@ Balloon Distractions: Clowns with Frowns

By: Elizabeth Francois, Writer & Designer
Twitter: @elizfrancois
Facebook: Elizabeth's Note Book

Ben Alexander's pitch was reminiscent of the late Billy Mays except his voice was high-pitched and suggested nervousness and volatility. I half expected him to come out with a bottle of Oxi-Clean, but instead, after a brief introduction, with just a flourish of his hands a shower of balloon characters floated from the ceiling above into the Tank. Ben is the founder of Balloon Distractions, and he came in seeking $250,000 for a 30% stake in his company.

Balloon Distractions is a nationwide talent agency that contracts with national restaurant chains to send balloon artist into their venues to entertain hungry dinners, especially children while they wait for their food to be served. Restaurants pay a fee of $40 to $60 a night for this service, and the entertainers work for tips by wearing a button that says “We Twist For Tips” with a $5.00 bill attached to it. Is that $5.00 per balloon, per child? Seem like an awkward intrusion on a meal.

Special balloon shapes were made for each Shark. Robert got a motorcycle, Lori got a cool balloon shark, Kevin received a Chiquita banana fruit basket hat... a great strategy to get on his poop list when one is seeking a financial investment! A bright yellow balloon crown went to Barbara, and Mark got a Dallas Maverick balloon basketball player. Ben petered out and running out of “air” as he asked the Sharks to help him “blow” this venture up.

Since its inception in 2003, the company has done $4 million dollars in sales ($400,000 a year). Last year it did $650,000 in sales, however the current year’s sales to date was $500,000. Ben, the consummate salesman, talked and talked but was unable to stay focused on the subject matter. His explanation for this drop in revenue ran the gamut from recruiting magicians when the economy was down to keep them employed; to being criticized by the clown community (what the heck is a clown community?); to being the Sam Walton of the balloon industry. Unable to comprehend his explanations, I decided to do my own investigation into Balloon Distractions. According to several online sources, Ben Alexander is notorious for scaring people into taking down unfavorable reviews about him or his company, so with that in mind, I hope I won’t wake up one morning with a balloon horse head in my bed, like the famous scene in The Godfather.

"Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive", by Sir Walter Scott, would be a fitting quote to describes Balloon Distractions business practices.

Balloon Distraction’s business model is based on multi-level marketing, where everyone gets a cut of the fee for services rendered - except for the balloon twisters who are doing the actual work. They work for tips and sometimes earn less than minimum wage. The company prides itself in recruiting “clean-cut, out-going high school and college kids”. These are certainly no professional balloon twisters, who are trained in 10 days, spending 2 hours each day in a restaurant at no pay. And, the twisters are required to purchase a starter kit (current cost $60) that includes a pump, 500 balloons, a 2 disk training DVD, an apron, and a tip button). The twister are promised at least $15 per hour, when in reality all pay is tip-based which is not guaranteed, and they have to pay for their balloons!

After searching through various sites, there didn't seem to be any positive feedback about the company from any former employees, and professional twisters will not work for Ben due to his poor reputation. After speaking with Jonathan Fudge, a former head trainer who helped build the company and originally suggested to structure it like Amway, I learned that he worked for Ben for seven years and was hired when he was 16 years old. (Jonathan was the youngest professional balloon twister in U.S. and even traveled to conventions around the country.) He bought infrastructure and created a professional looking training video, and kept the company’s image clean on various sites. He was then promised a bonus (in writing) of $40,000 when the company reached $250,000 a year. Well, the company has surpassed that goal and the bonus supposedly still hasn't been paid. The YouTube site by the Happy Cabbie was not afraid to shed light on Balloon Distractions, by obtaining the company’s sales and training manuals which he happily shared. The company’s multi-level marketing structure was difficult to follow, but one thing as very clear: the people doing the actual work, the twisters, are not reaping any benefits by working for this company.

A business that involves balloons and entertaining the public should be a happy one. Unfortunately, with Balloon Distractions, that does not seem to be the case. The Sharks were smart to pass on this venture, as they too took the entrepreneur to be full of “hot air”. Hopefully, Balloon Distractions will learn from their mistakes and fix up their PR disaster to be a balloon company that produces more smiles than frowns.