How One Woman Turned Her Dog into a $50 Million Empire
At 52, things weren’t exactly going Carol Gardner’s way.
She and her husband had invested in a high-end real estate venture. It failed.
Soon after, her nearly three-decade-long marriage failed as well.
Divorced, over $1 million in debt, and living on four credit cards, Carol was understandably depressed.
That’s when her divorce attorney gave her some advice: You need to either get a therapist or a dog. She chose the latter.
Carol got an English bulldog puppy and named her Zelda – so named because it started with the last letter in the alphabet and Carol “was hoping that what felt like the end might be the beginning.”
With Zelda’s unconditional love, Carol began to heal. But she still had no income.
That’s when a friend told her about a local pet store that was sponsoring a Christmas card contest. The prize was a year’s worth of free dog food.
Carol sprang into action.
She borrowed a Santa hat from a neighbor, plopped Zelda into the bathtub and gave her a bubble beard.
The clever caption read: “For Christmas I got a dog for my husband… good trade, huh?”
She won! When Carol sent the winning card to her own holiday list, people raved.
Encouraged by the response, Carol decided to create her own line of 24 Zelda-inspired greeting cards with funny captions like “Go braless… it pulls the wrinkles down,” “Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and you get wet.”
The fact that Carol was still broke didn’t hold her back.
Instead she asked a professional photographer to work for free in exchange for getting in on the ground floor of her dream. He said yes.
Next she convinced a local printer to wait 90 days for payment.
Soon the cards were selling in gift stores across Oregon and Washington.
Six months later she’d sold a million cards.
Zelda Wisdom is now a global brand worth over $50 million in cards and merchandise including clothing, home goods, cell phone covers, jewelry, and much more.
Carol and Zelda have appeared on Oprah, The Today Show, Good Morning America, Martha Stewart, and dozens of other national and regional media.
There are seven Zelda books in print and Carol penned a re-imagined fairy tale called Princess Zelda and the Frog.
She’s also a motivational speaker whose signature talk, “How to Go from Underdog to Top Dog (Without Barking Up the Wrong Tree)” inspires audiences to follow their own dreams.
Carol is also a believer in giving back.
Zelda went on to represent the Zelda/American Humane Association Children’s Hospital Project as part of a co-initiative to train and certify rescue dogs to provide animal-assisted therapy in children’s hospitals and give the dogs a chance at adoption.
Are you inspired? I am!
Most media coverage of Carol and Zelda describes the process much as you just read.
A divorced, depressed, in-debt woman turns her adorable English bulldog into a line of greeting cards.
Six months later she’d sold a million cards and Zelda Wisdom, Inc. would go on to become a $50 million international empire.
The Story Behind the Story
Make no mistake about it: Carol Gardner and Zelda Wisdom Inc. IS a story of rapid, massive success.
But the real – and rarely reported story – is what transpired in those critical six months from the cards coming off the printing press and into the hands of a million happy buyers.
It’s a story that’s important to tell because most people have wildly unrealistic notions about what it takes to grow a business. As a result, they give up way too soon.
As importantly, how Carol went about going from idea to such mega-success in such a short time offers valuable lessons for you.
Lessons that, like Zelda says, can help you, “Think outside your cage”!
For starters, Carol drew from the many years she’d spent working as a creative director in advertising – a job that gave her plenty of experience designing ads and writing one-liners for clients.
That’s also where she met and worked with a gifted photographer named Shane Young and a seasoned public relations professional named Sandi Serling.
Pros Carol would later tap to help launch the card company in exchange for getting in on the ground floor.
I learned too that a few years earlier Carol had written a book called Bumper Sticker Wisdom in which she documented the one-liner form of messaging and interviewed the people who sported them.
Sales were underwhelming.
But Carol says the experience taught her a lot about the publishing industry.
More importantly, that book helped Carol to connect the dots between…
Her previous skills and experience writing one-liners
Wisdom gained living through her recent tough times
Winning a holiday card contest
The healing love of a pup named Zelda
Idea in hand, Carol’s success began with a combination of sound business start-up practices, a willingness to shoot high, and to go all in.
She did things like write a business plan that included the lofty but clearly possible goal of being licensed by Hallmark.
She researched the industry looking for untapped angles… like creating a line of cards around a single living dog with a name and a personality, photographing on a white background, and making blank cards – all things that were not being done at the time.
And she had enough faith in her idea, her team, and herself to tap the last remaining $40,000 available on her credit card to launch the business.
Time to Get Very, Very Busy
Right after Halloween Carol bought 24 costumes on sale and then proceeded to photograph “around the clock.”
Cards in hand, they decided to roll the line out locally to both test the concept and presumably to generate enough sales to pay their printer.
Personally shopping cards around to hundreds of gift stores in Oregon and Washington would be tremendously time-consuming
Besides, hiring a rep would take a big bite out of a small budget.
Instead they wisely put Sandi’s PR skills and connections to work ultimately creating so much buzz in local newspapers and TV (who doesn’t love an adorable dog prancing around in a bikini) that gift stores began contacting them to place orders!
Cards were flying off the shelves.
The local test met with such success in such a short period of time that the team knew they had to take a giant leap of faith.
So they rented a pricey booth at the National Stationary Show in New York City where Zelda Wisdom would be one of fifteen-hundred small greeting card companies vying for the attention of major licensing companies.
So they came up with three ways to stand out and thus maximize their investment.
First, ahead of the show they sent a press kit to the top licensing company.
They also further splurged on a full-page ad in the show catalog (something unheard of for a small company).
With this attention-grabbing picture you can see why that ad investment paid off!
Once at their booth they ran a continuous video feed of funny clips of Zelda on local television.
The six months of hard work, creativity, willingness to risk investing in their dream even while broke, and massive hustle paid off.
The top licensing group signed them and within a few years Zelda’s Wisdom was Hallmark’s number one-selling greeting card line.
Change Your Mindset, Change Your Life
Every day you have the choice to act on your idea or your gift or to use that time in front of the TV or on social media.
At every step of the journey, Carol said yes to her dream and then took rapid, consistent action.
She began by researching and planning.
Then she reached out to people she knew, liked and trusted, and invited them to join her dream. She also had the guts to ask the printer to work on credit.
Had anyone of them declined, I have no doubt Carol would have kept asking until she found people who would said yes.
You might say Carol’s advertising experience gave her a huge advantage. And you’d be right.
However, I’ve had scores of clients with backgrounds and connections they could have easily tapped in the service of their own dream, but failed to do so.
Experience does of course help, but it’s just one of many ways to gain the confidence to pursue a dream.
Besides, the world is full of stories of complete novices with zero experience or connections who started from scratch and figured stuff out on their own.
If they (or I!) can do it, then my friend, so can you.
Michelangelo wrote, “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.
Every day you’re presented with an opportunity to shoot high or shoot low.
Right from the start Carol thought big by setting her sights on Hallmark –then she backed up her dream with equally bold actions.
Media coverage is one of the best ways to jumpstart a business.
Luckily, anyone can learn how to creatively tap the power of local or even national media.
The problem is most people either assume it won’t work (I know from ample personal experience that you have a far better shot than you think) or are just too lazy or scared to even try.
There is no “secret” to success. Fundamentally it comes down to the one thing available to all of us – and that’s effort.
Something Carol herself understands all too well.
In an interview on Moneypants.com, Carol was asked where money comes from. I loved her response.
Unless you win the lottery or are born with money, hard work is the best source. Following my divorce, my ex-husband’s accountant put his arm around me and told me he hoped I might find a wealthy husband. That was probably the most insulting AND most motivating thing anyone has ever said to me. The good news was that it made me mad enough to go out, work hard, and succeed.
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If you had to pick just one take away from Carol’s story what would it be?
How will you use it to advance your own path to self-bossing?
Then stay tuned for Cool Biz IDEA #5 in our series Make Your Own Make Your Own Cool Job!
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