Megan Cummins is the owner of You Smell Soap, a new vintage luxury soap company in Emeryville, CA. Megan got her big break when she appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank where she struck a $55,000 deal with investor Robert Herjavec. However the journey was not always a smooth one for Megan, as a couple of months after the tapping of the show, she learned the hard way the perils of investors and broken promises. I recently caught up with Megan to hear about her experience on the show. Though she didn’t get the deal she was promised, she is confident that You Smell Soap is moving on to bigger and better things.
Q: Tell us the start-up story behind You Smell Soap and where did the idea and the name come from.
Megan: It all started as a college design project. I wanted to create something specifically that my girlfriends and I could enjoy. I loved the vintage aesthetic and vibe of stores like Anthropologie and J.Crew, so that helped inspire the foundation and audience of You Smell. In addition, I wanted to add a little twist of humor to it–but in a cheeky way, not your stereotypical crass or cheesy humor they slap on lousy products.
I’d say the biggest driving force of inspiration was just making this with no intention of profiting from it- purely a project of passion to make something for my friends and me that spoke to our personalities but was also a great luxury item that smelled fantastic- my goal was to create the package deal for us.
Q: Why did you decide to go on ABC’s Shark Tank, and how has it changed your life and business?
Megan: My clients would see You Smell in my portfolio and ask where they could buy it, and I repeatedly had them tell me to start the company after the success I’d helped them obtain. One day a client told me about Shark Tank. Being young, broke, and fresh out of college, banks laughed me out the door. So, I thought there was no harm in sending an email and seeing where it went..
It was the best whim of my life.
Q: Do you or have owned any other businesses, if so what happened to them?
Megan: I did. I had a small design studio before this which I gave up to pursue You Smell full time.
Q: Tell us a little bit about the application process, what was it like when you applied for the show?
Megan: My process of getting on the show started simply enough. I went to the site and sent a quick email (less than a paragraph) with the major selling points, a headshot, and product shots. A few weeks later I got a call from the casting director. She interviewed me and decided at the end of the convo to move me forward, which is when she sent dozens of pages of things to fill out and sign. There was a packet of long essay questions, which the producers and execs would eventually read, and I had to make a short video pitch answering a list of questions they gave me. It was still pretty informal at that point.
The producers then review the videos the casting director picks, and they decide who they like. Luckily I caught their attention and was assigned 2 producers who interviewed me and then worked with me on a weekly basis for about 6 weeks or so. They helped write the “pitch” every person has to recite at the beginning, told me the guidelines, and drilled me with questions the Sharks might ask. The idea was to help keep me on my toes and get used to it.
I guess at this point things started to seem more official, but seriously throughout the entire process you don’t stop hearing “This is not final and you are not guaranteed to be on the show.” Even after filming, even if you make a deal, you’re told the same thing again and again, “The president could come on T.V. to make a statement and interrupt the episode. It is not guaranteed to air.” That also makes it hard because you want to buy product to be ready to fill a rush of orders, but if it does get scrapped at the last minute, you don’t want to suffocate your small business with a massive amount of stock you can’t move.
Luckily I made it to the taping time- they tell you a month or so ahead of time to block out a couple of weeks and then about 2 or 3 days before they call and say “go to LA!” (They paid for the flights, hotel, spending money,
etc.). Then I met with the producers who prepped me for my pitch to the execs at Sony and ABC for them to see me in person for the final approval- from how I spoke, what I said, what I wore, my personality, everything. They want a mix of personalities, styles, etc. For instance, there were 2 or 3 other soap companies in the running, but they liked that I was young and happy with a quirky personality, which added to the diversity of the show.
Looking back, I was never overly stressed or felt like I was jumping through hoops during the process. Everyone was incredibly kind and down to earth. Don’t get me wrong though, when I stepped onto the stage with cameras swooshing around, I went numb with anxiety!
Q: What were your sales before the show and how much have they grown since then?
Megan: This is what I wish I had known before. Shark Tank isn’t QVC or HSN. People aren’t looking to shop; they’re relaxing and kicking back on the couch. The product isn’t being pushed on THEM to buy it, there’s no big sale or incentive, they don’t even know if it’s on the market yet. These viewers have to remember you after the show (filled with tons of other information and distractions), remember the name, take the time to look for it during their weekend routine, and place an order. That’s asking a lot.
There wasn’t a flood of $50k+ in sales. We weren’t sure what to expect, but we were worried. So, I started calling other people that were on the show and were successful. They all said the same thing- a tiny spike in sales, from 150-500 orders the weekend it aired. However, our website was so slammed seconds after I walked on stage, it shut down after the very first order. We have 1.5 dedicated servers and still couldn’t handle the traffic.
It’s stayed high ever since too. What these viewers do is talk. Word of mouth has been phenomenal. Ever since the show, there has been a steady stream of orders. Major chains called up saying their stores were reporting lots of requests for us, Countless boutiques opened wholesale accounts, magazines started calling, blogs started posting- it was entirely worth it. It was the best investment I’ve ever made into the company. That amount of advertising would be nearly a $250k.
When I went on the show I had nothing. No inventory, no salary, nothing. We started shipping orders in April and now we’re in over 200 boutiques, have been contacted by half a dozen major national and international chains, had celebrity orders, I could hire myself and my fiancé full time, we’ve fully paid for 7 tons of soap, are about to releaser 8+ new SKUs, and we’re already beginning to break even (which is something you’d expect after 2 years, not 5 months. So while we aren’t millionaires (yet J) we’re grown tremendously thanks to Shark Tank.
Q: Looking back if you could do one thing differently on the show what would it be?
Megan: Gone with Mark Cuban. Robert was shaking my hand as Mark was meeting his offer, it all happened so fast I had no time to think. I’ve heard nothing but great things about Mark from other people he’s invested in. Hindsight 20/20!
Q: Why did you choose Robert over the other sharks? Why was he a better partner for you at the time?
Megan: Just like pretty much everyone I meet, I always felt like Robert was the nice one of the group, since that’s how they portray him on the show. It was naïve of me. I went in saying Barbara and Robert would be my top picks. None of the Sharks are in the beauty industry, so I know going in that what I was looking for was a good business mentor and financial backing. In that respect, they all would have been a good choice, since they all bring something to the table that’s beneficial to a start-up.
Q: Say I was pitching to the Sharks tomorrow what advice would you give me?
Megan: Go in with the intention of just getting your company in front of America. Don’t sell yourself short or take just any deal. If you get even one offer, you’ve obviously got something, and you’ll have half a dozen other opportunities approach you after the show (that will probably be much better). Going on stage without desperation for funding will also give you that extra confidence that makes you a killer businessperson.
Q: What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from this experience?
Megan: Hope for the best, plan for the worst, and don’t ever let your guard down. You always have to have a back-up plan and “rolling with the punches” has taken on an entirely new meaning for me. When things get unbelievable hard, they’re going to get worse. You have to be stubbornly determined to make it work- even when you’re broke and can’t see a way out.
Q: What’s your definition of success?
Megan: Being able to keep doing what I’m doing and getting paid for it. If we can maintain our pace now and grow to hire a few more employees, I think that would be amazing and I’d be perfectly content. Of course, I wouldn’t mind getting on the cover of Fortune or being in the “30 under 30”…
Q: What is your favorite entrepreneurship quote?
Megan: “Never give up on a dream because of the time it will take to accomplish it. The time will pass anyway.” – Earl Nightingale