In an exclusive interview with Renée Ward, Wolfe who has founded several successful businesses including Name That Toon, CelebriDucks, and Cocoa Canard shares his perspective and advice for today’s teens looking to earn money this summer and throughout the year.
Ward: Did you have a paying job when you were a teenager?
Wolfe: Yes. In high school I worked as a stock clerk at a clothing store for a few weeks and I knew it wasn’t for me. The next year I was a water ski instructor at a summer camp and I found that I was good at it. My first job out of college I worked as a retail credit card collections clerk at a bank, one of the most boring jobs you could imagine!
Ward: How did you learn about your jobs?
Wolfe: Back then I learned of these jobs through the newspaper help wanted ads.
Ward: Why do you think you were hired for these jobs over others?
Wolfe: I shared that I felt I would be a good worker. I told them I would do what I was told and put a lot of energy into it....and in fact I did. I also had a decent enough outgoing personality such that I got along with co-workers.
Ward: Did anything go wrong on the job? If so, how did you overcome the challenges?
Wolfe: Thinking back on the stocking job in high school, I am amazed at how much I chafed and bristled at authority. It was bad authority. Authority that was cold. I didn’t like it. I knew at that moment that I would never treat my employees or run my business like that if I had one.
At the bank job, I really didn’t understand what I was doing. I was on the computer doing background research for the telemarketers who would call delinquent customers. I was often not given enough information to completely do my job effectively so I really did not have the freedom to feel fully relaxed, comfortable, or in any way inspired in my position. It was mind numbing. The deadest environment you could imagine.
I took this job right out of college when I really didn’t know what I wanted to do in life. I was an English/Religion major. I came out of college thinking about the meaning of life rather than how to make a million dollars.
I realized that I am definitely not one of those people who will easily work in an environment structured by someone else. I saw that I needed a certain amount of creative freedom to truly function effectively and stay emotionally involved with the job at hand.
Ward: Did you have a “mentor”? If so, how did that help you?
Wolfe: No, not really. Not at those jobs. I was pretty much on my own. I was thrown right into the fire to produce for my superiors.
I’ve been inspired most by Milton Hershey of Hershey Chocolate fame. It was a trip to the chocolate factory that I took as a child and one that I truly enjoyed--one of the best experiences of my life.
Why Milton Hershey? Because he was one of the biggest failures. I don’t know anybody that has failed more than him and should have given up. His is an astounding story. He succeeded when he finally figured out how to innovate in a different way.
Ward: What did you learn from your first jobs that has prepared you for what you are doing now?
Wolfe: I learned that I needed to control my own destiny and be my own boss. That if I'm going to work to make money in this life, I have to do what I feel emotionally connected to, something I feel passionate about. Just taking a job and working in a miserable environment to get a paycheck was never going to satisfy me. Never. Thus I went out and eventually started three successful, very fun and creative businesses that I owned 100% and I never looked back!
Ward: Why do you think you have developed such an independent streak?
Wolfe: I lost my father when I was 12. My mother then had to go out and work to raise three kids. I have two sisters and I am the middle child. It was a dicey environment. As such, I was survival oriented at a very early age, hyper sensitive and driven.
I never felt that my life was entirely secure. I was always looking for a sense of security somewhere, somehow. And I was dismayed when I found something that I thought would be an ideal environment to make me feel secure wasn’t, whether at home or at work.
I think there are other people with an early childhood similar to mine that grow up to own our own businesses where we have control of our own destiny. I live or die by my own hand. So in a sense there is something more reassuring about it. But, it’s not for everybody. Some people need a more structured environment like my daughter for example.
Once I got going on doing my own thing, I went nuts.
Fortunately the things I tended to throw myself into, even though I didn’t always know what I was doing, were things that I was so passionate about. I believe it was my passion that gave me the capacity to draw people in to help me. These are people who are smarter and more talented than me that help me build my businesses.
I joke that I’m the king of outsourcing. I know what I don’t know. I think it’s that one quality that has allowed me to fill in my insufficiencies, my gaps, to become the largest publisher of artwork from television commercials, the top custom duck manufacturer probably in the world, and definitely the only one making them in America because I brought the entire industry back here.
Ward: So how did you get started?
Wolfe: One day I’m in a store and I look on the wall and there’s an original hand drawing of Micky Mouse from the 1930’s that was used as the prototype for the subsequent animated cartoon. And I said to myself, oh my God, you mean you can buy these things. This is a piece of history where it all began. I looked at that drawing on the wall and the creative process so inspired me and the fact that someone could own it, that’s when I decided what I would do. Then I had to figure out how to do it.
I started a business to buy and sell those things. Just like that. I borrowed $1,000 and paid it back within a year. The business really got going when I got the idea to market the artwork from television commercials and I started with the Coca-Cola polar bear. It took me a year to convince them to let me market it and my company at the time, Name That Toon, took off. I sold the business after I got into ducks.
The idea for CelebriDucks came about at a party after a few drinks. That is, making rubber ducks that look like celebrities. Most people would just have discarded that idea but I called King Features who had the licensing for Betty Boop. I could tell that they were being polite because they thought they had someone crazy on the phone and just wanted to get me off the phone and hoped that I’d never call back. So I went ahead and figured out how to have a prototype made and sent it to them. They called me back and said let’s talk.
CelebriDucks really took off when we made the Allen Iverson duck, when he played for the Philadelphia 76's complete with all of his tattoos. It looked more like him than he did.
My spooning chocolate company, Cocoa Canard, manufactures a chocolate that mixes with water like it’s in milk. We call it the espresso of hot chocolate. I’m inspired by the product. It’s in a whole new category. A chocolate making ritual experience. You can spoon it. You can whip it.
Ward: As a result of your experience, what advice do you have for today’s young adults seeking to land a job and/or earn money?
Wolfe: Honestly Renée, I’m one of those guys that can barely read a profit and loss statement. I go by intuition and what I feel inspired by, and then surround myself with smarter people to help execute. It has to have an emotional connection for me and then I make it a business. That’s my formula for success.
So I say, be willing to work, learn your craft and how to get along with people.
For example, if I was a plumber, I don’t have the skill set but I have respect for the profession, I’d find a way to make that business fun and interesting. I’d have mascots. I’d do it in a way that would make it more than just fixing pipes.
Additional tips for teens as a result of this interview:
Job title search terms to use "stock clerk", "water ski instructor", and "retail".
If you have the temperament to be your own boss, in general, teens under 18 cannot form legal business entities and your parent or legal guardian will have to do so on your behalf. That’s because parents and guardians are generally responsible for the actions and obligations of their minor teens. But, with your parent or guardian’s help this experience will also look great on future job and college applications. And, will give you a chance to learn about business first-hand.
Not sure what you want to do or what kind of job to pursue? Take a look at the Association for Career and Technical Education’s (ACTE) career clusters and take a Career Clusters Interest Survey. This may help give you focus and direction in your job hunting.