Earlier this year, I wrote about a collaboration between Liberty Bottleworks and Freakers USA. It came about after Freakers founder Zach Crain used a Liberty 100 percent aluminum bottle to show off one of his drink covers on “Shark Tank,” the ABC show where entrepreneurs face a panel of potential investors.
So it caught my attention when I saw that the “Shark Tank Grannies” were coming to the Yakima Convention Center to speak at the Washington Association for Career and Technical Education’s summer conference.
For those who don’t watch “Shark Tank,” the Shark Tank Grannies are Yelm residents Bev Vines-Haines and Charlotte Clary. Nearly four years ago, Vines-Haines, 72, and Clary, 58, developed Ice Chips, a candy made with zylitol, a natural sweetener approved for diabetics.
The candy was initially sold alongside other products made for their natural skin care company, Healing Leaf LLC. But it wasn’t long before the candy become the company’s flagship product. Today, Ice Chips come in 17 different flavors, are sold in 2,000 health food stores and dentist offices nationwide, and have annual sales approaching $1 million.
The product, and its growth, was attractive to “Shark Tank” panelists Mark Cuban and Barbara Corcoran, who made a joint investment of $250,000 for a 40 percent stake in the company. Meanwhile, Vines-Haines and Clary also gained their now well-known moniker, a reference to their numerous grandchildren.
During an hourlong chat at the convention center last week, the pair talked about developing Ice Chips, key lessons in entrepreneurship and what it was like to pitch their product on national television.
Q: Tell me about the process of creating Ice Chips.
Clary: Working in the natural health realm and the natural product realm, we heard the buzzword of zylitol. We didn’t know what it was. But when we got some understanding of what zylitol was and realized it was so beneficial, we incorporated it in our family’s health regimen. At that point, we had 37 grandkids between us. (They now have 41 grandchildren.)
We decided to buy the zylitol candy in bulk and give it to our families. Then we started putting it in tins and selling it as a side product.
But then we learned the zylitol in the candy was made with genetically modified corn, and we realized that would never fly for us. We started hunting for a better source of zylitol. But we couldn’t find the mints and candies (made with a different source of zylitol) that we could buy.
So that’s when we looked at each other and asked, “Do we have to make this, too?”
Vines-Haines: When we found the zylitol that wasn’t made from genetically modified corn, we made our first candy. By the end of the first week, we had three flavors and we knew we had an amazing hit.
Q: What was it like to appear on “Shark Tank?”
Vines-Haines: That was the most wonderful thing that could happen to any business, no matter what happened in the end. Just getting the exposure, getting a 15 minute, free commercial going everywhere in America. ...
Clary: It was 7 million viewers in prime time.
Vines-Haines: We did watch their show; we were prepared with our facts and figures.
Clary: We watched enough episodes before to see all the failures and see where people messed up, what they didn’t understand and where they didn’t have the answers. By the time we got there, we really had schooled ourselves on everything we would be asked. We were ready for them and we were not afraid of what we would be asked.
Vines-Haines: We weren’t that nervous, other than the unusual experience of appearing in front of the sharks (investors), but we were prepared.
Clary: Just going through that whole scary experience — I refer to as terrifying fun — was valuable. We say after “Shark Tank,” after that experience, we can’t be scared.
Q: Did you mind being branded the Shark Tank Grannies?
Clary: We’re good with that because we’re definitely grannies.
Vines-Haines: They definitely branded us, and I don’t think they even meant to. When we talked to the “Shark Tank” panel we said we had 37 grandchildren. Suddenly, all five sharks referred to us as “Grandma Charlotte,” “Grandma Bev,” and by the time it was aired we were the Shark Tank Grannies.
Clary: Now we use that branding on our T-shirts and on our tins. Since we are grannies, we are just going with it.
Vines-Haines: Somebody yesterday here in the lobby (of the Yakima Convention Center), jumped up and said, “It’s the grannies!” It happens to us all the time.
Clary: I think if we had been younger on the show with the same information, I think we would have done well, but not as well. (We had) that sweet spot of our age and our experience.
Q: What effect did your appearance have on other “granny entrepreneurs”?
Clary: We got letters and calls saying, “You really inspired me,” and “I had an idea and I’d given up on it, but I’m going to pull it out of the drawer and get to work.”
Vines-Haines: The AARP people, the senior people, the Red Hats — we’re definitely an inspiration to them. We didn’t set out to do that and we didn’t realize they would be inspired, but we’ve had dozens of people say they picked up a dream and a vision because we succeeded.
Q: What advice would you give to new entrepreneurs?
Vines-Haines: I have one: Do not go into debt. Don’t think that you have to buy everything new. Cut every corner you can except in the product. Make the product the best you can. If you have to use second-hand furniture and cars to get there, do it.
Clary: Point two, don’t wait until you have the perfect product to get out there. You can perfect it on the way. That’s what we did; we started small with some flavors. We started small with our graphics. We didn’t have to have it all down. ... We needed to grow with the sale of those early products.
Q: I’ve read that you two came up with lots of different ideas for products. How do you balance all those ideas?
Clary: Whatever you’re selling is your focus (laughs).
Vines-Haines: It would have been easy to fall into that trap because we relentlessly invent. We could sit down for coffee and come up with two new products. So you have to be willing to let a lot of good ideas go to bed. If you don’t focus on your best ideas, you’ll get so caught up in the swill of too much product, you overwhelm the customer, you overwhelm the store and you will not be successful.
• Mai Hoang’s Reporter’s Notebook is published Mondays in the Marketplace section. To reach her, call 509-759-7851 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.