Jera and Brad Deal turned an inventive letter-hunting game with their daughter into a multimillion-dollar business. Sean Cole paid them a visit and did some alphabet searching.
Doug Krizner: The TV show Sesame Street's known for creative ways of introducing the alphabet to kids. One of my favorites was the Beetles singing, "Letter B." Then there was the muppet in the back alley with letters in his coat jacket: "Psst, wanna buy an O?"
Marketplace's Sean Cole actually stumbled onto a business that's kinda doing the same thing.
Sean Cole: I'm just gonna tell you this story the way it happened. About five years ago, Jera Deal and her husband, Brad, started playing a game with their eldest daughter. They'd basically tromp around Peoria, Ill., alphabetizing the world around them.
Jera Deal: We would letter hunt. So for example, we would be at a park and we might find a maple leaf on the ground that made the outline of a "W."
They started taking pictures of their finds. A silo made the letter "I," a goal post formed a nice "H."
Brad Deal: "T" would be the easiest to find. Probably because there are so many crosses.
They photographed one of every letter, and then more than one of every letter. And then two years ago, Jera was volunteering at her daughter's school and needed to find the teacher a wedding gift. So she arranged some of the pictures in a frame, spelling out the teacher's new last name.
Jera Deal: Before we even walked into school with it, I showed the other room mom, who was room mother with me. She ordered nine.
Everybody wanted one. And a month later, they had a business called Sticks and Stones.
This is all they make. Pictures of things that look like letters arranged in a frame to make words. You pick out the letters online, they frame them and mail you the piece.
Their projected sales for this year: $10 million.
Brad Deal: It's almost a viral thing . . . . I just had somebody e-mail me today that said, "You have no idea how many people have seen your piece on our wall and asked for your website." And I said, "Well, our sales show that I kind of have an idea." I mean, no I didn't tell her that, but . . .
It's viral in more than one way. The whole family can't stop seeing letters everywhere. On a recent trip to New York . .
Brad Deal: People would walk by on the sidewalk and see me squatting down by this little railing by a building taking a picture on something like a lamp post, you know?
Cole: And thinking he's insane.
Brad: What's wrong with this guy? Yeah.
There's a story like this behind every letter. For example, I asked them if we could bring the camera to a local playground, even though the sky was getting black. We hit pay dirt in the gazebo.
Brad: We could easily make an "O" right here out of this little guy.
[Sound of thunder]
Brad Deal: Gonna get hit.
But that's what makes their job so rewarding, they say. That, and Oprah Winfrey bought one of their pieces as a wedding gift for Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. Seriously.