In the 1970s, when her three children were growing up, Carol Aebersold would place her childhood toy Fisbee in a new spot each day leading up to Christmas. The family lore was that Fisbee was watching over them, ready to report to Santa if the children were naughty or nice.
In 2004, Aebersold’s daughter Chanda Bell suggested turning the family story into a book that would be sold with a toy elf. After struggling to find a publisher, the family drained their savings and printed “The Elf on the Shelf” themselves. Aebersold’s other daughter, Christa Pitts, left a job at QVC to help with marketing; by the end of 2005, they had sold their first 5,000 copies.
Since then, more than 19 million people worldwide have bought “The Elf on the Shelf.” There are spin-off toys, like Elf Pets, along with app-based games and live experiences. Last year, the family’s privately held company, The Lumistella Co., signed a multiyear deal with Netflix to develop The Elf on the Shelf content.
Founder and co-CEO Pitts says the company’s 100 employees take their job seriously. At Lumistella’s Atlanta headquarters, Christmas music is always playing and the space is dotted with Christmas trees.
“Everyone in our company works for Santa Claus,” Pitts said. “It’s a higher purpose here. It’s the magic of Christmas and everything that it represents.”
Pitts talked with The Associated Press about the company and the Elf’s appeal. Her answers have been edited for length.
Q. People love holiday traditions, but it’s rare that something breaks through to become a new tradition. What is it about The Elf on the Shelf that appeals to people?
A. This tradition began when my mom was a child. And then that tradition came with her into our family. As my siblings and I grew up, we always had an elf that talked to Santa and we didn’t realize anyone else didn’t. So I think there is an authentic-ness to what we do in terms of sharing our family tradition with the world. That’s real and not manufactured, which I think resonates with families and with people. And I think it’s refreshing to have something that represents family values. It’s simple. It’s not that expensive. It returns year after year, and you don’t have to be the smartest or the most successful or the most athletic or the most anything to enjoy it in your home and to have it be a part of the fabric of the way you celebrate the season.
Q. What was the moment you realized this was going to be bigger than anything you had imagined?
A. We’re still not there yet. You know, if you’re someone who’s deeply involved and passionate about your company and your brands, you’re always seeing what the next possibility is. You’re always thinking about what you need to be doing to stay ahead of the curve and continue to be relevant. There have been moments where I can take a step back and just have that feeling of, ’’Wow. This is cool.” But then it immediately shifts into the next gear of, “What do we need to do to continue telling the stories of Santa’s North Pole? How can we continue growing this universe that we’ve created?”
Q. How did the pandemic impact the company?
A. While the pandemic was difficult around the globe for everyone and continues to be in a lot of ways, for us the fact that our tradition is something you do in your own home amplified the excitement around it. We had a record year, and we continue to be on track for another record year. It’s something that families can do and enjoy in their home, and it feels normal. It feels like part of the season has arrived.
Q. Many people have good business ideas, but they aren’t always able to see them through. What advice would you give them?
A. Having an idea is just that. It’s just an idea. You have to do something with it. You need to put it on paper and you need to start putting small steps toward what it would take to achieve that goal. Once you’ve taken any step forward -- like coming up with a company name -- it’s figuring out what differentiates you. Most of the greatest things, the biggest disruptors, are just building up something that’s been there before. We’re not the first to ever have elves that work for Santa. But what is different and what makes ours unique is that it’s a liaison for your family directly to the big man himself. And so once you understand what it is you’re doing that differentiates you from what’s out there, that’s where you’re able to push. The last piece is to really focus. Often I meet with people and they’ve got this idea but it’s all over the place. They’re trying to be everything to everyone right out of the gate. Start small, build your community, build a group of advocates online.