Name: Veronica Champion
Business: Balloons by Design
Location: San Rafael, CA
When you spend a few minutes chatting with professional balloon artist Veronica Champion, you quickly realize she’s got a history of a) soul-searching and b) taking action. Example? After working as a school teacher, Veronica realized she really wanted to teach ice skating to kids (she competed on the ice throughout her childhood). Veronica moved to Marin County, CA, knocked on the door of a nearby ice-skating rink and kicked off a decade-long career.
Eventually, Veronica sat herself down for another soul-searching session. She remembered the joy she felt, years earlier, when a friend gave her a giant helium balloon attached to a bottle of champagne. “I was so taken with it,” recalls Veronica. “I wanted to make people as happy as I felt when I got that balloon.” So, in typical fashion, Veronica drove to a local balloon company and asked for a job. An employee had just quit, and Veronica was hired on the spot. A few months later, she started Balloons by Design. That was more than 30 years ago. Here, Veronica tells us what she loves most about being a balloon artist and what she finds most challenging – besides learning how to tie a balloon.
Veronica, tell us what inspired you to start your own balloon business.
I knew from my own experience that balloons can make people really happy. When I started working for a local balloon company, I loved being surrounded by so much color and creativity. I would deliver all the orders, so I got to see how thrilled people to get balloons.
One time I delivered an arrangement to a woman in the hospital. She was really sick. Her husband told me the balloons were the only thing that brought any life to her eyes. I thought, “Balloons are healing. I want to do this.”
My daughter is a CPA, and she offered to do the paperwork for me to help me start my own business. So I did.
When you were first starting out, how did you get clients? Has your marketing strategy changed over time?
Back then, I drove a little white Mustang. I’d fill the car with hot air balloons and drive all over to advertise my business. The balloons were so beautiful they spoke for themselves. I’d also walk into places and just ask for business. That was the hardest part of my job, but I knew if I didn’t ask, I wouldn’t get the job. I ended up with some big clients because I was willing to ask.
Believe it or not, driving around in a car filled with balloons has been my most effective way to advertise. I’ve also joined a lot of networking groups like the local Business Builders Club, and I’m an ambassador for the Chamber of Commerce. I go to a lot of meetings, and I leave my business card everywhere. I’ll do some jobs for free just for the exposure, too.
You create incredibly elaborate balloon designs and sculpture. How did you learn the art of your profession?
The first thing I did was attend a balloon convention. I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven! Everywhere you looked, you saw these amazing things made out of balloons, like a huge tiger in the hotel. There were classes to teach you how to work with balloons. In this community, people are so generous and willing to share what they know. In the skating world, no one shared anything. There was so much jealousy and competition. Balloon artists come to these conventions from all over the world, and no one feels like they’re competing with anyone else.
When I need ideas or help figuring something out, I’ll look things up in magazines or call reps at balloon companies to get answers to my questions. I also reach out to other balloon artists in my community. In fact, I’m having my best year in business right now thanks to another balloon artist, Ron. He does large-scale installations. He’s so busy, he’s been sending me smaller jobs he can’t take on.
Funny thing is, I gave Ron his start 28 years ago when he helped me decorate for a wedding. Now he runs the biggest balloon company in the Bay Area, and he’s teaching me what he knows. He even hires me to help out with some of his huge installations, and I get to learn from him as a result. That’s the kind of generosity and support I find all the time in the balloon community.
What’the s most challenging aspect of working for yourself?
The hardest part is still getting new customers. I started off with some really big clients in the very beginning, and I thought it would just keep growing from there. It didn’t. I’ve had some hard times, and more than once I’ve gone back to work for someone else. But, each time, it’s temporary. I always come back to my business, and I’m constantly figuring out new ways to approach it. Maybe I need a new website. Where else can I advertise? It’s challenging, but part of the fun is figuring out how to create new business.
The hardest thing for me when I was starting out was learning how to tie a balloon. All I can say is that it takes a lot of practice!
Tell us something that has surprised you about running a balloon business.
I’m surprised that it’s kept my interest for this long! What I love is the unlimited creativity. The possibilities are endless, and I’m always curious to figure out how to make something and see how a new design will turn out. I’ve created balloon versions of the Golden Gate Bridge, an enormous firefighter’s helmet, giant cacti and a fountain with mylar-balloon fish leaping out of the water. It’s been awesome.
I love making personal connections, too. Meeting with clients is my favorite part of the job. Well, that and seeing how pleased people are when I show up with a delivery of balloons or finish setting up a room. When someone tells me, “I got tears in my eyes when I walked in!” that’s my real reward.
QB Community members, what’s your best marketing strategy? Has it changed since you first started out in business?
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