A Publication of WTVP

No bones about it, a Peoria couple who adopted part of a popular childhood phrase to name their local business is taking it to the bank—Sticks and Stones and all. Thanks to the couple’s business sense and creativity, little pieces of central Illinois now decorate the homes of well-known celebrities and people all across the country.

Brad and Jera Deal met when Brad’s band, Those 3 Guys, was playing in the Quad Cities. A mutual friend introduced the two and this August the couple will celebrate their 9th wedding anniversary.

The couple now owns B.R. Deal Group, LLC, which was formed four years ago as a consulting business. Jera had started an advertising department at which blossomed and became the single most profitable department in the company. When it sold in 2004, Jera joined Brad to form an online advertising brokerage company that handled website advertising for and an email division with clients such as Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and The Hartford.

“We designed, built and eventually sold a software platform that tracked email campaigns for these companies,” Brad said. “(The website) also sold in late 2005, leaving us time to focus solely on Sticks and Stones.”

The Sticks and Stones business was formed through weekly meetings, not in a business setting, but at the park. The focus of these weekly meetings centered on teaching their three children, Allie, Julianna and Lily, how to read.

When Allie was 5 years old, Brad and Jera noticed that she was finding letters in her everyday scenery—discovering an ‘O’ in tree limbs or an ‘A’ on a building. One of the favorite nature walk discoveries was a mushroom in the shape of the letter ‘I’.

“We made a game out of taking pictures (of the found letters) and eventually were able to get one picture from every letter of the alphabet,” Jera said. “From there we started lining the pictures up side-by-side to form three-letter words to teach Allie to read—words like dog and cat, for example.”

A simple wedding present for Julianna’s preschool teacher—using the letters to spell out the teacher’s new last name—had people buzzing about the couple’s new hobby.

“We took some of our pictures into Frames Plus and had them framed and matted in black and white,” Jera said. “It looked great and a number of people we showed the piece wanted one. ‘Where did you get that?’ and ‘Can I get one?’ were common questions we heard.”

The couple decided to turn the gift idea into a business venture by selling their framed photo creations online. The pictures of the letters are frequently recycled every few months giving new customers an original product.

“Initially, business was slow,” Brad said. “Even with years of Internet experience, ecommerce was new to us. The plan was to use pay-per-click marketing on Yahoo! and Google initially to get enough sales to grow the business based on referrals alone. We also started creating sample pieces and sending them to catalogs.”

The first catalog the couple tried was Frontgate, which at the time had a line of products called the Grandin Road collection. Grandin Road eventually became its own catalog, and Sticks and Stones became part of that product line. They also became part of Uncommon Goods, with their first release in the January 2007 catalog.

“We were selling about 150 pieces a month online from November 2005 through July 2006, but the costs of marketing the product ourselves was not making it very profitable,” Brad said. “We knew we would be released in Grandin Road sometime in August, but they only projected another 75 units monthly, and at a wholesale price. However, when Grandin Road was finally released, we sold 75 units in the first few days and eventually over 300 in the first month.”

The Deals took the next logical step by handling their production needs themselves which required them to rent a space, purchase a high-tech computerized mat cutter and hire employees. During the 2006 Christmas season, 15 employees worked at different times to meet the holiday deadline.

The wooden framed piece above displays the word ‘Family’ from letters discovered on buildings, doors and other architecture.

Currently, Sticks and Stones has three styles of frames to choose from—one steel and two wood options. When at the website,, customers type in what they want their keepsake to say—a last name or even an inspiring word. They are then directed to the next page where they can choose various letter options and pick a frame. The keepsakes range in price, depending on the number of letters and type of frame, from $119.99 to $199.99. “Thanks to a partnership we’ve formed with a young entrepreneur named Meghan Hirschmann, we are also adding a new product called Sticky Stones this summer, which are vintage-look glass gems with our images underneath and a magnet on the back,” Jera said. “We are also working on a calendar featuring our pictures. We give a set of five Thank You cards with each order, which customers have asked to purchase.”

The Deals are looking to expand Sticks and Stones to Europe through a fellow entrepreneur who has ties there. They will soon be moving to a 2500-square-foot production facility in North Peoria in order to better provide their products to customers. Publicity for the company has also been growing steadily. Sticks and Stones will be featured in Better Homes and Gardens in May and has also filmed a segment for HGTV’s “I Want That!”

A big boost from one of the most well-known talk show hosts is helping to make Sticks and Stones a household name. Before the attending a taping of The Oprah Winfrey Show, the Deals sent one of their photos as a gift for the audience coordinator who had given them their tickets.

“A few weeks later we got a call from the producer who called Brad up on stage (at the show). She wanted to order a keepsake,” Brad said. “From those two keepsakes we got a few more orders from Harpo (Oprah’s production company) and started getting to know some of the people there pretty well.”

Afterwards, Jera submitted their story for Oprah’s “Mompreneur” episode, and they were selected for a video segment. “Though our segment wasn’t long, the best part came after the show in our conversation with Oprah, when we were able to give her a keepsake,” Jera said. “She genuinely liked it and asked us to make her one for a well-known celebrity. She also ordered another keepsake last month. Since the show we’ve probably made 15 to 20 pieces for Harpo employees.”

The Deals are currently working with Oprah’s chief-of-staff to donate pieces to each homeowner in a New Orleans neighborhood she’s rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina, and they’ve also offered to make pieces for a school Oprah owns in South Africa.

“Though the national press will present a huge initial spike in business, we are most excited about the added exposure and the long-term steady growth of the business, which should make the company extremely marketable in the next couple years,” Jera said.

Over time the couple has divided up their responsibilities in the business. Brad handles all aspects of production, vendor relations, catalog relations and management while Jera handles the marketing—getting the word out to the world about what they do. “The biggest reward of running a business as a married couple is sharing in the responsibilities of making the company successful and having a unified purpose,” Jera said. “When we were both working for separate companies, neither of us really understood what the other did on a daily basis, and we certainly didn’t run decisions by each other—we had bosses to answer to.”

The Deals find that the biggest challenge is separating their work lives from their family lives. “While most people come home and discuss work for five minutes, we seem to constantly be working on something new and exciting, so we tend to talk about it a lot,” Jera said. “Sometimes one of us just needs a break to just ‘be.’”

But Brad and Jera hope to be role models for their daughters, showing them that work isn’t just something you have to do, but something you can enjoy as well. “The older two girls already take an active interest in certain parts of the business, and they soak up our conversations like little sponges,” Jera said. “We want to give them the confidence that they don’t necessarily have to have a conventional job—they may be able to thrive working for themselves.” tpw