An old maxim urges entrepreneurs to never mix business with family. University of West Georgia alumna Christa Pitts bucks that conventional wisdom as co-CEO of the family-owned company that brought the world “The Elf on the Shelf.”
She also resists the claim that the company she founded alongside sister Chanda Bell – also a UWG graduate – and mother Carol Aebersold, Creatively Classic Activities and Books (CCA and B), was an “overnight success.”
“My mother, sister and I have been told countless times that we were so lucky to have found the success we have with ‘The Elf on the Shelf,’” Pitts said. “But we know there was a whole lot more to achieving success than just being lucky, or being in the right place at the right time. Some luck was involved, but it was more the confluence of great ideas, focus, timing and hard work.”
Pitts visited her alma mater Monday night to serve as the keynote speaker in the Richards College of Business’ latest installment of the BB&T Lectures in Free Enterprise series.
Students, faculty and staff, as well as members of the West Georgia community, gathered for the event, during which Pitts – a 1997 UWG graduate with a degree in mass communications – shared her story through a presentation titled “Luck+: When Great Ideas, Timing, Focus and Hard Work Meet.”
“We are always excited to host engaging, impactful speakers like Christa who offer us all the opportunity to explore new, exciting ideas,” said Dr. Micheal Crafton, UWG’s interim president. “As an institution, we are committed to the economic growth and development of our region and state, and events like this that may spark the ideas of the next generation of business owners are central that commitment.”
BB&T played a crucial role in CCA and B’s success, too – the bank was the first source of a line of credit for the nascent company in its fourth year of operation.
Garnet Reynolds, senior vice president and market president for the greater Newnan area for BB&T, introduced Pitts, saying it was an honor to hear her journey.
“Our greatest investment is in the American small business, and Christa has managed to turn her family’s small business into an international phenomenon with her entrepreneurial mindset,” Reynolds said. “I hope everyone who hears from her takes her lessons and uses them to change the world.”
As a co-founder of CCA and B, Pitts provided the business plans that took “The Elf” from an unknown self-published title to the top of notable best-seller lists year after year, with more than 10 million “scout elves” adopted by families since 2005.
Under Pitts’ leadership, CCA and B has grown tremendously from a fledgling publishing start-up to an internationally recognized resource for children’s holiday toys, traditions and entertainment. The company now boasts over 150 individual products under its parent company banner.
Twins Pitts and Bell grew up with the tradition made popular in “The Elf on the Shelf,” in which a “scout elf” would visit their family’s home between Thanksgiving and Christmas to ensure the children were landing on Santa’s nice list.
Since then, the book’s titular Elf has been named the No. 4 most recognizable Christmas character. He’s in good company, too: Nos. 1 through 3 are Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, respectively.
“We knew how magical this tradition was in our lives as children, and we wanted to share it with the world,” Pitts said. “That was our great idea. Everyone has an idea, though. It’s what you do with it that matters. You have to decide if the timing is right for your company – and in the market – to sell your product or service.”
Much of Pitts’ lecture focused on how she nurtures CCA and B’s established brand.
“When you start a business, you should have its brand in the front of your mind,” she said. “Build a brand, protect it, grow it and repeat. Listen to your employees, customers and fans and refine what works and what doesn’t throughout that cycle.”
Pitts closed her lecture by sharing that CCA and B did not realize any profits for the first through years of its operation. All revenue was reinvested into the company’s growth.
“Be prepared to take risks, make sacrifices and endure failures,” Pitts said. “Is there luck involved? Yes, but I think it takes great ideas, focus, timing and work – along with a little bit of luck – to equal success.”