During my 20 years in the window industry, I’ve dealt with countless and constant complaints from my customers about the inherent problems with traditional window screens. I was beginning to feel more like a screen replacement man than a salesman, and I decided that there must be a better way.
In 2013, I set up shop in my garage and started experimenting with different frame materials and designs. My biggest inspiration came while I was putting away my daughter’s princess pop-up tent. It occurred to me that it might be possible to make a window screen with similar properties that would eliminate all of the headaches associated with traditional screens.
In 2015, the world’s first and only flexible window screen was born.
I showed my “bubble gum and duct tape” prototype to some industry professionals, and the response was overwhelming. I was advised to immediately patent every aspect of my invention and get it to market as soon as possible.
Interest was high, and I had a decision to make: would I go all-in on this new, potentially successful business venture, which would require quitting my job, leveraging every ounce of our family savings and investments, and taking on significant debt? Or would I stay comfortable with my current successful career?
After much consideration and discussion with family and trusted friends and advisors, I chose the former. I bet the farm, crossed my fingers and very quickly learned the lesson of the “slow yes.”
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We had tons of excitement around the product and lots of “we want that!” affirmations from industry professionals, so we moved ahead and built custom machinery and large capacity manufacturing plants based on initial reaction and positive affirmation. But we overestimated how quickly people would come on board and underestimated our industry’s tendency to move slowly and resist change. I ended up with lots of big bills, very few orders, and a fair amount of anxiety. As it turns out, trying to change an industry using 100-year-old technology is a bit like turning the Titanic around. The “slow yes” just about did me in. But there was no turning back.
Adversity is always an opportunity to grow, innovate and differentiate, so we kept pushing forward and decided to market our product directly to homeowners, as well. The industry might be slow to change, but I was betting that homeowners would see the value and love our screens. I wasn’t willing to sit by and wait.
I hired a small marketing agency that built us an e-commerce website, created social media accounts on all platforms, and began getting the word out in the B2C sector. This move paid off in ways I could never have imagined. As a result of our social media marketing, “Shark Tank” producers found our product and reached out to us about appearing on the show. Which, we have since learned, is an extremely rare occurrence.
I almost ignored the first e-mail I received from “Shark Tank,” thinking it must be a joke. But when my phone rang and “Sony Pictures” was on the caller ID, the reality began to sink in. They said they believed my product was a perfect fit for the show and asked if I would like to move forward—the opportunity of a lifetime in a simple phone call.
What followed was a whirlwind of excitement and anxiety, still mixed with a bit of disbelief. We needed to build our set and props and ship them to California, and I had to prepare a pitch and appear before the Sharks, all in a matter of weeks.
Throughout the process, from that first e-mail to the signed equity deal with Shark Tank investor Lori Greiner over a year later, I learned so much, and I carry those “lessons from the tank” into every aspect of my leadership today.
Here are some of my key takeaways from “Shark Tank” that may help you in your own startup journey
Passion is the single, most powerful sales tool
If you don’t love it (I mean live, eat, breathe and obsess over it), why should anyone else?
If you are in the process of betting on your dream, don’t lose sight of why you started in the first place.
Hopefully, the reason was passion, because it all starts here, and this is what sustains you through the inevitably trying times. When you find your passion, you won’t need to “sell” it. It will naturally present itself to everyone you meet in how you think, act and talk, even when you’re talking about something else. Remember why you started. You’ll need to reach back for that inspiration often.
Related: Pet Plate Founder Renaldo Webb Shares a Behind-the-Scenes Look at His Shark Tank Experience
Confidence is tricky
Your business is your baby, and you will naturally want to protect and defend it at all costs. You believe what you’re doing and what you have is the best, and you should. But know the difference between confidence and arrogance. Strong belief in yourself, your mission and your product is almost always perceived as arrogance when misunderstood.
Before I pitched my product on “Shark Tank,” I did a deep dive into previous episodes. I wanted to be sure that I understood each Shark’s personality, business philosophies, types of products they tended to invest in, and, most of all, the things that turned them off.
It didn’t take long for a pattern to emerge. Entrepreneurs who were unwilling to defer to a Shark’s experience or listen to their advice got a deal zero percent of the time. These entrepreneurs had confidence in spades but lacked humility, which is the perfect recipe for arrogance. And arrogance is like blood in the water; it signals insecurity, which is a deadly deal breaker every time.
Let’s face it: we’re always selling something. Ourselves, our ideas, our products… something. So, what are the factors that determine if people are buying? Without a doubt, one of the most important is a flawless presentation. Whether you’re presenting to 30 plus million people on national TV or a group of five potential investors, you must give it your best every time.
Discipline yourself to do the following two things and positive outcomes will increase with your efforts:
- Edit: A good rule of thumb is that everyone else is less than half as interested as you are in what you’re selling, so keep it moving. Editing is not a natural skill for most of us, and it takes practice. Got 500 words? See if you can say it just as well in 400. Challenge yourself. People are busy, and they will decide almost instantly if they want to keep reading or listening. Engagement leads to interest, and interest leads to sales.
- Practice: You wouldn’t think of entering a golf tournament, running a marathon, or performing a piano recital without preparation and training. But, for some reason, we believe it’s OK to “wing it” when it comes to our sales pitch. It’s not. You are better than that, and the people who are giving you their valuable time deserve better than that, too. Devote significant time and effort to your presentation, including style, content and flow. And ask yourself, would you want to sit through this presentation? Would you find value in the content, engagement in the performance and excellence in the visuals? Keep working until your answers are all a resounding “yes.” Respect yourself, your ideas and your audience by being prepared.
Work-life balance is a myth. We are always cheating something to make something else work. The “Shark Tank” experience was the most stressful time of my career. It demanded an enormous amount of time and mental energy and, coupled with the everyday stresses of being a business owner, left little time for family life.
Because I believe that our businesses and professional lives will only rise and thrive to the level of our personal relationships, it’s essential to put some “guide rail” stakes in the ground to ensure that your personal life emerges intact at the end of every professional challenge.
In my life, those guide rails include two to three weekends a month decompressing at our cabin with family, fresh air and outdoor adventures. Sunday dinners with our kids and grandkids. Taking my wife and two daughters still living at home on as many business trips as possible with me, and delegating more at work to create margin.
I do all that I can to “cheat fair” because I have learned the hard way that time cheated away from work can almost always be recovered, but time cheated away from family can never be relived.
I love this oh-so-accurate quote by author and American internet entrepreneur Reid Hoffman, co-founder and former executive chairman of LinkedIn:
“Entrepreneurs jump off a cliff and build parachutes on their way down.”
If you’re one of the brave few who feels willing and called to take that risk, you can be sure of only a few things: it’s going to be a wild ride, and protection and security are not guaranteed, but regret from the safety of the sidelines most certainly is.