The plot twist…that moment in a story when an event or experience dramatically shifts the future direction of the storyline and all the characters involved. I’ve always found these moments fascinating in real life, and so I started this new, recurring series—called “The Twist”—where I talk to entrepreneurs and explore the plot twist that led them to start their businesses.
Known also as St. Nickolas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle and originally as Sinterklaas, Santa Claus was born in A.D. 270 at or near the North Pole. And for the past 17 centuries, he’s been dropping into fireplaces to deliver gifts to good boys and girls around the globe.
We recently met at the Fishhook headquarters in Carmel, Indiana, during one of Santa’s routine chimney inspections to discuss his successful business venture that shows no signs of stopping.
Joe: What did you want to be when you were growing up at the North Pole?
Santa Claus: Well, I knew I wanted to have a big family business. Not just my family, but an extended family with what would feel like lots of kids. (Elves were the closest thing to having a bunch of kids since Mrs. Claus wasn’t up for actually having so many children.) So I just wanted a big business that felt like a family.
Joe: What plot twist happened in your life that made you decide, “Okay, I just want to commit full time to this gift-giving business?” What sealed the deal for you?
Santa Claus: As people would say today, “I was working away for ‘the man.'” But I knew I wanted to to be in charge of bringing joy—both for the team and for everybody we would come in contact with.
Joe: How did you first come up with the business idea?
Santa Claus: Well, it depends on who you talk too. Of course, the retailers love the idea of this whole gift-giving business. I’ve been thrilled about business—not only ours but the whole business climate. This has been such a great way for businesses to have a strong end-of-year. I’m all for it!
But if you’ve watched A Charlie Brown Christmas, you know that there’s more to the season.
In Luke 2 you see that God gave His Son. And that was the inspiration from which we took this idea of giving. We just replicated that. God does it on a very large scale. We couldn’t scale up quite to that capacity, but, the best we could, we scaled our operation in the gift-giving business to replicate that kind of motive.
Joe: That’s great! I was curious. You’ve got hundreds of elves working for you, really round the clock in your workshop. Talk a little bit about labor relations. How have you avoided a unionizing of the elves?
Santa Claus: I hear people out here in this culture complain a lot about working with people. You think that’s hard?! Oh my gosh, try working with elves and all their breaks for choir practice and hot chocolate.
But we’ve seen that it’s all about mission and vision. If we keep the mission and the vision in front of the team—in front of the elves—they’ll be excited to get up and go to work every day. They’ll be excited to work through the hard things. It’s when we get distracted with, maybe trying to implement a new upgrade to our tracking systems or shipping systems or production systems. You can get so distracted with the minutia of business that you lose track of the mission and vision. That’s really where any of our problems, labor or otherwise, come from.
Joe: That’s a great lesson for any entrepreneur. And it’s a great transition to my next question. I’ve got to think that in A.D. 300 the world’s population was much smaller. Today, you’re looking at visiting more than 90 million households in one night. Talk a little bit about your distribution strategy. Why do you limit yourself to one night? And why are you still working a sleigh to do so?
Santa Claus: The good news is we didn’t have to go from our original distribution system to what we have today. We’ve been able to evolve a little bit at a time over the years, and surely there have been major enhancements and improvements. We didn’t have to take it all in one leap.
And that would be my advice to young entrepreneurs. Just do things one day at a time. I mean, I will say as technology has really ramped up the last few years, our efficiency rates have skyrocketed. But I don’t want to brag. It’s really not me. It’s the elves.
Joe: I’m curious how you’ve been able to maintain your foothold in the marketplace. I mean, you’ve got the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, and most recently Leap Day William. How have you kept some of those competitors at bay?
Santa Claus: You know they say in business, “You have to be first, best, or cheapest.” We were first, and we have to work hard to be the best. But we also realize that there’s a season to everything, and so we’re okay with some of these minor holiday figures. It’s ok to share the market.
Joe: You and Mrs. Claus have been together quite a while. How has being a business owner impacted your family life and vice versa?
Santa Claus: I’m sure you’ve seen in the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer movie special when Mrs. Claus says, “Eat Santa eat. No one likes a skinny Santa.” That’s pretty accurate! She’s always there with the right piece of advise at just the right time.
There are times when the stress of work and home pileup. But we always make sure to get away in July. We sneak off and get a little time just to ourselves. That’s our Christmas in July. Hahahahaha!
And we try to listen to each other. We try to extend kindness. It’s not easy. We’re kind of traditional. She leads the home, and I lead mostly the operations. However, she’s always there whispering just the right advice to help me make the business the best it can be. And I’m better off because of her.
Joe: Last question. You’ve been doing this for over 1700 years. How long do you intend to keep this thing going?
Santa Claus: For me personally, there’s no end. I just want to keep working as hard as I can to keep bringing joy to as many little girls and boys as possible. But at the same time, we’re always pouring into potential leaders in case something were to happen to me. We have leaders in place that can carry it on.
Joe: That’s a comfort, I’m sure, to kids all over the world.