Entrepreneurs in general are no strangers to overcoming obstacles. No matter how successful a business is, you can bet there were roadblocks and setbacks that had to be faced along the way. That's what makes so many entrepreneurial success stories inspiring. If it was easy, it would be boring.
But every now and then, we hear of a story that truly moves us — an entrepreneur who has overcome unimaginable obstacles to build his or her business. Tiffany Krumins, inventor of AVA the Elephant, an ingenious way to get kids to take medicine, has such a story. Starting a business with no prior business experience and a family counting on her support is by no means unheard of. But add to the equation a serious health diagnosis, multiple manufacturing challenges, and the prospect of introducing a retail product in today's market, and Krumins becomes a beacon of light for any entrepreneur wondering if they can make it.
Her perseverance and spirit are examples of what entrepreneurship is all about, and we're fortunate to have had a chance to catch up with Tiffany and ask her some questions about her journey.
You are an inventor, marketer, and entrepreneur. What ignited the spark in you to start a new business venture?
My passion for helping children was my driving force and still is! While working with special needs children and volunteering with childhood cancer patients, I found a desperate need in the market for a child-friendly medicine dispenser. For years, I had worked with a little boy named Gibby, who has Downs Syndrome. There were things that Gibby would allow me get by with that he wouldn't let anyone else do, like the dreaded haircut time! Although I had never cut hair before, I hated seeing the struggle he faced each time and was determined to make it a fun experience for him. It was taking turns with his favorite stuffed animals, all circled around the table, that finally allowed Gibby to have his first tear-free haircut(and many more after).
One morning, while helping Gibby's mom hold him down in order to give him medicine, it hit me:Â Why had I not seen a product that disguised a medicine dropper? That evening I looked online and couldn't find a thing, so I decided to make it myself. Taking sponges, fabric, and the insides of a talking gift-card, I created the first AVA. My heart swelled the next day when I took AVA to work with Gibby and he loved her! No more tears or holding him down!
Some of our readers might remember you from your 2009 appearance on the ABC show "Shark Tank," where Barbara Corcoran agreed to partner with you to take your product to market. What was that experience like?
It was a great experience!Â I appeared on the pilot episode, so I wasn't fully aware of how the "Sharks" could devour pitching entrepreneurs. Although it was a bit intimidating, I went in confident that I had a hit on my hands.
Are you glad you went on the show, even though it meant giving up a good piece of your company?
Absolutely!Â Barbara Corcoran allowed me the chance to develop a product and brand that otherwise would not have entered the market. Knowing now what goes into bringing a product to market, I am even more thankful for the experience with Shark Tank.
What people watching sometimes don't think about is the risk the Sharks are taking with their money. These are real business deals you're watching unfold. Yes, there is due diligence, but they only make a deal if they are willing to see it through. If that means they have to take the majority ownership to get their money back, then so be it.Â I am not a greedy person, and the decision to take Barbara's offer meant the difference between working for someone and owning a successful worldwide brand!
Before going on Shark Tank, what avenues did you pursue to find funding for your company?
I went through my credit union and took a line of credit on my car loan in order to fund the initial patent details. I then used prize winnings from a contest to fund a detailed patent search. That was the extent of my investment, which was even more of a reason to take Barbara's offer.
What did you learn from your "pre-Shark Tank" experience?
I learned that you must have an undying passion for your product and business in order to succeed.Â In the moments where I wanted to give up, I pictured handing out AVAs to children at hospitals everywhere. Business will chew you up and spit you out, so I had to hold onto that passion for children in order to make it through.
Without any business training or background, you've overcome some significant challenges to create a true winner of a product and build a successful company. What advice do you have for entrepreneurs who doubt they can be successful without extensive business experience or education?
As you said, I am the poster child for being able to do anything you put your mind to! I recommend reaching out to anyone and everyone who may be able to help you with advice and/or connections. I was able to reach out to other entrepreneurs and gain valuable information that saved me at times. There will be days where you ask yourself, "What have I started?" I've had many of those. Use your resources and connections. When I first started, terms like "FOB China," "Pay-on-scan," and "Utility patent" were a foreign language to me. I can proudly say I speak the language of retail fluently now, and I am able to help others when they reach out with questions. Who would have thought?
In addition to the challenge of not having a business background, shortly after appearing on the show, you were diagnosed with cancer. How did you continue to persevere through this challenge?
This was my biggest struggle thus far. I had to face going into surgery where a surgeon jokingly said "There is always a chance we could cut a vocal cord, so go home and sing as much as possible over the next week!" Or take radiation that was so strong I had to be isolated from anything living for 7 days, on my birthday! More importantly, I was facing the possibility of losing my life to cancer and "wasting" moments on business.
In moments like this you have to have a clear view of where you're headed. That view is what pushed me through. For me, it was that trip to the hospital with bags and bags of AVAs! I also wanted to be able to provide for my family and my husband's family overseas. I never had a goal of "being rich," and I think you'll find that most successful businesses were founded out of passion or a great idea – coupled with hard work of course!
Was there a point during your health struggles when you considered putting your business aside?
Yes, many times, and I still do from time to time. Starting and owning a company is no easy task. I can't help but giggle when people assume I'm filthy rich, or that a "owning my own company must be nice!"Â It takes a lot of hard work, but is well worth it all in the end.Â When you see your product being used in homes all over the world, there is nothing like it.Â AVA will be multilingual soon. French, Spanish and Russian speaking AVAs are coming!
What would you say are the top three skills you have that have contributed to your success?
1. The ability to work well with people. Although I don't have a college degree, I sometimes think people skills can be much more important in the real world of business. I have talked to people who are very intelligent and are a nightmare to speak or work with. Barbara tells me all the time, "You are likable." At first I cringed, but now I know what she means. People will be willing to work with you when they like who you are.
2. The ability to make a decision and run with it. Although I have a wonderful business partner in Barbara, I am running the day-to-day operations of our business. For me, it was about learning to make decisions and not second guess them. Not deciding to let a company go in the beginning lost me a lot of potential sales and the opportunity to showcase AVA on a major daytime show!Â I never made that mistake again.
3. I have a very clear vision. I never swayed from how I wanted my product to look and perform. This is important in business, because you'll meet people who will change your product in order to save money on their end. You have to stick to your vision, yet be able to take constructive criticism. For example, I was firm about the way my product was made but not as firm about packaging, because that wasn't my specialty.
You've had to work very hard over the past several years to get your product to market. How has being an entrepreneur affected your family life — especially while struggling to overcome health issues?
It has been an uphill battle. I realized I had to give up time with my family some nights to work very late, and give up trips on the weekends because I had to work on my company. I knew what I had to have, and that was time with my family, church and time outdoors where I really find peace. I make sure to sprinkle those in between the chaos of running a business. Where before they were the majority of my time and I worked the typical 9-5 and left it all there. I knew I had to work harder now for what could be in the near future.
If you could go back and do one thing over, as it pertains to starting your business, what would it be?
I would have looked into manufacturers more closely. That can make or break a company! I now have a great factory, but in the beginning we wasted a lot of time on companies that weren't the right fit. That time would have equaled more sales and more exposure around my first Shark Tank appearance.
What's the most important advice you can give an entrepreneur who is thinking about starting his or her own business?
Sit down, take a good look at what you are about to embark on and ask yourself "If I am diagnosed with cancer 4 months in, and have to face horrible times, will I still love this business enough to push through?" or "If I lose someone close to me will I be able to push through with the business?"Â Because the reality of it is, once you begin and invest (or someone else does) there is no turning back, you have to give it your all! If your answer is yes, you just may make it in this crazy world of being an entrepreneur!