Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Taking on the Sharks

As many of you know, Element Bars was recently featured on the hit ABC show, Shark Tank. After months of intense build up for our team, and a hectic few weeks since the viewing, we’d like to reflect and share tidbits from the experience with you in this post.

A Company in Need of Some Friends (with money)

In the Spring of 2009, our early customers were spreading the word that they loved the taste of our bars. Tales of element bars’ deliciousness appeared on blogs, and more people built their own custom energy bars to see what the fuss was all about. This growth meant that we needed to find some funding to help fuel expansion, and Jonathan Miller went to local banks seeking a small business loan. Unfortunately, the ongoing recession made finding an investor harder than ever.

Enter Shark Tank.

We discovered the open auditions for Shark Tank and immediately decided to apply. Time was short, so we went right to work creating our audition video. To make it through auditions, we needed a strategy. Luckily, Jonathan Kelley’s neighbor, Steve Douglass, has a Masters in Media Literacy and helps his students at Lake Forest High School tell stories visually every day in his Telecom- New Media Production program. We brainstormed together the best way to express Element Bars’ premium product as well as our passion for customized nutrition. Steve shared prospective on how, depending on our creative approach, our audition tape could be viewed in very different ways. We decided to focus on Miller’s love of tinkering, how he created our original bar recipes, and how Shark Tank was the perfect opportunity for us to show the world a better way to create and enjoy their own custom energy bar. After an afternoon of Steve directing, Miller writing, pitching, re-writing and eventually nailing it, we had a video that would have made the Food Network proud. (A special thanks to Margaret Kelley – Jonathan Kelley’s wife - who had to endure the whole ordeal on her birthday)

Days later, we heard we made it to the second round…then the final round…and pretty soon, Miller was on a plane headed for LA. We were excited and nervous. We are passionate about helping our customers eat well and control what they put into their bodies. We also might have a few wacky ideas about how to do it – and this combination could be our Achilles’ heel. The same thought kept coming back: “What if they just want to make a mockery of us?” We knew there was a chance that Miller could give a great performance, but the editing could still portray us as a couple of clueless health nuts. Our only hope was to do our homework and present Element Bars as the budding business it is. We know many of you are tired of being stuck with the same old energy bars filled with unnatural ingredients – but how could we convince the sharks?

Taking on the Sharks

Jonathan Miller came with bars custom tailored for each judge. Kevin Harrington was given a Chewy based “As Seen on TV Bar” while Kevin O’Leary got a Datey based “Mr. Wonderful Bar” – an ode to his performances in the pilot episodes we saw in our research.

Arriving on set was a completely surreal experience. Next door, on the Sony Pictures lot, they were shooting the new Iron Man movie. After he got out of the golf cart, Jonathan Miller was shown a trailer, and to his surprise, it had his “Jonathan Miller, Element Bars” on it. Jonathan pulled out a folding chair, cracked open an Element Bar for breakfast, and chatted with the Shark Tank crew. Jonathan also had the opportunity to meet a number of other contestants who had unique ideas ranging from refillable ink toner cartridges to real estate deals. Within an hour of arriving on set, Jonathan was called in to start his pitch. While the final TV segment was cut down to 15 minutes, the actual negotiations were closer to an hour. Not shown in the episode, he was given the opportunity to call his wife, Jennie, to help with the negotiations. Her advice: "Remember there is a world outside of Shark Tank".

Miller returned to the stage emboldened and, with a fresh perspective, stood firm in his negotiating range. Kevin agreed to bring down his offer and the rest is history. We have the good fortune to work with Kevin – and are excited to report soon on what this means for the future of element bars.

A Day of Reckoning

Miller returned from the filming and immediately began preparing the business for the possibility that the Element Bars episode would see the light of day. The problem: our website was designed to handle a few thousand visitors a day...not 25,000 in an hour. We had only weeks to prepare, so we worked night and day and found a few great ways to speed up the site. But would it be enough?

Because time was short, we had to work right until the airing - at 7:30 PM CST (30 min before the show began), we made our “final” changes... and then entire site stopped working. Our overeager attempts to make it a little faster broke the entire site. We worked furiously until the moment Miller appeared on the screen, when, miraculously, it began working. We were back in action.

Moments later, the rush began. Within seconds of the Element Bars logo appearing on the screen behind Miller, the site was hit by tens of thousands of viewers. Our system was brought to a painful crawl – and, frankly, we don’t know how so many orders made it through. For the lucky ones who completed your orders –your patience is unbelievable! The sheer volume of activity caused parts of the site to break that we had never considered fragile. Both Jonathans worked quickly at their respective computers to diagnose the errors – and found solutions as quickly as possible. By the night’s end, we felt like both the world’s biggest failures and the world’s luckiest food geeks.

The next morning, we started baking and noticed how rapidly our ingredient supplies diminished. Our preoccupation with the website caused us to neglect the critical job of planning ingredient orders. A few ingredient rush orders and many interesting custom bars later, the orders started shipping.

Here's to the Future

When it comes down to it, the Element Bars team is all about great tasting nutrition – the way you want it. The computer is merely the medium that allows us to share. We feel awful that so many of you found a slow or even unresponsive experience on your first visit to our site. Please come back to see us – things are moving along much better now.

Now that the Shark Tank mania has calmed down, we’ve been able to reflect on what this has meant for us. We’re thrilled that so many of you have ordered your own bars. We were shocked ourselves when we realized that an entire year’s worth of orders were baked in the first two weeks after the show. Thank you for believing in our idea and for trying our bars (well...they’re really yours). We hope to have more opportunities to share with you in the future.

If you have any thoughts on how we can improve or delicious options we should carry – we’d love to hear from you.

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