Into the ‘Shark Tank’

Published 9:00 pm Friday, February 26, 2021

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Albert Lea native’s baby product to air on popular ABC TV show

Everything around Busy Baby today indicates a deal was made when it appeared on the TV show “Shark Tank.”

Busy Baby creator and Albert Lea native Beth Fynbo, however, won’t say.

And with plenty of confidence, she might not need a “Shark.”

Email newsletter signup

“We’ll see,” she said recently at her dad’s welding shop — Fynbo Welding — in eastern Albert Lea.

Inside, pallets of boxes stand taller than 6 feet. She and her brother Eric shipped 10,000 Busy Baby Mats to Amazon a few days earlier; there’s another 50,000 in the shop.

The pair have planned an order fulfillment party for March 6, the day after Beth’s appearance on “Shark Tank” airs on ABC.

By Beth’s estimation and help from a Facebook group of toy entrepreneurs, she needs the warehouse space.

“We’re guessing a minimum of 10,000 orders from the show,” she said. There should also be an increase in daily orders after that — up to three times what they’ve filled so far.

While discussing her journey, Beth’s cell phone makes the sound of an office desk call bell.

“That’s an order,” she said.

Babies are messy

The story of Busy Baby’s creation is a familiar one to parents: Babies are messy, they like to chew on everything, and they like to throw things.

Beth’s “ah ha” moment happened while eating lunch at a restaurant with friends and their babies.

Beth built a prototype of the mat for herself at first. And then she made one for a friend.

The food-grade silicone mats had suction cups on the underside to attach to flat surfaces, and were easy to remove and clean. Perhaps more ingeniously, the mats wrapped around dirty items like shopping cart handles. Toys could be attached to the mats through teethers, and they wouldn’t fly off tables.

When Beth and her friend pulled out the mats at bowling alleys and elsewhere in the public to feed their kids, moms and dads wanted to know where to buy one.

So Beth went for it.

An Army veteran, she completed Bunker Labs’ 12-week entrepreneur course for veterans, and she went to toy fairs to see other products and other dreamers.

“I walked and talked with other mom entrepreneurs,” Beth said. “I thought, ‘If they can do it, I can do it.’”

She leaned on her brother, Eric, also an Army vet, who worked in retail in the Twin Cities and had four kids. Soon after, he signed on to help run the fledgling company.

Beth entered pitch competitions, and she applied for and received entrepreneurial grants and small business loans. She hit up family.

“I just kept using the resources available,” she said.

She found online help, as well, as she fine-tuned the mats and eventually secured a product development team in Utah. She learned about product liability insurance, tariffs and international shipping.

“It was learning as you go,” she said.

On her phone, Beth saved a video from September 2017 she made of herself at her Oronoco home. She’s working late. Mats and pieces of mats are strewn on a dining table. “Shark Tank” is on the TV in the background.

Beth, in the video, says she’ll be there one day.

Answers worth millions

“Shark Tank” aims to connect entrepreneurs needing funding with at least one “Shark,” businessmen and women who have the checkbooks to change businesses.

The pitches typically include questions that make up the bulk of discussion on the show — what’s the value of the company, how much debt does it carry, how much is in inventory, how much does it cost to make, do you have a patent and what is the trajectory of sales?

Wrong answers can send inventors home. Right answers can be worth millions of dollars.

Deals, if reached, typically included seed money for an immediate need in exchange for a percentage of the business or future sales.

Negotiating those dollar figures and percentages while weighing offers are the formulaic highlight of each entrepreneur’s segment.

Two of the most successful products launched from the “Shark Tank” — clothing line Bombas and cleaning product Scrub Daddy — were granted $200,000 investments from “Sharks” on the show. Sales for both products at the time were no more than $200,000; recent sales figures for both today top $200 million, according to published reports.

The “Sharks” include Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, QVC personality Lori Greiner, and FUBU clothing CEO Daymond John.

Minnesota entrepreneurs aren’t uncommon to the show. No fewer than three from the North Star State have appeared before the “Sharks” in the past year, and two of those pitches were aired.

Plan for the best

Beth made sure she did all she could before traveling to Las Vegas to tape the show in September 2020 — almost three years to the day from when she made the video saved on her cell phone about appearing on “Shark Tank.”

“I binged 250 episodes,” Beth said. “It was exhausting.”

She kept notes on each of the “Sharks.” She tracked how the entrepreneurs made presentations and how they said things, what worked and what to avoid.

“When I got there, I thought, ‘This feels comfortable, this feels like home,’” Beth said. “I was where I was supposed to be, and I’ve been on the path I hoped would happen.”

It appears the outcome was positive.

She’ll be the third Minnesotan out of the last four to have their segments aired. The significance of that wasn’t lost on her when she heard from the show’s producers.

Beth and Eric had just ordered $500,000 in Busy Baby inventory. They believed they’d sell it eventually, even if the “Shark Tank” segment didn’t air.

“I went on the show thinking that I had to have something to sell,” she said.

And if Beth tanked “Shark Tank?”

“I figured we’d sell them eventually,” she said.

She received the email from the show confirming March 5 as the air date while enjoying lunch at Jake’s Pizza with Eric and their dad, Bill.

Beth cried.

“I planned for the best scenario,” she said, ”and it’s been pretty good, so far.”

Options in the future

Before any “Shark” enters the picture, Busy Baby has the right trajectory.

While pregnant, Beth sold $97,000 worth of product in 2019.

During COVID-dominated 2020, sales jumped to $900,000.

Projections for 2021 are on track to top $4 million.

The workload has Beth thinking about her future at Cardinal Health, where she is an account manager. Beth hasn’t taken a salary from Busy Baby yet.

“They’re hoping I stay on as long as I can,” Beth said.

Beth also said she should be able to pay back her mom and stepdad for money they gave her early in the product development process.

Eric has already left his role at Dick’s Sporting Goods earlier this month to devote all of his time to Busy Baby.

“It’s a big risk for him, but this opportunity is here at just the right time,” Beth said.

Three part-time workers help fill orders from a building on a farm property Beth lives on with her two young ones and her farmer fiance.

“We’re probably going to need a full-time person for fulfillment in a couple of weeks,” Beth said.

They have the extra space at her dad’s shop for a few more months. Bill is mostly retired and will move the remaining work he’s doing to his home. The lease on the warehouse, which Bill built 40 years ago, ends in May.

Beth said her father didn’t say much about Busy Baby initially, but it’s grown on him. He helped renovate the farm building and offered his warehouse space.

“His style was for us to learn our own lessons and make our own path,” Beth said.

Busy Baby’s website includes a new teething spoon, and it will launch a mini-mat in June. The site also now includes some toys from other companies.

When asked what’s next, Beth answers with options she could have heard from a “Shark.”

They’d like to sell the business in the next five years. Or maybe license the product to allow someone else to handle the day-to-day details.

The goal is for both families to work less and enjoy each other more.

Beth’s phone dings again. It’s another order. She smiles.

“In the meantime, we’ll keep doing what we’re doing,” she said.