Every year hundreds of thousands of small business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs write, email, call, send all numbers and manner of appeals to the producers of Shark Tank, hoping against odds for the opportunity to pitch their products to the show’s panel of high-money and now household-name investors. As an entrepreneur with aspirations of growing his small business FlexScreen—which sells a more damage-resistant alternative to traditional aluminum-framed screens—Joe Altieri was never one to turn his nose up to the financial support and brand awareness that prime-time TV investors can provide. But it was never his strategy to chase it, nor did he have the time to apply/plead. Turns out it didn’t matter, because the producers of Shark Tank ended up coming to him.
Born Into Sales
It wasn’t always build a business or bust for Joe. As far as birthrights go, he was less destined for entrepreneurialism than he was for sales. “My dad was a tin man,” says Joe. “The older folks will know the term. It means he sold aluminum siding and windows.”
In the week prior to filming, Joe says that he sat down with his partners for three hours of being grilled on the company’s financials.
Joe grew up in the window and door industry, knowing it as a career path he could happily take. “I used to do role playing exercises with my dad, the same kind still standard in sales training.”
His first sales gig was as an independent rep selling pieces and parts to window manufacturers. “I’d sell silicon, glass—you see the manufacturers don’t produce windows so much as they assemble and sell them,” Joe says. “I sold to Simonton Windows a lot, and also Alside, which is now Associated Materials.”
Where he found his niche was in selling screens. “It’s just what I was most successful with.”
A Need for a Solution
FlexScreen was a business born out of Joe’s years of experience selling screens to window manufacturers. “The problem was damaged screens,” he says. “Screens have to be shipped to manufacturing facilities to be installed on the windows prior to installation in the home, and aluminum is not a sturdy material.”
Joe estimates that 3-5% of all screens sold will be damaged before they reach the manufacturer. “I’d have 10,000-screen shipments where 500 screens would be damaged and the manufacturer would need new ones that day because all the screens were needed for installations that had already been scheduled,” he says. “It was the bane of my existence as a sales rep.”
The initial inspiration for the product that would eventually become FlexScreen was Joe trying to solve that headache for himself.
A Series of Fortunate Accidents
Eight years ago, adamant that he could find a way to build a sturdier screen, Joe set to experimenting. “I tried plastics, fiberglass, vinyls, all kinds of different metals,” he says. “I would walk up and down the aisle of Lowe’s and Home Depot and just buy whatever I thought might work.”
“I say that FlexScreen was a series of fortunate accidents, because I ultimately found the material for my first prototype not from a hardware store but from an electrician working on my house,” Joe says. “He used a springtail fishtape to fish wires through the wall. I bought five from Lowe’s later that night.”
It was never his intention to build a screen that was flexible or hideable, but that’s what he accomplished with his spring-steel prototype—along with the increased durability he had sought out to achieve. “I showed it to some people in the industry and they went nuts over it.”
By 2018, the company was generating near $7 million in annual revenue.
Sought by the Sharks
Joe and his team never tried out for Shark Tank, which is why the initial email from the show’s producers was disregarded as fake. “After a follow-up phone call we realized it was real.”
It turned out that the producers at Shark Tank had discovered FlexScreen through the company’s digital marketing efforts, which at the time was primarily ads on Facebook. After they were told they’d be getting their time in front of the Sharks, Joe was selected as the person to represent the company—and his partners began grilling him.
Selling to the Sharks
“The whole thing has you bipolar,” Joe says. “You tell yourself it’ll be great if you get on, but then you’re worried about what happens if you actually get on. Because they need people to do a good job, but they also need people to do a bad job. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where this thing doesn’t do you any favors.”
In the week prior to filming, Joe says that he sat down with his partners for three hours of being grilled on the company’s financials. And it’s a good thing too, because while Joe’s eventual screen time on Shark Tank amounted to less than 10 minutes, in actuality he spent about two and half hours fielding truly probing questions from the investors. “Those investors are extremely bright and they take a lot of notes.”
Maybe it was his prep, maybe it was his lifetime of sales experience, whatever the case Joe ended his Shark Tank experience with a deal: For a 10% stake in FlexScreen, Lori Greiner gave Joe $400,000 in cash and a $400,000 line of credit at 6% interest.
FlexScreen is expected to end 2020 with $12 million in revenue.