A pair of dirty sneakers. That’s how Kevin Consolo and his business partner Chris Pavlica won a spot on the ABC reality show “Shark Tank” two weeks ago.
They invented SneakERASERS, pre-moistened sponges that erase dirt and grime from the white edges of athletic shoes.
Consolo and my son Matt, both 36, have been friends since the fourth grade in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. I hadn’t seen Kevin for 15 years until he showed up on “Shark Tank.” This was the same kid who slept over and went trick-or-treating with Matt.
He and Pavlica met at Ohio University and often stayed up late brainstorming business ideas. They stayed in touch after Pavlica headed to Hollywood and spent 15 years creating immersive theater experiences for NASA, Heinekin and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and more.
In 2016, just 20 minutes before a presentation for directors at the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, Pavlica realized that his tennis shoes were scuffed up. As he scrubbed them, something clicked.
That evening, he called Consolo. “I have another idea,” he said.
“We threw so many ideas around. I don’t remember how or who came up with SneakERASERS,” Consolo said. But creating the product was easy.
Manufacturing and marketing were anything but.
“We didn’t know a thing about cost and packaging and generating a bar code. We tried boxes, Mason jars, anything,” Consolo said.
He and Pavlica devoted 10 and 15 hours a week to this while working their regular jobs. “Sunday mornings my friends would be out having fun. I’d be calling manufacturers and emailing stores,” Consolo said.
They named their company FTI Brands, or “Free to Innovate.”
Their sweat paid off. Soon SneakERASERS were carried in 22 states in stores that sell expensive sneakers, “but it was difficult to see how sales were going and get stores to re-order. Getting the same person on the phone when we called was iffy,” he said.
Then, in November 2018, fashion designer Rachel Zoe featured SneakERASERS as No.3 on her Amazon list of the Top 10 items that make you look 10 times more put together.
The phone “started to blow up,” Consolo said. They got orders from mothers, athletes, cheerleaders, nurses, “all these demographics we weren’t focusing on. They loved the product. Why didn’t we think of this market before?”
Soon SneakERASERS were carried by Harris Teeter, a southeastern U.S. supermarket chain. Two months later, Consolo quit his sales manager job in Charlotte, N.C., to focus on SneakERASERS full time. He had married just four months earlier.
“I don’t think Tiffany knew I would jump in full-time with a shoe sponge company,” he said.
He and Pavlica considered applying for “Shark Tank” in 2017, but they had no retailers then. By 2019, however, SneakERASERS were carried in 28,000 Walmart stores, so they applied.
“Shark Tank” gets 10,000 applications each year. It accepts 450, then narrows that to 100.
Consolo and Pavlica were among the 450, but COVID canceled in-person casting calls. “But the producers liked the idea and wanted to hear more,” Consolo said.
They made the cut.
During the show, six successful business pros grill entrepreneurs about their product, marketing strategies, pricing and more, then decide whether and how much to invest.
Before the taping, Consolo and Pavlica studied. They exhaustively rehearsed possible questions and nailed down accounting and finance details. “It was like going to the biggest class ever,” Consolo said.
The day it was taped, “I was so nervous. If you say something stupid, five million Americans can witness it,” he said.
Contestants hope for one investment offer from at least one panelist. Consolo and Pavlica got three and selected the one from Lori Greiner and Alex Rodriguez.
Details are being worked out.
SneakERASERS, and its offshoots, AutoERASERS and GolfERASERS, are now carried in 30,000 stores. The latter two products evolved when Consolo and Pavlick realized that SneakERASERS could also clean cars and golf clubs.
“We’re pumped,” Consolo said. “I feel a lot smarter about getting a product to the shelf than I did four years ago.”
In other words, with hard work, perseverance, grit and a lucky break or two, dreams can sprout into reality.