There they were on the set of ABC’s Shark Tank, a few steps from the bright lights and big cameras. They had spent countless hours practicing their pitch — and months waiting to see if their company would even make it in front of the sharks. Their moment had arrived.
Steven Blustein and Sean Knecht, co-founders of the customizable pet products company, PrideBites, looked at each other just before they were going to walk up to the sharks and pitch. All those hours of practice, yelling in each other’s faces to test their nerves under pressure and reviewing dozens of previous episodes for clues, had come down to this.
“You’re sitting there, looking at the doors that everyone has looked at before on TV like a million times,” Blustein said.
Then, they both blanked on their lines.
“Is it ‘seeking’ or is it ‘asking?’ Is it ‘seeking’ or is it ‘asking?'” they asked each other just before walking onto the set with the sharks. “We had done this thing like 200 times, and we had flawless pitches in front of the producers. So the moment before we walked in we were kind of freaking out. And, then, everything got really composed.”
We — everyone not involved in that episode — will have to wait to see how their experience turned out until it airs on April 8. As is standard with Shark Tank agreements, there’s a high level of secrecy — dozens of things the entreprenuers can or cannot disclose at various phases of the process.
Did their pitch go well? Did they land a deal or get into a showdown with big name investors? All unknowns at the moment. But here’s what we do know: PrideBites has been working toward this opportunity for a long time.
Getting on the Show
Blustein, Knecht and fellow co-founders, Sam Lampe and Daniel Lium, filmed their initial application video about a year and a half ago. Shark Tank producers said they loved the product, and they asked Blustein and Knecht to re-film their application to get a better sense of their personalities.
You might think a pet toy company would lean heavily on a lot of B-roll of puppies playing around with the product, but Blustein said they focused exposing their personalities with more home movie-style videos. The producers liked it and set a series of calls to prepare for an eventual filming session.
…we were just trying to stay as calm as possible.
In the meantime, Blustein and Knecht tried to watch every previous episode of Shark Tank. They wrote down every question the sharks asked in prior episodes and thought about how they’d respond if they ever made it into the studio.
“At this point, we had probably practiced 150 to 200 times before we even got to L.A.,” he said.
They were still at least a month from the filming session. Then, the call came to bring them to the Shark Tank studios in L.A. But, knowing how long the process can take, Blustein and Knecht figured it was just for more producer meetings. But, in fact, they were scheduled to pitch the next day.
Producers told them to be ready at 11 a.m. Bluestein and Knecht were up at dawn, filled with excitement.
“You’re really on just a high immediately,” Blustein said. “And, of course, just being there — I had never seen a set like that or been on a lot like that before — so we were just trying to stay as calm as possible. Going through the startup game, you obviously are on a rollercoaster, so we were trying to keep ourselves level-headed. And, I guess, not having expectations was really a good thing for us. Maybe being naive is what you need in that sort of situation.”
From Campus to Shark Tank
PrideBites was founded when Bluestein was a student at the University of Kansas, and he and some friends saw an opening to create a better dog toy than what they found on the market. After a year of prototyping, they launched a toy made of a different type of foam not available in other products, and they were quickly awarded with a pet toy of the year award in 2012 by Pet Business Magazine.
Retail stores started gobbling them up, and the team shifted focus to single-unit customization to give every pet owner a chance to personalize toys and other pet products for their dogs. They launched PrideBites.com in 2014 with a new lineup of products with customizable features, such as choosing colors combinations or adding your dog’s name or a photo of them to a dog bed or other products. They sold 3,000 units in 90 days after launching.
“It gave us the insight that this is a market that’s going to be viable for us,” Blustein said. And they’ve since revamped their website again and have expanded their reach online and in stores. And, with Lium’s deep family connections in China, the company found more efficient ways to integrate their technology with supply chains and manufacturers capable of quickly making customized products.
They saw Shark Tank as a unique opportunity to draw much more attention to their product, which, like so many products, is one that you almost have to see before you naturally go looking for it.
Nearly six months after filming in L.A., Blustein still hadn’t heard when — or if — the episode with PrideBites would air. Meanwhile, another Austin company was about to be on the show. Wondercide, which makes pet- and eco-friendly pesticide alternatives and other products, was on Shark Tank March 18.
Blustein, who is friends with Wondercide Founder and CEO Stephanie Boone, was just about to go to the Wondercide watch party when he checked his e-mail. It was a straightforward message from Shark Tank notifying them that their episode would air on April 8.
Now, PrideBites is kicking into high gear, hiring more employees and talking about production with manufacturers to ensure the company is ready for the likely surge in orders after the show.
“I cannot even describe it,” Blustein said.
Knowing you may or may not be on the show, which could change the trajectory of your company’s growth, is a tough thing to deal with, he said. As a startup founder, you always have to be looking to raise money and get product out the door.
Entreprenuers previously featured on Shark Tank are willing to talk about their experiences, but there’s still no real way to predict how exposure on the show will impact business. Blustein said he is trusting in many of the lessons he has learned from reading books by fellow founders and CEOs.
“You just have to stay positive,” he said. “It’s the same notion any other startup faces. You have to continue to move forward, making the most out of everything you possibly can and do what it takes to get prepared.”