It was a Tuesday night when I got a call from my good friend and former co-founder Martin. He said, “What are you doing at 6:30pm tonight?” “Nothing,” I answered. “Good. I am picking you up and taking you to an apartment in Pacific Beach. I want to see what you think.”
If you know Martin, this isn’t that unusual. He and I are in a similar business. I invest in startups. He is an entrepreneur-in-residence for a major law firm. We share deals. And in a past life we raised $30 million for our own startup. So there I was, getting into his car, headed to this mystery meeting.
We arrive at the beach apartment and I meet Bruno, Brandon, and Steven from SandCloud (www.sandcloud.com). Well, I don’t really officially meet them. They march out of the back bedroom chanting the Shark Tank jingle and stop in front of a Shark Tank set fully assembled in their living room. And then they start to pitch.
“Sharks, we are Sand Cloud Towels…” Three 20-somethings who are at the same time business partners and roommates, selling high-quality Turkish beach towels and accessories, primarily to an international following of Millennial women. With almost 200,000 Instagram followers and sales already into the 7-figures, I am impressed. But I am actually more impressed by their authenticity. Think pro surfer crossed with Ashton Kutcher, with some hair gel and a man-bun thrown in for good measure. And where are their shoes? You get the idea.
I spend the evening with them helping them prep for Shark Tank, which they had been invited to appear on this season. I try to do my best Cuban and Mr. Wonderful and hit them with the hard questions, and it is clear that they have thought this through. They are the real deal.
SandCloud is a beach brand on a mission. With a focus on giving back to marine conservation groups, they have attracted a following of customers and brand ambassadors who identify with both the product and the mission. Their #savethefishies tag bugs me just a bit, since I keep seeing sea lions and dolphins on their website. And I recall from high school bio that these marine mammals are in fact not fishies. But I digress. It’s the thought that counts.
Their reach and connection with their customers became very real for me when ABC sent the Shark Tank video production team to Tourmaline Beach in La Jolla, CA to shoot some video footage for the upcoming show. The beach shoot was on a Monday. On Sunday, they invited their customers on social media to stop by at 1pm (on Monday, a work day) if they were in the neighborhood. Well, I stopped by. And what I found was over 60 millennial girls and women in bikinis, tees, and other beachwear, eagerly lined up to sign the model release and participate in the episode. Now THAT is connecting with customers.
My startup life has been almost all hardcore B2B. Making warehouses perform more effectively. Tracking trucks and ships. Boring stuff. I often say that my ventures could never pass the “Pick-up-a-girl-in-a-bar test”. But somehow, I don’t think that Bruno, Brandon, or Steven have a problem with passing that test – in a bar, or on the beach.
I went on to help them prepare for the Shark Tank taping, and it was no surprise to me that they did indeed land a deal with a shark – Robert Herjavek. We held the viewing party at my place (complete with DJ and bartender) and as the clock struck 9:00 and their segment aired, it was clear that these guys killed it. They understood their business. They understood what their audience (the sharks) needed to hear. And they were prepared.
After the show aired, I had the opportunity to help the guys negotiate with Robert and his team to finalize a deal that was truly a win-win for all. I found the Herjavec Group to also be the real deal, and truly dedicated to getting to the finish line on the legal transaction and fostering a long-term relationship that worked for all. SandCloud is already benefiting from Robert’s expertise, reach, and connections. And Robert gets to benefit and build his personal brand by helping this particular beach brand grow into the next Roxy or Billabong.
In my role as angel investor and early-stage company mentor, I come across a lot of pretenders. Some call them “Wantrepreneurs” – the type that has the MBA, has read all the startup books and is trying desperately to start something. Anything.
Then there are founders like the SandCloud crew. They are just freakin’ doing it. Need to become Internet marketing experts? Check. Need to source product manufacturing in Turkey? Check. Need to build and manage a warehouse team? Why not. Need to inspire hundreds of thousands of engaged customers? Done. No business books or fancy degree needed.
Apparently, no shoes needed, either.