Advertising specialty firm also always on the lookout for inexpensive merchandise
Back in days of old, jesters were the eyes and ears of the power brokers.
"They knew everything the king knew," said Rick Atkins, co-founder of Jester Promotions LLC, a specialty advertising company.
That's the know-how Atkins said he brings to the table: up-to-the-minute knowledge about the latest trends in promotional activities and where his clients can get the best price for their items.
He toyed with naming the business Atkins Specialties, but opted for Jester Promotions because it had "more of a story to it. I was a history major," he said. Atkins has more than a decade in specialty promotions.
Jester Promotions' genesis came when Atkins went to work in sales for Hypnotic Arts, an Indianapolis interactive graphic design company that develops learning materials and e-commerce programs for clients.
As the Web company grew, it became clear that Atkins' experience in promotional products would be of great benefit in expanding Hypnotic Arts' services, so Jester Promotions was started, said Joe McKamey, controller of Hypnotic Arts and a co-owner of Jester Promotions.
"He can set up a company store all online, and that has extended our reach and services to certain clients, by helping us develop e-commerce and creating shopping-cart software," McKamey said.
With only an idea, Atkins launched the new venture with financial backing and administrative assistance from Hypnotic Arts. Atkins made cold calls, banged on corporate doors, and attended trade shows to make the business grow.
"When we opened our doors four years ago, I had a goal to do $1 million in our fifth year. Now that we are close to reaching that goal, at times I feel I need to pinch myself to make sure it is actually real," Atkins said.
The company has done away with a printed catalog, driving its business to its Web site, which has cut expenses. Still, cash flow is the biggest challenge Jester Promotions has.
"Cash flow is king, especially with a small business," Atkins said. "When some of our larger customers and larger orders [take] 45 to 60 days to pay, it can put a real strain on our day-to-day operations."
Oddly enough, considering Indiana's geographic location, Jester Promotions has made a big splash in the marine world as the go-to place for licensed merchandise and other goodies for salesmen, suppliers and boat owners.
Marine-industry clients-including Carver Yachts, Silverton Yachts, Wellcraft Boats, Hunter Sailboats, Aquasports Boats and other top brands-make up 80 percent of Jester's business. Other clients include the NCAA, Butler Warehouses, Pegasystems and Right Management Consultants.
"Rick is very proactive and offers cutting-edge promotional ideas," said Peter Taylor, director of marketing at Wellcraft Marine in Sarasota, Fla. "Not a week goes by that I don't hear something new from Rick."
Jester Promotions also is clearly responsive, he said, offering immediate feedback.
"Rick was away in Alaska, yet he continued to resolve a problem," Taylor said.
The company's niche in the marine business gives it a leg up on competition, Atkins said. To capitalize even more on that reputation, the company has launched www.AAABoatingApparel.com, an online venture that allows customers to order clothing and accessories with their boats' monikers, even selecting the thread color.
Jennifer Williams, head of human resources at the NCAA, said Jester earns its keep by alerting her when low-cost merchandise is available.
"He sends me [links] to clearance stuff and other inexpensive items" when there are sales, Williams said. She orders items for new employees' orientation and welcome kits and for use by the NCAA's community relations team.
Despite great gains in the company's four years of operations, Atkins said he knows there's competition around every corner.
"It is extremely easy to get into my business, and you don't have to reach superhigh levels of revenue to make a nice living, so it is very saturated," he said. "We are continuing to grow and expand through the development of new ideas and programs."
Jester Promotions' co-founder Rick Atkins has worked in specialty promotions for more than a decade.