5 Important Business Lessons I Learned While Being On Shark Tank, With Steven Epstein of Mid-Continent Packaging
Be prepared to negotiate. The Sharks were not pleased with my ask but I think if I had negotiated the ask for less equity dollars and either a loan or line of credit, I may have been able to get a deal done. The rules of the show are that you have to get the total amount of your ask, but people need to be reminded that it can be structured in several different ways.
Steven Epstein is the President of Mid-Continent Packaging, Inc a consumer products contract packaging company based in Enid, OK. Working across a broad spectrum of industries including Household, I&I, HBA, Personal Care, Automotive, Agricultural, and Scientific, Mid-Continent is a leading cGMP manufacturer of liquid, tablet, and powder items for Fortune 500 companies.
With a focus on sustainable packaging, Mid-Continent is a leader in the filling of environmentally responsible StandUp pouches. Steven’s deep understanding of packaging, both rigid and flexible, led Steven to invent, patent, and market the Flip-It!® Cap, an ingeniously simple device which is saving people time, money, and the planet all at the same time.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit of the backstory about how you grew up?
I grew up the youngest of 4 boys in the suburbs of Northern New Jersey. I had a stereotypical childhood; dad left for work early, and mom sent us off to school with brown bag lunches. After school, we rode bicycles and played outside, and the family sat down for dinner together practically every night. Those were the days before TV remotes and as the youngest, my job was to stand to the side of the (only) TV in the house and manually change the 13 channels! My father instilled in us a very strong work ethic; we did chores around the house including mowing the lawn, raking leaves, shoveling snow, and swapping the summer tires for the snow tires as the seasons changed. My brothers and I also began working at young ages at the chemical manufacturing business our dad was building. We were taught to always set an example for the employees by working harder, faster, and smarter.
Can you share with us the story of the “aha moment” that gave you the idea to start your company?
This is an easy one! I got out of the shower one winter night and went to pump Lubriderm lotion and the pump sputtered and quit, stranding an inch of lotion at the bottom of the bottle. So I did what anyone would do: I flipped the bottle upside down and wedged it in-between a bunch of other bottles so it wouldn’t fall over. The next night as I removed the pump to access the lotion, a bunch of it fell out onto the countertop and I had no place to put the wet pump down. The frustration was building…I tossed the pump into the sink as that would be the easiest place to clean up after, and dealt with managing the bottle while trying to apply the lotion but not losing the prime I had worked overnight to achieve. As I screwed the pump back into the bottle it occurred to me that I was going to have to go through that same routine 8, 10 more times until I used up the lotion. That’s when the lightbulb went off and the idea for Flip-It! was born.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I was in New Orleans and went into an Aveda salon looking for an empty bottle to use at a trade show for Flip-It. As a bald guy, it’s always interesting walking into a salon because they see me coming from a mile away and are like “what can he possibly want here?” However, they weren’t too busy and the young lady was intrigued by my story and accommodating by giving me an “empty” bottle out of their recycle bin. As soon as I felt the bottle, I said “but this one isn’t empty” and she assured me it was, “that’s why it was in the bin”. I said “it’s not, that’s why I invented the Flip-It” and I attached a Flip-It and 2 minutes later squeezed a full ounce of product out of the “empty” bottle. By this time the salon owner came to the back of the salon to see what was going on, and when he saw how much product had come out of his “empty” bottle, he remarked to the young lady “that’s 2 treatments — that’s $80 that should be in my pocket, what was that doing in the trash?” He turned to me and said “how much are these?” and when I told him “$20 for a set of 6, washable and re-useable” he went straight to the cash register, pressed the magic button, pulled out a $20, and said “I need these. Please go out to your car and bring me in a set”. That’s when I knew I really had something great, a product that practically sells itself.
Can you share a story about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
Well, this isn’t a mistake that I made, but one that was made by a new distributor in the UK. There was European cash and carry beauty show in London and I offered to help them in their booth as I was going to be there at that time anyway. They had gone to salon customers of their own and collected “empty” bottles for use in their display. They set the bottles upside down on Flip-It’s the night before in preparation for the show to open the next morning. Well, they didn’t realize that they had to wash and dry the bottles and when the show opened, every bottle on the display was putting out the shampoo, conditioner, etc.. as people were seeing how it worked! The Flip-It was doing exactly what it was designed to do, which is to get every dropout. Needless to say, I was busy running back and forth to the men’s room washing bottles out for them as the crowd was 2–3 deep in front of their booth for the next 2 days.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’m really focused on getting the Flip-It into every home and business on the planet. When you stop to think about it, this is one of the few products that crosses all boundaries: it appeals to people regardless of age, gender, language, culture, race, religion and even marital status. Everyone wants to get that last little bit out of their bottles.
Ok, thank you for all that. Let’s now move to the main part of our interview. Many of us have no idea about the backend process of how to apply and get accepted to be on the Shark Tank. Can you tell us the story about how you applied and got accepted. What “hoops” did you have to go through to get there? How did it feel to be accepted?
I had applied twice prior to being accepted. The first time I submitted an email application and heard back, but it didn’t go anywhere. The second time I also emailed but never heard back so I had no idea if my email was even seen by anyone. That was super frustrating. The third time I bit the bullet and went to an open call in NYC in May 2018 and stood in line for hours outside, then hours inside, in order to deliver my 2 minute elevator pitch. The casting agent I happened to stand in front of really like the idea of a sustainable problem solver and put my application packet into the neat pile to his right, instead of the messy pile to his left. So I had an inkling at least I was headed in the right direction. Two excruciating months went by with no contact from Shark Tank until one day in early July an email popped up congratulating me on moving forward in the process. I literally jumped for joy, fist-pumped, and shouted out. I was super excited.
I’m sure the actual presentation was pretty nerve wracking. What did you do to calm and steel yourself to do such a great job on the show?
The anticipation of walking down the hall and presenting was much more nerve-wracking than actually doing it. It was months of preparing, practicing, and focusing. My spot taped a bit late in the day and I was pacing on the Sony lot all morning and into the afternoon, dressed in my suit and tie… waiting was the hardest part. When the doors swung open and I went in, I was calm, cool, and collected.
So what was the outcome of your Shark Tank pitch. Were you pleased with the outcome?
I was not pleased with the outcome (no deal) and certainly not pleased with the edit, which left most of my message of saving the earth on the cutting room floor — all while making me look less than competent. I had not done $2.5MM in sales or appeared on QVC 65 times by making excuses; I did it by working hard, working smart, and having a great product that appeals to people, is affordably priced, and solves a real problem. But such is reality TV.
What are your “5 Important Business Lessons I Learned While Being On The Shark Tank”? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Ask for the minimum amount of money you can get by with. The Sharks are people too, and everyone wants a good value. In retrospect I asked for too much money.
2. Sales are of utmost importance. I went into the tank with arguably more sales than most ($2.5MM at the time) and 65 QVC appearances, but the same way a farmer has to occasionally let his field sit idle, products need to take a break on QVC. As a result, my sales had tapered and this was alarming for the Sharks.
3. Timing is everything. Had I been accepted onto Shark Tank the first time I applied, the Sharks would have seen sales that went from $170K to $740K in one year and there probably would have been a different outcome.
4. Stick to your plan and don’t second guess it. My original ask was for less money but I got caught up in the dream and at the last minute, literally moments from walking down the hall, gave my producer a higher amount.
5. Be prepared to negotiate. The Sharks were not pleased with my ask but I think if I had negotiated the ask for less equity dollars and either a loan or line of credit, I may have been able to get a deal done. The rules of the show are that you have to get the total amount of your ask, but people need to be reminded that it can be structured in several different ways.
6. Don’t assume. When asked what I would do with the money (a fair question) instead of saying “I need to use it to generate buzz and drive sales” I answered based on the assumption that a deal struck with a Shark would naturally accomplish that, so I answered that I would use the money to gain manufacturing efficiencies.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive and avoid burnout?
This is something I feel very strongly about: We all have a certain amount of bandwidth; some more than others, but regardless we all have our allotment. It is therefore VERY important that we allocate our given bandwidth intelligently to include not only our businesses, but ourselves, our spouses, our children, our relationships, and our community. Balance prevents burnout.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Well, I’m in the process of inspiring just such a movement with the Flip-It! cap. The cat’s of the bag on recycling NOT working; 60 Minutes, CNN, NY Times, and others in the media are reporting on how municipalities are giving up on curbside recycling programs because they simply aren’t working…we put our bottles into the blue bin, the truck drives around collecting them, and then the same truck goes directly to the landfill where those bottles are dumped out and crushed down to make room for more. The remnant products left inside- soaps, lotions, adhesives, paints, cleaning chemicals, you name it, are then free to leach out into the earth and water. By using the Flip-It, people are able to get every drop they’ve paid for, and put cleaner, empty bottles out without wasting another precious resource, water, in the process. So a cleaner earth will benefit all of us, and generations to come.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have many life lesson quotes, but my favorite is:
“Expectations cloud observations”
It’s easy for people to see what they want to see based on pre-conceived notions. The example you’re at the finest restaurant and put something into your mouth that doesn’t taste right, but instead of spitting it out you swallow it. Your expectation is that since this is a top restaurant that there couldn’t possibly be anything wrong with the food; this clouded your observation that the food was spoiled. In business it could be that you hired a person or company to represent you and since you’re so smart (and can’t possibly make a bad decision) this clouds your observation that the person or company really isn’t performing very well and should be replaced. I try not to allow my expectations to cloud my observations.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Jeff Bezos without question, because we both share a concern and dedication to improving the environment. The combination Amazon + Flip-It! can immediately help improve people’s lives while measurably reducing pollutants entering our lands and oceans on a global scale. On the personal side, we both have an affinity for things Western (we both shop at the same store in Aspen, CO) and are adventurous. He’s busy with Oceanic and Space exploration and I’m an accomplished helicopter and jet pilot, so we’d for sure have some great “hangar talk”. I’m sure there would be no problem keeping each other interested and entertained over a meal. Who knows…maybe Flip-It! can become the next “Ring”!
Link to webpage: www.flipitcap.com
5 Important Business Lessons I Learned While Being On Shark Tank, With Steven Epstein of… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.