Wednesday, June 20, 2018
News Roundup

'Shark Tank' to feature balloon art king from Land O'Lakes

Ben Alexander is not a shy guy. He's the one who leads the Wesley Chapel Rotary Club in God Bless America at each meeting, and even belted it out in a restaurant one morning to demonstrate his opera-trained voice.

He also has never been afraid to take risks. When he saw a brochure about teaching English in Taiwan, he bought a one-way plane ticket and worked there for nearly a year.

"I had no training," he said.

So Alexander, who estimates he has held about 20 jobs (and been fired from several) over the course of his 39 years, had no fear when he appeared on ABC's hit show Shark Tank to pitch Balloon Distractions, his 10-year-old business that puts balloon-twisting artists in restaurants and other venues to keep patrons happy.

"There are only two reasons to go on Shark Tank," he said recently. One is to persuade a group of self-made multimillionaires to invest in your company. The other — and this one Alexander considers equally important — is the exposure your business receives from being featured on a national network show that reaches 7.5 million viewers.

That's great for Alexander, whose artists work in 40 markets at well-known chains like IHOP, Texas Roadhouse, Chili's, Applebee's and Outback Steakhouse but who wants to expand. The firm charges clients a fee per booking. Regional partners oversee groups of balloon artists and are paid a percentage of all incoming revenue in their region.

He has been upgrading his website, balloondistractions.com, to accommodate the extra traffic he anticipates he'll receive when the show airs Friday.

Alexander, a husband and father of two who rarely watches TV and talks about how a baby grand piano dominates the family room, decided to apply for the show at the suggestion of a friend.

Like the other contestants, he had to pass several screenings, which included phone interviews, and had to submit a video describing his business, which he started after being fired as a waiter from a barbecue joint. A balloon artist who worked there taught him how to twist the inflated pieces of rubber into animals and hats. He started doing it himself. In 2003, Balloon Distractions was born.

Alexander still shows up to make balloons at gigs. He says it keeps his skills fresh. But he mostly is involved in running the company from his 1,800-square-foot Land O'Lakes home.

He touts that getting into his business is easy and requires little up-front investment. He has regional partners who run more distant markets.

Everyone is an independent contractor, so there are no benefits to pay.

Those who want to work with the company pay $50 for a starter kit, which includes a training video. They also must clear a criminal background check. Support staffers keep clients happy by making followup calls to ensure that the artists they paid for show up.

"That's what sets us apart from Jo-Jo the Clown," Alexander said.

Alexander said the opportunity is attractive for those who need flexible, part-time work.

"We love stay-at-home moms, college students, retired veterans," he said.

• • •

Getting on the show isn't easy. Just ask Brenda Coffman, who owns Blondie's Cookies at the Shops at Wiregrass, as well as other locations in the Tampa Bay area and Indiana..

Coffman appeared on an episode that first aired on April 13, 2012, and has been repeated two times. She was flown to Los Angeles with 86 contestants. Of those, only four were chosen to appear on the show.

"There's a lot of paperwork, a lot of administrative work that goes into being on the show," said Coffman, who didn't get a bite from the sharks. They told her to close the Florida stores, which at the time were losing money.

But Coffman doesn't regret going on the show. Business boomed afterward, she said.

"The first month we had increase by over 1,000 percent in our mail order division," she said. She still gets stopped by those who recognize her from the show and gets phone calls from folks at the Indianapolis International Airport who want directions to the nearest Blondie's Cookies.

"We truly owe that to the Tank," she said.

Alexander hopes for the same success. He already knows what the Sharks decided but is sworn to secrecy until after the show airs. He's attending a viewing party being thrown by his fellow Rotarians.

He said that after years of selling cars, fighting fires, teaching students and waiting tables, he has found what he loves to do the most.

"Work hard, and be productive every day," he said. "Serve others. It's that simple."

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