Pitching a company in front of celebrity millionaires and billionaires can be unnerving. How did one entrepreneur handle the stress? Intense preparation. (Hint: Spreadsheets were involved.)
If you swim with sharks, you’ve got to know how to get out alive. Desirée Stolar knows how to do exactly that and more: She knows how to get out alive and thrive.
The former “Shark Tank” contestant spoke at the recent Voice + Visibility Women’s Summit, hosted virtually in February by Sarasota-based Shannon Rohrer-Phillips LLC. Stolar’s segment was sponsored by Tampa entrepreneurial hub Embarc Collective.
Stolar, 36, is a graduate of Harvard Business School and co-founder of Unshrinkit, a product that helps people unshrink wool clothing. In 2015, Stolar appeared on the TV show “Shark Tank” to seek funding for Unshrinkit. The company received a $120,000 investment at 15% equity from billionaire Mark Cuban.
Today, Stolar is senior director of alumni engagement and strategy for Management Leadership for Tomorrow, a Washington, D.C.-area nonprofit. She guides about 8,000 professionals of color who are advancing in business and nonprofits, providing support in the form of coaching, workshops and connecting individuals with mentors and other contacts. (Stolar sold Unshrinkit to an e-commerce firm in Boston in 2019.)
Stolar spoke with the Business Observer about starting Unskrinkit, appearing on “Shark Tank” and what she’s learned along the way.
Pain point: At Harvard Business School, Stolar was given the advice to create a company that focuses on a problem. “People should look for problems — look for a pain point — and build a product or service platform around addressing that pain point,” she says. Stolar had recently experienced her own pain point when she accidentally shrunk a cashmere wool sweater by leaving it in the dryer. Online research revealed thousands of people talking about the same issue, with seemingly no solution. Stolar and a group of classmates decided to tackle the problem for a school project. The team included a product developer, physicist, U.S. Marine, management consultant, and risk management expert. Using their strengths, they developed a liquid solution to unshrink wool, dubbing it Unshrinkit.
‘People should look for problems — look for a pain point — and build a product or service platform around addressing that pain point.’ — Desirée Stolar
Trust your story: After the project, Stolar gave Unshrinkit bottles to a third-party launch partner who put the product in front of their subscribers. Stolar worked with the company to create a video that showed a woman shrinking a sweater. “I trusted my story and its universal power,” she says. The company sold out of Unshrinkit, and Stolar’s team realized they had a revenue-generating business on their hands.
Practice makes perfect: Stolar applied to “Shark Tank” and was selected to appear on the show. She and co-Founder Nathaniel Barbera prepared intensively. “We purchased seasons three through six and watched every episode, every segment, over and over,” she says. “After the second time, I decided to make a spreadsheet because I wanted to remember everything.” Stolar examined questions the contestants were asked, which sharks offered deals, how negotiations went and how she would have responded in a particular contestant’s shoes. She says, “I knew exactly how I wanted to vocalize every single aspect of our business.” The preparation paid off. “We left with offers,” she says. “We immediately said yes and walked off the stage with a $1 million valuation, a ‘Shark Tank’ partner and heightened visibility.”
What’s in store: After “Shark Tank,” Stolar’s team voted her CEO, and she jumped into sales, distribution and product improvements. “I personally visited hundreds of stores to make sure they were carrying our product and understood how it worked,” she says.
Life lessons: The whirlwind Unskrinkit experience helped Stolar learn some valuable lessons. “Your idea will be dismissed because it seems niche,” she says. At first, it might seem like it only appeals to a certain demographic segment, but that can grow to mass appeal if the product provides value, she says. Another lesson? Be intentional with your life partner. That person can help you take risks, propel decisions, advise on inflection points, complement strengths and hold you accountable to your aspirations. She says, “Align yourself with someone who uplifts your life goals.”