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Business Observer Friday, Sep. 20, 2019 2 years ago

By tapping into potential of puzzling product, area company gains new clients, pursues more

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Aaron Watkins is selling promotional BB puzzles through Carab Enterprises.
by: Grier Ferguson Sarasota-Manatee Editor

There are some key similarities to being a circus clown and working in sales.

Aaron Watkins would know. He was an actor in New York and a clown with Big Apple Circus and Ringling Bros. Circus. Now he runs a promotional company that sells pins, patches, buttons and other products to companies and organizations nationwide. “When you’re any kind of a performer, you’re going out and you’re hustling up business on a daily basis,” Watkins says. “You’re as much a salesperson as any kind of an entertainer.”

In 2002, Watkins became a partner in Sarasota-based promotional products company Carab Enterprises, founded by the late Carroll Abrams. “I put a little bit of marketing into it and it just took off,” says Watkins, who declines to disclose revenue figures. Watkins shut down a marketing and public relations company he had operated and decided to focus on this business full time.

Years later, when one of his pin customers was interested in novelty gifts, Watkins got thinking. He remembered the prizes that used to come in Cracker Jack boxes and thought of BB puzzles, which involve trying to get small balls into specific places on the face of the puzzle. Watkins tried to order some, but he couldn’t find them anywhere.

So he did what any good entrepreneur would do — discovered a niche and pursued it. “The idea intrigued me,” he says. “I did a whole bunch of research, and I figured out how to make them on my own.”

“Be aware of what your customers are looking for and be ready to roll.” — Aaron Watkins, president, Carab Enterprises

The puzzles have proven popular, and now Watkins uses his promotional prowess to gain new clients for the unique custom products. While doing so, he’s tapping into knowledge gained through years of sales and marketing experience: “Be aware of what your customers are looking for and be ready to roll,” he says. “Don’t be too rigid. Always keep your eyes and ears open for different needs.”

The BB puzzle segment of his business has been growing gradually, Watkins says. Museums have been interested for their gift shops, and he also counts among his clients an art gallery that gives the puzzles away when customers make purchases.

Along with its uniqueness and the fact it can be customized with an organization or event’s logo, another one of Watkins’ selling points is the minimum order customers must place for BB puzzles is low — 12 pieces. 

The price point per puzzle varies, starting off at $15 if someone orders one puzzle to about $2 for orders with large quantities. “For a retailer, they’re designed to sell at $5 and then the wholesale price generally speaking is $2.50,” he says.

The best way he’s found to gain new clients is to make a sample product and get it in front of someone who might be interested in placing an order. When he was in Massachusetts on vacation recently, he brought some puzzles with him and took them to two museums. The samples were customized to the specific organizations, and Watkins brought them into the museums in person. They both expressed an interest.

If he’s geographically separated from a potential client, he’ll send a sample in the mail. He’s careful where he sends them, though, making sure they go to potential clients that really have a chance of panning out. “I do more targeted marketing than shotgun marketing on that,” Watkins says.

He also likes to tie in his pursuit of new clients with specific events. “I’ll say, ‘Okay, National Clown Week is this week,’ and I would put it on the calendar for about three months before it next year, do some research on who is going to be celebrating, who celebrated last year and then get in touch with those people for next year,” Watkins says.

As another avenue for BB puzzle sales growth, he’s starting to make craft kits to appeal to children’s museums and summer camps. He’s discovered those organizations are looking for something for kids to do, rather than just something pre-made they can play with.

“I see the biggest growth area in the BB puzzles because it’s a not a new product, but to a lot of people it is a new product,” Watkins says. “It’s new to me as well, so there’s tremendous potential for growth.”

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