Q & A with Kiersten Hathcock: Shark Tank Winner, Marketer Turned Carpenter, Entrepreneur, and Founder of Mod Mom Furniture

Mod Mom-Founder Kiersten Hathcock in the Shark Tank

Kiersten Hathcock and her family moved to LA for her husband’s job. She had worked outside of the home in marketing for 10 years and was struggling with the idea of putting her kids in another daycare situation. She decided she would do whatever it took to stay home with her children. Kiersten tried being a shared nanny for others as well as doing some contract marketing on the side, but the work wasn’t steady enough. Kiersten also realized she was missing something very dear to hera creative outlet.

Not long after, Kiersten started Mod Mom Furniture. Mod Mom would lead her to a Shark Tank win and many other adventures (and misadventures) along the way. Here is a bit of her story.

Why toy boxes?

Many houses in LA (where we lived) have modern, streamlined decor, and I started wondering where all of these families were putting their toys. It was not in plastic bins or toy boxes with cartoon characters plastered all over them. With that said, Shark Tank producers encouraged me to lead with the “we needed a toy box” story—and that was kind of true. We were always needing storage. When I looked online and saw there was only one mod toy box available, the light bulb went off in my head. I realized there was a market for modern-looking toy storage that would look good in any room of the house. The only obstacle was figuring out if I could build them.

What made you think you could build toy boxes?

I grew up in Ohio. My parents were both teachers. They told us—my sister and I—we could do whatever we wanted to do, that we had within us everything we needed to succeed.

We did not have a lot of money growing up because my parents were teachers. My dad was a weekend carpenter who made a lot of our furniture. I had no interest in it, but I think it made me less scared to try it out later in life. I thought, “My dad did this. I just might be able to do this.” So, I went online to figure out what I needed to do. I figured out what kind of table saw I needed and how I was going to put it together. I have a lot of do it yourself in me, and I credit my upbringing for that.

Tell me about the early days of trial and error.

Oh my gosh. They were horrible. I was such a novice. I was using the wrong nails in the beginning. I can’t believe the early ones I built are still together. With the first few toy boxes I sold I went back to the buyers a year later and gave them new ones for free. I truly felt badly for them.

When I was designing the Owyn Toy Box I would literally cut the top panel, draw the leaf designs with pencil until the point where I got the balance right, and then I would go in with the jigsaw and cut it. There were no paper or CAD drawings involved.

What was the timeframe between tinkering in the garage and your first toy box sale?

Too fast. I would say within the first three months. I started building modern toy boxes in late 2006, and I launched the website in 2007.

When were you on Shark Tank?

It was shot in October of 2010, and it aired in April of 2011.

 

 

What were the four to five years like in between beginning to build toy boxes and Shark Tank?

They were exciting and exhausting. Between 2007 and 2011 I built almost 400 children’s furniture items. I was cranking out 15 of them a month. Our kids were in preschool and elementary school, so I was driving back and forth to pick them up at different times of the day in LA traffic. Looking back, I think I maybe had a solid 3 hours of alone time in the garage without kids. I quickly learned things like I had to use the table saw in the morning because I knew I would be too tired in the afternoon. Cutting my finger off, or worse, was not in my business plan! In the evening, I handled all the bills, accounting, and marketing. My hours were very long, but I wouldn’t trade it because I was able to be home more with the kids while I made money.  

During the early days, where were your orders coming from?

 I was thinking I would get a ton of orders from LA clients, and I did get some. I got celebrity orders from Rachel Zoe, Christina Applegate, and Matthew McConaughey’s wife, Camila Alves, but for the most part the orders were coming from New York, Canada, and Miami.

So, then I had to think about how to ship efficiently. Around 2008 when I was still building and writing about my life in my garage on my blog, a couple of design blogs out of New York found me, which helped more outlets find Mod Mom. Then Dwell Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and international design books started reaching out.

At first, it was the mom-in-the-garage story, but then my designs started being featured without the story—they were profiled as good design. At that point, which was around 2010, I thought to myself, “Ohhhhh! I am so glad I did this!” It felt like I had really made it at that point. I had a lot of press prior to Shark Tank with word of mouth, magazine articles, and blog profiles.

I love how you talk about following your intuition and believing in yourself. When all of this is happeningwhen you are in Dwell Magazine, when Christina Applegate is buying your toy boxesis this surprising you, or are you thinking, “This is what I thought would happen”?

It still surprises me to this day. I think I will forever feel like the underdog. I was operating on blind faith and crazed determination. But now that I look back at it, it was truly my intuition that told me to keep going. Everyone, including my incredibly supportive husband, thought I was crazy at first. And I don’t blame them.

They were saying, “Kiersten you are in marketing. You don’t know anything about carpentry.” And I just remember listening to them but feeling fierce defiance: “No I am doing this. I know I’m supposed to do this, but I can’t explain why, exactly.”

What advice do you have for people who are facing the samebeing told by friends and family that they are crazy. That their idea is crazy. How do you overcome that?

It’s a hard thing to hear, especially when you grew up as a people pleaser.  Unbeknownst to me until I was 40, when memories started to come back, I was sexually abused as a child. I’m learning when this type of thing happens to a child, it severely impairs their ability to trust their own intuition and inner compass.  This happened to me.

In my case, I lost my intuitive compass for a long time. I really believe that Mod Mom was the beginning of the reawakening of my intuition, and I think because of that—even though everyone was telling me that it was kind of crazy—I had enough faith to know that I was onto something. It was very a quiet message, it wasn’t a banging-me-over-the-head message. So, I blocked out the noise and trusted my own gut feelings.

How do you differentiate between a random idea you come up with while stuck in traffic and something that your intuition is guiding you towards?

For me, I trust the intuitive hit, but then I go to town from a market research standpoint. I looked at the market and saw there was a need for modern toy boxes. I truly had to see what the numbers looked like after I studied the marketplace.

I created my own logo, so I even studied what kind of colors are right for the demographic I was planning to target. I figured out what colors resonated with the mid-century, modern-loving prospect, but I also trusted my intuition during the design process and went with what felt best to me visually.

Talking about blind beliefshow did the idea of Shark Tank come to mind, and what was the process from idea to being in front of the “Shark” investors?

I had not heard of the show prior to my dad mentioning it to me. He had watched an episode or two from the first season. I ended up being included in the second season of the show.  

Before I put my application in for Shark Tank, clients were waiting 12 to 14 weeks for toy boxes. I was that far behind because I couldn’t keep up with the orders. I knew I needed help. So, I checked out the show. I watched an episode and did a little due diligence. At first, I was like, “Oh, hell no! I am not putting myself into that position.”

But that same old intuitive knowing told me I had to at least try. I had a good story. I was a mom in a garage. We lived in LA. Everything about my story was authentic and could relate to a lot of moms I knew and hung out with. We were all trying to figure out the same thing—how do we work from home? How do we have it all? (Laughing)

I ended up putting an application in online. It was not a big casting call like it is now. A producer called me, and he said he wanted me to film a short video where I answered specific questions and talked through why I was a good bet. From what I understand, they whittled the applications from 20,000 to 40, and then only 18 of us actually aired. I don’t believe in luck, necessarily, but boy did this feel like luck, or synchronicity.  

So, there is a chance you could have gone in front of them, been on Shark Tank, and you still would not have aired?

Yes, isn’t that crazy? I did not know that was how they were going do it. I thought well ok—everyone that gets in front of them gets on TV, but in reality, they pick the ones that make the best television. Intuitively, I knew I was the underdog story and felt relieved I was likely not the one they were trying to use as the buffoon.  But I was still scared to see the edited version when it finally aired!

What are some of the behind-the-scenes things about Shark Tank that you think most people would not know?

They assigned me to a producer. They are nice guys, but they are there to make a TV show. I am there naively thinking, “I am just here to make a deal.” I was not really thinking about the TV part. I was just thinking, “I need a deal, they have money, let’s do this.”

So, about a month before the filming was scheduled, my producers told me to write up my two-minute pitch so they could review it. Over a span of a few weeks, they kept tweaking it and changing it to the point that my Spidey senses were screaming—telling me this is not right. But then I kept trusting their edits, knowing they were the experts.

We filmed the show on a Sunday, but on Friday, we had to do a run-through—a pre-pitch in front of the entire legal team and a bunch of production people—to a packed house. I practiced it over and over and over again. I was confident I would be fine. After all, I taught public speaking, so this shouldn’t be that hard. I stepped onto the stage and completely bombed it. I couldn’t remember my pitch.

Afterwards, I pulled the Executive Producer aside and said, “I can’t pitch this, the way it’s written. This doesn’t even sound like me anymore. These aren’t even my words. The only way I’m going to have a shot at a deal is if I rewrite this.” He told me to go back and practice, but I told him I was rewriting it.

I went home to rewrite it, and I was bombarded with emails from producers telling me that I was making a mistake and that I needed to listen to them—that they knew best. My intuition kept telling me to stand my ground.

So, I rewrote it in less than 48 hours before I filmed with the Sharks. What you see on TV is what I fought to write. And I know in my soul, it was the only reason I received two offers.  

I was really impressed with how you carried yourself in front of the Sharks. I thought you were put together and really human. How does it feel as you are actually doing it?

Thank you for saying that. I am who I am, so I had confidence in what I knew I could do, but at the same time, I was shaking in my boots. I had that last-minute thought of, “WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS?!?! WHY ARE YOU PUTTING YOURSELF IN THIS POSITION?!?!?” I remember looking up as I waited for the doors to open so I could walk through the Shark Tank, and I asked my grandmother, who had passed on, to be with me. I thought to myself, “Alright, here is your chance. You gotta be with me on this. Please.”

The doors open, and I started walking. A camera crew was in front of me, operating a camera on a dolly, just a few feet in front of my face. I was really nervous, but once I got to the room with the Sharks, I felt a calm come over me. I was in the tank for about an hour, but they edited it down to about 14 minutes. I had to have everything memorized—sales, rates, and projections, included.

I didn’t want to share everything with everyone on national television, so when they asked for my wholesale rates, I told them I would give the numbers on a post-it note, and pass it down the line for all of them to see. 

One hilarious moment that didn’t make the final cut happened after I had the two offers, and I was allowed to call my husband before I made the decision. What they don’t tell you is when you are talking to your husband, the microphone is hooked up to the phone, and cameras are in my face. I was not alone, by any means. I am talking to Scott on the phone and telling him “I got one offer from Robert Herjavec and another one from ….. oh, I can’t remember his name … the bald guy.” Funny enough, that didn’t make the final edit! Ha!  

As they are going down the line and saying “No, no, no,” how does that feel?

Intuitively, I knew I was supposed to be there, and I had hope but I have to tell you that the sequence of the show was different from what happened in the tank. I remember very quickly getting an offer from Kevin O’Leary, so I knew I had one before the other Sharks starting saying no. It’s always hard to hear folks say no, and truthfully, I wanted to ask for more money, like Barbara Corcoran mentioned to me. I was going to ask for 300K because, in the furniture industry, you need that kind of capital to compete with the big guys but producers told me I needed to ask for 90K. Regardless, I had a feeling something good was going to happen, but I didn’t think I would get two offers—so that was pretty awesome.

In the end, you got a deal on Shark Tank, and then post-show it never actually went through.

No, it didn’t, and that is what was such a blow when it happened. I’ve endured a couple of these types of situations since I started Mod Mom. The folks I became friends with on the show that got deals were contacted within a week or so for due diligence with their Sharks. After weeks of waiting, I called the Executive Producer, and he said he would track Robert down.

I remember the day he called. I was taking a walk. He said, “Hey, Kiersten, this is Robert.” And I told him how great it was to hear from him. And he said, “You are going to have to remind me—what was your company again, and what was your deal?” I thought, “Oh no—this is not a good sign.”

He asked me to send my numbers again. Two weeks went by, and I booked another telephone meeting with him. He finally looked at the numbers and said, “I think you are still too small. Why don’t you come back in a year?”

It took everything I had not to break down on the phone, but after I got off the call, I started crying. I was a mess for an hour or two—and Corona Light may or may not have been involved. I do what I always do, and I picked myself up off the ground, determined to do it on my own. Friends and family invested about 30K. Then, about a year later, a true angel investor saw the show on Hulu, and he sent me an email asking what happened to the Shark Tank deal. He was offering to invest.

We talked on the phone twice, and I sent him three different options. I ended up inking a deal with him that was better than what I received on Shark Tank. I received more money and gave away less equity. So, in the end, I got a better deal and a better partner. We’ve never met in person, only over the phone. He wrote me a check for a $100,00 and mailed it to my house. Talk about synchronicity and having faith that something good would come. I’m so grateful for him, for Shark Tank, and for Hulu!  

You do furniture other than toy boxes?

Yes, I had been building play tables with chairs and stools, beds, and other types of storage pieces in addition to the toy boxes. In fact, when I named the company, I didn’t call it something that specifically related to children’s furniture because I wanted the option to expand out of the children’s furniture category. On Shark Tank, they edited the segment to make it look like I needed a deal from them to get a manufacturer, but that was not the case. I just knew instinctively that to grow the line, you have to grow into other categories. The mark-up on case goods is much greater than storage, so that factored into my thinking as well. As you saw on the show (depicted in the presentation board), Owyn Toy Box was already made into a line, including a bed, dresser, play table, and side tables. We ended up retailing the line, but shipping case goods is difficult. I ultimately decided to halt production on the beds and dressers.  

When you think of the pivotal moments along this journeywhat were those?

A couple of things happened—after I got the great investment. I managed to get myself in front of the executive team at Stanley Furniture, a multi-million-dollar furniture icon in North Carolina.  

I was in negotiations for eight months with them to be the spokesperson for their kids’ line, as well as ink a licensing deal where they would produce the Mod Mom line—existing line extensions and new designs to expand the line. First year sales projections were at 5 million. I flew into North Carolina to sign the deal and attend a massive furniture tradeshow called High Point Market. I was going to interview with HGTV there and film videos for Stanley. My face was plastered all over the trade news magazines as the new spokesperson, and they even made a cardboard cut out of me with my toolbelt on my hip.  

When the plane landed in North Carolina, my phone was ringing off the hook. My husband asked if I’d seen the press release that was put out that day—on April Fools' Day—and I hadn’t. Stanley Furniture had decided to shut down their youth division, Young America, which was the line I was spokesperson for and the line that was going to produce my designs.

Ugh.

So, I lost my spokesperson job and my licensing deal all in one fell swoop. There I was again, crying when I heard the news. I had a choice: return home or stay and try to make something else work. I stayed for the trade show and networked like crazy.  

I found a partner to work with, but he ended up being the wrong partner. I thought because he had more experience than I did in the industry, I needed to trust his vision. Boy, was I wrong!

After I severed ties with that partner, I knew I had to pursue licensing. About a month later, I got an email from Bill from Little Colorado. Synchronicity.

Why did you choose to partner with Little Colorado? What appealed to you about them?

I trusted my gut feelings about Bill from the moment we connected on email, and on the phone. I could tell he was the kind of partner I wanted, and I think he felt the same way about me. I loved that they located in Colorado and have been around for 30 years. I love that they are a family operation, just like Mod Mom. We just clicked.

We both genuinely want to see the other grow and thrive.

You have talked about how you were considering China or the US. Why did you ultimately choose the US?

I grew up in a small town in Ohio, and I’ve lived through watching friends and family suffer when manufacturing started to leave the States. I have always wanted to manufacture in the US, knowing that I also have the opportunity to set up licensing deals overseas when my US partner can’t supply. Even though the quotes I was getting back from US manufacturers in 2010 were almost 200% more than manufacturing in the China, it just didn’t feel right to me. It was a choice.

What do you know now that you wish you would have known then?

I feel like I know soooo much more about myself and about running a business than I did back in 2007 when I launched Mod Mom. I’m still learning every day, but what I’m about to say has been a constant for me. In fact, I was just giving a speech to a group of entrepreneurs, and I said you need to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you and ask for their help. BUT, ultimately you have to take what everyone else is saying and filter it through your own lens. Does it feel right to YOU?  What does your gut say?

When I didn’t trust my intuition and blindly followed someone else, all the while feeling that “not right in my gut” feeling, it never ended well. Take as much advice as you can, but trust your own intuition.

There was something I did not want to gloss over. You are an entrepreneur, you are a designer, and you are also an advocate for childhood sexual abuse survivors.

Yes. Unfortunately, I am in this club of childhood sexual abuse survivors. I have not named him publicly, but he is a distant relative of mine. I discovered this about myself at the age of 40, and it was shocking, to say the least. Memories started coming back, and I was able to piece everything together. I actually had physical proof of it as well, which is hard to come to grips with. I truly repressed everything because it was so hard for my little mind to handle.  I was abused between the ages of 3 and 6, and raped at the age of 5.

I can now see how much it affected my whole life, even though I didn’t consciously know what had happened. I fell into other abusive relationships and had problems trusting my own intuition for years.

It is very important to me to speak openly about it and write about it. I am speaking to a group of college students about how my intuition helped me survive and heal from abuse. I’m four years into knowing and healing Little Kiersten, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the journey.

That is pretty amazing that you are able to gain that trust back in yourself and then the actual product of that journey is this amazing company and the ability to educate about and be a voice for other survivors of sexual abuse.

Back before I knew about the abuse I endure, I partnered with an organization out of New York called Safe Horizon. They help women who had been in abusive relationships by giving them shelter. I even visited one of their locations while I was in NYC in 2013. I would give a portion of my proceeds to them but through all the ups and downs of the Stanley deal and the failed partnership afterwards, I had to stop donating to their fabulous organization. I'm hoping to partner again with a Safe Horizon, or similar partner that provides support and help to survivors of sexual abuse.

I would like to help the survivors in the world—and there are way too many of us out there.

That is incredible. I have not watched Shark Tank much, but I thought the comments about what you were wearing and how pretty you werewere interesting. What were your thoughts about that?

I thought they were “interesting,” too. They did not sit well with me, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to handle it during filming. I did say no to producers that had everything to do with my appearance. In the beginning, they wanted me to step into the tank with jeans and a t-shirt. I told them that I wouldn’t, and here’s why. I’m more than a carpenter. More than a designer. I’m a business woman with a background in marketing. Without my ability to successfully launch an online business and do all that comes with it, I wouldn’t have an internationally known company. I compromised by wearing a tool belt with my dress and heels—I showed both sides of me. Plus, the Sharks come to filming in their business attire. I was not going to be the woman in a tank top and jeans while pitching my company.

When Barbara said I was pretty, all I could do was smile. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t quite know what to say. I thought it was out of line, but in the moment, didn’t feel it was appropriate to do anything but smile. Clearly, I was there to get a deal, NOT talk about my appearance.

The other comment I thought was interesting is being asked what your husband thought of your business.

I don’t know how it was scripted or what they were told before I entered the sound stage. My husband was laid off when I put my application in for the show, so maybe the producers prompted them to ask the question about my husband. What hurt me more was Robert said: “I love the fact that you are trying to help.” It felt so patronizing. I was thinking “You have to be kidding me. Trying to help, like it was a hobby. I built an international company out of my garage without carpentry experience, design know-how, or capital. I think that is a little more than ‘trying to help.’”

When I didn’t get the deal, we had to declare bankruptcy. It has not been an easy road, that’s for sure, but since Shark Tank aired, we are in a much better place now. I’m so proud of Scott and I as a team and a couple. We’ve been through a lot of hardship and are better than ever on all fronts!

I don’t really watch TV that much so I was like, “Wow. Wow. Ok. Ok.”

Me too! I was in there for an hour and I couldn’t really even remember all of it. Some of that I attribute to being in a state of high adrenaline, and the rest is a side effect of enduring abuse. I don’t remember a lot of the details but I do remember being in the Tank and holding my own.

What is next for you?

I am super excited about my North American licensing partnership with Little Colorado! It happened so organically and authentically. While I know it will take a little while to get everything up and running, I also know the sky is the limit for both companies—Mod Mom and Little Colorado. I am also starting talks with international licensing partners in places like Denmark and France as well as talking to tool companies about developing a line of tools with the Mod Mom brand.

Right now, I am doing a lot of public speaking about building a brand and all of the lessons I’ve learned along the way. I believe in the power of vulnerability and sharing the good and the not so good. My triumphs and my mistakes. I will also continue to speak out about abuse and hope to again partner with an organization that helps those affected by domestic violence and sexual abuse. It is really important to me that I do all I can to help fellow survivors.

 


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