It started simply enough — a couple toddlers on the gritty floor of an airport during a layover. But the story of Monkey Mat got complicated fast when ABC got involved. The company’s voyage to the set of Shark Tank involved two video presentations, a two-inch thick application, lawyers, contracts and a lot of secrecy before finally reaching a national audience.
And, ultimately, it was the exposure that helped them the most. Just being on the show catapulted their sales overnight to the extent that they could hardly keep up — although they’re quick to shower praise on Mark Cuban who, along with Lori Greiner, invested $100,000 for a 35% stake in the company.
Monkey Mat Founders Courtney Turich and Christie Barany said that the process of taking their startup from an idea to standing in front of the Shark Tank hosts was a long and trying road. But their idea was born long before they submitted their application to be on the ABC TV show. Like many great ideas, it came from practical experience — Barany and her children got stuck on a six-hour layover at an airport and Barany had to entertain her young children.
“Watching your little babies on a nasty airport floor is cringeworthy to the Nth degree,” Turich said. And with that thought they launched the idea for a portable floor space that parents — or whoever — could carry with them for those unexpected moments where the floor is the only real option.
They came up with a 5×5 water repellant mat with weighted corners to keep it in place and loops to stake it down for outdoor concerts, camping, etc. A tab in the middle lets parents anchor their keys, children’s toys or whatever can’t get lost.
Turich and Barany built a list of goals — one of which was to get on Shark Tank which had become wildly popular by 2014. After their initial application, they waited three months before getting a call from a casting director who grilled them relentlessly.
Then came an application binder that’s about two inches thick.
“They say they use that step in the process to weed out people who don’t want to give it their all,” Barany told a crowd of about 50 people at a bar in North Austin as part of a Austin Inventors and Entrepreneurs Association Meetup Tuesday night. “It’s highly effective. If you’re not willing to go through that step, you’re not committed enough.”
Then they had to create a 5 minute video that answered 25 questions, covering just about every aspect of their product. After getting through that round, Shark Tank producers asked them to create another 2 minute video covering more ground, presumably testing their screen presence along the way.
By the time Shark Tank was ready for the duo to go to California, Barany was about to have a baby — so they had to push it back, the whole time keeping it a secret to everyone.
They flew out to California and had to spot a white van to take them to a hotel to pick up a stipend for their basic expenses. They spent hours getting grilled by a room full of producers. And the whole time they had no guarantee that their presentation would ever go before the sharks or make it to air. Only about 100 of 140 companies that are taped for an episode actually make it to an episode, Turich said.
“It’s just this totally surreal thing — like what is happening to us,” Barany said. “You don’t expect it to play out like that.”
Finally, they found their way to a studio that was next to where The Voice was recording one of its episodes. They were ushered to a trailer and had a handler with them the whole time to ensure they didn’t talk with any other companies who had already been before the sharks.
“It’s still scary,” Turich said. “Everyday is scary. It’s not like we’re millionaires from this.”
They said they had prepared for virtually everything after watching every episode and studying the questions, responses and which companies landed deals. But they forgot one thing — what they might say when the deal was on the line
“We never thought how we’d reply on national television in front of millions of viewers,” Barany said. “All of a sudden, bam, it got thrown out.”
But it doesn’t end with a handshake. Soon, Monkey Mat’s lawyers were milling over thick contracts from Mark Cuban’s lawyers.
“We felt like we were signing away our lives and every idea we came up with, and we weren’t comfortable with that,” Turich said.
After some tweaks, they decided to sign. The episode was filmed in July, but Monkey Mat didn’t close the deal until November.
The duo said that Cuban’s representatives helped them a ton along the way, saving money on package design and driving their price per unit down from about $40 to about $20. But even Cuban’s team couldn’t predict how viewers would respond. Some companies are flooded with orders, others just see a spike in web traffic.
Monkey Mat had a spike in orders the day after the show aired, and it pressed their shipping company beyond its limits. They had to find new ways to get their product, which is made in China, to consumers in a timely manner. And two years later, Monkey Mat is still an exceptionally trying job, the duo said.
“It’s still scary,” Barany said. “Everyday is scary. It’s not like we’re millionaires from this.”
In fact, the duo said they still plow all their profits back into the business.
Since the episode, the company has inked a deal with Buy Buy Baby. And although they weren’t able to get their product into Bed Bath & Beyond, a local sales rep ordered some of the Monkey Mats from Buy Buy Baby to put in the Bed Bath & Beyond near Mueller in northeast Austin. If they can prove their sales there, the company could have their product distributed in another 1,000 stores.
One of the audience members at Tuesday night’s presentation asked what the hardest part was. And it brought Turich to tears as she talked about how much time and effort they still pour in, sacrificing family time and trying to bring their product to the next level.
“It’s hard financially,” she said. “You keep fighting. We’re doing it because we believe in it.”