From Chicken Soup for the Entrepreneur's Soul

From Underdog to Top Dog

In 1997, at the age of fifty-two, the rug was pulled out from underneath me. I was facing a divorce after twenty-seven years of marriage, had huge debt and no means of income. I was beyond depressed. To top it off, I broke both my legs! My divorce attorney jokingly gave me what turned out to be a life-changing piece of advice: “Carol, you need to either get a therapist or a dog.” I chose the dog.

In the next couple of weeks, I started looking through the classifieds for the perfect pup and soon answered an ad for a four-month-old bulldog. When I arrived at the kennel, I found myself face-to-face with the saddest-looking puppy you can imagine—the mirror image of what I felt in my heart. We were both underdogs looking for a big dose of unconditional love. I wrapped my new best friend in a blanket, took her home and named her Zelda. The name appealed to me because it started with the letter “Z,” and I was hoping that what felt like the end might be the beginning.

With Zelda in my life, I started to heal and feel happy, yet I desperately needed to find a solution for my debt and lack of income. I had four credit cards and was living off my credit limit; time and money were running out.

Fortunately, a friend who knew of my financial plight told me about an annual Christmas card contest that a local pet store was sponsoring. The winner would receive forty pounds of free dog food every month for a year. With the Christmas theme in mind, I borrowed a Santa hat from a neighbor, filled the bathtub with bubble bath and lowered Zelda into the tub. With the hat on her head and a beard made from the bubbles, Zelda was the perfect Santa imposter. I snapped the photo and sent it off to the store with the one-liner: “For Christmas I got a dog for my husband . . . good trade, huh?” Six weeks later, I received the news that Zelda and I had won the contest. I remember asking Zelda how many ways she knew to fix dog chow!

No closer to solving my financial problems, I began to take stock of my personal strengths to find a solution. I had worked many years in advertising as a creative director, writing one-liners and designing ads for corporate clients. Maybe I could write and design a greeting card line around Zelda, using my personal experiences surviving tough times for creative inspiration, I thought. A couple of years earlier I had written a book, Bumper Sticker Wisdom. It hadn’t sold many copies, but I’d learned a lot about the publishing industry. Perhaps I could also feature Zelda and the one-liners in a book? My mind was bursting with ideas! Looking back, I realize our lives are like jigsaw puzzles without the picture on the box; we collect pieces that fit together, but it takes a while to see what picture will be revealed.

Next, I wrote a business plan outlining how to launch Zelda. I aimed high; my goal was to eventually license Zelda cards with Hallmark. I researched the greeting card industry. It was important to come up with something no one else in the industry had done before. I saw two areas where Zelda would be different. First, no one had taken an individual living dog, given it a name and designed an entire greeting card line around it. Second, no one had designed a line of cards around familiar and unfamiliar wisdoms, phrases like, “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen” or my line, “Life is tough . . . wear a helmet.” Combining those two aspects, I came up with “Zelda Wisdom” as the name for my company.

However, I knew I couldn’t do it alone. I needed the best professional people I could find to help me launch Zelda Wisdom. Shane Young is a genius photographer. Sandi Serling is a public relations wiz. I had worked with both of them in my advertising career; we respected each other and loved working together. I couldn’t pay them, so I convinced them to be my partners. Who could say “no” to a face like Zelda’s?

We started with a small budget of less than $40,000—the credit line that remained on my charge cards. I bought twenty-four costumes right after Halloween at reduced prices. Shane and I photographed around the clock, and luckily Zelda loved being the center of attention. She also, we discovered, loved caramel ice cream bars as a reward for her time in front of the camera. We convinced a printer to produce the twenty-four card images and three poster images and give us ninety days to sell them and pay the bill.

The gift stores in Oregon and Washington were our test market, and in order to reach them, we needed publicity. With her many contacts in the media world, Sandi landed Zelda in local newspapers and on television stations. Storeowners started calling to order Zelda Wisdom cards and posters. The results were extraordinary. People not only found the cards humorous (“Go braless . . . it pulls the wrinkles down”), but the wisdom was something they could relate to (“I get enough exercise just pushing my luck”). The stores kept ordering more. Our product was flying off the shelves.

Within a few months, we knew it was time to take the giant leap. We rented a booth at the National Stationery Show in New York City. More than fifteen hundred small greeting card companies like Zelda Wisdom would be at the show, and we were hoping to be picked up and licensed by one of the larger card companies. To that end, we sent a press kit and invitation to a top licensing agency. We had heard the firm sometimes represented small “underdog” companies with “top dog” potential. I remembered the advice a friend once told me: “If you don’t ask, you’re guaranteed not to get an answer.”

At the stationery show, I used my advertising background to help us get noticed. We placed a full-page ad in the show’s catalog—unheard of for a small card company like ours. The page was white with only Zelda’s logo (Zelda dressed in a bee costume) and the one-liner, “Why BEE normal?” On a video monitor in our booth, we ran clips of Zelda appearing on various TV shows. Everyone stopped to watch this funny bulldog running around in her bikini while sporting red, lip-shaped sunglasses! When the executives from the licensing agency stopped by, they had to fight their way to our booth! Here was a bulldog that was making people think, laugh and want more. Zelda was the hit of the National Stationery Show!

We signed a contract with the licensing group, and they brought us licensees for Zelda Wisdom cards, books, calendars and stationery. Soon there were contracts for Zelda Wisdom giftware and apparel. Russ Berrie, Inc., is now producing an entire line of stuffed Zeldas.

Today, we have reached our goal, and Zelda Wisdom cards are being produced and distributed worldwide by Hallmark. In 2005, Zelda cards were Hallmark’s number-one selling mass greeting card line. There is even a Dear Zelda column on our Web site where Zelda gives some tough but tender advice to her fans. My biggest reward, however, is hearing from those who are touched by Zelda’s philosophy and who recognize there is a Zelda in all of us. One of my favorite cards is Zelda dressed as an angel with the line, “They sent me, the other angels were busy.” Zelda was my angel, and now I share her with people around the world.

Zelda and I started out as underdogs, but we are proof that you don’t have to be thin, rich, young or wrinkle-free to become successful. You just have to be you, and never, never, never give up.

Carol Gardner
As told to Julie Long

EPILOGUE: Carol and Zelda have finished their seventh book, titled Zelda’s Moments with Mom: Memories a Mother Never Forgets (Andrews McMeel, 2006). Zelda is the spokesdog for the Delta Society Pet Partners (, an international organization promoting service and therapy dogs. Zelda is a certified therapy dog, and she and Carol work with children who have learning disabilities. Carol also gives inspirational and motivational talks to organizations around the world. Her speech, “How to Go from Underdog to Top Dog (Without Barking Up the Wrong Tree),” has received rave reviews. For more information on Zelda Wisdom, Inc., visit

Julie Long

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