LAND O'LAKES — If you believe the clowns, everything was hunky-dory until 2007, when Ben Alexander came along.
A dedicated clown could work a restaurant for a couple of hours, twist a T. rex or a Super Mario — really innovative stuff, not just one-balloon wiener dogs or swords — and walk home with a hundred bucks. The restaurants paid, so parents didn't have to worry about scrambling for tips. The clowns weren't going to get rich, but it was a living.
But then Alexander started to expand his business quickly.
The Land O'Lakes entrepreneur, who had started Balloon Distractions in 2003, was looking for clowns, magicians and balloon artists to join the fold.
He needed trainers. He needed regional managers. He wanted to take over the Ballooniverse with a radically different, disruptive business model, where he underbid the established balloon artists and sent less-experienced clowns to twist balloons for tips.
Online forums like balloonhq.com and clown-forum.com began to light up with negative commentary about Alexander. Some claimed he treated his employees poorly. Some claimed he was stealing business. Some said his business model was devaluing the industry.
A twister nicknamed HappyCabbie posted a video in which he called Balloon Distractions a pyramid scheme. One of the best known balloon twisters, Don Caldwell, penned a blog post titled "The Greasy Spoon vs. Fine Dining," implying that Balloon Distractions was truck stop fare.
The criticism — some of it misinformed, some on the money — upset Alexander.
"I just wanted to have a nice positive business that brings joy to children and helps college kids pay for school," he said the other day at a Panera Bread in Wesley Chapel. "So I take it personally."
Clowns, it turns out, can be nasty.
• • •
On Jan. 17, more than 200 people gathered at Primebar in the Shops at Wiregrass to watch Ben Alexander's appearance on the ABC reality show Shark Tank. The premise is that entrepreneurs pitch an idea and ask for money from a panel of celebrity investors: "the Sharks."
Alexander's entrance was promising.
"I'm Ben Alexander from sunny Tampa, Florida, and I'm asking you for $250,000 for 30 percent of my wild company.
"Have you ever gone to a restaurant and you order your food and there's nothing the restaurant can do to make the food come out faster? You might be impatient, but you know how it is when you have kids? Oh, my gosh, they're swinging from the chandeliers, they're running under the table, over the table, it's crazy! That's why restaurants turn to me and my very unique, very different, very unexpected company that uses creativity to put balloons in restaurants!"
On cue, hundreds of balloon creations rained onto the stage.
"Stop the madness!" one of the investors said.
"We are the nation's premier talent agency for balloon artists that we send into national brand restaurants!" Alexander said.
He told the Sharks he has expanded into 30 markets and has raked in $4 million since starting the company in 2003. He told them sales are off lately.
"Why?" one Shark asked.
"I recruited a lot of magicians when the economy was really slow and they were hurting, and then the economy got faster and they started getting more bookings. I couldn't find people to run regions," he said. "And then what happened, I had the clown community criticize me online."
"What were they saying?" asked Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team.
" 'Your business model, it's terrible,' " Alexander said, incensed. "I'm the Sam Walton of balloons."
Restaurants like Beef 'O' Brady's, IHOP and Cody's Roadhouse hire his company for $40 to $60 a night. He dispatches a balloon twister to work the dining room. That's cheaper — sometimes much cheaper — than established balloon artists charge.
Alexander recruits college kids or recent high school graduates or stay-at-home moms looking for a little spending money. They buy in for about $60, which gets them balloons, training DVDs, a button and an apron. Then Alexander sends them into the restaurants as independent contractors wearing buttons that say, "We Twist For Tips." The not-so-subtle hint to diners is a $5 bill affixed to the button. He doesn't pay them, but they can keep all they earn in tips.
While the folks at Wiregrass celebrated Alexander's national television debut, clowns and balloon twisters across the country celebrated the fact that all five of the Sharks rejected his plan as too disorganized.
"Ben from Balloon Distractions . . . went on Shark Tank, and got destroyed," a twister posted at magiccafe.com.
Jonathan Fudge — a.k.a. Mr. Fudge, a.k.a. Your Balloon Man — may have been the most aggrieved.
"I don't forget when people wrong me," Fudge wrote.
• • •
I met Fudge recently at a Thai restaurant in Carrollwood and he didn't seem resentful.
He said he began to learn about balloon twisting at a summer camp and jumped at the opportunity to help Alexander grow his new balloon business. He said he was instrumental in developing the Balloon Distractions model, writing the training manual and luring established balloon artists.
He was cut out of the business during a long trip to Asia that he was expecting to fund with a promised bonus from Alexander. When he didn't get the check — he says he was owed $40,000 — he confronted Alexander and was fired. He says he consulted lawyers and all told him it wasn't worth his time. Fudge, 27, has since started his own company.
"He doesn't keep his promises," Fudge said of Alexander.
Fudge was an early Balloon Distractions defector, but others have followed.
Michael Clay, 38, used to run the Atlanta region for the company. He says he left when Alexander tried to micromanage.
"What it really came down to," he said, "is that he does good for a while and then he decides to exert his authority. He comes across as a jerk and people don't like him. The balloon industry is not a standard industry. It's personal in the balloon industry."
Jake Valdes, 22, quit Balloon Distractions and tried to twist for himself. He said Alexander tried to sabotage him by telling a restaurant manager he was a predator. He doesn't have a criminal record. Alexander says he never met Valdes and would never have undermined another clown.
"If you no longer work for Ben, he tells everybody you're a pedophile," Valdes said.
The big issue, critics say, is that true balloon artists won't ask for tips.
"Where it starts to annoy me," said Mike Jones, a magician and balloon artist in the Brandon area, who retired from the military, "is when I go out and try to do my job and I have customers telling me, 'No, I don't want anything.' They think we want tip money. I don't want tip money."
Some balloon artists believe that what they create has value. If they spend years perfecting their craft and some lower-paid, less-skilled kid who knows how to twist a poodle and a sword comes along and underbids them, and a restaurant manager doesn't know any better, that hurts.
"He took something that was a fairly lucrative business for a lot of people around here and he tried to Walmart-ize it," said Mark "Balloon Guy" Byrne, who twists in the Tampa Bay area. "It's not about business, it's about people. I don't think everybody should earn a union wage for what they're doing, but you should be able to get a living wage."
• • •
Ben Alexander was late.
He was supposed to be at Ciao! Italian Bistro in the Shops at Wiregrass for a meeting of the Wesley Chapel Rotary Club at noon. By 12:20 his name tag was still on the table.
Finally, he arrived, riding a motorcycle, which he parked on the sidewalk. He wore a black jacket and gloves. He said he went swimming in the cold neighborhood pool earlier and it was his 40th birthday.
"I think you've got to live life with intensity," he said as he walked inside, and then, to no one in particular, he said, "Go the f---- home."
Inside, among the Rotarians, he was in his element. He smiled and glad-handed business associates, telling them he was the subject of an expose.
"When I started this," he said, just louder than a whisper, referring to the Rotary Club, "we only had seven people."
Now, he said, there are enough members to fund yearly trips to Honduras to install clean water filters. Alexander has been on multiple trips and will go again soon. He said several times he enjoys making Honduran children smile with balloon animals.
Alexander stepped to the front to lead the club in God Bless America. He had said he went to college on an opera scholarship.
"Let me find the note before you guys start," he said, before belting out the song.
The Rotary members like him a lot, until he's too much.
"Ben has a torn rotator cuff from patting himself on the back," the emcee said. "We kid because we love you."
It seemed like they really do.
"Did you see all that love around me at the Rotary Club meeting?" Alexander asked later. "If you don't see it, maybe it's your cold heart."
• • •
"When I was a kid, we were dirt broke," he said over the phone a few weeks ago. "I worked on a farm until I was 12. Peaches, corn, soybeans and apples. I remember my parents telling me when I was 12, 'We don't have . . . any school clothes.' I went to a farmer, and asked, 'What do you need?' He needed a fence built. I worked all day, digging holes. He paid me 28 bucks.
"I remember working all day and my hands were raw," he said. "I worked like a dog as a kid."
After college, and some time abroad, the New Jersey native moved south and fell again on hard times.
He was selling cars and couldn't pay his mortgage, so he dug his apron and balloons out of a closet and went to Ybor City and twisted all night.
"I did that 10 nights in a row."
Rags to riches.
"I'm a survivor," he said.
He won't say anything derogatory about the critical clowns.
"You'll never hear anything out there in public where I've disparaged my competition," he said.
And then he said: "If you look at all my critics, almost every one of them does not do community service."
And then: "I think they all think I have gold-plated toilets."
And then: "We're dealing with irrational people who don't understand business."
In private, Alexander is less restrained. A twister named HappyCabbie, who is critical of Balloon Distractions, recorded a phone conversation with Alexander a few years ago and published it on YouTube.com. In that conversation, Alexander wanted HappyCabbie to remove a critical video, suggesting the video's label, "Fraud," was incorrect. Alexander addressed his critics:
"We also do criminal background checks and I have to tell you, HappyCabbie, there's a lot of people who twist balloons out there who are listed sex offenders, who have been arrested for theft, drug use and everything else, and these people apply to get on our team all the time."
Alexander mentioned lawyers. The conversation grew tense.
"We can actually sue you in every state in the United States," Alexander said.
"What you're trying to do is intimidate me," HappyCabbie said, "and I don't back down from threats. If you want to sue me, come get me."
• • •
"My life is an open book," Alexander told me.
He has an arrest record. On Feb. 3, 2006, he was charged with robbery by sudden snatching, petit theft and trespassing. Court documents say he unlawfully took a "pin/button" from Caitlin Costa, along with other personal property, and refused to leave the Tampa Ale House despite management's demands.
The charges were dropped.
Alexander's explanation: Costa was a former Balloon Distractions twister who had been let go. He randomly bumped into her twisting at Tampa Ale House and saw that she was still representing Balloon Distractions. He told her to take off her pin and apron. She handed them to him.
"She cursed me out," he said. "I thought nothing of it."
A few hours later, he said, he was arrested.
"Unfortunately," Costa wrote in an email, "Ben doesn't seem to quite remember the confrontation since mandatory anger management classes would not be necessary for someone so calm and well-mannered as portrayed to you."
"I think they made me take a one-session anger management class, yes," Alexander admitted.
• • •
Ben Alexander was late again, this time for a 5 p.m. gig at Sweet Tomatoes in Brandon. He arrived at 5:48, wearing a long-sleeved buttoned-down beneath his black apron.
"Are you the manager on this shift?" he asked a woman. "I'm your balloon guy."
He started to work the room.
"How old are you?" he asked a boy.
"Are you married?"
He twisted a helicopter, a motorcycle, a corsage. The standard one-balloon stuff.
"You know when you're in school and the teacher yells at you for being silly?" he asked another child. "Well, when you're a balloon artist you can be as silly as you want."
Some parents tipped. Others didn't. He kept moving.
"What grade are you in?"
"When I was in third grade I had to report to my parole officer every day."
Soon he was at a table with an independent little girl who wanted a princess belt and wand.
He made a belt, but she changed her mind. Now she wanted a pirate hat and sword.
"Okay," Alexander said. "We'll do that."
When he finished the hat, the girl decided she wanted her own balloon to twist.
Alexander, still without a tip from the girl's parents, pulled a balloon from his apron, pumped it full of air and handed it over.
"Do you want to work for me?" he asked.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at (727) 893-8650.