Entrepreneur Shares Secrets to Her Successful Business, Despite Blunt ‘Shark Tank’ Rejection

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Popular TV show “Shark Tank” helps reinforce the idea of the American Dream. Millions of viewers root for competing inventors and entrepreneurs. The ABC hit show has transformed hundreds of businesses from mediocre to million-dollar through the size of its audience. Pitching your product or business to the Sharks all but guarantees nationwide attention on your company, so competition for a spot is fierce.

Landing that spot isn’t easy. About 45,000 people applied in 2014. Fewer than 450 were invited to pitch. About 100 made the show.

How one entrepreneur landed a spot in front of the Sharks

cheekd_2We spoke with Lori Cheek, founder of hyper speed Bluetooth mobile dating app, Cheekd, and past “Shark Tank” contestant. After watching a friend hand a stranger his business card with a date proposal written on the back, Lori had an idea.

She created Cheekd cards, cards with a quirky saying and a link to your online dating profile. When the business launched in 2010, it got so much traction and publicity (Thanks, Oprah) that Lori quit her $120,000-per year architect career to pursue Cheekd full time.

Even though Cheekd went global with customers in 47 states and 28 countries, it wasn’t the success Lori envisioned. She found creative ways to generate cash after she blew through her savings account.

She says, “I made nearly $75,000 by selling my designer clothes at consignment shops and on eBay, doing focus groups, secret shopping, app testing, dog walking, house sitting, watering plants and selling my electronics and other odds and ends on Craigslist. It all went straight back into my business.” She even rented out her New York West Village Studio on AirBnB while she couch-surfed for 14 months.

After four years of trying to grow her start up, tangling with bad business partners and making major rookie mistakes along the way, Lori hit a financial brick wall. A friend suggested that she apply for “Shark Tank” in 2012. The process took almost a year from application, to acceptance, to air. “It was an honor but it was a lot of work to get on the show,” she says. “The application process was so lengthy, I felt like I could have had a law degree by the time I went through it all.”

Not only did Lori pour a great deal of time into the “Shark Tank” process, she also lost a relationship over it. She says, “I was engaged to a man who couldn’t deal with the amount of time I spent preparing for the opportunity.”

Even after doing the legwork to get on the show, Lori knew it was a big risk to put her idea in front of millions of viewers. “I knew I’d probably get eaten alive by the sharks,” she says. “I took the risk knowing that there would be approximately 8 million viewers, and if I couldn’t win the money from the sharks, I could potentially win the hearts of the TV audience of one of the most watched prime time television programs.”

What happened when Lori took the stage

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If you are a fan of “Shark Tank,” you probably have a favorite Shark and may have even pictured yourself standing in front of that person, pitching your own unique idea. Imagine not just your favorite Shark, but all of the Sharks tearing your business baby to pieces. Ouch!

Lori had her heart set on winning over tech billionaire and Dallas Mavericks’ owner, Mark Cuban. She was in for sharp disappointment. When she declared that her business could change the population, Cuban threw up his hands, rolled his eyes, and said, “I have a rule. When people come in who are delusional, I have to say I’m out. I’m out.”

The rest of Lori’s tank time went downhill quickly after that. She remembers, “I’d heard from one of the producers that once you start going into the dark side, it’s hard to crawl out.” Her time in the tank ended when Barbara Corcoran said, “You’re the right entrepreneur, but this is the wrong business,” and an off-color story from Kevin O’Leary, best known as Mr. Wonderful, about a father who makes his son shoot his rabid dog. O’Leary said, “Your deal is your dog. If you won’t let me shoot it, I have to say I’m out.”

Lori was shot down by all five Sharks. She looked them in the eye and said, “Trust that you’ll all see me again.” These words ended up on the cutting room floor, but she meant what she said.

Lori survived a Shark attack

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Even though Lori knew she bombed in the “Shark Tank” episode, she invited over 500 New Yorkers to watch the premiere of her episode in a midtown Manhattan rooftop bar. While Lori’s idea wasn’t strong enough to “swim with the sharks,” she had achieved her goal of winning America over. Two days after the broadcast, Cheekd.com received a record breaking 100,000 unique visitors.

Lori’s inbox was bombarded. She received thousands of emails, most expressing support for her idea. Over 40 emails came from interested investors. She raised five times the amount she asked for on “Shark Tank.” Each time her segment re-airs on television, she is hit with another wave of supportive emails and interested customers.

“I’m thankful I didn’t take the Sharks’ advice to quit and move on,” says Lori, although she didn’t completely dismiss everything the Sharks told her. She brought a chief technology officer on board who has helped facilitate and finance a new face and technology for Cheekd. Cheekd now uses Bluetooth technology to allow users to connect to nearby “sparks” in real time, even on a train or plane.

Advice from an entrepreneur

Lori gives entrepreneurs this hard-won “Shark Tank” veteran advice:

  • No press is bad press. Her TV appearance led to dozens of articles and news pieces on top-rated sites like Forbes and Entrepreneur.
  • Have thick skin. “If you’re resilient enough, can handle criticism and can spin failure, appearing on the ‘Shark Tank’ can be life altering in the most amazing way.” Lori notes that an eight-minute segment on the show is supposedly equivalent to $8 million in ad dollars.

The best advice Lori offers is to refuse to give up on your dreams. “I feel like I’m living the American Dream—I’ve given birth to an invention,” Lori says.I’ve gone from 15 years of helping others build their dreams to a life finally dedicated to building my own. It’s the most rewarding feeling.”

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Published December 30, 2016
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