Fourteen years ago, Carol Gardner’s beloved bulldog, Zelda, helped transform her life; not only by becoming a friend when she needed one but also by helping Gardner create a business that has been valued at an estimated $50 million.
“At 52 years old, I was getting a divorce and I was in serious debt,” explains the former ad executive. “My divorce attorney said at the time, ‘Either get a therapist or get a dog,’ and I had always wanted an English bulldog, so I went looking and found Zelda. She was four-months old and was the mirror image of me: She looked sad and wanted to be loved, and I needed the same.”
After a friend suggested that Gardner enter Zelda in their local pet store Christmas card contest in Oregon, she took a picture of her pup in the bathtub wearing a Santa hat and they subsequently won 40 pounds of dog food a month for a year. Gardner also had a big revelation.
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“It gave me the idea of doing a greeting card line,” said Gardner. “I researched the market and found only about 15% was made up of smaller companies, and most failed. So I then set out to find out why that was and realized that almost of all of them looked the same. Nobody used a real-life dog; no one gave the dog a name. There was no dog that was branded in the greeting-card industry.”
Another crucial thing Gardner noticed was that almost all of the cards were focused on occasions.
“Christmas, Halloween, birthdays…. But there weren’t many cards that were fun greeting cards that just made you smile,” she said.
With that, Zelda Wisdom, which has books and licenses cards and calendars, to name a few of its lines of business, was created.
“I added ‘Wisdom’ because we were going to have pieces of wisdom on each card because Zelda is a smart dog and she was going to give people motivation,” she said. “One of the phrases, for instance, is ‘tough times never last, but tough people do.’”
A determined Gardner knew that to be true and without any capital decided to enlist two people she thought would be huge assets to the company: the best photographer she knew from her years in the ad industry and the best PR person she had worked with to get her the crucial press she would need once Zelda Wisdom was up and running. She gave each a piece of her business, and after deals with American Greeting and Hallmark and spots on Oprah, Good Morning America and The Martha Stewart Show, the three are still partners today.
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“The formula to success has three parts: You have to be daring. You have to be different, and the third part is most important -- you have to be smart,” said Gardner. “So when we first went to the New York stationary show at the Javits Center, we saw all the tops dogs on the main floor. We then went downstairs and saw the sea of small business competition. At first, I thought, maybe we made a mistake. But then I realized, every booth was similar, pastel colored -- and we were black and white. We had set up a television monitor to show all the press we had already received and we took out a full-page ad in the show’s catalog with a huge photo of Zelda dressed as a bee that said ‘Why Bee Normal?’ That got everyone’s attention, including the big companies, and that’s who we wanted because we knew ahead of time little startup companies can’t make it alone and we wanted to license our product out.”
Today, Gardner says, Zelda’s friendship has enriched her life and helped her in more ways that she can count.
“I am a type 1 diabetic and several years ago, I fell out of bed and broke my neck,” explained Gardner. “As I was lying there unconscious, Zelda kept nudging me to wake up, and finally I did and pulled the telephone cord down to call 9-11. My son, who is a transplant surgeon, said, ‘Mom, with those injuries you should have died….’ So I think that just truly shows how strong a bond can be.”
As for starting up, this entrepreneur, who sits on the board of OWL, a national organization focused on helping women over 40, says the proof is in the numbers.
“When you have an idea, test it. Do your research and then test it before you put much money into it, and if it all comes back positive, go all out and bet the farm,” she said. “I say leap and the net will appear.”