By Sara Bauknecht Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Lani Lazzari was 18 when she appeared on the ABC reality show "Shark Tank" to pitch her line of all-natural, handmade body and face scrubs called Simple Sugars.
The show's panel of millionaire and billionaire investors was impressed by her poise and maturity as well as by the product she created when she was 11 to help ease her eczema. Lazzari secured a $100,000 investment for a 33 percent stake in her company from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.
But not everyone was taken with the teen CEO.
"There's absolutely nothing proprietary about what you're doing at all. It's so simple that even an 11-year-old can do it and apparently has," said investor Kevin O'Leary, often referred to as "Mr. Wonderful" on the show. "But what really strikes me is you think it's worth a million dollars. Not a chance in hell, no matter how wonderful your story is."
Lazzari, now 20, proved him wrong within only six weeks of the episode airing. By then, Simple Sugars, based in Sharpsburg, Pa., had reached $1 million in sales and raked in $2.1 million total by the end of 2013, up from $80,000 in 2012.
Because of her success and memorable pitch, Lazzari was one of a handful of entrepreneurs who have appeared on the show who were spotlighted recently in the update special "Shark Tank: Swimming With Sharks."
A small spike in sales is typical for businesses after they're featured on "Shark Tank," but the surge usually tapers off.
"Things did kind of die down a little bit, but then they started building again and we've kept building," Lazzari said. "We really were able to maintain a high level of sales after the show, and we were able to capitalize on turning those customers into long-term customers who are going to buy over and over."
Whenever the Simple Sugars episode re-aired, sales jumped again. Cuban also regularly talked up the brand on talk shows such as "Live With Kelly and Michael" and "Tonight Show With Jay Leno."
"Most of the time you won't know in advance," Lazzari said. "You have these things that could happen at any time so you have to be ready for anything."
"Be prepared" has become a way of life for Simple Sugars, but the team has adjusted to its new "normal", which is about $100,000 in sales during a slow month. Whenever Lazzari needs advice, Cuban and his team are just an email away. They check in with each other at least once a week, she said, and he has stopped by the Simple Sugars headquarters on a few occasions.
Working with Simple Sugars has been "easy," Cuban said in an email interview. "Lani works hard and has a good (handle) on her business so my job has been easy."
Her success after the show is above average, he added. "But all of my 'Shark Tank' consumer companies have seen increases."
There is no requirement for how much time the show's investors are to commit to the entrepreneurs they invest in.
"It varies from business to business, depending on needs, and (is) agreed upon by sharks and the entrepreneurs," executive producer Clay Newbill said in an emailed statement.
Lazzari managed the investment from Mr. Cuban, plus the steady cash flow from sales, by continuing to run the business on a lean budget.
"I remember last year the week before 'Shark Tank,' we were bouncing checks. We were so used to running Simple Sugars on a shoestring budget," she said. "We don't want to go crazy and start spending it on everything at the same time. If we can run it on a very small budget like we did before, we want to keep that same philosophy in mind."
Before "Shark Tank," two part-time employees and her mom, Gina, the company's vice president, helped her. Now the business has 23 employees, and Lazzari expects it to reach 30 during the summer.
Lazzari finds herself delegating some of the tasks she used to handle so she can focus on strategy and growth opportunities. Some of her goals for the year include increasing the visibility of the business's brother brand, Smooth for Men, which offers the same all-natural formula but in more masculine packaging and fragrances, and expanding the scrubs' retail presence.
Simple Sugars is in about 45 Giant Eagle locations in the Pittsburgh region and in more than 100 brick-and-mortar shops across the country. The majority of sales come via the Simple Sugars website.
"I'm very aware of things that would potentially make a good product," she said.
Fruits in the grocery store that have a pleasing scent and also possess some skin benefits are some of her sources for inspiration. "I just try to keep my mind open and experiment with things."
To make the scrubs, staff used to have to buy a couple of hundred bags of sugar from the grocery store every few days. Now 2-ton pallets of it are delivered every couple of weeks. But because the Simple Sugars facility is without a loading dock, people pitch in to haul the sugar indoors. The business is in search of a new facility because it has already outgrown its current one.
"Shark Tank" not only introduced Lazzari to Cuban but also to other entrepreneurs who have had their time in the tank. They find each other on social media and swap "Shark Tank" stories and business experiences.
For Lazzari, one of the greatest lessons she's learned along the way is to trust herself, even when what's ahead seems impossible.
"If someone had told me before 'Shark Tank' that I would be working until 3 in the morning for six weeks straight ... I think I would have been, 'Oh my gosh. How am I going to be able to handle it?'
"You really just have to get to work and work through it, and you'll get there in the end."