Craig Wolfe builds rubber duck empire
By Hannah Massen
Everyone has a happy memory of a rubber duck, whether it’s the “Rubber Duckie” song from Sesame Street, the pink and blue bath toy set your friend gave you as a baby shower gift, or your own childhood toy floating in the bath. Rubber ducks are universally nostalgic.
But Craig Wolfe, the CEO and founder of CelebriDucks has put a 21st-century twist on the classic tub toy. His company models rubber ducks out of beloved characters and celebrities. Gone are the days of the basic yellow bird; now you can bathe with The GodFeather, GooseBusters, or Ziggy StarDuck.
CelebriDucks is considered the top rubber duck manufacturer in the world, selling hundreds of thousands of ducks every year. But had someone told Wolfe years ago that he would go from working as an animation artist to overseeing a multi-million dollar toy company, he would have laughed.
“Trust me, there were no rubber ducks on my radar, as I had absolutely no expertise in how to create these things!” Wolfe said. “But as John Lennon so aptly said, ‘Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.’”
CelebriDucks wasn’t born in a boardroom. One of Wolfe’s friends had the idea of making rubber ducks that look like celebrities while they were at a party one night. While most people would have assumed it would be an impossible business plan to pull off, Wolfe envisioned it working. CelebriDucks would be a product to join the ranks of the Chia Pet, the Hula Hoop, and the Pet Rock – the kind of genius entrepreneurs spend their careers striving for but rarely hit.
To Wolfe, passion is the key to spotting a solid business idea. He says that starting a business for the money – with no energy behind your idea – is a sure sign not to move forward. The other way to gauge a business’s potential is to ask for frank feedback, because “if you can’t take feedback, you will never succeed.”
But CelebriDucks wasn’t an instant success. Wolfe started the company as a side project and spent months sending out media releases before the company gained any traction.
“One day, a reporter from The Atlantic City Press in New Jersey called me and asked me why they should do a story about us,” Wolfe said. “I thought about it for a second and then just told her that, well, I was from New Jersey, and I used to go to Atlantic City. And amazingly, the reporter said that was good enough.”
The next day, the vice president of the Philadelphia 76ers saw the article and contacted Wolfe about promoting their star player, Allen Iverson. Wolfe was tasked with creating a duck that featured Iverson’s jersey and unique tattoos as part of a giveaway.
“The giveaway was a huge hit, and suddenly we were getting calls from all these other teams and companies, like the New York Yankees, the Chicago Cubs, Gorton Seafood, etc.,” Wolfe said. “It was like we had a brand new company virtually overnight.”
After 17 years of creating ducks with human-like features, Wolfe and his team developed CelebriDucks’ Costume Quacker line, which would dress up traditional yellow rubber ducks as pop-culture icons. In three years, CelebriDucks launched 50 Costume Quackers with names like Harry Ponder, Paddle Like It’s 1999, and GameBirds of Thrones. Mr. Squawk and Aviary Grande are amongst CelebriDucks’ bestsellers.
Wolfe’s process for deciding which characters or celebrities to turn into a duck is completely intuitive. He and his team start by guessing which ducks would gain a large following – just like their muses. The goal is to create ducks that won’t be one-hit-wonders, but will stay popular for decades to come.
Wolfe originally outsourced most of CelebriDucks’ services but decided to move a division of his company back to the United States. His PVC-free Good Ducks are now manufactured exclusively in the USA, a transition that was made possible because of his complete ownership of the company.
“I have no doubt that bringing in investors [or] going on Shark Tank would grow the business immensely, but for me it’s a bit different,” Wolfe said. “I am happy to make a good living and have a business that I can totally control and have fun with. One day I trust someone will come along, make an offer, and I will ideally find someone who can carry our vision into the future.”
Ask the Expert: Wolfe’s three pieces of advice for new entrepreneurs.
1. It’s not how much money you make, it’s how much you keep. Excessive overhead can bring down any business, no matter how much you make. Lean-and-mean is the key to survival, especially in the beginning before the business gains traction.
2. Do not try to be all things to all people or you become nothing to anyone. Focus like a laser on your niche and be really clear on what you stand for.
3. Compete on the cheap and someone can always make it less. Quality, like the tortoise, will ultimately win out, or as I like to say, “Live by the penny, die by the penny. Don’t compete on price alone. Quality is the hardest thing to knock off!”