By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
When Eli Miller’s new Santa Calls business won the Canyon Challenge entrepreneurial competition last year, it seemed like a nice way for parents to avoid the time and expense of a visit to the mall Santa.
Then COVID-19 hit.
Just like that, visits to the mall or just about anywhere else were, at best, limited.
Just like that, Miller was like someone who opened a water park before the worst heat wave in decades.
“You know,” the April 2020 Grand Canyon University graduate remembers thinking at the time, “this might be the perfect time to verify the business model and everything I’ve been preaching.”
And now that the pandemic has persisted all the way to the Christmas holidays, fate has turned Santa Calls into just about the only way for small children to share their wish list with the big guy.
But like any owner of a fledgling small business, Miller knows it will take time to grow. He has been working long hours – days that started at 6 a.m. and ended at 11 p.m. haven’t been uncommon. As he tried to get a foothold by giving out free calls at local malls, one sight perked him up.
“Seeing how excited the children were made me feel better,” he said. “I never really started this business to become a millionaire overnight or be filthy rich or anything like that.
“The underlying principle of starting the business was really to give excitement to children, experience their belief, everything I preached a year and a half ago. That reminded me of why I’m doing this.”
The concept is simple: All parents have to do is go on Miller’s website, experiencebelief.com, and choose one of three packages.
For $5.99, they can arrange a personalized, prerecorded video message from Santa.
For $14.99, Santa will call them directly for a video chat on FaceTime, Google Duo or Skype.
And for $19.99, they can get the personalized video chat plus a follow-up call after Christmas.
That’s where the concept gets interesting. Before Christmas, the parents fill out a form that includes something they’d like Santa to tell the youngster. Something like this:
“Ho ho ho, Andy, I hear you’re getting A’s in school during this hard year, and Santa recognizes that and he’s proud of you. But your mom is telling your Elf on the Shelf that you’re not too patient at home and you’re getting cranky. Just remember that to be on the nice list, you have to be good at school and at home.”
The communication after Christmas continues when parents share what present the child received from Santa, what kind of cookies were left by the tree and what sort of memorable decoration was in front of the house. Then Santa can reference those elements on that chat.
And it doesn’t have to stop there. To turn it into a year-round business, Miller is collecting children’s birthdays when parents make the Christmas purchase and offering a call from Santa on that special occasion.
“One Santa initiative not on the market is Santa is watching you year-round,” Miller said. “No one ever checks in after Christmas.”
Miller, who calls himself Santa Calls' Chief Operating Elf on his LinkedIn page, also has worked hard to establish partnerships.
The one that means the most to him involves giving: 10% of all revenue goes to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
“So proud of Eli and what he has accomplished by taking what he learned and applying it to his startup journey,” said Dr. Randy Gibb, Dean of the Colangelo College of Business. “I also love the fact that while he is focusing on executing his business model and generating revenue, he also created his ‘pay it forward’ stakeholder orientation toward the Boys & Girls Club, living out conscious capitalism and being great from the start!”
Miller has created Santa Calls booths, complete with Christmas decorations, at the Westgate Entertainment District (here's what it looks like) and The Shops at Norterra.
“The people who have used it have loved it and given it great reviews,” Miller said.
In addition, Santa Calls flyers are being handed out to cars driving through the light display at Salt River Fields.
Miller already has hired about a dozen employees to manage mall traffic, public outreach and, of course, serve as his Santas.
But he has only just begun. There’s time to continue refining the model, and it helps that he’s around other entrepreneurs at GCU’s innovation hub, the Canyon Ventures Center.
The center’s director, Robert Vera, loved Miller’s idea from the moment he first heard it in August 2019, right after Canyon Ventures opened. And he has continued to be a source of enlightenment and encouragement when he checks in with Miller once or twice a week.
“I’m really proud of what he’s done,” Vera said. “I think he’s grown from it all. I’m hopeful that this will become something that will at least generate enough money for him to live on at some point, but if not, that’s OK – it’s been a great experience. I think he has represented us and GCU very well.”
It certainly is a creative way to keep Santa in the conversation year-round. That will get you on his “nice” list.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].