Jera and Brad Deal of Peoria, Illinois really put the "accident" in "accidental entrepreneurs." After successful careers in business — he in management and she in marketing — it's not surprising that Jera and Brad would eventually go into business for themselves. But how they did it is one of those amazing "only in America" stories with a side of good-old fashioned hard work and perseverance.
The Deals are the owners of Sticks and Stones, a multi-million dollar company that makes, framed keepsakes created from photos of letters, which are sold on-line, in catalogs, and in about 40 select boutique retailers. What makes the Sticks and Stones products different is the pictures are of letters found in nature (Sticks) and architecture
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But what's really unique about the business is it began as a game the Deals would play with their young daughters. "It started as a fun family hobby to help teach our daughters how to read," Jera explains. "Our family began letter hunting while on walks or while spending the day at the park. Our three daughters would search for letters found in nature and architecture - like a maple leaf in the form of a 'W', or a drinking fountain spout that made an 'L'." Brad started taking pictures of the letters the girls found as a way to remember both the letters and their adventures. The story might have ended there had Jera not happened to be the class mom the year their middle daughter's preschool teacher happened to be getting married.
"I didn't want to give the teacher a gift from her registry — that just wasn't memorable enough," Jera recalls. "I wanted to give her something that she would look at in 20 years and know exactly who the gift came from. I was suddenly faced with the dilemma we all have at some time in our life: What is the perfect gift that will never be forgotten?" On a whim, Brad suggested Jera use the letter photos he'd taken to make a framed piece spelling out the teacher's new last name. The teacher was thrilled with her gift and once the other mothers saw it at the class bridal shower, everyone wanted one of their own.
While taking orders from other parents and teachers at the school, Brad had an "aha" moment: They could be onto something. "We were thinking small at that point," Brad says. But from that original $100 investment in the teacher's gift in 2005, the company has grown to $10 million in sales in 2011, according to CNBC. After the first quarter, Brad says they are on track to double sales in 2012.
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But as with (almost) every small business, it wasn't easy — especially at the beginning. "We put our Web site up — it was a ghost town," Brad recalls. "Nobody knew what it was." By late 2005, Brad was having a lot of sleepless night, worrying if the company would make it. "I would wake up at 2 a.m. and lie awake until 5 a.m. wondering: Is this business going to make it or suck every dime out of us?," he says.
The business made it thanks in large part to Jera's marketing savvy. She was determined to get Sticks and Stones "in front of a lot of people at once." Seeing herself as the company's target market, she tenaciously pursued the producers of daytime programs, most notably The Oprah Winfrey show. Affectionately, Brad calls Jera "Bulldog" and her relentless pursuit paid off…big time.
Jera got tickets to see Oprah's show in Chicago and sent a keepsake to the woman in charge of the audience. The Deals were invited back to do another show about up and coming new businesses in late 2006. Afterward, they got the endorsement of a lifetime when Oprah invited them on stage and accepted their gift, a Sticks and Stones keepsake, of course. Oprah was so taken with the gift she said she wanted to give one to Tom and Kate for their wedding. (That's Hollywood A-listers Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes for those unaware.)
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Armed with Oprah's seal of approval, Sticks and Stones was off and running...fast! Within a span of six months, they were featured in "O" Magazine, People Magazine, The Rachel Ray show and Martha Stewart's Show. From that moment, Brad's biggest worry was whether Sticks and Stones would be able to fulfill the orders that were suddenly flying in. It was a very good problem the Deals solved by first partnering with a local framer (and friend) and later opening their own facility that now employs 10 full-time employees and as many as 75 people during the holidays.
The Deals credit their faith in God and their belief in each other for helping them get through the hard times and for the bounty they have today. "To me the American Dream is when you're not a slave to your alarm clock," Brad says. " When every dollar you makes comes back to your family and you can choose what to do with it. "
Amen to that.
The Driven Team is on a nationwide search for the next entrepreneur to be featured in an upcoming episode! Share your story with us at Driven@yahoo-inc.com or follow us on twitter @aarontask #drivenstories.
Video produced by Scott Fraser and Jessica Ashford. Production by Michael Manas, Josh Kesner, David Pierro, and Karyn Ashby. Edited by Gabe Tanenhaus. Graphics by Todd Tanner For Yahoo! Studios. Executive Producers: Russ Torres and Peter Gorenstein.