SOUTH JORDAN — If your company has helped throngs of crafters graduate from paste and Popsicle sticks to producing intricate troves of family treasures at a touch, what do you do next?
Let them make cake.
Hundreds of thousands of customers have responded to Provo Craft's latest venture with one word: Sweet!
Consumers ranging from harried homemakers to famous cake decorators to celebrities are using the Cricut Cake machine to turn layer cakes into works of art, worthy of any wedding reception or the glossy pages of national magazines. And, perhaps the glossiest arbiter of taste of them all, Martha Stewart, is to appear on the Home Shopping Network Sunday to unveil her signature-embossed version of the printer-sized, tedium-saving device that she will endorse as the latest tool no kitchen is complete without.
Making what amounts to a cake decoration cutter out of the technology behind a programmable ink-on-paper printer is the brainchild of Provo Craft CEO Jim Thornton, a big-shouldered kid from Chicago and the incandescently positive quarterback of about 180 "I'm so excited to be here I can hardly stand it" employees who inhabit gleaming building No. 10876 on the River Park commercial campus. The company headquarters moved north from Spanish Fork just over a month ago.
South Jordan is becoming a commercial beehive of the state and the hub of what Brock Blake, investor/start-up business guru who runs FundingUniverse LLC just down the street believes is on the verge of ushering in an unparalleled era of innovation and entrepreneurship in Utah.
"We're not Silicon Valley exactly, but something pretty close to it," Blake told the Deseret News earlier this month.
Following a personal motto that good enough isn't ever good enough and that the best things come to those who innovate, Thornton assembled a team of high-tech young turks from around the country, and since 2005, increased earnings by 500 to 600 percent annually, numbers that soon had Bank of America and Merrill Lynch knocking down the door along with companies wanting to join the venture. In recent months, both the company's passel of products and their availability — from Walmart stores to Staples — has been proliferating. (The products are described in detail at www.provocraft.com.)
"All we've done is remove the tedious parts to crafting and now cake making," company marketing manager Matt Wilburn says as he slides images of customers using the Cricut across the screen of his cell phone as he talks. They are faces from the famous he'd rather not have mentioned in public yet to a young woman with cerebral palsy who has just moments earlier sent a photo. She has trouble communicating, but she has a smile a mile wide and her work is rendered as eloquently as one of your great-grandmother's lace doilies.
It's no brag, just fact, Wilburn says, "that the Cricut does 80 percent of the work crafters used to spend most of their time doing and they get 100 percent of the credit, all in about a 10th of the time. The effort becomes an effort of creativity and not an exercise in frustration."
Thornton emphasizes again that "it can't be emphasized too much how incredible our customers are. It's like having about a 100,000-member focus group, 25,000 of which let us know immediately what they like and what they don't like as much. They stay in almost constant contact with us and with each other through social networking. It's all about them, really."
One customer in particular is a feedback center unto herself, posting 50 to 60 messages a day the past 1,000 days, he said.
His reconnoiter of how the business went from one retail shop to on the verge of going global is interrupted at that point by an assistant who mentions that Thornton was named Utah's 2009 CEO of the year and the 2007 entrepreneur of the year. "He wouldn't tell you because Jim honestly wouldn't think to even mention anything about himself," Provo Craft media consultant Alex Koritz said.
The boss, who has earlier pointed out that's exactly what he's not, continues by saying, "the people who work here aren't my employees. It's a system of peers."
Thornton was quick to ask earlier to be pardoned for the general of his and his crew's attire, then stopped himself to note: "Actually, this isn't just casual Friday for us; this is how we always look."
Their environment is nouveau casual as well. Floor six has multiple rooms filled with flat screens and easy chairs encased in picture window sunlight framed by double-wide space with room enough to pace out a problem or take break to play beanbag horseshoes, a little Nerf basketball. Stress can be relieved by donning gloves and going after the Everlast weighted punching bag near the west end of the floor. Needless to say, it looks brand new.
"Oh, sure, there's a certain level of stress around here," Thornton said, adding that "at the end of the day, the good leaders surround themselves with people who are smarter than they are. They share the successes but take responsibility for the products that fail — and believe me, there have been a few duds."
In this kind of work, "you do have to be nimble and you run hard," he said. "If you're not ahead of the game, you're falling behind because you know that 50 percent of your annual revenue comes from products that didn't exist a year ago."
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