BY THE TIME TIM TALLEY, FOUNDER OF ROCHESTER, New York-based U-Lace appeared in March on ABC's Shark Tank, he was pretty confident. In fact, his product had already been named the No. 1 new fashion product by Begin, Japan's top trend and new products magazine.
U-Lace sneaker customizing laces are elastic shoelace inserts that enable users to lace multiple colors and patterns into their shoelaces. The laces can also quickly be removed and inserted, making customization easy. Talley went to Japan in 2007 in search of a marketable fashion idea and returned with the idea for U-Lace. Back in the States, he began working on a prototype. In 2008, his first manufactured batch of packaged U-Laces were too tight. After some tinkering, he perfected (and trademarked) Laced Feel technology and had a salable product in 24 colors by August 2009. He started off selling in Japan; within six months he had a distribution deal in Europe as well.
But Talley wanted distribution in the U.S., so when he heard about a casting call in Philadelphia for the entrepreneurial reality TV show Shark Tank, he went for it. He drove nearly eight hours to arrive in time for the audition and found 60 people on line ahead of him. "I saw a lot of them reading scripts, but I kind of went on the fly," says Talley of the experience. "Sixty seconds is a short amount of time, so I didn't want to be hemmed in by a script. Visuals drove my presentation. I showed them the product, and I was laced up in my product."
Talley's pitch boiled down to this: The average kid in America has about 10 pairs of sneakers, and U-Lace can customize those 10 pairs, turning them into considerably more. "I have this product that gives everyone the opportunity to put their own personality and sense of style into their sneakers," Talley recalls saying. "And literally turn any pair of sneakers into a one-of-a-kind limited edition. We just needed help here at home in the U.S.A."
After successfully getting through the casting call and getting called back for a second round of tryouts by the show's producers, it was time to pitch to the Sharks a few months later. Talley sought $200,000 for 25% equity in the company, and wanted Mark Cuban or Daymond John to offer him a deal. Sales for the company were just north of $190,000 at the time of the shooting; U-Lace finished 2013 with sales just under $300,000. In the end, Talley, who appeared on Season 5, Episode 19 of the show, landed a deal with billionaire Mark...