PELLA — If you want to develop a nose for business, it helps to sniff out the problems right in front of you. And no challenge could be more obvious than the smelly shoes of Sierra Smith’s friend.
Not long ago, Smith, a Pella native, was brainstorming product ideas with friends at Harvard Business School when someone got too comfortable.
“One of our girlfriends took her shoes off,” Smith said Monday, “and it was a smell that I never thought I would smell coming from a girlfriend.”
That earthy inspiration launched Zorpads — a product that eliminates shoe odors — and set Smith and her business partner on a path to national notoriety. She and Taylor Wiegele appeared Sunday on ABC’s “Shark Tank” TV show and landed a deal that includes endorsements by basketball legend Charles Barkley.
Zorpads, which sell online for $5 a pair, use material that NASA tested to clean air aboard the International Space Station. Its sales soared Monday after the “Shark Tank” exposure, but Smith keeps her feet on the ground.
The path from Pella
“If you had asked me when I was a little girl on Park Lane in Pella, Iowa, if I dreamed of a career in shoe odor, I would have probably laughed at you,” she chuckles, “but here we are.”
Smith, a 2006 Pella High grad, lives in New York and went to California to give her “Shark Tank” pitch last June. Her path included studies at Notre Dame and a climb up the healthcare management ladder before that fateful whiff at Harvard. Her friend’s solution to foot odor was to throw out her shoes whenever their stench got too strong.
Smith and Wiegele came up with a better idea. Wiegele, an engineer who’d worked for SpaceX, knew that the space-tested material could act like a magnet, sucking in and neutralizing odor molecules in shoes. Zorpads are thin rectangles, two inches by an inch and a half, inserted into shoes. They last up to 60 days and work in any shoe, including Barkley’s size 17s.
Getting Zorpads in those hefty high-tops was no small feat.
The art of the deal
Entrepreneurs go on “Shark Tank” to pitch their products to a panel of wealthy business experts — known as sharks — in hopes of making investment deals. The sharks chomp up a share of the start-ups in return for the launch money. Smith and Wiegele were willing to swap 8 percent of Zorpads for $150,000.
Things changed the night before the filming, however, when the pair discovered that Barkley would be a guest shark on their episode. His athletic background, along with the humor he shows as a TV sports analyst, made him a natural spokesman for Zorpads, Smith said. She and Wiegele imagined an alliance between Barkley and “Shark Tank” regular Lori Greiner, known as the queen of cable shopping network QVC.
“That would be the absolute dream,” Smith said.
And when it happened, it was hard to play it cool.
“We were trying to contain our excitement so that we don’t lose all of our negotiating leverage,” Smith said. “We were so, so, so pumped!”
So was the price that Greiner and Barkley asked for their investment: 30 percent of Zorpads. It helped that two other sharks joined the frenzy, however, and the Zorpads zealots sealed the deal for 22.5 percent. The tradeoff was worth it to get what Smith called “the perfect partners.” Lawyers have been ironing out the details since June, but the show’s broadcast Sunday provided instant exposure long before commercials are filmed.
“People take that as an endorsement already,” Smith said. “They’re like, ‘Oh, gosh, well it’s Charles Barkley endorsing this product so it must be good!’”
Bang for the buck
Zorpads prepared its website and shipping company for the rush it anticipated after the show, and that was wise, Smith said.
“A normal day’s sales would be a few hundred dollars,” she mused Monday. “Today we’re doing about a thousand bucks an hour! It’s definitely been crazy.”
Smith and Wiegele, meanwhile, were dealing with businesses calling to stock Zorpads, including a operation known as Target. Zorpads will be sold in 66 Target stores in April, with the potential to land in more than 1,000 if sales go well.
One person who won’t need to buy Zorpads is that inspirational classmate with the smelly shoes, Smith said.
“She’ll get as much free product as she wants!”