaurants all over the country. The 33-year-old formed his talents in sales after he developed his showbiz skills as a student opera singer.
His door to entrepreneurship opened four years ago when he was fired from a car dealership -- a setback that Alexander viewed as temporary. "The beauty of being fired is that it teaches you flexibility," he said.
He applied that flexibility to balloons, twisting his home-based business around to make it his day job.
Alexander had learned balloon artistry from a company in New Jersey while he was a student studying economics and a waiter. Starting in Tampa, he used concepts from larger corporations to create Balloon Distractions.
Pumping in air full time
Balloon Distractions grows through the mobility of its artists, after the company takes care of their training.
The artists learn 25 shapes to start out, which takes about 10 days. With the help of a college student Alexander created a four-hour DVD training kit.
Artists advance to be trainers, who get residual payments when the artists they have trained work.
"If you take your best people and make them trainers, give them a piece of the action, they take ownership of the region," Alexander said. "They're not going to leave the company."
Alexander recruits college students, most of whom travel for vacations. They train people back home to twist balloons, and thus an employee base is established to serve more restaurants. Alternately, Alexander recruits via ads on craigslist.org.
Ninety percent of Balloon Distractions' 175 artists are college or high school age or slightly older. Many attend Florida College or the University of South Florida.
Students today want to feel like they're somehow making a difference in their own corners of the world, and that sounds like what Balloon Distractions provides, said Tim Harding, director of career services at the University of Tampa. "They're having some kind of an impact on an individual."
Also, students crave flexibility and they enjoy managing themselves, and Balloon Distractions lets them have these things, Harding said. Location and work-life balance are other factors in student motivation that Balloon Distractions captures.
Alexander pays two people to call all the restaurants each night to ensure things are running smoothly. He also carries liability insurance in case an artist chokes on a balloon.
With this system in place, Alexander made some changes in order to develop Balloon Distractions into the $200,000 company it is today.
A turning point was the creation of its interactive Web site by a balloon artist in 2005. Rather than a marketing tool, it is a hub of activity for the independent contractors.
All are given passwords to direct them to the list of restaurants needing artists. They claim their sites online, and work to earn tips plus bonuses.
Alexander has been active in selling to restaurants, scoring chains such as Outback Steakhouse, Sweet Tomatoes and Perkins, and is traveling to cities where his artists are already working. The restaurants pay him for the balloon artists services, but he would not disclose figures as they are negotiated.
Eighteen months ago he began teaching the independent contractors how to sell to restaurants, and he is now bringing on more people to sell. When artists sell to a restaurant, they make commission each time the gig is filled, Alexander said.
The next phase
A tough lesson that lit a fire under Alexander's expansion came with four hurricanes hitting Florida in 2004. Balloon Distractions was operating only in Tampa and St. Petersburg then and endured restaurant shutdowns and the unavailability of artists.
Soon after, Alexander pursued restaurants in other cities, and that has insulated the company from setbacks due to weather or artists leaving.
Now he's working to recruit artists from the "balloon community," professionals earning about $20,000 annually from their work, to make them leaders in different regions. With this, he's undercutting.
"There are balloon artists who charge restaurants $100," Alexander said. "I'm like the Wal-Mart of the balloon world."
Diamond Jam, a balloon artists' convention held in Arizona in January, has invited Alexander to teach class on how to sell to restaurants. He will be recruiting there, too.