COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) — From presenting a fledgling product at a Columbus start-up boot camp in 2016 to being featured on an episode of a national television show this January, the makers of the SlumberPod have had a busy four years.
Katy Mallory and her mom Lou Childs invented the SlumberPod, a portable tent-like structure that blocks out light and fits over pack and plays, travel cribs and toddler beds, to give families with young kids the freedom to travel again.
The pair and their product were featured on a January 5 episode of the reality TV show “Shark Tank,” which brings entrepreneurs before a panel of business people who may invest money in the company in exchange for a share of the profits.
According to Childs, a Columbus resident and former Delta Data marketing director, 45,000 people applied in 2019 for a chance to promote their products and get help with growing sales.
“We’re very fortunate to have made it to the very end and been aired on TV,” Childs said.
The road to get there started in February 2019, when the mother-daughter duo flew to Dallas, Texas, to stand in line with hundreds of other “Shark Tank” hopefuls. They performed their one-minute pitch in front of casting directors and then went home and waited to be notified if they were moving on.
“This whole journey we thought about how if it turned into something it sure would be fantastic, but if it didn’t, how fortunate are we to have got to spend some time together as mom and daughter,” said Mallory, an Atlanta resident and mother to three young girls.
They did move on, pitching at several more rounds of casting calls until they were notified they would be flown out to the taping in front of the panel of sharks, which included Mark Cuban, Barbara Corcoran, Kevin O’Leary, Lori Greiner and Robert Herjavec.
By the time they reached the room full of sharks, Childs and Mallory were well seasoned and ready for their pitch.
“We were really prepared. What didn’t air was all the questions they asked about our financials, marketing costs and costs of goods sold, and we had rehearsed and memorized and we knew our stuff inside and out,” Childs said. “I think the sharks and our family and friends were incredibly impressed with how we handled the situation.”
One key component of their pitch was a real life customer, Elizabeth Kurz, and her young son, Oskar.
Kurz dramatically demonstrated the usefulness of SlumberPod for parents who are traveling with kids that are used to sleeping in total darkness in their own room at home. Oskar, who reportedly sleeps in his SlumberPod every day at home, was visibly upset about being zipped up inside a travel play yard.
Childs said Oskar was just confused about being put in the SlumberPod when it wasn’t his nap time, but was quickly soothed when he realized he wasn’t being asked to sleep. The result was comical and made for an entertaining segment, Childs said.
“We had watch parties in both Columbus and in Atlanta, and the reaction during the show was a lot of howling laughter,” she said.
The rest is history — Mallory and Childs went in asking for a $400,000 investment into SlumberPod in exchange for 20% of their company. Cuban, Corcoran and Greiner told them they felt like they were doing too well and it was too early to give up equity.
“At the end (Corcoran) came back and said ‘all that said, I’ll take advantage of you because you guys do seem great.’ She wanted $400,000 for 25% equity and a little bit of a royalty deal, and we came back and asked for the original deal because we felt like everybody was so confident in us, and she accepted,” Mallory said.
HOW THEY GOT THERE
As long-time “Shark Tank” viewers, attempting to get on the show was always a vision for the two entrepreneurs.
They started the process in 2016, and participated in a summer startup accelerator boot camp called RiverCity Foundry, a predecessor to today’s StartUP Columbus. The program drove them to finish their website, establish a social media presence and get a prototype made, along with filing their trademark.
“It did exactly what the title says, it accelerated us, we learned what you have to do to take your product to market and that really helped,” Childs said.
After two years of product development, Mallory and Childs launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding effort to increase their supply. The pods were listed on Amazon right before Christmas that year, and sales started to grow.
Between August and December 2018, SlumberPod sales reached $100,000, and the business became profitable around February 2019. Mallory and Childs felt like they were in a good place by then for what the “Shark Tank” producers would be looking for.
“They typically like it when it’s more than a prototype, that you have sales under your belt, and we thought at the trajectory we were growing, by the time we got to the process where we were actually in front of the sharks, if we got luck enough to be there, we would be in a really great place and we were,” Mallory said.
The product was born when Mallory experienced a couple of near-sleepless nights on a visit to her family’s home during the holidays.
“Our daughter was a great sleeper at home. But there in the same room, she saw us across the room and she couldn’t go back to sleep when she woke up, and it was miserable. Getting two or three hours of sleep two nights in a row was so awful that we ended up going home a day early,” Mallory said in a previous interview with the L-E.
Now, nearly 20,000 families have made the purchase that Mallory says is changing lives.
“We get messages every day via email and Instagram from people saying ‘I finally feel like I have the freedom to travel and not have to worry about how well my child is going to sleep away from home.’ To know that we’re helping people create more memories and have more enriched lives has been a wonderful experience,” she said.
“We’ve given them the gift of sleep and our customers just really feel like family,” Childs said.
The SlumberPod co-inventors have no plans to slow down.
Right now the SlumberPods sell for $154.99 and can be bought at buybuybaby.com, bedbathandbeyond.com and on Amazon, but securing additional retailers is next on the agenda.
“We have some additional products that we’re planning to bring to market, so that is first priority for us,” Childs said. “Looking for additional partners in the U.S. would be something that is also at the top of our priority list. We’re hoping to do some business development with some opportunities that make sense.”
The two also plan to continue to build on the close relationship that has formed from the SlumberPod journey.
“We were close before but absolutely we are incredibly close now,” Childs said.