Women & Circus sat down to interview long time CN supporter Patti Miller at Aerial Animals, about what it’s like to manufacture equipment for circus arts. After five years of sailing around the world, Patti explained that on the last long passage across the Atlantic toward home, they sailed in the company of a boat whose owners were former world-class circus performers. Her daughter, Jessie spent a lot of time playing in the rigging and doing “circus” shows on the boat, and Patti recalls thinking that they’d never meet such interesting people when we moved back to land. Once at home, Jessie’s interest in circus quickly became a passion, and she joined Colorado’s flying trapeze club, The Imperial Flyers. In 2010, Jessie and Patti founded Aerial Animals to both promote Jessie’s aerial aspirations and learn the business side of circus.
What is your favorite thing about your job?
I like that it’s a family business. Jessie is in her second year at the National Center for Circus Arts in London, and provides valuable information on equipment based on her own experience and that of her fellow artists. My husband does much of the fabrication. I do most of the product research, marketing and operations.
I also like that we are able to contribute to the community. We’ve contributed over $15,000 in equipment and cash to the community over the last 3 years, and Jessie got her start in performing by calling the CEO of the Golden Chamber of Commerce to ask if she could perform for local and charitable events. Product innovation is something I really enjoy; I research what people need and can’t buy and find a way to improve upon what is already being done or create something new.
A good example is: performers were using trailer hitch balls for the ends on trapezes, but modern trailer hitches just don’t work. It took me a while, but I found draft horse hemes work perfectly!
Also because of our sailing experience, I like nice rope and clean splices or finishes. Since trapeze ropes can show wear quickly, my husband adapted a knot to finish the trapeze splices which seem to hold much better than anything else I’ve seen. I also like taking the time to hand dye fun colored straps, since that is not an option from most retailers.
How did you develop safety standards/research or test your products?
As I say on my website, “We make each piece of equipment as if our own daughter were performing on the apparatus.” In the early days, if we said the word, “circus”, most product and testing companies declined to work with us. Ludwig Goppenhammer has been a valuable partner. We had a two-week deadline for a performance that required Jessie have a portable rig, so we contacted him. He designed and built his first portable rig within deadline, and we’ve been working with him ever since.
We’ve had to be creative and devise our own tests like lifting the rear end of Ludwig’s van to test his portable rig before Jessie used the prototype! I have an engineering degree and developed quality control standards and test procedures for IBM. My husband, the attorney, (or the non-engineer), is surprisingly good at developing tests and product fabrication processes, too.
Assessing old equipment is very helpful; people often send me photos of equipment that they want me to refurbish. I contact my customers and even give them new equipment in exchange for their original equipment to see how well the equipment held up under use.
The liability issues within the US in some ways restrict innovation; but I also see people who want to use circus equipment without educating themselves on the equipment and without assuming personal responsibility. That limits what I can sell. On the other hand, it’s interesting to see artists take my equipment and use it in ways that I never considered. Since that can also be a liability for me, I try to get my equipment into the hands of people who will push the limits and give me feedback early in the product development cycle, as well as go to shows and watch my customers’ video posts to see what they are doing.
What have you learned about starting a company within the circus industry?
Originally I think that performers or people buying our circus equipment saw us as “vendors”, but I think more people see us as fabricators or part of the “makers” movement, which I like. Our trademark has become personalizing products. It started with Jessie’s individual needs, but that experience shaped our process; we ask a lot of questions, and Jessie is able to get feedback first-hand since she practices circus. There are several respectable companies building quality mass-produced circus equipment, but we fill the need for individualized equipment. It’s our niche. We have spent almost no money on advertising because of that. We grew organically without a major initial monetary investment, largely due to repeat customers and referrals.
We don’t try to be everything to everyone, and I have learned how to say, “No”. I like making new things, but I have had to specialize to be profitable. I think our aerial straps, trapezes, and lyra bridles are unique and are now profitable for us. Originally, lyras (aerial hoops) helped build our business, and since many people sell them, we weren’t unique. I did find a way to add value to our lyra by taping them fun colors for free to the customer. We were challenged to figure out how to make a “taco lyra”, which is a fun part of the process, as the use of equipment evolves.
When people ask, “How did you get into the circus equipment business?” I have to say, “It just happened. It wasn’t planned”. We were lucky with the timing of starting our company and the growth of circus as an activity. We are to the point now where we need to decide how much we want to work. We have a good work and life balance right now. There are many opportunities for people to make circus equipment and I plan to help some other people take parts of our business or support their ideas by marketing to my customer base.
How have you seen the circus industry and/or equipment evolve over the years as it relates to your job?
We’ve seen explosive growth and innovative use of equipment. Most people actually now understand when I say my daughter is an aerial acrobat, whereas they did not before, but several people are surprised that there are schools that actually grant degrees in circus arts or that we earn a living by fabricating circus equipment.
You see circus everywhere now from the Olympic and PanAm Games opening ceremonies to local school talent shows and community festivals. America is still behind Europe, Asia and Australia in terms of formal circus education and high level festivals, but we are seeing Americans winning medals at international festivals.
Cirque du Soleil helped to educate American audiences and create market demand for contemporary circus in the US, but we are now seeing American troupes like Cirque Mechanics touring. And with organizations like Circus Now promoting circus, circus truly is happening now!