Vending Balloons- Lessons from my First Gig
Getting Out There by Vending Balloons
Do you want to know a sure-fire way to get started in the balloon-twisting industry without the need to cold-call? Well, you can always go the vending route. There are legal hoops to jump through, and I'll get to that in a minute, but by vending balloons, you get to hire yourself to work, and you don't have to cold-call to get somebody to hire you. So that's a plus. But there are some drawbacks as well and I'm going to cover some of those too. My experience preparing for this event is what it is and I'm here to report.
Learning from others
I have spent a LOT of time recently pouring through old threads on Facebook groups like Balloon Twister Central doing my best to learn from seasoned twisters how to do, well, just about everything related to twisting. It is such a wonderful community, so many people willing to share what they've learned and answer questions. Balloon twisters are great people! I got some GREAT advice preparing for this event, and it is because of this community that I pulled off yesterday at all.
But advice is only helpful if you follow through on it. On some accounts I did, and others, I didn't. First of all, why be a vendor in the first place? To be a vendor you have to jump through more legal hoops, paying sales tax and all, and instead of being PAID to attend an event, since you are entertainment, you actually have to PAY for a booth space. It can still be worth it if you come prepared with premium balloon creations to sell, the kind of things you wouldn't be able to make under the pressure of the line. Great advice. I had planned to do it, but by the time I prepared everything else, I was exhausted Friday night and decided to accept that Saturday wouldn't be a big money-maker for me, but a great learning experience that would pay for itself. Ultimately, that's what it was, and that's okay.
Itchy feet- I need to twist!
You see, I have been twisting balloons for about three months now, and have been insured with a business license for one. You have to start somewhere, you really do. Nobody hired me for any Easter events, and why would they if they don't know I exist? But here I am, with cute bunny printed balloons and a knowledge of how to make Easter-related items, $1,500 invested into the balloon business with thousands of balloons, and I know I need experience and exposure.
Ah yes, that awful word, exposure. Everyone says, hey, come to my event, you'll get exposure! You can die from too much exposure. Exposure doesn't pay the bills. But, when you're just starting out, you can't do anything without at least some exposure. Vending balloons is a sure-fire way to get started, and I strong-armed myself into a situation where I could twist. Worked my tail off preparing for the weekend, so if anybody asks, that's why I don't have a tail.
Preparing for the Event
First of all, the event itself was at Thanksgiving Point in Orem, Utah. "Easter Eggstreme". A four-hour event with lots of egg hunts, bouncy slides, rides, activities, and vendors. Well, not really that many vendors. There were food trucks, face painters, and seven vendors. There was indeed a crowd, so I got what I paid for, an opportunity to sell to a large crowd. I paid $100 for that opportunity. That's a lot of money, but it's also a large crowd.
Here's what you need to do to become a vendor.
First of all, before you do any kind of business, you need to have a business license. I paid $22 to the state of Utah to register the business name "Twisting Tamsyn", and another $50 to Riverton City to get a business license. You have to do this to be legal, period. It's also a good idea (aka, don't skip this step!) to get insurance. I have listed a few places that cater to balloon twisters on my Resources page. I went through the Clowns of America International, which had a $40 membership fee and was $150 for insurance. So far, I'm happy with this service. In order to be a vendor at this event, I had to have insurance. Lucky for me, I did, so I could.
Also, if you want to *sell* balloons, instead of relying on tips as an entertainer, you have to have a sales tax license. I had also done this. It was free, you just have to apply for it. On top of that, selling at special events requires a special event sales tax license, which was easy to apply for. I signed up for this event last minute, so I'm waiting for my form to come in the mail, which I will use to pay sales tax on my earnings within 10 days of the event, as required by law.
I hear a lot of twisters say that they are reluctant to figure out how to do sales tax, but of all of the things I did to get in business, this part was the easiest to set up. Yes, I'll have to pay sales tax, but I also don't have to technically admit that my balloons are free, relying solely on generosity. People still gave me tips, which was very generous of them.
Displaying my menu
I am actually very pleased with the way my balloon menu board turned out. I bought an Ikea easel that was only $20, some velcro stickers, and permanently dedicated the easel to be my balloon menu.
Menu boards need a menu.
Having the display, I needed to come up with a menu. I decided to have my items be 4" squares, and 14 fit nicely on this board with enough room at the top for my husband (who writes better than me) to write "Balloon Menu" so people know what it is. The 4" squares were printed on photo paper, cut, laminated, cut again (to make them water-proof), followed by adding the other side of the velcro stickers. This way I can take things off the menu and change them up. I'll be using this menu with red, white and blue items around the 4th of July, black and orange around Halloween, and green, white and red around Christmas.
But back to Easter, I came up with 20 different items, and doing so was time consuming, especially for a busy mom with 6 kids who is also homeschooling. As a procrastinator, it also meant that I was finishing up last minute instead of making premium balloons to sell at the event the day before, missing out on the opportunity to make the event truly profitable. But I did it in the end, and now that I have a photo-shop template in place and a menu board, it will be much easier to do in the future.
I also came up with a "Things to Know" page, which I don't mind sharing.
Arranging family needs
My husband is an amazing father, but he lacks a certain quality necessary for feeding the youngest member of our family. This was a huge concern for me, and is the reason I have said on my services page that I am available for events lasting up to 2 hours. My baby is 9 months old, so he can eat enough non-Mommy milk for me to twist in general, but not for a 4-5 hour event like this event. So it was decided that the family would come to the event too. Sweet! Fun for the kids. Only, we did it at the last minute, and paid a premium price to get my husband and 5 kids into the event (baby is free). $66 dollars. Furthermore, it was realized that six young children in a giant crowd would be a little overwhelming for Michael to say the least, but we were fortunate enough to enlist Michael's brother and family to come and make the adult-children ratio more favorable. We tried to buy their tickets too for coming to help us out, but in the end they only accepted $20 from us. Obviously, this kind of planning isn't necessary for most balloon twisters, but it was for me, at least this year.
So I made a plan to offer "fast pass" tickets, brought all those balloons I made Friday preparing my menu picture, and planned for a short break to feed my baby. In the end, he was wonderful and fell asleep, so I twisted the entire time. But I couldn't plan for his nap and contentment with other munchies, and I will not be doing another big event like this until he gets older. Michael cleaned up while I fed a baby who was, after finally closing my line, very hungry for the food only I could provide. Thanksgiving Point benefited from my being a vendor at their event to say the least. Wow. But I really did feel like I needed some experience, and they were the Easter event I could find that hosted vendors. Furthermore, the kids really had a blast, so there is that. It's worth something, you know? I wouldn't have done the event if I thought my kids would be board.
Maybe my baby isn't as dependent on me as I thought too. The family didn't HAVE to come for me to do this, but it was sure convenient.
The chilly calm before the storm
We woke up early, got out the door, set everything up, and then, I waited. Outside. It was chilly. Not incredibly cold, since one of the advantages of booking last minute was the ability to check the weather first. It warmed up, but that morning it was pretty chilly. My hands were cold. Cold hands meant that I wasn't tying knots as well as I would have liked and I was shivering. Furthermore, I was getting really nervous. I knew there would be a huge crowd, and I knew that as an unseasoned twister, my skills still need a lot of work. I'm not as fast as I feel I should be.
The face painters knew how to do it.
So here I am, the one balloon twister, and over to my left, I see an amazing set-up for face painters. There were about 15 of them, all wearing matching blue T-shirts. I'm guessing Thanksgiving Point solicited them for the event, since they advertised that there would be face painters. They were awesome, I saw plenty of their work throughout the day. Gemstone stickers, glitter paint, very realistic. I know a lot of other balloon twisters paint faces too, and I have watched enough YouTube tutorials to know that I could gain this skill, but it's not a priority for me yet.
The point is, they were the *real deal*. They're awesome. And then there's me, one balloon twister with a crazy lack of experience. But I did have an attractive menu board, I was well-stocked with balloons, and I was there to learn. It was what it was, and I did my best. I was so glad they were there because without them I would have been the only entertainment of this kind. I still felt intimidated. (Edit: The name of their company is Fantastic Faces.)
Raise those prices!
I'm also glad they were there because I made more money from one quick change they inspired. They were charging $10 a face, and my items were pretty cheap. I raised them before they opened the doors. I had price stickers which were convenient to remove from my laminated menu pictures, and I raised them all. I felt like I was charging a lot, but most people were happy to pay it, and were more happy that it was finally their turn. A few people told me I wasn't charging enough and gave me a nice tip. They told me my balloons were the cheapest thing at the event, and I suppose compared to a $3 hot dog, they were right.
Being prepared helps.
Even though I was nervous, I did have the satisfaction of knowing I would have been hard pressed to have a better looking set-up with my budget. The menu board was really cute, and I had my crop-and-style loaded with balloons. I had trash bags to offer people to put their balloons in to help them make it home. (No one took me up on the offer, but I'm still glad I offered it. Had there been wind...) I also had all of my balloons that weren't long and skinny organized in a small Ikea case, and shallow drawers from Walmart. If you think I'm super organized because there are labels on the drawers, think again. Those labels are for the days of the week from a homeschooling organization system I used in the past but didn't keep. Ha! But they had been empty and I brought them to this event so I could find everything quickly. It worked well for that. Ultimately I want to buy a better system designed for twisters with mesh pockets, like you'll find on my resource page. But this worked and looked nice. It's just not as easy to transport as professional systems are.
So between me being nervous and the chilly weather, my hands were shaking. Fortunately, the lines were very slow until after the first egg hunt, and by then my hands were warm enough to perform better. Before anyone came, I tried making one of the harder items on my menu board and decided to swap it out. Later a nice lady asked for my own design, a bubble wand involving distortion, stuffing a balloon. With my shaking hands I failed because I kept letting the nozzle slip into the balloon and had the embarrassment of asking her to pick something else and swapping it off the board. I was so excited to make it for someone too! Drat. Live and learn.
After the first egg hunt had ended, my line got busy and never really stopped. My husband took the picture on the left and it is a good representation of how long my line was the entire time. There were three models that I was especially glad to have.
The first was a fast, printed balloon hat design from Tony Twist's Real World Wow, Vol. 1. I have a nice collection of printed balloons, ranging from Disney princesses to super heroes, as well as sport balls and Star Wars. One dad was REALLY geeking out that I had Yoda prints and was thrilled when I put the Yoda hat on his son. I made a lot of these hats because it was my cheapest item on the menu with a good variety of choices for boys and girls. I really tried to push these hats as a bargain to help my line move more quickly, and it worked. I still made plenty of the fancier things.
The second was Dan Staples' Rolly Polly Bunny. Dude, if you are a twister, you need to know how to make Rolly Pollies. They use big bear head balloons, so there was a big "Wow!" factor just by pulling these out and watching them get inflated. Yes, watching air going into a balloon is really exciting for some people. Lots of people. Balloons are awesome! Then I twisted it into this adorable, huggable bunny, and it was pretty fast! Adding a white round for a that fluffy tail cinched the deal, they were cute. You can make so many things with this design, and it was a real hit!
The third was Sandi Masori's Sea Turtle. He reminds people of the baby turtle on Finding Nemo. This creation got a lot of "Oohs" and "Ahhs".
Wearable balloons need to fit. My big blunder.
Another one that was very popular was Warren's wearable butterfly wings. So fun. I made this design for several smaller children. Then I made the mistake of making it for a larger girl, around 10. It, well, it didn't fit. That was embarrassing, so I broke off the straps and went to add another. But in the process, the balloon fell apart, first one piece, then as I fixed it, another. It was my really big flub of the day, and there was a line of people waiting who saw it. I was really embarrassed about the ordeal, but people seemed to be understanding. So- use his design! But make it fit. Using two fully inflated balloons made the straps a little too big on her, and that wasn't cool either. I need to learn how to size these backbacks during the inflation process. The girl was a bit miffed that I would make her a "baby" design, and while she was happy with the end result, I've been beating myself up over that butterfly, probably much worse than I deserve. But it's a great design, and I'll sure use it again!
Invisible children get invisible balloons. **
The other thing- so important. One balloon per person in line, children must be present (or adults!). I learned that trick from the seasoned balloon artists and I even put it on my rules. But rules like that are only as good as they are enforced, and I will definitely do that better in the future. There was one mother who had me make a few balloons. She wanted me to make the premium models. It was already nearing the end of the event. I didn't realize that she only had one child with her until her daughter said, "Look at me, I've got three balloons!" I had asked her if her other kids were there, and she said yes, but she meant they were at the event. The woman behind her wasn't very happy. I finished making her duck hat, but told her, I'm sorry, there is a long line here and I need to make balloons for the children who have been waiting in line. She was totally understanding, and was going to wait for me to make a turtle for her other son, but in the end had to leave. I felt bad about that, but if I had stuck to my policy from the get-go, it would have been better. She could have had me make one or two items for the whole family enjoy, or simply reward the girl who WAITED for the balloon. Oops.
I apologized to the mother who was behind her, told her that I will do better following up on that policy in the future, and explained that this was my first event ever and I got caught up in making balloons and forgot to remember the line. When people get in line, they often gage if waiting is worth it, based on how many people are waiting. They need to visually see what they are waiting for, so if I am making 10 balloons for one person, that's not fair to the people behind them. The woman understood, said it was a great policy, and even tipped me. Her daughter was super cute and was thrilled to have a balloon. Because it was the end of the day, and I hadn't used my little stash to get myself a lunch break, I gave the people at the end a free extra balloon, and they were well received. Her daughter got one. The woman who wanted a turtle had got one too. So I hope they were happy. I treated the last family in line with a little something special too, so overall it ended well.
** What was written above was my original post. However, after a very good discussion on this blog post online, I am regretting the way this happened more and more. Invisible children get invisible balloons is a good idea when you are being paid by a client for an event and everybody gets the same quality of balloon. The people in line are not your customer, just the people your customer has paid you to serve. In those situations, absolutely, only serve the people who waited.
However, in this case, the woman who was waiting was my customer, and she wanted premium balloons for her children, and SHE was willing to pay for them. I threw money away, but worse, all of the kids in her group except one got a premium balloon because I turned her away. I had read many things about being a stickler on that rule, but I was wrong to enforce it when I did- I got so close to finishing and wouldn't make a turtle. When I am vending and the customer is the person waiting in line, I will never post that rule again. There weren't that many people who wanted to buy multiple balloons anyway. I regret what happened, and if I had this woman's contact information, I would try to make it up to her.
She's the kind of customer who might have hired me for a birthday party, but I blew it. I posted a rule, and the people behind her were upset because I wasn't following through on that rule. Without that rule posted, they might have been annoyed, but in the end I turned away money for a premium balloon, and I hurt a little boys feelings because he's the only one in that group who didn't get a fancy balloon. I burned bridges, and I regret it. Stupid rule! There's a time and place for it, but vending isn't it.
Ending the line (or not.)
We did have a plan to have my husband close the line, but in all of the chaos he forgot. Had he done so, holding a large balloon that says "End of the line", before the event ended, we could have left around 2:30, but instead it was 3:30 by the time we finally left, after packing up. This meant more money for us, but it also meant that there were people waiting an hour for a balloon (crazy, right! Sorry, nice people!) It also meant my kids had more fun doing the carnival events, so that's something. What I really should have done is give that giant balloon to somebody waiting, and promised them something special for helping me out like other twisters do and recommend. See how much good advice I failed to implement? My biggest take-away from this event is to follow their advice because it's good.
Also, I could have ended the line much faster simply by taking more time-consuming items off my menu board. Shoulda-coulda-woulda, but I'll do that next time! That's the beauty of Velcro.
Cash or Card? No checks please.
Side note- I accepted cash and credit cards through Square. Both were great. My older phone crashed using square for some reason, but my husband miraculously showed up to check on me when it happened, and helped the customer out by using his phone. Then he left me with his phone for the rest of the customers and it worked very well. People were very happy that I offered to let them pay with a card.
Alright, it's time to crunch the numbers. When the event was over, and the money was all added up, I made $240. This is for 5 1/2 hours of twisting, with the first hour being very slow before people really arrived. A faster balloon twister could have made much more (I'm still learning, but I would say my speed is medium, especially for the models I chose). I left money on the table because I didn't bring any premium models made before the event, and I surely would have sold anything I brought. I'm not remorseful about my speed because that's something that comes with practice and I'm glad I got out there and twisted.
So, $240 dollars. Not bad right? For my husband, it was a proof-of-concept. People really do want balloon creations, and they're willing to pay for them. And it's not bad pay. But then there are the expenses.
Vending fee: $100 (Yikes, that bites, I probably won't pay that much again.)
Family admission: $86 (Not really a business expense, but not money we would have spent otherwise, and for us, unavoidable for this particular venue.)
Sales tax: About $12, I don't know for sure yet, but after I take the tip money out, I'll be paying sales tax for about $200 in sales. Since sales tax was included in the price, I will be adjusting what the actual price of the balloon creations were. So if they paid me a dollar, 94 cents for me, 6 cents for Uncle Sam. Ish.
Balloons: Gosh, I don't know, but I sure used a lot of them!
There were other expenses this week too, such as the easel, velcro stickers, etc, but they were overall business expenses, and not really just for this event.
Anyway, $240 - $198 = $42. Ha! Yes, $42 for 5.5 hours of twisting, plus all the work that went into preparing for this event earlier in the week. $42, plus a fun experience for my family, all 11 who came. They really needed to be there for me to be able to be there. More than that, it was an educational experience for me. I got paid a little bit of money while getting on-the-job training and practice. And I didn't suck, even with my flubs. Most of the people were really happy with their balloons, and I'm glad I didn't just offer simple balloon dogs.
I came for exposure, it better be good.
This leads me to the real benefit of doing this event in the first place. Ironically, it was exposure. Exposure on my terms, even if they were lousy, I did it to myself. I had a lot of people ask me if I do birthday parties, a lot of people who took my business cards. I even got a boost in Facebook likes on my twisting page. That was ultimately the reason why I did this event in the first place. I figured, even if I only broke even, I need to get my name out there, and I did.
I made awesome-looking creations, and people were impressed, even if they had to wait a bit to get it. That's why I offered the better items on my menu in the first place, I wanted people to see that I don't just make 1-balloon dogs and swords. It's the adorable bunnies and turtles that make people remember you. I still had a fast item on my menu, thanks to Tony Twist, and they were still impressive simply because I had a nice collection of prints. He's got lots of impressive, big builds on his DVDs, and I love them too, but it was this little gem that made me look good yesterday while still offering something fast.
Plan for the "you" that you are under pressure, with the elements.
The other thing I really learned, which as a musician is something I already knew but needed reminding, is that there's a huge difference between twisting at home, even for someone else, then there is twisting under pressure for a crowd. Once I got started and my hands weren't freezing, it was better, but I need to take into account how much shaky hands effect my twisting ability and speed. I guess what I'm saying is, I learned that I need to account for that better in the future.
To vend, or not to vend? That will depend, your goal to what end, if you're willing to spend, if your skills you must tend, your marketing mend. But it isn't the trend.
While I can see why many people don't like vending balloons, I think it can be profitable and I look forward to doing it more in the future at places like farmers markets when they start up this summer. I'm just not going to pay $100 to do it, and I am totally going to come with premium balloons to sell in the future- that's where the real money is when it comes to vending balloons. I don't need a gigantic crowd to make money doing this, so I'm not going to pay for access to one. I knew going in that I would probably just break even, so I wasn't disappointed.
I could have charged more for my balloons and still had a line, but I don't want to do that to my customers. People who want to pay more can tip, and I was surprised at how many people did tip even though I didn't solicit any. I didn't expect any tips, and certainly didn't think less of people who didn't because I was charging enough, but there are generous people out there. They could see I was the lone twister and they thanked me for coming.
Some people were shocked when they found out that I had paid to come, and said they should have been paying me. Well, that's how it works for a lot of twisters, and when you've got those opportunities, of course you're not going to pay to be a vendor. To Thanksgiving Point's credit, they probably did work out a special deal for those face painters, they just happened to not be looking for a balloon twister, and that's fine. I look forward to being booked up in the future and am working hard to be worthy of those bookings, to be an awesome twister and entertainer. But you have to start somewhere, and for me, where I'm at right now, vending balloons at a busy Easter event was a decent place to start. No regrets. If I had to do it all over again, I would do it over again because of the experience I needed and now have under my belt. I just won't be vending balloons there next year.