When the producers of Shark Tank called and said to pack my bags, my product & presentation, and that I would be headed to California in less than 3 days, I almost fainted! I couldn’t believe it myself. I had secured the coveted spot on ABC’s Shark Tank with a 3 minute home-video where I used my single handmade “prototype” to demonstrate my idea and passion for helping children.
My Original AVA! Made from sponges, fabric, a dropper & the inside components of a talking greeting card!
After receiving the call I knew I had to have something much more professional to use on air. How could I stand in front of 5 multi-millionaires (not to mention over 5 million viewers!) with anything less than a top quality prototype? I had already ruled out the high-cost prototype production companies, it wasn’t in my budget and I knew it wasn’t necessary. I set out and searched every store I could find for a mold kit that would allow me to make a plastic version of what I envisioned. I found no such thing. I knew I could mold the shape I needed with clay, but most were oven baked and I surely couldn’t bake a plastic dropper or sound box. I eventually found a clay product that allowed me to construct the 5 samples I would need, one for each Shark.
Next came the sound. I would have to figure out how to put a voice inside of this tiny clay elephant. I knew from my first prototype that finding a single recordable sound box was like finding a needle in a haystack. Yes, they could be found, but buying 1,000 sound-chips at wholesale was not an option. When creating my original prototype (the one I used with Gibby) I had given up the search for a sound-box and settled for the insides of a recordable greeting card. Knowing that was much too flimsy and would look quite odd for TV, off I went again to search for AVA’s little voice. Being creative doesn’t just mean having new ideas, it means letting your mind wander to find your solution. I had run through everything, “Could I somehow tamper with the sound box from an existing toy to record my voice?” Nope. Then it hit me, I remembered a recordable BEAR at a very popular teddy bear store. I would just need to get the insides out and record the sound I wanted. It turned out to be bit larger than I would have liked, but I found a way to fit it on the back of the head to ensure it wouldn’t be an eye sore when pitching on camera. I practiced the “1, 2, 3, Open Wide….Good Job!” over and over until I had one I could live with and then rerecorded it on all 5.
One day later I was on a plane to California with HOPE the size of the moon and 5 little talking clay elephants. I insisted on keeping my delicate “prototypes” in my carry on because I could just picture what they would look like if I didn’t! I will never forget the reaction of the producers when I carried them in a cookie tin of sorts. It was as if everyone else that had entered their presence was much too concerned with their “containers”, and not what was inside. I knew the box didn’t matter; only the giggling response I had seen from children!
The night before my pitch I practiced in my hotel room and chatted with my family. I knew they were all that really mattered. After all, if I walked into the Shark Tank the next day; was told I was crazy, didn’t receive a penny & was laughed at by half of the country, I would still have them. My husband helped me more than he will ever know with one comment he made. When practicing my pitch he started throwing out hard and even rude questions to prepare me for the worst case scenario. Although it didn’t air, one of the same questions my husband had asked, Kevin O’Leary asked me as well, and thanks to him I was well prepared!
I receive email after email asking “Is Shark Tank real? Or are they just acting?” I can tell you first hand, it doesn’t get more real! You pace the floor waiting for your turn to pitch, watch the elevator doors open, take the long walk through the shark tanks and stand waiting for your queue to start your pitch. This is the first time you are seeing the “Sharks” and the first time they are seeing you. The Sharks have no idea what products they will see, as you can imagine, an honest/first impression is important for film. Some people ask about the product already being displayed in the pitch area. Well, of course it is! Imagine a nervous entrepreneur headed down that hallway with everything but their kitchen sink, and then trying to assemble it all on camera, now that would be interesting! The producers take your product/presentation right before you pitch and set it all up. That allows the entrepreneur to see the entire set and Sharks for the first time when they pitch.
You get one chance to get it right; there are no “do-over’s”. I was told very firmly, by Mark Burnett himself, “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, so many people would kill to be in that room, get in there and make it happen!” Enough said.
Right before stepping out of the elevator door, I prayed God would just let me get through my pitch, and left the outcome in his hands. After I was done with my pitch I actually received a warm response from some of the typically more harsh Sharks. Although they didn’t see AVA as a large enough opportunity, they couldn’t deny it made sense and was more fun than a typical dropper. Thankfully, Barbara was able to see my passion and loved my idea. I knew when we sealed our deal with a hug that day that we would have a lifelong bond.
The next day I headed home to celebrate with my family. I was the first product from Shark Tank that Barbara had invested in and she and I had a long road ahead and a lot to learn. I set out to learn the ropes and launch a successful product in time for my episode to air! I could have never prepared for the surprise I was in for a few months later. Cancer would interrupt an already stressful start to developing AVA. I am thankful to say that by the grace of God, I am on the other side of surgery, radiation and my first cancer free scan! I will share more about that part of my journey soon.
Get creative and make your idea a reality! It can’t hurt to try, right?
When arriving home from my appearance on Shark Tank my husband and I were obviously thrilled with the outcome & talked for days about what was to come! But as the dust settled, and we faced the reality of what this would mean for us, we had some long conversations, ”What if AVA became a huge success? What if it didn’t?” I remember saying, “If I can reach a point where I am able to give out AVA’s to sick children, it will be a dream come true for me!” Of course I wanted AVA to succeed worldwide, but the vision in my head was that one sick child I met while at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. She looked so broken and so tired of the adult worries she was facing, knowing it was time for medicine, again. To see her smile was all I wanted.
Through perseverance, and a lot of hard work, I was able to see that very dream come true! Recently I packed a LARGE box of AVA the Elephant’s and headed to Ojai, California to visit children at camp Dream Street! The best part? These children, although sick and usually hospital bound, were in beautiful Southern California, about to experience the best time of their life!
The handmade sign the children @ Dream Street made for my arrival! It hung on the bunk I would sleep in while there. It now hangs in my office as inspiration to keep pushing, just like all of the brave kids at Dream Street do every day!
My life is forever changed because of a place called Dream Street! Imagine the things you dreamed of doing as a child. Dream Street is being able to do ALL of those for a full week, non-stop! For the children attending camp, all who are sick, it was heaven on earth! It allows them to check out from the adult fears/responsibilities and just be a kid again!
It looked something like this:
- Candy and junk food at all times!
- Being able to zip-line down a ravine in Southern California, as many times as you wanted to!
- Rock climbing, again, as many times as you could handle it!
- A carnival, where you need no tickets, & you get to dunk your camp counselor over and over again!
- Camp directors/counselor’s/doctors and nurses that treat you with the same love as your parents do.
- Meeting friends who REALLY understand what you are going through.
- Breaking through a piece of WOOD with your bare hand!
- Horseback riding!
- Having a water balloon/water gun fight with over 200 friends! Where adults not only allowed it, but participated! Why? Because they started it!
- Meeting counselors you could look up to because they had battled the same sickness as a child, and are now healthy and happy years later!
- Getting to swim every single day!
- Having a snowball fight, in Southern California, in July!
- Resting easy with Nurses and Doctors on hand 24/7 making sure you get the medicication and medical care you need.
- A dance held on the last night where you danced the night away, and then cried because the next morning you would leave the people who instantly “got you”.
- Watching your cool camp counselor catch a snake with his bare hands! A BIG one at that, and then laughing as he scared the camp director with it! (Sorry Tiffany, I had no idea you were terrified of snakes!)
It is hard to pick the most touching/emotional moment of my time there. I only spent a few short few days at camp, but the memories will last me a lifetime. I cried like a baby more than once, and have many times since when I think of this place and the people I met there. The director, Tiffany, has a heart of gold and puts an entire years worth of work into making this place as amazing as it is! She will be a life-long friend of mine, we share the same tender heart, sometimes to a fault I am sure. I still can’t believe the way she organized so many amazing things in one short week. The children love her, she is without a doubt their angel. They showed her with frequent hugs, so many my neck hurt because I would hear “Tiffany, Tiffany!” and turn only to see them running up to her =)
90% of the counselors are survivors, who at a young age attended Dream Street, and couldn’t stay away because of the way it changed their lives. The illnesses they faced range from Cancer to Hemophilia and other life threatening illnesses. They truly understand the emotion and pain these children face every day. I fell in love with many of them, they have a glow and life about them that only a survivor has. I loved watching them interact with the children. For me Dream Street was emotional for SO many reasons. But one way the counselors and children touched my life was in giving me hope. Hope that even if my cancer did come back, I could beat it again, like many of them had. It is very humbling to look up to a 7 year olds strength and perseverance. I wish I had been able to stay the entire week at Dream Street because I didn’t get to know all of the children the way I would have liked to. However, I did get to know a few of them very well. One little girl had eyes that made you feel like you were looking into an angels eyes. Although she had this calm peace about her, when she was hurt, her eyes showed it. And it cut you to the core. I had the hardest time letting her go on the last night.
Another little girl had a life changing week at Dream Street! She hadn’t talked for most of her life. Apparently no more than a few words had come out of her sweet little mouth! The day I arrived one counselor was taking video of her talking up a storm while horseback riding. The look on her face was that of amazement, I couldn’t figure out why, I asked “Was she scared of horses before?” And she said, “No, before Dream Street she had only spoken a few words in her entire life!” The same little girl who was gabbing with her new best friend on the horse next to her??? It was nothing short of a miracle.
I developed the closest bonds with the counselors and young girls in the cabin next to mine. They took me in on day 2 and blessed me more than they will ever know. I had at least 3 times where we laughed so hard we cried, that great belly laugh where you literally can’t breathe! One of the counselors was Laura, a beautiful Television host from the same area in California. She also shares the “tender heart syndrome” and cried as much as I did! Another with whom I shared a faith in God and a great sense of humor! Her impressions on the last night were comedy central worthy! Aviana was just beautiful and her story of beating cancer will stick with me for a long time!
I bonded with one little girl who literally took a chunk of my heart home in her pocket. I won’t say her name because she didn’t want kids at school to know she went to “sick camp”. That conversation broke me, I couldn’t believe what the world around me had become. How is it possible that children are making fun of another child for being sick? Really sick. I know as a child I had compassion. I also know that my parents would have let me have it if they had ever heard me making fun of someone who was sick. Although she is battling something really rough, when you did get a smile out of her, it would light up your world! I loved that the one thing that made her week was least expected. After being taken up on stage, by Laura who had also fallen in love with her, she was given the chance to break through 8 huge bricks with a karate master! This is the same little girl that would barely utter a word if you begged her. She walked up on that stage and hit those bricks with her precious little hand. It was as if her sickness, hospitals and any worry she had faded away. Her beautiful face lit up under the beanie hat she wore every single day. I wish I could have bottled up that moment and sent it back with her to help her battle-on! Later that night as the girls were crawling into their bunk beds, I asked her, “Did you love breaking those bricks today or what?” And with true conviction, in a way you could tell she meant every single word of it, she said “That was the best moment of my life!” My heart almost fell out on the floor. Children always say “Best day EVER, Best gift EVER, Best friend EVER!!!!” But you could tell, she meant it, it was truly the top moment, in her so far short lived life. The next day Laura had a great idea. This little girl loved art and creating things. She asked her to take the wood we had broken and paint her quote from the week across both pieces. That way we could take a bit of her home with us. It is now on my mantle where it will stay for years to come.
Dream Street is extremely uplifting but can be heartbreaking at the same time. To hear a little boy that looks completely healthy say he needs to leave the bonfire and go to bed because his medicine is making him sick is devastating. I think I may have cried for 2 hours straight on the last night. And that didn’t count the hours in bed later that night. To hear children say the things they said was just more than I could take. I can’t share the truly heartbreaking things they said, it wouldn’t be fair to them. But my prayer would be that every single person visit a place like this. It will change your life. I hope when reading my journal from this amazing trip, you will feel inclined to support this wonderful place. I will carry the strength of these little angels with me throughout the year, and I will without a doubt see them again next year. Dream Street is a special place that changes these children’s lives. After spending day after day at the doctor or in the hospital, they are able to just be kids and that is priceless!
About Dream Street Camp/Foundation:
Dream Street provides a customized camping program for over 700 children AND young adults with cancer, AIDS, cystic fibrosis, leukemia and other perilous diseases that are given the opportunity to enjoy activities they are normally restricted from due to their illnesses. For children ages 4-14 that require medications and treatments several times a day, conventional sleep away camps are not an option. With over 100 volunteer pediatric doctors, registered nurses and counselors, our camp provides 24 hour a day care for all medical needs including administering medications and treatments. The kids enjoy activities such as swimming, horseback rides, baseball, basketball, petting zoos, dances, plays, arts and crafts and even their own special “Olympics.” Camping sessions are free of charge to the children who are flown in (also free of charge) from hospitals around the world.
An entrepreneurs’ first priority should be spending money wisely. With so many companies out there to “help” inventors, it is easy to see how some spend all of their seed money in the wrong place. In some cases that may be in the form of a working prototype. (You will find more information on prototyping in Step 6 of Stage 1)
Although I touched a bit on my thought process while creating the AVA prototypes I used during my pitch on Shark Tank, I would like to share the details of my experience of prototyping after Shark Tank and the possible road blocks you may encounter.
Although every prototyping company will tell you that you need a professional prototype in order to meet with investors, I am proof that this is not true. I can give you three other examples of inventors who made their own prototypes and who are now wildly successful!
- Sara Blakley of Spanks®! Her homemade prototype sure didn’t stifle her success did it?
- Tamara Monosoff constructed her first homemade prototype as well! I highly recommend her book Mom Inventor’s® Handbook. It helped me a lot in the beginning. As a matter of fact, I just found it while going through my office a few days ago. I couldn’t help but sit and grin at the post-it notes with my handwritten scribbles on them.
- My fellow momprenuer, Amy Baxter, of Buzzy the Bee® also made her first working prototype at home. Electrical components and all!
That being said, there are certain products that will need to be made by a professional prototyping company. You will need to decide, Can I create a working sample of what I envision? Will I be happy to show it to investors?
After my appearance on Shark Tank, I headed home to develop my product. I had only one of the five clay elephants left (I was thankful one Shark left their AVA behind because I would have it for years to come to remember the experience) It was time to decide the specifications for AVA in order to get my product into production in time for the Shark Tank premiere!
I found out very quickly how smart Barbara is with her investments. It is, without a doubt, one of the biggest reasons for our continued success. She made a valid point “Why would we pay a company to reproduce what you have already done? You sold the product to me with a clay elephant, why go any further? Instead, we looked for a solid manufacturer to do business with and we took the time to go back and forth until we eventually had in our hands what I first envisioned. She forces me daily to look at business from a “Why not?” mentality. Why can’t we do it this way? Why can’t we do it for this price? Companies will never hand the best product/cost to you on a platter, you must ask for it, or in some cases demand it. I believe some men (and women) in business may see that as a “difficult” person to deal with. But the reality is, you will never survive in business if you don’t have a mixture of kindness and firmness. Where my big heart got me in trouble in the beginning, I have learned to take care of my interests and my partners interests.
It was very important to me when launching this website that I share our triumphs AND hardships. I want you to learn from the things we did right and the things we could have done differently. Let’s just say we didn’t pick the best first partner. This is understandable, seeing as Barbara had never invested in a retail product related business prior to mine. Although she is extremely successful in business, those types of contacts didn’t help us any in our search to find a reliable factory on the first try. This is why connections with other inventors who have successful products are crucial. Their references are priceless. Here are some examples of what I received although I described a friendly/soft/comforting elephant…
One thing I was guilty of in the beginning was being too loyal. It is just my nature to stick around through thick and thin, sometimes to a fault. I have now learned to trust the first sign of trouble in business and fix it promptly! While working with our first factory, I had requested a working AVA, with sound, multiple times. However, I continued to receive only the head without the sound module inside. As a last attempt I let them know I would not move forward with them if I didn’t receive a working, talking sample within the week. I was thrilled a few days later when my box arrived from China. I pulled out my little AVA and giggled as I pressed the button, they had finally created one with sound! And that was when I heard…“Ruff, Ruff, Ruff”
I was in disbelief. Had they really just sent me a BARKING ELEPHANT? I completely understand there are language barriers between different countries. After all, my husband had only been in the states for 6 years so I experienced it daily. But how could they possibly send me a barking elephant!?! I was not happy, to say the least. I contacted them right away to let them know I would be switching companies and why.
Had I cut ties with this “middle man” and moved on to find a new manufacturer when my instinct had first told me to, we would not have missed the huge opportunity that was right around the corner, literally.
I found a new company quickly whose references were impeccable. Because we only had the barking sample of AVA, I sent it off right away to our new company’s factory. They would use it to create a final, working prototype for production.
One day after shipping out our only “non-clay” elephant, my phone rang. It was the producer of a major daytime television show. She had heard about AVA and wanted to feature her as the way to administer medicine to children! The show would film 24 hours later and they would need a working sample sent overnight to arrive no later than 10am. My stomach dropped. Actually, just typing this makes me a little nauseous!
We tried everything, including begging the Post Office to stop the package. But there was no getting a working sample to the show in time. As you can imagine, I was heartbroken and assumed I would never get such wonderful press again. Many other press opportunities have come AVA’s way and will continue to keep in touch with that show in the hopes of the same show topic coming up again!
It is crucial that you find the right partner from the start. Check references! Check references! Check References! I can’t say that enough times. Speaking with the provided references can give you a clear view as to what the company will deliver. Ask: Did they deliver a quality product, on time, for the agreed price?
You may say “Well, if you missed such a huge opportunity, then why would I risk not using a prototype company from the start in order to get it done more quickly and get it right the first time around?” I can tell you why, because you will need to spend money wisely! The odds of getting this type of time sensitive call are slim to none. If your prototype costs a few hundred dollars it may be worth it, but if it is thousands of dollars, it may not be money well spent. May all of your products arrive making the correct sounds~!