13 Mar 2019
The First Five Years: Sierra Smith and Taylor Wiegele (both MBA 2017)
Zorpads cofounders on Shark Tank
, being masters of their “shoe-odor destiny,” their HBS experience, and why startup life is the way to goTopics:
Taylor Wiegele and Sierra Smith on Shark Tank (photos by ABC)
How did you come up with the idea for Zorpads?
Sierra Smith: “We started Zorpads as part of a school project for FIELD 3 (which apparently no longer exists as required curriculum!). Our team was brainstorming business ideas, when one of our classmates took off her shoes and—WHOA—eyes burning, nose on fire, it was the worst stench you could imagine! When we asked her why she didn’t do anything, she said the current options stunk (pun intended); they either didn’t work, changed the fit of her shoes, or bunched up. Taylor has a background in air and water filtration at SpaceX and Brita, so we knew we could come up with something better.”
What are your short- and long-term goals for the company?
Taylor Wiegele: “Long term, we want to dominate the odor category––with multiple products found ubiquitously. Anywhere that odor exists in a small, confined space we want to be there too. Trash cans, diaper pails, litter boxes, you name it. Short term, we want to build our retail presence. Look for us in select Target stores this April!”
What have been the most enjoyable and the most challenging parts of building the company?
Smith: “The best part is definitely the autonomy. We are the masters of our own shoe-odor destiny, and it’s incredibly motivating to build something when you feel such ownership. The most challenging part is being OK with ‘good enough.’ There have been numerous times when we lamented something for so long because we wanted it to be perfect. The reality is a startup isn’t about perfection on the first try. When we launched our first product we were hawks––watching and waiting for any feedback we could get. Hearing what consumers had to say about our imperfect product allowed us to implement a product improvement that both solved the issue but also led to a broader patent. These are the things that you will only figure out if you lean in to imperfection and resolve to figure it out as you go.”
What roles do each of you fill?
Smith: “Taylor and I are incredibly complementary partners––we have unique skill sets and also enjoy different aspects of the business. Taylor leads our product development, design, and marketing. I lead our operations, finances, and distribution.”
What’s a typical day at Zorpads look like (or is there no such thing as a typical day)?
Wiegele: “Zorpads is still a small (but growing!) company, which means that every day is a new adventure. On the ‘typical’ side, there are the must-dos: order fulfillment, customer service, and paying the bills. Beyond that, on any given day we could be negotiating with a distributor from Indonesia, testing out new product enhancements (did you know there is a synthetic shoe odor molecule you can buy? It smells.), pitching a new retailer, making a new animated GIF of feet sweating or something else wacky, designing packaging for a different section of a retail store, and so much more.”
How do you use what you learned at HBS in this work?
Smith: “There are certainly the tangible skills that have proven to be helpful––how to calculate a cap table, how to design a ‘go-to-market’ plan, etc. But perhaps even more useful are the intangibles, like confidence. As much as I disliked it, being forced to speak in front of 90 classmates for two years built poise, which is incredibly important when you’re constantly in front of customers, retailers, investors, or even … the Sharks!
Wiegele: “We also took a digital marketing strategy and e-commerce class with––wait for it––the same FIELD 3 professor that helped us launch this whole thing (shout out to Thales Teixeira!), which has been incredibly helpful in figuring out our business model and buying advertisements. Until very recently, we were the ones designing all of our ads, buying all of our search terms, and coding all of our retargeting efforts. We couldn’t have done this without the on-the-ground project experience and guest speakers from those classes.”
What was the experience of being on Shark Tank like?
Wiegele: “The process itself was incredibly helpful, which may be an odd thing to say, but it forces you to think through your business model, reflect on your performance, and strategize your growth plan. As a young company, this is valuable. It wasn’t until we were ‘in the tank’ that it all felt real, and absolutely nothing beats the feeling of the first Shark putting in an offer.
Smith: “The day of filming was kind of like a dream. From the producers driving us around in golf carts to the woman making our faces camera-ready in the makeup trailer, you could tell that everyone was so excited to be there. The other entrepreneurs were incredibly fun as well, and not the typical run-of-the-mill millennial startup entrepreneurs developing an ‘end-to-end SAAS solution for small businesses to introduce machine learning by text to their business finances’ (or something like that). The folks we met on Shark Tank made things like a container for your sandwich so it doesn’t get soggy in a cooler or a bed that turns into a safe room. The tangibility of it all was refreshing.”
How did it feel to get the investment from Sir Charles and Lori Greiner?
Smith: “Dream. Come. True. We found out the night before that Charles Barkley was the guest Shark, and we said, if he and Lori went in on a deal together, there was no way we could turn it down. When we were filming and Lori came in with Charles, we had to do everything we could to fight our smiles (for fear of giving up our negotiating leverage!). It was tough, too, seeing the other Sharks come in at better valuations and trying to calculate the value of having Lori and Charles in the business on the fly.”
What was your favorite HBS case and why?
Smith: “In our first-year marketing class we did a case on Planters Nuts, which got into an almonds-versus-peanuts battle, and it totally rocked my world. I always like to think of myself as one who doesn’t fall for marketing ploys, but if you asked me whether almonds or peanuts were healthier, I would have said almonds, hands down. But it’s not true! Peanuts are just as nutritious as almonds, except that the almond companies were able to much more effectively market their product, including getting a ‘healthy heart’ stamp of approval. For me, it was an incredible example of the power of marketing, regardless of whether you have a better product.”
Wiegele: “Since I design our ads and run our marketing, I’m always thinking about the ‘Dumb Ways to Die’ case and the Science of Viral Ads article we reviewed in our digital marketing strategy class. The case was all about this Australian train safety video that went viral. I remember someone showing it to me at a party in San Francisco and loving it. Like, ‘share it with everyone I knew for a week’ loving it. When we dove into how the video was created, how it was seeded in social media, and how it was designed to keep your attention I––like Sierra and her peanuts––felt like I fell willingly and gleefully into the trap so carefully designed for me. I endeavor to do that with Zorpads: create content that people want to see and share and talk about rather than just bombard them with images of shoes. For example, our blog post, ‘8 Signs You Have a Foot Fetish’ is our #3 visited page on our site!”
What did you like to do when you weren’t studying?
Smith: “Besides building a shoe-odor empire, I was big into intramurals! Mostly basketball and flag football, but I dabbled in squash (admittedly a bit of a novelty, given my Midwest upbringing). Also, I enjoyed the chance to do a lot of traveling.”
Wiegele: “Often playing on the same intramural team as Sierra! Also travelling. My partner and I also did a lot of exploring in and around Boston, driving up to Maine on the weekends, and hiking in New Hampshire. Now that we’re back in LA, we miss the proximity of all of those things but 100 percent definitely don’t miss the weather.”
What advice do you have for HBS students interested in launching their own startups?
Smith: “Do it! And take advantage of the incredible resources (professors, classmates, iLab, and more) and time you have while at HBS. My biggest regret was that I didn’t start the second I walked on to campus first year. And a little unsolicited advice for those not interested in launching their own startups––perhaps reconsider. I’m not an incredibly risky person, and neither is Taylor, so the thought that the two of us would naturally go into entrepreneurship was anything but obvious. Now that we have, we’d both tell you it has been the best professional experience of our lives.”
Wiegele: “What Sierra said, but also that there isn’t a right way to build a company. There’s this myth that if you want to go start a company, you just pitch on your HBS credentials and walk into a VC office and walk out with a huge check. That’s 1,000 percent not the case. Sierra and I have built this company while working other jobs (Sierra does health care consulting and I do product marketing for Hot Wheels at Mattel) and we have outsourced a lot of the business to partners that are incentivized to act on our behalf and have expertise that we need. This has allowed us to build a business that has done 3x in sales over what we’ve raised in capital. And we still own the overwhelming majority of the company.”
Can you finish these two statements? “Fighting foot odor is…
“Just the beginning. Keep an eye on Zorpads, there is more to come.” —Smith
“Something that needed to happen and we’re the ones who need to be doing it.” —Wiegele
Read more about Zorpads, and check out their website at https://www.zorpads.com/.
Class of MBA 2017, Section G
Class of MBA 2017, Section G