How The Natural Grip Survived the ‘Shark Tank’

Shark Tank Appearance: Nov. 7, 2014
Investor: Robert Herjavec
Deal: $125,000 for a 25 percent stake, both well above her original ask.
Results: Sales increased from $178,000 in annual sales to an estimated $1 million in 2015.

When Ashley Drake, an active-duty captain in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, prepped for her appearance on ABC’s Emmy-winning business reality show Shark Tank, she turned the spare bedroom of her Louisville, Ky., home into command central. “I took out all of the furniture and hung pictures of the Sharks on the walls in the order that they sit. Every single day, regardless of how tired I was, I’d go in there and make my pitch. It sounds crazy, but I wasn’t nervous at all when I walked into The Tank because I was accustomed to looking at the Sharks and talking to them.”

Drake’s confidence was evident from her opening gambit. “My name is Ashley Drake, and you—all of you—need to get a grip,” she declared. “I’m seeking $100,000 for 20 percent equity in my company.” Her product, The Natural Grip, is a custom-fitted hand protection device made of a narrow woven cotton fabric assembled by means of adhesive. It’s designed to protect fitness athletes like herself from ripping up their hands during high-intensity, competitive weightlifting.

Through one hour and 37 minutes of questioning by the Sharks—later edited into an eight-minute segment—Drake stood ramrod-straight, just as you would expect from a soldier who completed a 15-month tour of duty in Iraq. Even the usually snarky Kevin O’Leary had nothing but admiration. “You are one motivated cowboy!” he exclaimed.

In one of the more heated battles in Shark Tank history, Robert Herjavec and Daymond John vied for the deal. Drake went with Herjavec. “That is a big mistake,” fumed John.

Drake surprised herself with her choice. “Going in, my goal had been to get Daymond, since he’s in the fitness space. But you have to go with your gut, and I felt in the moment that Robert was going to be best for the company. He had a real excitement about our product and the possibility for our growth.”

Herjavec felt an immediate connection, too. “I was drawn to Ashley the moment she came into the Tank. She’s a natural leader and has a passion for her team and business. She’s all-in, and I love that.”

Drake is an accidental entrepreneur. In May 2013, the night before she was to participate in a local fitness competition, Drake complained to her husband, Justin, that competitions left her hands torn and bloody. On the kitchen table the next morning sat four pairs of grips that Justin had fashioned out of supplies he had at home. After people at her gym started asking where they could buy the grips, Drake told Justin his handmade solution might present a business opportunity.

While Justin made more grips, Drake launched a Facebook page and began reaching out to influencers in the fitness world. The following December, The Natural Grip had grossed $60,000 in sales, and big distributors were clamoring for product. “Justin was very concerned about our inexperience as business owners,” Drake says. “I told him, ‘OK, I’ll just get on Shark Tank, and we’ll find an investor to coach, mentor and guide us.’ ”

A few weeks later, she submitted an application video, and after five rounds of tryouts, she taped her segment in June 2014. It would run as part of a special Veterans Day episode in November.

Between June and November, Ashley and Justin, who quit his job as an athletic trainer to become the company’s chief operating officer, prepared for the Shark Tank tsunami. “We drive our overall sales by how active we are on social media,” Ashley Drake says. “So we slowed down those marketing efforts and used the time to build our inventory.” In the month before the Shark Tank appearance first aired, The Natural Grip had $10,000 in sales. After the broadcast, monthly sales soared to $132,000.

Sales of the grips remain robust, with 5,000 to 8,000 pairs shipped every month. One big factor in the company’s success has been its presence at industry trade shows, a move that concerned the usually fearless Drake. “Trade shows are expensive to get into, and I was very concerned about that,” she says. “But for Robert, taking part in industry events was a no-brainer, and it was not up for negotiation. We’ve done four trade shows, and we’ve been extremely successful at each one.”

The Natural Grip is moving into new markets such as motocross, gymnastics and rock climbing, and the company soon will reveal a new product—a piece of fitness equipment.

When Drake’s military commitment ends in a couple of years, she will devote herself to the company full time. “We’ll grow the brand wherever the demand takes us. We’re open to any opportunities that come our way.”

 

This article appears in the January 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

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Shelley Levitt

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