When judges on the ABC television series Shark Tank react to your pitch with words and phrases like wow, great idea, good for you, and I love it, there’s a strong chance you’re soon to be a big fish in a small pond.
That describes the experience of University of Iowa alumna Erica Cole, who appeared on the show Friday, April 1. By the time she left, sharks (judges/investors) Mark Cuban and Emma Grede invested $100,000 for 10% ownership in Cole’s company, No Limbits. The company features an adaptive clothing line with a mission to increase comfort for those struggling because of a disability. Cuban is owner of the Dallas Mavericks of the National Basketball Association and Grede is CEO and co-founder of Good American, a fashion line for women of all sizes.
“Oh my gosh, it’s like the dream team, it is absolutely perfect,” Cole said of her new investors. “Emma has so many manufacturing connections, she is the queen of denim, she knows everything there is to know because of her experience with Good American. With Mark, there is no better person to coach you on scaling a business. Between both of them, I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome.”
Before her pitch — which actually occurred the last week of September 2021 — Cole and a team of advisers prepared for almost every investment scenario. Except one. They outlined a certain percentage they would offer each shark, broken down to how much they would be willing to accept from Lori Greiner as compared to Kevin O’Leary, and so on.
“We did not plan for a two-shark scenario,” Cole said. “We were deep, deep into Excel and financial models — there was a lot of planning that went into that. I have a fractional CFO and we went through a lot of that together. But we didn’t plan for two sharks, so it was kind of a game-time decision. It was still within what we were willing to give up in our what-if scenarios.”
Believe it or not, Cole nearly declined the offer to appear on the show. A Shark Tank producer saw the video Cole created for the Kickstarter event a year earlier and inquired if she was interested in going through the application process. Cole didn’t feel ready and even asked if she could defer for a year. She reconsidered.
Cole arrived early for the Shark Tank filming on the Sony lot in California. She waited eight hours before being called to pitch. For two minutes she stood in front of the panel of judges (sharks) for the first time. No one spoke while cameras were adjusted. Then, Cole said, she focused on projecting loud enough in the large room so the sharks could hear. She knocked the presentation and question-and-answer session out of the park.
“Oh wow,” said Robert Herjavec, another shark in the room.
“Wow,” added Cuban.
“That’s a great idea,” Grede said. “Well done, you nailed it. The product is amazing, you are going to do a great job.”
Cole’s story is well-known at the University of Iowa, especially at the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center. In 2018, Cole, a chemistry major, was interning in Colorado and had just received her dream job offer of becoming a plutonium chemist at Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico. While in Colorado, she was involved in a car accident that required the amputation of her left leg below her knee. Her career as a chemist abruptly ended because it was too dangerous to be in a lab.
Cole’s prosthetic was bulky, tearing holes in clothes, and she had to undress anytime she needed to make a prosthetic adjustment. She wasn’t alone, so she came up with the idea that evolved into No Limbits. Cole entered IdeaStorm through Iowa JPEC, where novice entrepreneurs describe their business idea to a panel of judges that awards start-up capital to the best presentations. She did well and was motivated to participate in Startup Games later that month, another Iowa JPEC-sponsored contest where entrepreneurs work with coaches and mentors to create a business plan in a weekend, with the best plans receiving more start-up cash. The momentum of No Limbits led to her success on Shark Tank.
This is part of Cole’s pitch on national television:
“That’s right, sharks, I don’t put my pants on just like everybody else…suddenly I wasn’t able to wear what everyone else was wearing…and I wasn’t alone. As we were building, people with a variety of physical challenges were reaching out to us, so we decided to add sensory and wheelchair product lines to our collection. So, sharks, are you ready to help everyone live life with No Limbits?”
Oh, the sharks chomped on the bait.
“Erica, you are exactly the type of person I like to invest in,” Grede said. “You have the product, you have figured it out, you have purchase orders, this is an absolute no-brainer. Mark (Cuban), do you want to come in on this? Let’s do it together.”
“Yes, I would,” Cuban said.
Cole, Grede, and Cuban negotiated before agreeing on a $100,000 investment for a 10% share of No Limbits.
Life after Shark Tank is treating Cole and No Limbits well.
“This is not an exaggeration, we have received thousands of emails and messages that people sent through our site,” Cole said. “We did well with sales, too.
“Entrepreneurship is hard, it’s exhausting to be a founder. I feel so recharged after (the Shark Tank episode aired) because thousands of people said they need this product or know someone who needs that product…my story resonated with people. Now is a good opportunity to bring members of this adaptive community into the development process. We’re building with people instead of building for people, and I didn’t think about Shark Tank being the door to making that happen.”
Cuban and Grede weren’t done raving about Cole, even after she left the stage. Cuban praised No Limbits for mirroring “capitalism to have an impact” and said Cole founded the company for the right reason. Grede boasted that they would make really cute jeans.
No Limbits is launching into a couple thousand clinics in the next year and will attend New York Fashion Week in September. Cole expects to launch 20 new products in the next 12 months.
“It has been a hard road to get here and now I feel like everything is going to be OK,” said Cole, who is originally from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but recently moved to St. Louis. “There are very few moments you can point to and say my life changed then, but this is absolutely going to be one of them.”