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A year and a half ago, Joe Altieri stood in front of six investors and plenty of cameras. He was pitching his window screen company FlexScreen to celebrity investors known as “the Sharks” on ABC’s popular show.
“It is the scariest experience that I’ve ever had in my entire life,” said the genial, baseball-cap-wearing entrepreneur, speaking from FlexScreen’s manufacturing plant in the Pittsburgh area. “It’s terribly surreal as well.”
Turns out, three were interested in his flexible window screens, which solve the common fault of typical window screens breaking easily when being installed. Altieri had his pick of Kevin O’Leary, Barbara Corcoran and Lori Greiner. In the end, he chose Greiner, who offered him $800,000, half an equity investment and half a line of credit, for 50% of the retail side of his company (at that point, the company was only manufacturing).
Altieri reappeared on the show Friday evening to update its viewers on the company’s success since gaining Greiner as an investor. Last year, the company had about $15 million in sales, Altieri said on Friday’s episode. That’s three times the $5.1 million in revenue the company had in 2019.
Altieri’s story shows the continuing power of Shark Tank, which premiered in 2009. In 2019, The Hustle did an exhaustive data analysis, showing that the show tended to favor men, who appear on the show more often and get larger deals. (The Sharks investors have been mostly men over the years, too). Contrary to the reality of equity finance — but making for better TV — the deals are for products, rather than software.
Altieri’s story also illustrates the increasing sophistication of the companies that appear on the show. Where the first seasons included “desperate” people — some who were seeking a path to entrepreneurship after the Great Recession — later seasons have included established companies. Altieri, for one, had been a high-producing salesman in the window manufacturing business for about 15 years — and his path through the show is one of a savvy salesman’s.
By the time he reached Shark Tank, he had a product that he knew would sell. FlexScreen was born in Altieri’s garage. Having been in the window manufacturing business for 20 years, he was trying to develop a window screen that wouldn’t break easily when installed. He calls that first model his “bubblegum and duct tape prototype.”
In 2015, Altieri emerged from his garage with a frame that could bend made of spring steel. Unlike traditional screens, it doesn’t need hardware to install — you can just push the sides of the frames in, bend the screen and fit it into your window. He knew he had something when his friends in the window business were impressed. It was one of the first screen innovations in a centuries-old industry.
So he spent the next year traveling across the country to pitch the product to manufacturers — he said he put over 200,000 miles on his truck. He got patents, and began to produce the screen.
Before stepping down the corridor on Shark Tank about three years later, FlexScreen brought in $400,000. The company also had “several million” dollars in funding from personal connections and family in the window industry.
He went on Shark Tank seeking an $800,000 investment for 6% of the company. Investors and entrepreneurs often renegotiate their deals after the TV show airs — and sometimes, one side or the other walks away. The biggest benefit from an appearance usually isn’t the investment, many participants have said over the years: It’s the marketing.
Four U.S. Manufacturing Plants
After Altieri’s appearance, FlexScreen exploded, so now the company’s screens are being produced in four U.S. manufacturing plants — in Pittsburgh, Detroit, Atlanta and Vermillion, South Dakota — and one in Toronto, Canada. Each screen is custom made for its customers. The company has 100 employees across the plants with plans to expand to 150 people this summer. The screens will be in major hardware stores this Spring internationally, such as Home Depot, Menards and Walmart, thanks to a recent retail distribution deal with Courbevoie, France-based company Saint-Gobain.
FlexScreen has also been recognized through awards; it landed a silver award in the Edison Awards’ “Consumer Goods – Home Solutions” category and was named 2020 Product of the Year in the Small Business category in Business Intelligence Group’s BIG Award for Business, according to its website.
Typically, entrepreneurs who want to pitch on the Shark Tank must apply online or go to an open casting call. Altieri was one of the few who skipped these steps of the process because the show recruited him.
Even so, it wasn’t guaranteed that he was going to make it on TV. Not only did he have to actually make it in front of the investors, but if he choked up or if his pitch was unexciting, then there was a chance he wouldn’t air.
Alteri’s pitch took up about 10 minutes of the episode. Meanwhile, he was standing in front of the investors for over 2 hours, he said. After filming and celebrating Greiner’s investment, he said he slept for “like a day and a half.”
Beyond gaining Greiner as an investor and her connections in the hardware industry, being on Shark Tank gave FlexScreen a boost in publicity. With the pandemic canceling other programs on ABC, such as NBA games, Alteri’s episode aired additional times, as well. Sometimes, he said, he gets recognized at the local gas station.
Gas Station Notoriety
“The notoriety that comes with Shark Tank, you just can’t pay enough money,” he said. “I could not have spent enough advertising dollars to get the type of exposure that we got.”
Following his episode’s air date, Altieri said he received a lot of messages from entrepreneurs asking for advice to grow a company. He started talking to some on a regular basis and found himself giving similar advice to multiple people. So, he decided to start a blog, called “Lessons from the Tank”, to accumulate his advice into an accessible place.
Altieri suggests entrepreneurs edit and practice pitches before presenting their company. He admits that the pitch everyone heard on Shark Tank was completely different from the one he originally prepared — only after thoughtful edits from the show’s producers did he get it to the where it was. “Everyone else is less than half as interested as you are in what you’re selling, so keep it moving,” he writes on his blog.
His blogs reveal a thoughtful approach to business, like this one with two different streams of advice for different kinds of leaders on decision-making:
OVERTHINKERS: NARROW YOUR FOCUS.
Explore options, but not ALL options. You will never be able to quantify all possible scenarios and outcomes, and you’ll make yourself crazy trying, so narrow your focus. With input and guidance from your best team members and advisors, choose three or four courses of action, and then debate the flaws and merits until you’ve found the best way forward. But first set a timeline with a defined end date, or you’ll end up drowning in endless committee meetings with frustrated employees who will become mere onlookers as they quickly lose interest.
READY, FIRE, AIM LEADERS: TAKE A BREATH
Your ideas will come fast and furious, but when you make that first phone call to the team leader who has to implement your spur of the moment vision, pay attention. If they hesitate or seem to push back in any way – and even if they don’t – ask questions. Then be willing to re-examine your idea through the lens of your teams’ overall health, which, never forget, dictates your organization’s overall health. Your plan may be great, but it may need some slight adjustments or more time to implement. You won’t know if you don’t listen. Discipline yourself to have patience, and be willing to tread the middle ground.
He practiced numbers thoroughly before his Shark Tank pitch to make sure he had credibility in front of the investors, he said. “Devote significant time and effort to your presentation – style, content, and flow. And ask yourself, would you want to sit through this presentation?” he writes.
He boiled down his main advice for entrepreneurs to one word: passion. Not only does being passionate attract people to buy products, but it also is the key to getting through challenges as you build a business.
“Passion will lead you through the dark times,” he said. “It’ll help you get up in the morning and it helps you to be grateful for the fact that you’re living the dream.”
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