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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.