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Business Observer Friday, Jul. 1, 2011 10 years ago

No more Corporate Climbing

Brian Baird used his sales skills and a bit of Hollywood theatrics to finance his escape from a corporate job. It's a move he's glad he made.
by: Dan Ping Editor/Central Florida

Brian Baird wanted out of his corporate job so bad, he was willing to join the circus.

With his eye on a new venture that involved a touring rock-climbing wall attraction, in 2000 Baird gave his boss notice, hooked his rock wall behind an RV and headed north to the carnival circuit.

A little more than 10 years later, Baird's company, Xtreme Entertainment, has grown to log $1.1 million of revenue last year, renting bungee trampolines and portable skydiving machines to corporate clients that include Citi Bank, Oracle, Microsoft and Jet Blue. The company also provides supports services like catering, valet parking and event planning.

Baird got the idea for his business when he discovered a company that built portable rock-climbing walls. At the time, he was working a corporate job, but he yearned to go out on his own.

There was only one problem: startup capital. Baird says he tried a few banks, but none wanted to finance a $30,000 rock-climbing wall.

So Baird resorted to theatrics. He set up a meeting with two executives from the manufacturer and set off for South Florida with a silver briefcase stuffed with his savings of $10,000.

“I filled it with $1 bills and put $100 bills on top,” Baird says.

During the meeting Baird made his pitch: He would put $10,000 down and asked the company to finance the remaining balance. The executives rejected the idea.

“I told them, 'If you need to talk about it I can leave the room,' and as I left I opened up the briefcase,” Baird says.

A few minutes later they called Baird back into the room and sealed the deal.

Baird says he came up with the briefcase idea after listening to legendary salesman and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar talk about the importance of cash.

“It was one thing for me to say I could put cash down. It was another for me to show I could put cash down,” Baird says.

After making the deal, Baird gave his boss notice, which didn't go over well. “We got in a big fight. He told me it would never work and that I would be crawling back to him for work,” Baird says.

Regardless, Baird headed off on the carnival circuit, which he followed for about four months. He came back to Florida when the weather turned colder, and realized quickly that although he had made enough money to buy a second wall, his cash flow was drying up without income from the festivals.

Anticipating thousands of shoppers flocking to the malls during the 2000 holidays, Baird set up a climbing wall at the mall in Altamonte Springs hoping to make a few hundred dollars per weekend. He grossed $30,000 in November alone.

The following Christmas season he set up his walls in two malls. By the third holiday season Baird was setting up walls in malls throughout Central Florida, but this time with a twist. Once the wall was up and running, he put a “for sale” sign on it.

“I didn't want to manage a bunch of people,” Baird says. “It was more lucrative to sell the walls.”

By 2005, Baird began shifting away from following the carnival circuit to stay in Florida, where customers requested other products, such as inflatable bounce houses and water slides. He also realized the potential growth was higher in the rental business.

To set himself apart in a crowded party rental industry, Baird hired a Web developer to create a professional website. Using his contacts in the carnival industry, he also began acquiring a wide variety of equipment, including rope challenges, inflatables and amusement rides, and posting pictures and descriptions on the site.

“The first thing most people say when the see our inventory is, 'Wow, you can handle anything,'” Baird says. “That's how we set ourselves apart.”

In addition to dozens of rides and games, Xtreme recently began offering exotic animal rentals for parties.

Baird employs five full-time workers and about 50-60 part-time workers for events. “Finding new business, competing in the marketplace, all of that pales in comparison to finding good employees,” Baird says.

Baird says about 90% of his business is generated from his website and referrals from clients like University of Central Florida and Rollins College.

“Honestly, we're so busy I don't make a lot of sales calls,” Baird says.

About $700,000 of his $1.1 million in total 2010 revenues came from rentals from corporate parties and events like the 2010 Orange Bowl and the Sprint Fan Zone at the Daytona 500.

Another $350,000 was generated by Xtreme Walls, a new venture in which the company has partnered with a climbing wall manufacturer to design and build its own line of walls to sell.

Through the first six months of 2011, Baird says revenue double compared to the same period in 2010, in part because a new client, homebuilder KB Homes, has held launch parties in several new communities.

“Business has been good, even during the recession,” Baird says.

As for the corporate boss who said Baird would fail?

“Now I do all of his kids' parties,” Baird chuckles.

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