Sticky Ties wasn't the first business partnership Ellie Brown and Becca Nelson cooked up. The sisters' first business was a bit simpler, but just as serious.
I caught up with Ellie and Becca prior to their appearance on a special Tuesday night Shark Tank on January 13. They were frantic – it seems ABC told them their episode was airing, then they postponed it, then they stuck it into a Tuesday night time slot with only 6 days notice! It's no wonder they were frantic, preparing for a Shark Tank appearance is a full-time job – cramming it into 6 days is nearly impossible, but the will and spirit these two women demonstrated assured me they are up to the task.
Sticky Ties Origins
It seems Becca and Ellie were destined to work together. “We always had little businesses together,” Becca explains. “When I was 8, I made Barbie clothes and I got a booth at a local craft show. I was painfully shy, so I asked my little sister, who was five at the time, to sell them for me. We sold out!”
Ellie always had the knack for sales, which continued into her adult life; she was a pharmaceutical sales rep for many years before becoming a stay at home mom. Becca got over her shyness by competing in beauty pageants; she was second runner-up for Miss USA in 1996. “I used acting and modeling to bring me out of my shell, I've been doing it full-time most of my life. I went right into it and never had a real job interview.”
Their other partner in Sticky Ties, Jennifer Pittman, is a graphic artist. She creates most of the artwork for their designs. Jennifer, unfortunately, doesn't appear on the show.
In 2011, Becca had an epiphany. Her kids were always changing their fashion tastes. “One week they'd be into trucks, the next something else. I thought it would be a good idea if I had a graphic fabric sticker that could be worn multiple times so I could change-up their look easily. The thing was, nobody knew where to put them, that's when I got the idea for Sticky Ties. EVERYONE knows where a tie goes on a shirt.”
When she had the idea, she once again called on little sister Ellie to help with sales. “We realized,” explains Ellie, “‘big kids' liked the Sticky Ties more than the little kids. The little kids kept sticking them on glasses and cups – which is where the idea for Sticky Drink Labels came from.”
Our original business model was to wholesale to retailers. We made the mistake of thinking consumers would understand, but we found we need to explain the product well and educate people right on the packaging.
Party City didn't know where to put it in the stores – was it a novelty, a costume – they weren't sure. It can be frustrating living by retailers' rules. Still, we want to continue to expand into retail and we want to grow online sales. We literally have products for newborns to retired guys.”
“We decided to go after college licensing for the Sticky Ties,” Ellie continues. “Men like the licensed products so we did a deal where we got licensing for all the SEC teams in 2013, but we let them lapse to focus on getting ready for Shark Tank. We also like to respond to trends and, because we're small, we can do that quickly. Two years ago, bacon was gaining in popularity, so we made Bacon Sticky Ties; they sold very well.”
The sisters did well. In 2013 sales were $325,000. “In 2014, we spent so much time on Shark Tank, we didn't do any trade shows,” Becca explains, “we revamped and re-explored our direction. We didn't have big sell through in some retailers, so we needed to figure how to get that number up. Part of the reason we wanted to go on Shark Tank is the sharks have power with buyers.”
From Licensing to Shark Tank
“Throughout the early stages of building the business, everywhere we went, people would say ‘you should be on Shark Tank.' We're both HUGE fans of the show even before we had the business. I get nervous for businesses when I'm watching. I'm such a huge geek fan and I'll critique as I go along. I truly feel bad for people who get slammed by the Sharks and I'll retrace and retrack what happened with every pitch.”
Needless to say, Ellie and Becca were disappointed when their application for season 5 was not accepted. “I decided to re-apply in October 2013. I actually forgot all about it, and they called in March (2014). We ended up taping in June.”
The road to the Tank got a little rocky as their air date approached. Becca tells the story: “We were told we were going to be on – they gave us two or three weeks notice, then they pulled the plug. We'd been telling people we were going to be on, we planned a party, then it was like ‘never mind.' Then we get a call saying we're airing on the 13th, with only 6 days to prepare! That is like the tiny first hill of the roller coaster, but we've learned to go with the flow.”
Sticky Ties in the Tank
“We completely revamped our whole website. Before Shark Tank, we didn't sell direct much – we were more wholesale based. Before, the site it was an ugly dog; we didn't want anyone to see it, but we loved it. Now it looks like a real website. We're also moving our hosting from Bluehost to Rackspace.”
As far as the experience in the Tank, the two women have differing viewpoints:
Ellie: “I thought the Sharks looked just like they do on TV. Robert's eyes were dazzling, Mr. Wonderful was wonderful. For me, it felt like it should.”
Becca: “I expected different reactions from some of the Sharks. I really never saw a lot of the things coming.”
Becca and Ellie couldn't say much else about their appearance before the show, but they did offer some advice for other entrepreneurs:
Becca: “Think long and hard about it and make sure you are passionate, because it takes away a lot of other aspects of your life that you don't think about . Its like you're a duck that's busy paddling away under the water and you look unruffled on top.”
Ellie: “It sounds cliché, but if you're thinking of starting a business, get off your butt and do it. Don't expect somebody to do it for you.”
I had one more question for Becca and Ellie. They answer on The Hot Dog Truck.