Meet Steve Gadlin: the creator behind the one of a kind, ‘I Want to Draw a Cat For You’ company that took off a couple of years ago with a hugely successful Groupon deal followed by an appearance on the hit television show, ‘Shark Tank’ – where billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban decided to invest $25,000 in this company. I was lucky enough to talk with Steve about how he got the idea for the company, the ‘Shark Tank effect’, and what he has planned for the future.
Let’s talk a little bit about your background: what were you doing in the years leading up to ‘I Want to Draw a Cat for You’, and what are you doing now?
Well, I grew up in Skokie/Evanston, IL and went to college at Miami University in Ohio (my alma mater, too!). Once I graduated, I came to Chicago and performed a lot of improv and comedy and started to produce my own shows. I eventually put together my own show called Blewt, which is comedy that’s intended to delight and confuse.
‘I Want to Draw a Cat For You’ grew out of this – it was essentially a strange e-commerce project and a little bit of a social experiment combined. I like to do really weird things and I wanted a business that I could run with and market. I thought ok; well, a stick figure cat is the ultimate widget I can produce as a product. It won’t be a problem to create the product and I won’t have to worry about some of the other things that entrepreneurs generally have to worry about.
How many hours out of your workday do you dedicate to drawing cats? Do you have anyone helping you out on the side?
It’s varied. Right after my episode on Shark Tank it was like working another full-time job. I actually took a few weeks off from my day job and dedicated 60-80 hours a week to fulfill all of the orders. Once that initial demand subsided a little, I would work 30 hours per week all at night, and I had office space in Evanston, so I would go to my day job, come home, and then go to my ‘cat drawing factory’ to churn out the orders.
I had people helping me on and off throughout all of this. I would still draw every cat, but I’d have people color for me and take care of the scanning, web posting, shipping, etc. I tried to have it set up so my only responsibility was to draw cats.
Nowadays, the orders are slower, and until they decide to re-run my episode, I only need to dedicate 2-3 nights a week to work on this, and now my wife is the one who helps me with the coloring.
How did you come up with the concept, and turn it into a sustainable business?
I have always pitched dumb projects to people to get their feedback; I came up with this concept and I was laughed at and told how stupid it was; but I have so many stupid ideas like that and once and awhile all of the pieces are right in front of me. This one happened to be easy to execute.
How did you pitch your idea to Groupon, and how did it help your business?
Before the Groupon deal, I used to have 3-5 orders a week that came from my friends. I filled out Groupon’s app on their website and played pretend; I took the app very seriously and talked about my stick figure cat product and discussed it as if it was your average business. A sales rep called me up the next day and said, ‘lets do this’. I was floored, but he was really up for it.
Groupon told him they wouldn’t approve it, but he somehow snuck it into the Santa Rosa, CA market. It blew up when Reddit caught wind of it and touted it as the dumbest Groupon ever. That was enough to make it take off.
Then, when I applied to Shark Tank they kept referring to the Groupon deal as something that legitimized the business.
What made you consider applying to the Shark Tank show?
When I applied to Groupon it was mainly for a cool rejection letter; and when I didn’t get that from them, I applied to Shark Tank for the same reason. It was very fortunate; there was a lot of serendipity involved.
What effect did your Shark Tank appearance have on your business?
I’d be dumb to think that this business would be anything without Shark Tank; it would have fizzled. I had sold about 1,200 drawings before the show; and about half of those were from the Groupon. Now, I’ve sold more than 12,000. Shark Tank transformed it from a silly joke to something I had to run as a business because there was an influx of orders and I had customers’ money, so I owed them all of these cat drawings. I had to work 80 hours a week to get them out.
Overall, the ‘Shark Tank effect’ has been a positive experience, but there are some lows to it; you feel like you won the lottery when you walk off, because, ‘oh look, this billionaire just did a deal with me’, but in reality you’ve won a second job and you have to work really hard at it.
The producers paint these great idealistic pictures on the show, but they don’t show the work that goes into it. The last couple of years have been spent bridging the gap between reality TV and reality. I’m not a millionaire; I don’t make much money with this, and I spend a lot of time on it. It has been a great opportunity that I walked into; so I spend a lot of time trying to make the best of it, and at the same time I try to keep my eyes open. I don’t want to be the guy who’s still drawing cats for people when the fad is over. I want to be able to recognize it’s over when everyone else does.
Does Mark Cuban actually draw one out of every 1,000 cats like he promised?
He has drawn 2 cats, and he charged $1,000 a piece for them. A college student in Michigan bought one for his girlfriend, and I really hope they’re married now. A patent lawyer bought the other one; he wanted a cat saying stuff about patent law. They say it was worth it to get original ‘artwork’ from Mark Cuban.
Do you have any other businesses that you’re working on right now?
We have a few things cooking; I started a t-shirt company that flopped hard right away. I thought, “I’ll make something else super stupid”, but it just turned out to just be really stupid. We are still producing comedy shows; we have a game show that we’ve been working on producing for TV, which is a long process. I still have my day job, where I build websites for a TV station.
I do have a greeting card line in development with American Greetings and they’re going to start test marketing that in the next year or so. Who knows what’ll happen, this company may fizzle out by then or it may keep growing. As cat drawing fades out something will inevitably take its place.
For your marketing tactics, do you primarily rely on word of mouth, or do you use any paid marketing tactics?
The one thing I learned fast is that there is no substitute for Shark Tank; you can’t buy that kind of exposure. I can spend a lot of money on AdWords or on Facebook advertising, but it pales in comparison compared to the effect my episode had. I’ve tried TV commercials, web ads, etc. but the return on my investment was always really poor.
That’s part of the reason I started this company in the first place; I wanted to try out various methods of marketing to see what I could do. I’m not sure which is to blame, the product or the medium, but that kind of paid advertising doesn’t work for this type of company, and I don’t like to spend that kind of money on it.
So it has primarily been word of mouth. Every drawing is posted to the web and people will talk about it. Groups of friends will randomly discover this and will all buy one to try and show each other up. Most importantly, I keep telling my story, which has been very effective.
What’s the weirdest request that you’ve gotten?
I get this question all the time, but I never know. They’re all really weird. Recently, I was asked to draw a cat in a hot air balloon that was being attacked by unicorns and zombies. It gets strange, but sometimes I forget the cats I’ve drawn because I’ve done so many of them.
What’s your favorite cat that you’ve drawn to date?
Every thousandth cat I draw for myself; so if you look at all of the thousand numbers on the website, you’ll see my mental state of progression. Its’ kind of interesting; those are my favorites because they’re personal.