MARIETTA — For Christa Pitts and Chanda Bell, life has been a roller coaster since 2005 when a chance idea revolving around a family Christmas tradition and a little elf changed their destiny.
Today, the identical twins who grew up in Powder Springs are co-CEOs of Creatively Classic Activities and Books, a Marietta-based company that published the popular “The Elf on the Shelf” Christmas book.
In 2004, Pitts and her husband had moved to Philadelphia for her job as a QVC personality. Their mother, Carol Aebersold, was having a tough time coping with an empty nest. Bell, meanwhile, had left her teaching job to be a full-time mother.
During a mother-daughter talk in Aebersold’s kitchen, Bell suggested that they do some kind of project together. Spotting the elf that visited at Christmas during their childhood, she said, “Mom, we should write a book about the elf. And it should come with an elf, so other people can have the same tradition we did.”
The elf was a tradition Aebersold had experienced as a child and the family tradition grew larger with her own daughters, who as young girls named and talked to the magic elf who reported the children’s behavior to Santa every night during December.
“We didn’t want a character; we wanted an experience and a tradition for families,” Bell said.
At the book’s completion, literary agents liked their idea, but they were rejected by every publisher. Undeterred, Bell set out to self-publish the book and manufacture the elf.
“We had no background, and absolutely no money, but we believed in what we were doing,” Bell said.
Her husband agreed to charge $21,000 on their credit cards to go forward with the dream.
“It was a huge leap of faith,” Bell said. “If this didn’t sell, there was no way we could pay this money back.”
Christa and her husband joined the effort, selling their house in Philadelphia and moving in with Aebersold to add cash for the effort. In September 2005, using a table and one computer in their father’s business in Kennesaw, the mother-daughter trio set out to sell the 5,000 units before Christmas.
A book-signing at the Marietta Museum of History and a table at the Junior League’s annual Mistletoe Market yielded 1,000 sales.
They managed to sell all 5,000 books by Christmas and paid off the credit cards, but it would be three years before any of the three received a paycheck. Pitts took a front-desk job at a hotel to make ends meet while focusing her sales and marketing experience to help the business.
In 2006, again using credit cards and family loans, they manufactured 28,000 units and again spent the season pulling U-Hauls to holiday shows around the country and sleeping five people in a hotel room.
Then in December 2007, two events changed their lives. A paparazzi photo caught actress Jennifer Garner carrying an Elf on the Shelf, which was followed by a feature story on the Today Show that set their phone lines ablaze and overloaded the website. They called on everyone they knew to get the orders shipped before Christmas.
By 2010, the product hit No. 1 on Publisher’s Weekly’s bestseller list and No. 2 on Wall Street Journal’s bestseller list. The company was ranked No. 222 on Inc. magazine’s 500/5000’s list and reported $7 million in revenues.
In 2011, the entrepreneurs financed and produced an animated holiday show, “The Elf on the Shelf: An Elf’s Story.” The show ran twice on CBS in December and will run again this holiday season. Their success also allowed for a move into a new office and warehouse space off of Hayes Industrial Road, near The Walker School.
Elf is now in 10,000 stores in U.S. and Canada, and the company has sold 2.5 million units to date. A giant Elf helium balloon will fly over Manhattan in the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on Nov. 22.
The self-described “best friend” twins have kept equal ownership with their mother. Aebersold, who does nationwide book signings, is known as “Mrs. Claus” in the company.
The company has 35 employees and hires additional staff during the holiday season.
Bell oversees all things creative, while Pitts handles all sales and operations. The pair says that dividing the responsibilities has been the key to their successful working relationship.
Jon Carroll, founder of Boxercraft, Inc., who met the twins while judging the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year program, is not at all surprised by their success. He describes the co-CEOs as purpose driven, resourceful and fearless.
“They are motivated by the millions of family moments they are creating, not by the millions of dollars of revenue,” Carroll said.
The sisters aren’t stopping yet.
“We want an elf on every shelf,” Bell said. “We have a saying here: Only Santa knows what’s next.”
CEO PROFILE: CHRISTA PITTS AND CHANDA BELL
n TITLE: The twins are co-CEOs of Creatively Classic Activities and Books, publisher of ‘The Elf on the Shelf.’ Bell is also a co-author of the book with their mother, Carol Aebersold.
n AGE: 38
n EDUCATION/YEAR GRADUATED: Both are graduates of the University of West Georgia, Bell in 1996 and Pitts in 1997.
n FAMILY: Pitts is married; Bell is married and a mother of two.
n FIRST JOB: Pitts’ was at Mountasia Golf and Games, at age 15; Bell’s was as a middle school teacher.
n BEST JOB: Both sisters say leading CCA and B is their best job.
n LESSON LEARNED THE HARD WAY: For Pitts: Challenge equals opportunity. For Bell: Be careful who you trust.
n ADVICE TO THE NEXT GENERATION: Pitts said: It is better to remain silent and have others believe you ignorant than to open your mouth and prove them right. Bell said: No job should ever be ‘beneath’ you.