By GREGORY ZELLER //
The Infinity Towel might not have infinite opportunities to hit it big, but whatever opportunities it has, designer Laurie Russo is going to make the most of them.
So Russo, naturally, jumped at the chance when the producers of “Entrepreneur Elevator Pitch,” Entrepreneur Magazine’s network-grade webcast, came calling.
Although production has temporarily slowed while her company reevaluates its distribution strategy, the president and CEO of Huntington-based LM Web and Design (dba Laura Alison Design) readily accepted the producers’ e-mail invitation to audition for the show, which presents investment opportunities for both an in-studio investor panel and online observers.
“The girls and I have all worked so hard for so long,” Russo told Innovate LI. “I did not want to miss this opportunity.”
One successful Skype audition later, joined by her daughters Sarah and Melissa Wandursky (inspirations for the design and frequent corporate adjuncts), Russo appeared on Season 2, Episode 6 of “Elevator Pitch” to hawk the HoodiFit and other items in the Hooded Infinity collection, Russo’s designs for chic and functional hooded scarves and towels.
The web show bites liberally off the ABC Network’s “Shark Tank” and other innovators-meet-investors pitch shows. A no-nonsense team of would-be stake horses mercilessly snarks on amateur entrepreneurs’ business pitches and occasionally buys in, with background interviews and uber-dramatic music spliced in.
The twist: The innovators have only a 60-second elevator ride to win the panelists’ hearts and minds. Fail, and they’re “going down” (obviously) – succeed, and they gain access to the “board room,” where it’s nitty-gritty negotiating with the “Entrepreneur Board of Investors,” plus a crowdfunding platform open to the viewing audience.
The rotating panel – for Russo’s episode it was ESPN, NBC and CBS sports-broadcasting alum Lindsay McCormick, Sports 1 Marketing co-founder Dave Meltzer, Denny’s franchise queen Dawn LaFreeda and 20-year Wall Street veteran Jeff Klinefelter – can invest or pass, if they can’t acceptably horse-trade with the entrepreneurs on factors including the investment amount and the company equity it buys.
Russo went in seeking a $150,000 buy-in and offering 10 percent company equity. These were not random numbers: The CEO has already distributed more than 22,000 units and was keenly aware of how much her fledgling enterprise, which launched in 2010 after friends expressed interest in the hooded scarves Russo created for her daughters, needs to break through.
The designing woman is also quite familiar with the TV pitch-show circuit, and so are her daughters. The three appeared last summer on the ABC Network game show “Steve Harvey’s Funderdome,” which pits entrepreneurs in one-on-one pitch-offs for thousands of dollars in startup capital.
They did not win on “Funderdome,” but Russo counts the big-time network appearance among numerous efforts – including print-feature stories, multiple crowdfunding campaigns and now Entrepreneur Magazine’s web-show – that have helped spread the word about the Hooded Infinity collection.
While its grassroots, word-of-mouth efforts are stronger than most, one thing Laura Alison Design has not tried is traditional advertising. “We really haven’t put any money into marketing,” Russo notes on “Elevator Pitch,” though it was among several things the innovator had planned for the potential $150,000 investment.
Russo and her daughters recorded their episode March 20 in Los Angeles, a day-long odyssey that Russo called “a great experience” – producers kept the trio fed and comfortable through a 12-hour wait and even offered in-studio exercise classes to help the many entrepreneurs waiting to present their pitches “shake off the nerves,” Russo noted.
Finally, the Laura Alison Design team was summoned to record its pre-pitch interview segment, and then it was into the “elevator” – a set piece, of course, though according to Russo, the 60-second time limit was quite real and fairly intimidating.
“We were nervous,” she noted. “But we did have a bit of experience being on ‘Funderdome’ in front of a live studio audience. We messed up a little, but it was all good.”
Good enough, at least, for the trio to be welcomed into the “board room,” where Klinefelter noted a “novel product” and Meltzer even tried on a Hooded Infinity Towel.
“I feel like Rocky,” the co-host notes in the show.
The investors agreed with Russo’s assessment that the company was in dire need of “professional marketing,” though ultimately none opted to buy in – Klinefelter suggested “the valuation is a stretch,” while Meltzer said he was passing in lieu of “a direct path to revenue.”
Russo took the polite rejections in stride, telling Innovate LI, “I knew that we really didn’t have enough revenue for investment.” However, as with her startup’s other 15-minute spotlight stints, the entrepreneur is thrilled with the exposure inherent to the “Elevator Pitch” appearance, not to mention other connections stemming from the show.
“Dawn LaFreeda has offered to finance our purchase orders and Jeff Klinefelter has offered to hook us up with retail connections,” Russo said. “Also, since the show was filmed, David Meltzer has offered to be on my board of advisors and even jumped on a business call with me.
“I’m so impressed with the integrity of these people,” she added. “They really care and know what we go through as struggling entrepreneurs.
“They have all been there.”
With the webcast debuting Wednesday, Laura Alison Design is still only lightly tapping the gas on production – though it is revved up over a new deal with a Kuwait-based distributor, according to Russo, which sold out its initial order and has put in for 700 additional units.
And of course, the company is in the midst of another crowdfunding effort – this time, a $15,000 Indiegogo campaign running through mid-June.
But Russo is even more excited about a coming-soon feature story on Entrepreneur.com and the personal connections she has made at Entrepreneur Magazine, including President Bill Shaw – more opportunities, she notes, for grassroots exposure.
“For a while, I thought that I wasn’t cut out to handle the business part of being an entrepreneur,” the CEO said this week. “But all of the people involved with Entrepreneur Magazine and ‘Elevator Pitch’ have really inspired me.
“They handle business with integrity,” Russo added. “They are honest. This is the type of businesswoman I aspire to be.”