Walking onto the set of Shark Tank, Tara Brown ’98 was still sporting the big blue curlers that she’d been wearing for the past 22 hours. Fortunately, they were comfortable — and that’s the point. Brown appeared on the ABC reality show in early March to pitch the Sleep Styler, microfiber rollers that dry and style your hair while you catch some z’s.
“The memory foam inside is marshmallow soft and ensures a fabulous night’s sleep,” Brown told the five celebrity investors. “The unique shape maximizes airflow and allows you to curl or straighten.”
Curious about her backstory, “shark” Robert Herjavec asked, “Are you a hairstylist?” Brown is actually a San Diego–based ophthalmologist. Her idea for the Sleep Styler — as is the case with most successful innovations — grew from a personal problem. “My hair’s the worst,” Brown told the Scene. “It’s part curly, part straight, and super frizzy.” The Colgate biology major added that, throughout medical school at Tulane and her residency, “I had no time, so I put it in a bun or ponytail every day.”
Fast-forward to 2015. Now a doctor, wife, and mother of two, Brown was busier than ever. One morning, when undoing her daughter’s braid from the night before, Brown noticed the waves that had taken shape — and that unlocked a solution.
To learn about materials she might use and how to sew, she enrolled in a fashion class. Brown estimates that she tested 50 fabrics before finding the winner: an ultrasuede microfiber that can “wick the moisture away, stay dry to the touch, hold as much water as possible, and stay sturdy,” she said.
Armed with hand-sewn prototypes and a patent, Brown soon started winning awards, from an “As Seen on TV” convention’s “best in show” to a Fox San Diego morning-show pitch competition.
Still doing lid lifts by day, Brown spent nights and weekends perfecting her product and sewing up manufacturing details. “I designed every stitch, every seam, and I made sure those things are bomb proof,” she said.
Twenty prototypes later, Brown launched a Kickstarter campaign on July 19, 2016. Within 12 hours, she made her first goal of $10,000. The next week, she took the Sleep Styler to the beauty trade show CosmoProf and garnered even more attention. On the drive home from Las Vegas, Brown received a call from a Shark Tank casting agent.
Shortly after, the 30-day Kickstarter campaign ended at $47,000, and Brown was preparing for her biggest pitch yet.
Nervously pacing in a trailer in the Sony lot, Brown had spent the last seven hours questioning her fate when she was called on set at 6 p.m. Blue curlers in hair, cobalt heels, and a tasteful black and white dress, Brown was ready. She had spent the past month binge watching episodes, jotting down questions, and memorizing her answers.
From the moment Brown entered the room, she had the sharks hook, line, and sinker. She gave a smooth spiel, sailed through the sharks’ questions, and made her ask: $75,000 in exchange for a 20 percent stake in her business.
“I think it’s genius,” Lori Grenier, “the Queen of QVC,” said. “I’m going to make you an offer… and I just want you to say yes right now.”
After a bit of back and forth, Grenier accepted Brown’s counteroffer, and they agreed to $75,000 for a 25 percent stake. As the two women hugged, Herjavec said, emphatically, “I’ve never seen her this excited about a product.”
— Aleta Mayne