Where there is great drama, there is a great pitch. Reality TV does not operate in reality. Our appearance on Shark Tank is best described as a performance. Most great pitches are; there is energy, there is charisma, and there is drama. Being on Shark Tank was a heightened state of reality; every personality on the show was magnified, including our own. It is that drama that sucks the viewer in and makes the show so great.
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 Monica Ferguson. Monica is the CoFounder of Solemates, a female founded consumer products good brand. She is a graduate of Columbia Business School and Georgetown University. Before launching Solemates she worked in the Investment Management Division of Goldman, Sachs & Co. in New York.
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?
I grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut as the youngest of 4 children. My parents both worked; my father as an attorney and my mother in real estate. While both had traditional ‘careers’; they both operated with strong entrepreneurial spirits within their industries.
Can you share with us the story of the “aha moment” that gave you the idea to start your company?
I was sitting in a graduate school class at Columbia and the professor told us we had two choices; show up for a difficult in-class final or develop our own business plan. I turned to the friend sitting next to me and asked “do you have any ideas for a business plan? I really don’t want to take the final.” She replied “why is there nothing to keep heels from sinking into the grass at weddings?”
I was in my late 20s and attending a wedding (or two) every weekend. My heels were all shot from sinking into dirt, grass, cobblestones and bricks. I replied “wait, yes, that’s a brilliant idea”.
The friend went on to become my business partner.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Our core product is a high heel protector. We invented it; and by “it”, I mean the concept of protecting one’s heel via a third party device. Imagine cold calling a store or a magazine and explaining that you had created something that had never existed before and in the same conversation explain what it was and convince them they needed it. It was exhausting. It was frustrating. It sometimes felt like we were trying to roll a boulder up a hill. And then one day, things changed. Instead of having to explain what a heel protector was, whoever I was speaking with interrupted me to say “no, I know what that is. Ive heard of it” or “Yes, Ive seen you guys in stores” or “yes Ive read about that” or best of all “Yes I just used you at a recent x”
All of our calls, pitches, posts, and sales had been working towards this moment and then it happened; and it was really great. We had introduced a new concept and with it, new vernacular into the language. In successfully doing so we had put ourselves on the map!
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?
On our first run of packaging, we had a spelling error. I learned that the word I intended to use, “discreet” is not spelled like the unique mathematical value “discrete”. The mistake seemed anything but discreet!
It was the first time I realized how exposed we were as a brand and a company. In my earlier career, working for Goldman Sachs, I felt protected; there were several sets of eyeballs on anything that ever went outside of the firm. As an entrepreneur leading a start up, there is no defense; if you make a mistake, the world sees it.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Our anchor product, the heel protector, gave us tremendous exposure and established us a trusted brand for women. Our customers knew our product solved a problem in an elegant way; that our brand delivered on its promise. Once that was in the market and doing well, we knew we had a unique opportunity to expand the brand and introduce more elegant solutions to common footwear problems.
Our goal, to make you more comfortable in your own shoes, speaks to more than just adding insoles to a shoe or preventing blisters, or protecting shoes from bad weather. While we deliver, excellently, on all of those challenges, the goal of the brand is to make our customers (of which men and children and now inclusive) to feel better, more comfortable, and more confident (in their own shoes). When you feel your best, you perform at your best.
Before developing Solemates, walking in heels on soft surfaces was genuinely a very difficult thing to do. We dreaded the idea of a party on a lawn, a graduation, a wedding. We were held back, physically, at some of the most momentous points of our lives; and it was ridiculous.
Introducing a solution that solves a genuine problem invites tremendous upside into our customers lives; and we’re really grateful that we get to be at the helm of that movement, for now.
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?
My MBA program (Columbia Business School) held a closed audition for students and alumni. With my business partner, we were the first to pitch and were confident we had sufficiently impressed the on-site producers. A member of the press was in the room, and while they had been instructed not to make comments, one of them was moved to declare “I used your heel protectors at my wedding last year in Tuscany. They are awesome!” It felt like kismet.
The short version of the story goes on to say that shortly after our on campus audition, we got a call from a producers asking us to make a video for the final round of the process. We made and submitted a video a few days later, and voila, were promoted again to the final round where we were matched with a dedicated production team with whom we had weekly calls until we were invited to tape in Los Angeles.
The longer (and actual version) is that after impressing the on-site producers, we were asked to submit a video. The tape that we went on to make was so bad that we went from favored darlings to dropped contenders! It was boring and we came across as flat, dull, and uninteresting. Months later, after being solicited by producers from several other business-reality shows, we sent a Hail Mary email to one of Shark Tank’s producers. To our delight, they called me a few minutes later and instructed us to submit a new video. Having learned our lesson on what not to include in a video submission for a reality show, we created a new and improved production. The new video was fun; we were full of energy, hyper-animated and engaged. From there, we were matched with a dedicated production team with whom we had weekly calls until we were invited to tape in Los Angeles. Lesson, learned.
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?
Once we were paired with a production team and engaging in weekly calls, we sought formal media training to prepare us for the actual pitch. It was the best decision we could have made. In a few short sessions, we went from bumbling blondes to polished pitchers; equipped with the basic skills to perform well under pressure.
So what was the outcome of your Shark Tank pitch. Were you pleased with the outcome?
Our pitch went very well. We were “in the tank” for close to two hours in order to produce 8 minutes of television. We received multiple offers and were happy with the tone of the dialogue that occurred among all of the sharks.
What are your “5 Important Business Lessons I Learned While Being On The Shark Tank”? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Where there is great drama, there is a great pitch. Reality TV does not operate in reality. Our appearance on Shark Tank is best described as a performance. Most great pitches are; there is energy, there is charisma, and there is drama. Being on Shark Tank was a heightened state of reality; every personality on the show was magnified, including our own. It is that drama that sucks the viewer in and makes the show so great.
- Confidence is King (or, in our case, Queen). We knew our pitch and knew our business inside and out. We were confident talking about every aspect of it; from the financial to the strategic. It allowed us to engage with the Sharks and not feel intimidated by them.
- Expect the unexpected. Shark Tank is its most entertaining when there is a curveball thrown at the entrepreneur (or the Sharks). Being able to respond well to the unexpected surprises is what separates the successful from the pack.Lori G. was not interested in our brand. Given her brand identity, this was surprising. When it was clear she was not “biting”, we were quick to focus our energy on the other Sharks.
- Community is Key. The Shark Tank Community lives on long after the taping.Every person who has appeared on Shark Tank is a member of a private facebook group. There, in a confidential and trusted forum, best practices are shared, advice is given, and complaints are heard. It’s been the greatest gift and the most valued part of our entire Shark Tank experience.Having a community of colleagues who understand your plight is invaluable.
- Play the long game. Being on Shark Tank was great; but it was one of many great events that has occurred over the life of the Solemates brand. There are going to be many great things that happen and many setbacks and challenges that occur while creating a brand. The challenge is in not placing too much weight in either one; but riding out the good and the bad and knowing that they are all just a part of the journey.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive and avoid burnout?
Some of the most useful advice Ive been given was pulled from the flight attendant pre-flight safety check monologue. “Secure your own mask first; and then secure those of the people around you”. Whatever path one takes in their life they have to remember that in order to be their best, they have to take care of themselves first in order to help and take care of other people. Entrepreneurs can often get so wrapped up in the business they are trying to build that they neglect to take care of themselves; mind and body.
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 would like to inspire a movement of gratitude; or bring back the etiquette of the thank you note. It’s the simplest practice; particularly in the age of email (even text). A thank you goes so far.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Be comfortable being uncomfortable”. As an entrepreneur, that expression is the lifeblood of my existence. I have learned to be comfortable not know how things are going to turn out, if my decisions are going to help or hurt me, and whether or not the gamble has paid off.
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 🙂
Sara Blakely from Spanx is our consumer product goods branding idol. She identified a problem, introduced a solution, and created a powerful and lasting behemoth of a brand.