Rockshots by Michael Rock.
1978. Our stories always have a Fire Island history. This one begins with Michael Rock and Tolin Greene at their rental at 491 Tarpon (A Horace Gifford design before the pool was added) with realtor Bob Howard as a neighbor.
By any measure, it was a modest startup. Michael Rock, a New York publicity photographer, made a hobby of shooting erotic pictures. With an initial investment of $500, he took a few favorite images, such as an undressed female mannequin in a store window and a naked man stretched out on a windowsill of an abandoned building, and pasted them on blank wedding invitations. Then he persuaded a Manhattan card store to buy four dozen for 50 cents each. The store sold them all within a week for $1 apiece.
Four years later, Rock and partner Tolin Greene’s company, Rockshots Inc., does $800,000 in business annually and caters to the growing market for offbeat greeting cards. The cards run the gamut from the blatantly erotic or insulting to the merely provocative. Rockshots is one of thousands of small companies in what is loosely defined as the greeting card, novelty stationery, and gift business. Besides greeting cards, which predominate, typical items include desk accessories, message pads, calendars, stickers, small stuffed animals, puzzles, and posters.
Rockshots struck a deal with Los Angeles-based Holst/Bowen Inc., a sales representative company. Holst/Bowen was paid 20% of revenue for its services, but the liaison allowed Rockshots to expand its distribution to the important California market and other parts of the West. At least as important, the link “gave us respectability,” says Rock. “It allowed us to get into the legitimate, middle-class market.”
An essential forum for many businesses is the trade show, which reverses the normal business practice by bringing the buyer to the seller. Approximately 14,000 buyers attended the National Stationery Show, the industry’s largest, held in New York City. Charles Faraone, a former schoolteacher and accountant who founded Once Upon a Planet, a $1 million-a-year New York City card-and-novelty company doesn’t believe in working his own booth. “It would take me 10 years in the business before I could get the prime floor space that a good rep can by virtue of his reputation and ties in the business,” he notes. Faraone spends up to $30,000 a year doing trade shows but argues, “Even if I were to do only $4,000 in orders, I wouldn’t necessarily be discouraged. It’s hard to put a dollar level on the contacts and ideas you get.”
A booth should be designed to attract the attention of your primary buyers. Rockshots’s booth at this year’s show was imaginative, even by the sometimes bizarre standards of the industry: It centered around a 12-foot-by-12-foot replica of a high-tech public rest room, complete with toilet stall that visitors were free to decorate with scatological graffiti. In it were displayed a variety of wares, such as a card picturing Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz, who, having inadvertantly wandered into a gay leather bar, exclaims to her dog, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”
The display drew its share of casual browsers, buyers who would not stock the cards but were interested in keeping up with new trends. But it also drew buyers who were lured by the booth’s deliberate appeal to a certain type of customer. Karen Balbinder, for example, saw the line as a potential hit with her Los Angeles stationery and gift-store clientele — “very young, bright” people. Balbinder purchased 11 dozen all-occasion cards and 48 boxes of 15 each of Christmas cards, for a total cost of $225 — an average order. Just as important to Rockshots as the specific order was the addition of Balbinder’s name to the rep’s list of clients to follow up.
Photography gave the messages an immediacy that illustrations could not provide. Shock value for this company was priceless. From a simple idea of pasting Rock’s erotic images on vellum paper and selling the results to a $1,000,000 company it is a story of following your dream…
Copy from Inc. magazine 1982.