Joe Altieri: “Lessons from the Tank”

SOLUTIONS WIN: As a leader, I look for two things in an employee: are they a good fit for our company culture, and do they have the necessary skills to solve my problems? That’s it. The pro-active go-getters who will attack problems head-on will always rise to the top, and frequently they aren’t the ones […]

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SOLUTIONS WIN: As a leader, I look for two things in an employee: are they a good fit for our company culture, and do they have the necessary skills to solve my problems? That’s it. The pro-active go-getters who will attack problems head-on will always rise to the top, and frequently they aren’t the ones with the highest levels of education or the most impressive resumes. Everyone can find a problem. That’s why a business exists in the first place — to solve problems, real or perceived. But the most influential, successful, and fulfilled people stand out by seeking solutions.

As a part of my series about the ‘5 Important Business Lessons I Learned While Being On The Shark Tank’ I had the pleasure of interviewing Joe Altieri.

Joe Altieri is a life-long innovator, entrepreneur, and problem solver who turned his cutting-edge invention, FlexScreen — the world’s first and only flexible window screen — into a thriving multi-million-dollar company. Since its introduction into the marketplace, FlexScreen has earned multiple awards, gained international attention, and caught the eye of Shark Tank producers, who invited him to pitch his invention on the hit show. Joe appeared in Season 11, Episode 10 of Shark Tank, where three Sharks battled for a piece of FlexScreen, with Lori Greiner, the Queen of QVC, hooking the deal.

A third-generation entrepreneur, Joe learned the value of creating outstanding teams and healthy organizational cultures from his father and grandfather. He is generous with his resources and time and has been honored and recognized as one of Pittsburgh’s Volunteers of the Year. Joe married his high school sweetheart, Alisha, and they have four children, two of whom are married and have children of their own. They all still like each other enough to get together every Sunday for dinner, and Joe considers their healthy family life to be his most important and highest achievement.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit of the backstory about how you grew up?

The adults in my life struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, and as a result, I learned independence very early. My father and grandfather owned businesses, and I spent a lot of time observing and learning from their successes and failures. By the age of 12, I was finding ways to work and earn money. At 15, I was selling flowers curbside and doing so much business that the local flower shop owner made an impromptu visit to my stand to see what was going on. I believe that I’m a born entrepreneur. I’ve always had a strong work ethic and a real drive and determination to make things better and seek solutions.

Can you share with us the story of the “aha moment” that gave you the idea to start your company?

During my 20 years in the window industry, I dealt with countless and constant complaints from my customers, some of the country’s largest window manufacturers, about the inherent problems with traditional window screens — flimsy aluminum frames that easily dent and break; complicated hardware that makes installation and removal nearly impossible, and the list goes on and on. Conventional screen technology is over 100 years old and hasn’t really changed at all in that time. I knew that there had to be a better way and it was time to find it. I took to my garage to start experimenting with different frame materials and designs. My biggest inspiration and “aha moment” came one night while I was putting away my daughter’s princess pop-up tent. It occurred to me that I might be able to make a window screen with similar properties that could solve all of the problems with traditional screens. From conception to finished product took over two years, but when I completed my first “duct tape and bubble gum” prototype, I knew I had something

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

It would have to be the whole Shark Tank experience. It’s difficult to describe how much the Shark Tank journey impacted me, personally, and my company. I think we’re going to talk more about that a little later though.

Can you share a story about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

Well, I don’t know how humorous it is. Maybe now, but not at the time! We had all of the excitement about the product, and lots of “we want that” affirmations from industry professionals, so we moved ahead and built 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 many big bills, very few orders, and a fair amount of anxiety. As it turns out, trying to change an industry that had grown accustomed to using 100-year-old technology is a bit like turning the Titanic around. The “slow yes” just about did me in. Although I’m naturally a sort of “ready, fire, aim” person, that hard lesson taught me to take a breath and realistically assess situations before diving in head-first. Thankfully, momentum eventually kicked in, and now we’re adding shifts and hiring at all of our locations. We recently opened a new plant in Toronto as well. I’m very grateful to have the “good problem” of trying to keep up with demand.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We’re working on some exciting new products based on customer feedback, but I can’t talk about those yet. One thing that I can talk about and that I’m passionate about, though, is a new initiative we’re starting called “Screens Save Lives,” where a portion of the proceeds from every screen that we sell will go toward helping protect the most vulnerable from the deadly disease of malaria. When I learned the devastating statistics — 219 million new cases in 2019 alone, 435,000 deaths, and 75% of them were children under the age of 5 — it was simply unacceptable to me. We’ll be working with partner organizations in Africa to distribute insecticide coated mosquito nets. We’re finishing up the details and should be launching by the end of this year. I’m really excited about this project. As FlexScreen grows, so will our impact, and I believe we’ll help save many lives.

Ok, thank you for all that. Let’s now move to the main part of our interview. Many of us have no idea about the backend process of how to apply and get accepted to be on the Shark Tank. Can you tell us the story about how you applied and got accepted. What “hoops” did you have to go through to get there? How did it feel to be accepted?

Sure, and our story is actually quite a-typical. We didn’t seek out the opportunity to be on the show — they found us through our social media marketing and reached out to us because they believed that our innovative, one-of-a-kind product was perfect for pitching to the Sharks. We’ve since learned that this rarely happens. When we got that first email from one of the Shark Tank producers, we weren’t convinced that it was real. But very soon, it became very real! We responded to the email that, of course, we would like to pursue the opportunity, and the ball started rolling. After some vigorous vetting and a very lengthy application process, our filming date was set, and we were all just kind of stunned that this was actually happening. The product that I invented in my garage was going to be seen by millions and millions of people on national TV. I can honestly say that I didn’t see that one coming! And it wasn’t the application process, the multiple phone calls with producers, the preparation, or even standing in front of the Sharks and filming that made it completely real to me. It was when our segment actually aired on television that I let myself believe it. It was kind of like holding your breath through a tunnel when you’re a kid. When you finally exhale, it’s the most massive wave of relief.

I’m sure the actual presentation was pretty nerve wracking. What did you do to calm and steel yourself to do such a great job on the show?

It was the most nerve-wracking experience! But I had this one-shot that I believe was a gift, and I made up my mind that it would not be because of my lack of preparation if it didn’t go well. I spent countless hours preparing, editing, and practicing my pitch, memorizing our numbers, and anticipating the Sharks’ questions. I just kept reminding myself that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — AND that I would only have to do it once! That was important to remember as well because otherwise, the stress was easily overwhelming. I was going to give it my all and be proud no matter the outcome.

So what was the outcome of your Shark Tank pitch. Were you pleased with the outcome?

I was very pleased with the outcome! Three of the five Sharks, Kevin O’Leary, Barbara Corcoran, and Lori Greiner, made offers. The battle between Barbara and Lori became pretty heated, causing our segment to be one of the most talked-about in all of Season 11. I ended up choosing Lori Greiner because I believed she had better connections in the hardware space, and it was a great decision! The deal has been negotiated and signed, and Lori is now an equity partner. To say it’s a bit surreal would be an understatement!

What are your “5 Important Business Lessons I Learned While Being On The Shark Tank”? (Please share a story or example for each.)

I’ve learned so much about life and leadership from this experience that I started a blog called “Lessons from the Tank,” where I share my most impactful insights. Out of all, I would say these five have emerged as the most important:

SOLUTIONS WIN: As a leader, I look for two things in an employee: are they a good fit for our company culture, and do they have the necessary skills to solve my problems? That’s it. The pro-active go-getters who will attack problems head-on will always rise to the top, and frequently they aren’t the ones with the highest levels of education or the most impressive resumes. Everyone can find a problem. That’s why a business exists in the first place — to solve problems, real or perceived. But the most influential, successful, and fulfilled people stand out by seeking solutions. I landed on Shark Tank because I solved a problem. Never underestimate the power of helping.

TRANSPARENCY AND VULNERABILITY ARE KEYS TO SUCCESS: As leaders, we have to will ourselves not to throw up our hands and slip into complacency when we’re feeling overwhelmed. Your teams are looking to you for calmness, reason, stability, and hope, even when you’re in turmoil. So how do you provide all of that amid extreme pressure? When you’re feeling tired or uncertain, don’t hide it. Transparency and vulnerability are not weaknesses. On the contrary, they are like powerful magnets that draw the people who care about you and your company even closer into a circle of concern and solution-seeking. Truly invested people want to help. Lean into the strength that can bring during trying times. Allow them to lift some of the burden, or risk becoming a sad statistic.

DIFFERENTIATE: We describe companies that are not moving forward as stagnant, but I’m not so sure that’s a thing. You’re always moving toward something. Either you’re hammering your way toward innovation, or you’re pounding nails into the coffin of your business. Ask yourself these critical questions: What are you doing to differentiate? What innovative and new ideas are you working on (and implementing) that will propel your product or service to the front of, in most cases, a very long line? How you answer these questions may very well determine the future of your business.

CONFIDENCE, NOT ARROGANCE: Confidence is tricky because so often, it blurs the line with arrogance. Strong belief in yourself, your mission, your product, etc., when misunderstood, is almost always perceived as arrogance. 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 receive their advice got a deal ZERO percent of the time. These entrepreneurs had confidence in spades but lacked humility — the perfect recipe for arrogance. And arrogance is like blood in the water; it signals insecurity, which is a deadly deal-breaker every time.

CHEAT FAIR: 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. I believe that our businesses and professional lives will only rise and thrive to the level of our personal relationships, and it’s essential to put some “guard rail” stakes in the ground to ensure that your personal life emerges intact at the end of every professional challenge. In my life, those guard rails include 2–3 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.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive and avoid burnout?

I think many of the things I just mentioned are essential, but if I had to pick one, it would be to surround yourself with a stellar team of competent and caring individuals and then trust them to lead and allow them to hold you accountable. If you did a case study of every great leader who fell from grace, I believe you would find three common threads woven throughout every tragic story: They had little to no margin in their lives, they did not fully trust their teams, and they lacked the humility to receive honest feedback. No one achieves greatness alone. No one.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I feel like we make this harder than it needs to be. Simply determine to do good. Use what you’ve been given to do good in this world and find a way to give back. Align yourself with a trusted local or global organization that is changing the world by eliminating hunger, providing clean water, fighting human trafficking, cleaning the oceans, loving the at-risk and marginalized — whatever cause speaks the most to your soul. Then give consistently — your time, money, or (better yet) both. And while you’re doing good, also determine to do no harm. I once heard it said that the people who are always looking for a fight are the ones who aren’t in one. In other words, they don’t know their purpose. We are all fighters at heart, hard-wired to make a difference. So just go find a good fight — no matter how big or small you think the impact might be — and get in the ring. Doing something is always better than doing nothing.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“The way to get what you want is to help other people get what they want.” -Zig Ziglar

Several years ago, my wife and I did a life evaluation and decided that we needed some guiding values to measure our choices against if we wanted to live an extraordinary life and have a thriving business. We came up with Honest, Passionate, Grateful, Healthy, and Adventurous.* Everything that we do revolves around or supports one of these values, or we don’t do it. This quote directly speaks to the value of being grateful, which would be number one if I had to rank them. When you choose to be thankful, it naturally leads to being generous, which then leads to positive change. It’s a powerful formula. We’ve spent a great deal of time volunteering with children, serving through various community organizations, and doing our best to be consistently generous with our finances. At one point, I was surprised and honored to be chosen as Pittsburgh’s Volunteer of the Year. Although getting something out of it is never our motivation, we have found Zig Ziglar’s wise words to be very true. *I host a weekly Dare to be Different Podcast with a variety of interesting guests where we highlight these five values and offer practical tips for living an extraordinary life.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Apple CEO, Tim Cook, would be a top choice. What Steve Jobs did at Apple is so inspiring. We look to the lessons that Apple teaches as they completely dominate an industry and lead the world in innovative ideas. I would love to meet the man who is carrying that legacy.

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