Santa's $16 Million Little Helper

Dec 18, 2012

Lev Radin /

If you are the parent of young children, you most certainly are familiar with the Elf on the Shelf and the nightly ritual of moving the tiny doll to new locations around the house to surprise your kiddos in the morning. The story behind the elf brings as much cheer as the elf himself. It's a story of a mother and her two daughters who turned a children's poem into a multi-million dollar franchise with year-over-year growth averaging 149% since it's launch in 2005 and sales of $16.6 million in 2011. reports:

After a bout of empty nest syndrome, Carol Aebersold wrote the story with her daughter Chanda Bell. It's the tale of a scout elf who reports children's behavior to Santa every night, then flies back to their homes in the morning; it's a bit of hide-and-seek with the elf. They then recruited Bell's twin Christa Pitts to quit her job as a QVC host and launch their publishing company, Creatively Classic Activities and Books (CCA&B). The three women, as saccharine as they are blue-eyed, discuss Santa as if he's a mere sleigh ride away. After researching the best toy manufacturers, Aebersold claims, "We found Santa, who brought us the elves." Pitts laughs, verifying that elves all come from the North Pole. (They don't really. They're manufactured overseas.)

A portrait of a stubborn Southern family lay under the fluff; scrappy and passionate, the women self-published five thousand $30 box sets seven years ago after countless publishers rejected their manuscript. (One response: Elf on the Shelf is destined for the damaged goods bin.) Pitts, 38, and Bell's father owned a small steel fabrication company at the time; he let them squat in a small back office. They funded production with the sale of Pitts' Pennsylvania house and a newly opened credit card. That first year, every single Elf on the Shelf unit sold. "We just were three strong-willed women who made it happen," Aebersold, 64, recalls. Pitts agrees, citing her sister's "incredible ability" to ignore naysayers and focus on her dream.

For many entrepreneurs, family and friends provide a lifeline during the difficult or hectic start-up phase, and that was certainly the case with Carol Aebersold and her daughters:

Friends helped out with the burgeoning company, traveling from marketplace to marketplace. "There would be four of us in one hotel room, just like in college—like a sorority thing," Aebersold says. "But we had a lot of fun." Profits from 2005 funded the following year's production, and profits from 2006 paid for 2007. That year, a paparazzo snapped actress Jennifer Garner carrying the Christmas toy, and the blogosphere went wild. A few weeks later, Pitts got an early morning call from her mom, who was on a book tour. "She was screaming, 'We're on the Today Show!' I thought, what do you mean, there's [an elf] in the background?" Today picked up a Dallas affiliate's segment on the book. "They basically reran the package on national television without us knowing anything about it," Pitts recalls.

The response was so great that Aebersold, Bell, and Pitts mobilized the Elf Emergency Response Team (EERT), a group of friends who gave up their weekends to assist the family. PayPal shut down Elf on the Shelf's website to manage the traffic surge. "We had hundreds of voicemails, we had thousands of orders and it definitely was a turning point for the brand," says Pitts. "We ended up turning around every single order in two days. If we had failed, we probably wouldn't be here at this point."

Read the entire story here.

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