Back in 2004, Chanda Bell and her family were nearly broke. The need for food trumped the need for diapers. Her husband was working as a teacher and Bell, a new mother in Marietta, Ga., was taking her son two days a week to her father’s engineering firm where she would work as a secretary. Bell’s mother, Carol Aebersold, was in a bad place, too, struggling with her status as an empty nester and experiencing a serious bout with depression.
Just before Christmas, Bell was visiting her parents' home when she looked up and noticed a small toy elf sitting on the Christmas tree. The elf was a tradition in her family: He would appear in random places in the weeks before the holiday to watch over the household and every night report good deeds to Santa.
“I looked at the elf, turned to my mom and said, ‘We should write a story about this,’” remembers Bell, a budding writer at the time.
The pair self-published Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition in September 2005 under their newly formed publishing company, Creatively Classic Activities & Books—which today publishes a variety of books and creates plush children’s toys. Since then, the Elf story has been featured on every news network, is a favorite of A-list celebrities and, this year, was even made into an animated feature for CBS.
Katie Morell: I know times were tough, but has it been smooth sailing ever since you came up with the idea for the Elf on the Shelf book?
Chanda Bell: Just to clarify, it wasn't smooth sailing at all in the beginning. After we self published, because no publishing house would take us, I took out a $21,000 line of credit and my sister, Christa, sold her house in Pennsylvania and moved in with my parents in Georgia. We used $10,000 from her home sale for the book, too.
KM: Wait, you didn’t have any funding?
CB: Nope, we bootstrapped it all. For the first few years, Christa and I would work odd jobs just to make ends meet. On our off days, we would go to festivals, set up booths and try to sell books. We didn’t take a salary until 2008.
KM: Did you ever get tired of telling your Elf story?
CB: Are you kidding? Absolutely! I’ll never forget going to a show in North Carolina that ran from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. for 12 straight days. We had to set up our booth, unpack, tell every person individually about the Elf story, pack up and do it all again the next day. When I got home, I remember thinking to myself that I could not smile or talk or walk. I was completely exhausted.
KM: It sounds like you built your business dollar by dollar. When did things turn a corner?
CB: In 2007. First, Jennifer Garner was photographed with an Elf—something we had nothing to do with but were thrilled to see. Then, the Today Show ran a segment picked up from a Texas station about Elf on the Shelf. We also didn’t know that one was going to happen.
KM: What happened after the Today Show segment ran?
CB: We were flooded with calls and orders. Really flooded. From there, thousands of bookstores and toy stores picked up our product and things really started moving for us.
KM: Were you able to pay back your debt?
CB: Yep. Today we have close to 40 full-time employees, too. We are very blessed. We’ve created apps, games and our Christmas special. It’s been amazing. That said, I’m no Warren Buffett. We leave a lot of money in the company.
KM: Does your husband still teach?
CB: Yes, he does. He is a high school special education teacher and loves it.
KM: What’s next for Elf on the Shelf?
CB: We are really excited to expand our international footprint. We released a Spanish version of our book (exclusively on Target.com) this year and we hope to branch out even further next year. Also, we will be releasing a sequel to the book next year.
KM: What is one piece of advice you would give to budding entrepreneurs?
CB: Grow where you are planted. I go to a lot of entrepreneur events where people tell me that they have a great idea for a book and want to print 1 million copies and send them to Oprah. That is not a plan. If you are launching something, make sure everyone in your town knows about it first. Then move to your state, region, country and then internationally. Do your best to gain a following locally and expand from there.
Read more Q&As, check out our Building an Empire Series.
Photo courtesy of Elf on the Shelf