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Making millions out of mud? Cordova entrepreneur pitching idea in 'Shark Tank'

Jennifer GibbinsThe Cordova Times
Lauren Padawer started her Alaska Glacial Mud Co., selling all-natural facial masks, soaps and other skin care products, in 2007 with the help of an Alaska Federation of Natives Marketplace Grant. Courtesy Lauren Padawer

Is Cordova's Lauren Padawer on her way to becoming the next self-made multimillion dollar American tycoon? Tune in to ABC's "Shark Tank" on Friday to find out.

The business-themed show has the Sharks, self-made millionaires (and billionaires), looking to invest in the best businesses and products America has to offer. Up to 8 million viewers tune in each week to watch as small business owners give a two-minute pitch anxiously trying to convince the investors to back them with deals going into the millions.

Padawer started her Alaska Glacial Mud Co., selling all-natural facial masks, soaps and other skin care products, in 2007 with the help of an Alaska Federation of Natives Marketplace Grant. She traveled to Los Angles this past September to face five of six Sharks: billionaire Mark Cuban, outspoken owner of the 2011 NBA championship Dallas Mavericks; real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran; "Queen of QVC" Lori Greiner; technology innovator Robert Herjavec; fashion and branding expert Daymond John; and venture capitalist Kevin O'Leary.

Padawer, who doesn't own or watch television, said when she first got the call last summer, she wasn't sure if it was legitimate. After going online and watching several shows, she tried not to be skeptical.

"I watched the show and thought 'I don't want any investment in my company and the Sharks are not a good match for my business.'" Padawer spent two months researching the show and looking deeper into her business, coming to the realization that the time was right.

"I realized that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I could not pass up," said Padawer. "By the time I was ready to pitch, I was convinced that I needed the exposure."

Still, Padawer struggled with how much investment to ask for and the notion of giving up control.

"I knew going in from several experts in the industry that my company is extremely capable of grossing $5-$10 million annually," said Padawer. But after six years in business, Alaska Glacial Mud Co. is doing sales of just $75,000 annually.

"I did a lot of business soul searching in preparation for “Shark Tank” and I asked myself a lot of hard questions. I started my business on the brink of a national recession and I had to get another job to keep myself going. I managed to maintain a business in spite of not having any money to grow it and today my business is in the black with no debt.

"Still, I really knew from the perspective of the Sharks, my business numbers weren't something they would get excited about. I also knew from watching the show that the Sharks don't like being taken advantage of," said Padawer.

"Their general business acumen allowed them to quickly understand how much of a mountain I have to climb and how small I am, and that it would take a lot of money to do what I was asking. I knew that the more you ask for, the more complicated the plan gets."

The pitch

According to Padawer, the Sharks know nothing about the businesses when the owner walks onto the stage. Everything depends on that two-minute pitch, and to accommodate the demanding schedules of the Sharks, the entire season is taped in a matter of days. As a result, the Sharks hear one pitch after the next in a concentrated period of time with decisions being made quickly. Entrepreneurs are kept in a holding room, not knowing if they will be called that day or the next. In Padawer's case, she pitched on her third day at the studio.

As the stage doors opened, like any real Alaska girl, Padawer was wearing a silk dress and her Xtratuf boots with custom fur trim made by Gloria Cunningham. She walked right past her stage mark, and had to back up, waiting in a mandatory state of silence for 45 seconds just a few feet from the scrutinizing Sharks while camera crews checked the staging.

"I was terrified. I knew that part of their interest in me was that I am from Alaska, and I am a commercial fisherman," said Padawer. "I am extremely aware that there is entertainment value in the show and I was terrified that what they saw in me was more about entertainment value, and that I would be made a fool. I didn't want to lose the respect of my customers and business partners."

"I had prayed for clarity and poise and gracefulness, and a little bit of wittiness. Poise, grace and clarity are not my strengths. Wittiness can lighten the stage," said Padawer.

Part of Padawer's self preservation strategy was also to visualize the Sharks on her fishing boat, where she was the captain in control and they were the guests.

"I wanted the Sharks to know how proud I was of my business, and how proud I was of being a commercial fisherman."

Padawer pitched a $100,000 financial investment in exchange for 20 percent of the company, opening with a description of the superlatives of the Copper River.

"Alaska Glacial Mud Co. is not a gadget, there is a story behind the product that makes it continually engaging.

"The Copper River drains some of the largest peaks in North America, four separate mountain ranges, the largest sub-polar ice field on the planet. Part of my pitch was to explain the geology of the region and that this is the most mineral-rich mud in the world. The superlatives of the Copper River have always been part of differentiating the product. And it is important to me, that the minerals are also part of what feeds our extremely abundant food system, including wild Copper River salmon.

"But," added Padawer, the story "requires people caring to hear and know."

When Padawer finished her pitch, Cuban looked at her and said, "OK, you'd be a good tour guide, we can see your passion. Let's talk numbers."

In total, Padawer spent about 20 minutes with the Sharks. They were attracted by the Glacial Mud's association with the high quality Copper River brand. One Shark knew of Copper River salmon and elaborated on its value as a culinary specialty. The Sharks also liked Padawer's packaging. They acknowledged the uniqueness of Alaska Glacial Mud -- but also the fact that it was up against major competition.

When it was over and she walked back down the hallway and off the stage, Padawer was relieved. " A flood of endorphins came over me," she said. Her producer gave her high marks and Padawer jokingly asked if anyone had ever fainted. "Not yet but it would make good TV," the producer responded, underscoring the essence of why Padawer was there.

Hollywood factor

As Alaskans and millions of viewers turn on the TV this week, they and Padawer will be watching for the first time. Padawer especially wants Alaskans to be aware of the Hollywood factor of reality television.

"I had to accept some of the Hollywood embellishment aspect of my participation in “Shark Tank.” When they came to Alaska to film where I get my mud and where I fish, it was October. The camera crew did not have a lot of time to film. So we got permission from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Alaska State Troopers to stage some shots of me putting my gillnet out in Orca Inlet, instead of the Copper River Flats, where I fish. And because we did not have time to drive out onto the delta, where I collect my mud, they filmed me collecting mud in Hartney Bay.

“But I would never actually collect mud from a tidal area. I especially want Alaskans to know this because they will recognize some of those things."

Sharks and stars

Until the show airs, Padawer is under a contractual obligation to stay mum about whether or not any of the Sharks took the bait, and what, if any, deals were made. But Padawer says that’s not the biggest value or variable associated with the show.

"I knew all along the value of the media exposure of television and millions of viewers, who would instantly become potential customers." said Padawer. "To be ready for that, I had to decide based on the opportunity, how much inventory I needed to prepare and how much of my own money I could invest to do that -- with the knowledge that anything could happen. There could be a major news event that could take over all the syndicates and the show might not even air. It is a calculated risk."

Looking back on the experience, Padawer says she is exceedingly grateful for the experience and what it may mean for her business, but does not feel particularly aligned with the Sharks.

"The way they talk about money is unappealing to me," said Padawer. "I define success by the opportunity to make a living, be a philanthropist and create something sustainable. Sometimes the Sharks talk about money like it is the only thing that matters.

"But, I respect the fact that they boot-strapped their own businesses and for many they embody the American dream," Padawer said. "They are people, too, with families -- real humans who go home at the end of the day, take care of their kids and put their heads on the pillow at night. But their ideas of the stars might be different from mine."

Jennifer Gibbins is editor of The Cordova Times.  Reach her at editor(at)thecordovatimes.com