ABC’s hit show Shark Tank just began its ninth season, giving entrepreneurs the opportunity to pitch a panel of high-profile investors in hopes of landing a deal. In 2013, TU alumnus Tim Barklage (BSBA ’95) took his own turn in the shark tank.
He cofounded a line of all-natural cleaning products called Better Life in 2008 with friend and business partner, Kevin Tibbs, an accomplished formulation chemist, when both were new dads with active daughters crawling on the floor and getting into everything.
“We became concerned about the products we had in our homes,” says Barklage. “My wife and I had been buying what we thought were responsible products for years, but Kevin asked why we were wasting money on products that were expensive, didn’t work and really weren’t that safe.” Barklage challenged Tibbs to come up with something better. A few weeks later, a Mason jar showed up at his house containing what would eventually become Better Life’s all-purpose cleaner. “It worked amazingly well, and I thought it would be a great opportunity to create a business,” says Barklage.
From the company’s inception, Barklage and Tibbs have set a standard to create products that are not only safe for their kids to be around (and even use), but also perform better than a conventional equivalent. As Barklage explains, “There are a lot of products that might be environmentally safe, but not really effective. And there are a lot of products that claim to be environmentally safe, yet still contain dangerous ingredients.”
With little working capital when the company started, the two entrepreneurs knew they had to create products that would consistently exceed customers’ expectations. To maintain that standard, Barklage and Tibbs spend significant time on research and development activities. “Just as an example, it took us five years to develop a laundry detergent that met our standards for effectiveness and safety,” Barklage says. Better Life develops all products in-house and now features over two dozen different products including household cleaners, dish, laundry and personal care.
As for how Better Life landed a spot on Shark Tank, Barklage says the show’s producers invited them to audition for the program. “We filmed the audition video in the spring of 2013 and sent it to the producers. They loved it; and before you knew it, we were taping the show.”
The duo prepared extensively for the appearance by becoming “students of the show” so they could anticipate any questions asked by the show’s panel of investors, also known as the sharks. “It was really exciting. We practiced our pitch hundreds of times over — maybe even thousands,” Barklage says. “We became almost obsessive about watching the show and talking about what the sharks asked the entrepreneurs. We felt very confident and prepared, which made it easier to feel like we could have a genuine discussion with the sharks.”
That preparation paid off in a big way, with an offer by investor Lori Greiner of a $400,000 loan in exchange for 17 percent equity in the company (dropping to 7 percent after paying back the loan). When asked to describe the overall experience, he says “from the moment we started working with the producers of the show until post-production, everything has been an amazingly positive experience. The show’s producers try to make the interaction the best experience it can be.”
After the show aired, the reception by fans far exceeded what Barklage and Tibbs thought was an aggressive sales target. “We ended up selling three times more product than our wildest expectations,” he says. Better Life has been named one of America’s fastest growing privately held companies by being recognized on the Inc. 5000 list for four consecutive years.
Barklage credits TU’s small class sizes and mentorship from Professor Ralph Jackson for equipping him to take risks and explore business opportunities that have personal meaning.
Having patience, something he also remembers Jackson emphasizing, has also paid off in his career. Barklage advises students not to underestimate the value of working in a corporate environment before taking the leap into entrepreneurship. “Although it may not be something you want to do for the rest of your life, you will gain experiences you can apply when you start your own business.” For Barklage, those lessons have resulted in a Better Life, indeed.