Perhaps the hardest part of what Alex Furmansky, ENG’07, W’07, has done with his Wharton startup Budsies was to figure out how to solve the challenge of one-off production. His latest startup takes drawings, selfies or pet pictures and turns them into custom plush toys. It’s a brilliant idea that came to him two years ago when watching his little sister bring home her drawings from school every day. You kick yourself and say, “Why didn’t I think of that,” but probably people did—they just couldn’t solve the riddle of sustainable one-off manufacturing. Furmansky has.
Or perhaps the hardest part of what Furmansky has done was to produce a stuffed toy after someone sent Budsies three lines on a piece of paper and called it a railroad. Or the time someone wanted a stuffed toy in the likeness of his favorite breakfast sandwich.
Or then again, perhaps the hardest thing he’s done with Budsies is appear on the entrepreneur’s reality TV show, Shark Tank, on ABC. His episode has not aired as of this writing—it goes live Friday, April 10—so he couldn’t share details of how the show went.
Furmansky could share, though, that he was surprised and impressed with the experience and found it to be similar to pitching investors anywhere else.
“The experience on Shark Tank was very founder friendly and refreshingly raw,” he says.
He had his doubts. He had expected Shark Tank to be staged, with the director demanding certain lines spoken, multiple takes taken. When he first applied to Shark Tank, he got the feeling he was “basically signing away everything.”
“Are the producers out to get you, or is it a founder friendly environment?” he wondered.
He was so hesitant to participate in the program that he sought help from the Wharton network. He contacted David Kreiger, C’99, WG’07, a mentor and fellow entrepreneur whom Furmansky met when Furmansky was president of the Penn Club of South Florida. Krieger, as Wharton Magazine readers would remember, provided advice and encouragement to a past Whartonite Shark Tank participant, Jordan Lloyd Bookey, WG’07. Krieger recommended that Furmansky reach out to Bookey to learn more about her experience. Bookey relayed how she had a positive experience and that, indeed, the show is founder friendly. (Read more about Bookey in our blog post about her experience with the Sharks here, “Three Wharton Startups Enter the Shark Tank,” as well as in her Wharton “40 Under 40” profile.)
Now after he’s been through it himself, Furmansky’s biggest tip for the Shark Tank application process is, simply put: Stand out. Yes, you are ultimately pitching to the Sharks, he says, but remember you’re also pitching to the show’s producers. The interests of the Sharks and those of the producers are not always the same. The producer is interested in great TV—stories that will grab 8 million households in prime time.
In Furmansky’s case, one might wonder: Why bother? He’s a repeat entrepreneur, having founded New York-based Sparkology, an invite-only online dating platform geared to young professionals that is still going strong with 18,000 members. Sparkology won’t be a billion-dollar exit, Furmansky says, but it is his “lifestyle business.” (We first covered Furmansky for Sparkology in this 2012 piece about Wharton startups to watch.) What’s more, the Shark Tank application process is “quite arduous,” he says, and “will drain a lot of your time and essentially money.” More than 30,000 companies apply; roughly only 100 ever make it on TV each season. And it’s not like Budsies is having trouble garnering media attention. Furmansky and Budsies have been featured in the 2014 gift guide from The New York Times, Parents magazine, Mashable, BuzzFeed, CBS, NBC, Fox and CNBC.
Best of all, recent buzz has been provided by the customers who have bought the more than 8,000 Budsies already sold. Every box ships out with a big pink sticker, Furmansky explains, telling parents to get the camera ready because the most exciting time is when a child first opens the Budsies box. Ecstatic parents and children then share their photos across social media.
“We have a very magical product,” Furmansky says. “People can’t seem to get enough of our creations.”
Despite customers trying their best to make their Budsies go viral, the power of being on TV can’t be dismissed. Says Furmansky, Shark Tank is an incredible platform for a consumer-facing business. In anticipation of the show’s impact, Furmansky has already had to scale servers and information technology infrastructure, investing thousands of dollars into the Budsies’ back-end software that powers the one-off production process, as well as hire staff.
But we shall see just how incredible the platform proves to be ultimately when Furmansky appears Friday, April 10, at 9 p.m. EST. Expect a few funny surprises, Furmansky promises.