18 Nov 2013
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Diving into the 'Shark Tank'

Surprise Ride founders pitch their product on TV's popular start-up showcase.
by Daniel Morrell

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Donna Khalife (MBA 2011) and her sister, Rosy, were taking a lunch break from work on their startup Surprise Ride—which delivers a box of curated children's activities monthly—when they got the email: "Shark Tank Air Date 11/15," read the subject line.

"I thought, 'This can't be real,'" says Donna.

She replied to confirm the message, assuming someone on the other end had made a mistake. After all, not everyone who makes it in front of America's most public investor forum, ABC-TV's Shark Tank, gets on the air. But a producer emailed her back to assure it was in fact no mistake, and this past Friday, the Khalife sisters got to pitch their idea to Shark Tank's estimated 6.4 million viewers.

On Monday morning, we talked to Donna about the idea, startup life, and her experience in the tank.
—Dan Morrell

Tell me about your own childhood—how was the idea inspired by your own experience?

We're from Lebanon originally, and my family left there when I was 6, while the country was in the middle of war. We literally left on a boat and ended up in Cyprus. Eventually, we became war refugees in Canada. My dad was an artist, so there was art everywhere when we were growing up. We were always encouraged to try things, to fail, and just be creative.

How did the company start?

I dragged my sister with me. My sister was still a senior in college when we fell in love with this idea, but we were determined. It started out of her dorm room. We joined a tech accelerator and that really propelled us forward. Our formal launch was in May of this year, but we had been working on it for five months before that. And my sister still maintained a 4.0 GPA with a full load of classes!

Talk a little bit about how you ended up appearing on Shark Tank.

It was a long process. We heard through the grapevine that they were reaching out to tech accelerators looking for interesting companies. So while they were in the process of casting, we cold-emailed them. It took months of auditions, producers selecting the products and teams, and then we finally got an airdate. A lot of hard work goes into appearing on the show. There are many cuts along the way, and lots of uncertainty.

What was the TV experience like?

I was nervous. In the hours before the show, you have producers talking to you, prepping you. There's makeup, hair, crew working on lighting, testing the sound. All of that is happening. And you don't have a moment to compose yourself. Then you hear: "5. 4. 3. 2. 1." Then you have to walk down a long hallway to try and deliver a perfect pitch.

Which investor made you the most nervous?

Going into it, every single shark made us nervous! As you've seen in past episodes, they can all be brutally honest at various times. However, it became apparent a few minutes in, once we handed out their Surprise Rides, that they were no different than everyone else. We're all kids at heart. They loved their boxes and were as excited to open them as our young riders. I think gifting them Surprise Rides allowed them to really connect with the joy that our product brings to kids and adults alike. We didn't have to spend any time convincing them that the product was special.

You seemed like you were ready for every question—were there any surprises?

We spent many hours preparing for questions. It was tough to do while also managing and trying to grow the business, but we knew it was critical. The one question that surprised us was one asked in the form of a case interview question! One shark gave us a set of assumptions and wanted us to estimate inventory. I'm a very visual person so I would normally want to write down the info to run the numbers. It's tough to absorb the scenario when there are cameras and everyone is waiting for your response. Thankfully, my years of serving as a recruiter and coaching others on how to tackle case interview questions paid off and we got it right!

You didn't end up with an investment. Do you have any regrets from the experience? You seemed relieved and ready to go in the wrap-up!

Honestly, we have no regrets. As huge fans of the show from the very first season, we never imagined that we would someday get to be part of the phenomenon that is awakening America's entrepreneurial spirit. We walked out thrilled that every single shark loved our product. Lori's tweet during the show summed up our experience in the tank and discussion with the sharks. [The tweet: @LoriGreiner: Smart girls, @SurpriseRide already well on their way, why let them give away equity? They're going to make it! #sharktank ]

When did the show tape? What has happened with the company since then?

The show taped a couple of months ago. Since then, we've gotten tremendous positive feedback for our product. We've seen a huge surge in gift orders ahead of the holidays. We've also gotten numerous requests for a grown-up version of Surprise Ride that fosters curiosity and creativity in adults. You'll see that people can now join our invite list online for the grown-up ride. We've got a lot of other great surprises in the works!

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Class of MBA 2011, Section F
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