Did an Apex, NC, startup outmaneuver the sharks on ABC’s ‘Shark Tank’?

A North Carolina couple had little trouble getting an offer on “Shark Tank.” The drama lay in which offer they would take.

On the latest episode of the popular ABC show, which aired Friday night, wife and husband Justine Tiu and Adrian Zhang of Apex pitched their company The Woobles before five of the show’s judges. Each investor wanted a piece of the business, which offers novice crocheters the tools and techniques to weave a variety of round yarn animals.

The couple’s initial offer to the judges was $250,000 for 5% equity in their company, which would value their startup at $5 million. The judges, who are known on the show as sharks, audibly gasped when Tiu and Zhang shared how much money The Woobles has generated since launching in the summer of 2020.

The answer — $5.3 million in sales — drew praise from the five sharks: Mark Cuban, Barbara Corcoran, Lori Greiner, Kevin O’Leary and Robert Herjavec.

Tiu and Zhang then shared the three reasons they were seeking the sharks’ investment for their emerging company. First, they wanted help obtaining licensing rights from companies like Disney so they can offer specialty crochet creatures, like Marvel superheroes. Second, they hope to get The Woobles into retail stores (Tiu and Zhang currently sell their crochet kits online).

And third, the two Duke alumni wanted to find mentors for their growing business.

Five of the yarn creatures offered by the Apex startup The Woobles.
Five of the yarn creatures offered by the Apex startup The Woobles.

Appearing on the show that is watched by millions weekly is also a strong source of free advertising; Tiu and Zhang told The News & Observer they expect orders for their crochet kits to skyrocket as a result.

The company sells six core animals alongside a rotation of limited edition kits. Each individual kit, which generally costs $30, includes customized yarn, a crochet hook, a pair of beaded eyes, and access to a step-by-step online tutorial.

Playing the sharks off each other

Once the sharks understood what The Woobles founders were looking for in their investors, it was time for the bidding to commence.

O’Leary started the bidding by offering what Tiu and Zhang initially asked for: a quarter-million dollars for 5% equity. Greiner and Corcoran then separately bid $300,000 for 10% control of The Woobles.

“I think you should be everywhere and fast,” said Greiner, who made her fortune through the TV shopping channel QVC.

The two women sharks then raised their offers, with Corcoran bumping her bid to $350,000 for 5% of The Woobles, which would value the company at $7 million.

“You are sitting on a rocket,” Corcoran told Tiu and Zhang.

Yet the couple didn’t jump at Corcoran’s offer. Instead, Tiu and Zhang asked if two of the sharks would team up to make a joint bid. This prompted Greiner and Herjavec to make the most aggressive play: $450,000 for 6% of The Woobles, which would value the company at $7.5 million.

Tiu and Zhang, who met as undergrads, asked if they could talk it all over. Their brief huddle ended with Zhang, who used to work as a Wall Street trader, whispering, “Let’s just try.”

What did the couple want to try? They requested that Greiner and Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks, partner to make the final deal: $450,000 for 6%.

“Where we think in the short term that we can get the most help is with Mark and Lori,” Zhang told the judges.

Corcoran expressed disbelief at being cut out, but Tiu and Zhang were all smiles as Cuban and Greiner went up to give them hugs to signify a new partnership.

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.

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