In 2015, entrepreneur Vanessa Babuin entered Shark Tank to pitch her plus-size women’s intimates brand Sonsee. Now, three years on from securing and investment and mentorship from Naomi Simson, she says true business success comes down to your own hard work.
Simson invested $80,000 for a 20% stake in the business, with the deal passing through the detailed due diligence process.
“The process is quite involved, they essentially ask, ‘are you telling the truth?’ [after the pitch],” Babuin tells SmartCompany.
Having passed that initial hurdle, however, it was down to good old fashioned work. Sonsee spent part of the investment on a complete re-brand of its packaging and offer, with Babuin spending the next couple of years expanding the range of products on offer in her range, which caters for sizes 14-28.
“Within Australia, we’re focused on our online store. And at the moment we’ve got three retailers who are going to be stocking us online in the US,” she says.
“That’s how we’re testing the market, because we don’t understand what will be the top selling products there yet.”
One of the US partners Sonsee is still in negotiations with is department store chain J.C. Penny, with the company keen to dip a toe in the US market gradually to “really understand who our customers are” in the US underwear space.
Since appearing on the program, Sonsee also secured a distribution deal through Australian Autograph stores, but the company is now focused on its own online offering, after Autograph faced challenges and was sold this week by Specialty Fashion Group to Noni B.
“We were doing very well with them, but found they discounted our products quite a bit,” Babuin says.
When Babuin made her Shark Tank pitch three years ago, the company’s revenue was $35,000. By 2016, the business was on track to turn over $1 million.
Babuin is tight-lipped on the current revenue for the business, but says over the past two years she’s been able in increase traffic to her Australian online store by 480% since taking Simson’s investment.
Reflecting on Simson’s mentorship, she says the relationship has worked so well because Sonsee has realistic expectations about how a figure like Simson can help a business.
“A lot of people are probably walking into Shark Tank or looking for an investor in some way thinking that’s going to be the thing that saves them. Definitely with my experience with Naomi, she has put me in touch with people who wouldn’t have been in my realm. But she always says, it’s your business, you still have to do the work,” Babuin says.
One piece of advice Babuin took from the Shark Tank experience is that even as a smaller operator, entrepreneurs should be thinking as though they’re big businesses.
After the initial due diligence process, she took Simson’s advice to formalise her business processes and records and invest in business operations that may have seemed expensive at the time, but showed partners, and potentially buyers down the line, that the business could achieve strong results.
Babuin says the work she has done over the past few years has really been getting the company ready to take advantage of new opportunities; launching new products and branding take years, but getting these off the ground will help significantly when the business makes a tilt at the US market, she says.
While the advice of external mentors has been invaluable in this process, Babuin says her experience with Sonsee shows all the advice in the world counts for little if you’re not willing to take charge as a business owner.
“Nobody is going to come and sweep you off your feet,” she says.
“The advice and some of the contacts I’ve been able to have is priceless in terms of what you can do with your business — but it’s still up to you.”