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Enterprise — Rubber Duckies Help Firm Float Its Way To Marketing Success

DEL MAR , A rubber ducky and one mouthful of a word form the basis of one of San Diego’s most unusual companies.

Tchotchke’s, which sells gadgets and trinkets to corporate customers, gets its name from the Yiddish word for “trinket” or “little knickknack.” President and owner Di Holker came up with the name because all her life, everyone had been calling her the “Queen of the Tchotchkes.”

Holker was fairly certain she wanted to call her new company “Tchotchke’s,” but first she had to double-check. She had her Jewish mother-in-law look up the

word in three Yiddish dictionaries, just to make absolutely sure the word didn’t mean something obscene.

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Del Mar-based Tchotchke’s (pronounced “chahch-kes”) specializes in what Holker calls “trinketology,” or selling toys to businesses and colleges. Holker and her staff can put a client’s logo on just about anything.

“The funny thing about this business is that you can come to us and say ‘I need. ‘ It might be a company picnic; they might want their ice buckets to have their logo,” she said. “I just got a request for a cowbell.”

Some of the estimated 25,000 items available include refrigerator magnets, bumper stickers, ceramic mugs, letter openers and keychains, all emblazoned with the client’s logo. Tchotchke’s even deals in high-ticket items such as watches, windbreakers and marble desk clocks.

Miscellaneous Items

“Basically, anything you can print on, we can do,” said Steve Carmichael, corporate sales representative.

Among the top sellers are ballpoint pens, golf balls and rubber duckies, Holker said.

The duckies are everywhere at Tchotchke’s. It’s one of the first things people see when walking into their Del Mar office. Rubber duckies are all over the Web site (www. tchotchkes.com), and one of their catalogs has at least one duck on each of its 40 pages.

The duck thing started about the same time the company did, when Holker saw a rubber ducky in the store one day and had a hunch.

“I saw the rubber duckies and said, ‘These will sell.’ And all my employees rolled their eyes,” she said.

Rubber Duckies Are The Ones

But Holker was right: The ducks went on to become one of their best sellers. Tchotchke’s carries many varieties of rubber duckies , ducks wearing sailor hats, ducks with pacifiers, and even a rubber ducky with a laptop and a cell phone.

The rubber ducky is now the company mascot , a symbol of how Tchotchke’s does business.

“We’re a squeaky-clean operation run by a bunch of chicks,” she said.

Holker won’t release any names, but did say her company has some high-profile clients in the San Diego area and across the nation. Tchotchke’s had $3.6 million in sales in 1999, and she expects to hit $4 million this year.

All this for a company that spent less than a week between conception and launch.

Holker had spent 10 years working for Imprinted Products, Inc., which was bought out by Pro Specialties Groups. The company provided a similar product to Tchotchke’s. However, Imprinted was on the verge of bankruptcy, and the stress and uncertainty were taking their toll.

On Dec. 1, 1997, Holker was beginning to get the idea for her nascent firm; the next day, she submitted her resignation. Three other women who saw Holker walk out joined her; they became her first employees.

They even volunteered to work for free until she got the business rolling.

But fortunately, it never came down to that. Her husband, a commercial real estate broker, had closed a large business deal about the same time, and that infused Tchotchke’s with a large amount of cash from the start, she said.

Meanwhile, the business customers who were used to dealing with Holker at Imprinted began calling her at home to find out what she was up to. When she told them she was starting up her own company, her old customers jumped to Tchotchke’s.

Business Followed

Holker said she didn’t take Imprinted’s client list with her when she left. Instead, all the businesses that needed their orders filled had to go somewhere, because Imprinted was no longer able to do the job. Since they were already accustomed to dealing with Holker, it was a natural transition, she said.

Similarly, her business suppliers were already used to dealing with her and had doubts about Imprinted’s future. It was a natural transition for them also, Holker said.

The company got its first order Dec. 4, she said. Two other former Imprinted employees joined Holker shortly thereafter.

Even with the initial help setting up, the company was a seat-of-the-pants operation in its early days. Holker and her staff worked out of the family dining room for the first three weeks before moving to an office in Del Mar. But the office had no phone system, so Holker and her five employees brought their own phones from home.

“Melanie (Crane, now the office manager) , her phone was a golf bag. She pressed little golf balls to make calls, and it just made us laugh,” she said.

The steady stream of clients has helped Tchotchke’s grow. The company now has nine employees, including an East Coast sales representative and an in-house art department.

The art department has been a big help for the business. Customers with only a vague idea of what they’d like can work directly with the graphics designers in hammering out the look for the product, Holker said.

Seat-Of-The-Pants Operation

One thing that hasn’t changed is despite the projected $4 million in sales this year, the firm still looks like a seat-of-the-pants operation. There are no fancy desks or chairs, and, for an operation that relies primarily on phone and Internet sales, Holker likes it that way.

“It’s more important for my people, because they’ve been in an environment where the office looked beautiful but we couldn’t pay our bills. So my girls say, ‘You know what, Di? We’d rather get better salaries, pay our bills and have a better work environment rather than to have fancy-shmancy leather this and marble that,” Holker said.

“Nobody really sees us. We put out good-looking catalogs, and good-looking pieces, and that’s what people see of us,” she said.

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