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December 19, 2013     Beverly Hills Weekly
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people nprofiles Morri Chowaiki "Shark Tank" contestant Morri Chowaiki on the set of Shark Tank Morri Chowaiki, a 1990 Beverly High graduate, has been selling popular Holiday items with his wife Marina since 2009. They brought their post popular product, the Hanukkah tree-topper, to Shark Tank on ABC last Saturday night. The episode can be seen online at www.abc.go.com/shows/ shark-tank. What was it like being on Shark Tank? Nerve-wracking, amazing, and incredibly fulfilling at the same time. I didn't know what to expect. They were incredibly pro- fessional, nurturing, and--honestly--what you see is what you get. Before you get there there's a lot of prep, and you're kind of waiting behind the doors. It's kind of funny, because when I walked down the hallway and took my mark, it was almost as if, rather than looking into their eyes, I was looking into a television. I'm so used to that view from seeing the show so many times, that it's very surreal to be standing there. Other than the actual event of getting on the show, it was really an amazing experi- ence because everyone was so kind, friend- ly, and professional. Obviously they take these segments that are much longer--in my case it was over an hour--and edit down to eight minutes, but they captured the gist well. It was a tremendous amount of fun. What are some other ways Shark Tank was different than other venture capital pitches? It's a real negotiation, but even in huge negotiations with executives from Walmart and the likes of that, you have a paper, notes, and a calculator. On the show, you have nothing. You do your pitch, and then you get grilled. You have to know what your business is all about. You have to know your margins, and if you fudge on an evaluation, they'll catch it. Sometimes, they'll throw these offers back at you, and you have to compute in your head, "What does that mean in dollars and cents?" They'll throw things in like interest and royalties, and you basically have to decide right there and then whether or not that makes good business sense. You don't have the opportunity to go talk about it with somebody and come back after the meeting. You're right there on the spot, marketing your business. I think they respect you if you come in with real numbers. It's a tremendously entertaining platform, but it is real business. The people who I've seen be very successful are not the ones who just say "yes" or "no" to questions. That's your time to shine: it's an interview and a venture capitalist presentation all at the same time. They're looking to see how you dance. These people are brilliant millionaire and billionaire investors, they'll see right through you if you're not real. Are the sharks as imposing in person as they are on TV? I have to be honest: they were very pleas- ant. Some people will say, "Kevin O'Leary was so tough on you!" But, you know what, he is a brilliant business man. I could have walked away and said, "Oh, no, he was so mean to me!" but instead I said, "He's given me some incredible business advice, and I'm going to take that to heart." You could probably pay $1,000 an hour for advice like that. Yeah, they're pretty hard-core, but I think there's a mutual respect that develops. It really pays off in the end. What was the biggest pay-off of the experience for you? Well, outside of the deal that I struck, which was amazing because it opens doors into a whole new world, it was the people that I got to meet. I didn't do this just to get on television. That doesn't matter to me. What matters to me is that I now have expo- sure and relationships that have a greater return than any marketing I could have ever done, and in a platform that is priceless. Tell us a little more about the deal you struck. The original offer I made was $50,000 for 15% of my company. What I ended up agreeing on was an offer Daymond John for 35% of my company for $50,000. Did you expect to increase the percentage that much? First of all, I had no other offers. So I lost leverage. That [35%] was kind of my limit that I set for myself, but there's always a negotiation with any business you're trying to sell. When he jumped up to 35%, I said, "This is well worth it. A relationship with these guys is well worth it." I wouldn't say I was blown away and surprised, but when you don't have leverage, for me, it was a slam dunk. There was no question. What did you do to prepare? 1 rehearsed my pitch tirelessly. I made sure that I knew all my numbers inside and out, by heart. That's the most important thing--that you really know your business, because you don't have the opportunity to take a break and look at a piece of paper. What is a Hanukkah tree topper? It's a Christmas tree topper in the shape of a Star of David. The catch phrase is that back in 2004 my wife and I reached for the star and found each other. It's kind of corny, but it's true. I grew up traditionally Jewish, and she grew up overseas in Australia, in an interfaith household that celebrated all the holidays. Once we got our own home she always wanted to put up Christmas decora- tions in the house, and I was really against it. Not because of my religious beliefs, but because of my upbringing growing up in LA with traditional parents. Then, 2004 was a rough year for us per- sonally. We had a lot of difficulties around our relationship, and I decided that year, around the holidays, to just let it go and stop focusing on my own needs and focus on us as a couple. She went out, came back home, and told me to wait upstairs until she said I could come out. When I came down there was this little three foot tree with blue and white lights, ornaments, menorahs, and on the top of the tree was this traditional five pointed star. I said, "Where's the Jewish star?" And she said, "Honestly, I looked, and I couldn't find one." I decided to create one. I hooked up with a guy I knew who was a graphic designer and another friend who was a patent attorney, and I filed for a design patent in 2005. In the next three years I didn't do much, and then in 2008 the patent was awarded. In 2009 1 started getting into social media, and I noticed that Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines was offering something called Pitch TV. People could send in videos of their product and the top five videos every month would be played on all Virgin Atlantic flights for an entire month. Well, I pitched a video, got the top video, and all of a sud- den the calls started rolling in. I said, "OK. I need to make a product." It quickly became the number one tree topper on Amazon, and that was it. It's been a thrill ride and a lot of fun. One of the reasons that I focus on this is because I know what it did for us in our home. If we can help bridge that gap the way it was done in our home--if we can make the holidays a little more special for someone, and share that joy, that's what it's all about. I can't tell you how many emails I've gotten that say, "Thank you for finally bringing this to market." What's it like having your wife as a business partner? Really good, most of the time. She's the boss, so you know. No, honestly--it's been mostly me up until about a month ago. She's always helped, but she's always had a job. Coincidentally, she lost her job about a month ago. At first we thought, "What are we gonna do?" but it's been the biggest blessing. She does a lot of the logistical stuff-- helping with shipping and filling orders and covering what needs to be covered here. She definitely had input on some of the creative aspects on the new product we just put out this year. It's actually fun. This new relation- ship we have, based on being together, has made us unstoppable in business together. Can you tell us more about your family? I have two girls and a boy, and they're amazing. My son Jordy is an incredible student and a brainiac, and at 11 years old already has Stanford in his eyesight. My daughter Natalie is an artist, has kind of a free spirit. Hannah is a little athlete. Part of doing what I did was to make sure my children knew that if you have an idea and stick with it, and never listen to the nay- sayers, that everything is possible. The night before the show my kids wrote me a letter and my son wrote, "Dad you had a vision and made it reality, and I'm so proud of you. I hope that one day I can do the same." It's a huge inspiration. You say you're proud of your kids all the time, but when they say it back to you, it's priceless. Can you tell us about your (internet marketing) career? I was a theater major in college, and when I moved back to LA, I thought I wanted to pursue film. What you don't realize is that when you're in college you get to play parts that you don't look like--older characters, things like that. But in film I was always playing the straight-laced young stock bro- ker, and I didn't like that. I was cast as the plant in Little Shop of Horrors and I fell in love with that. I got into voice acting and loved it. But I needed a steady paycheck, so I went to work with a buddy at an e-commerce company. We grew into a pretty serious business. When you work for a little start-up like that, you learn everything. I always had a bit of a business head because of my dad, who was an amazing entrepreneur. We sold the business before the e-com- merce bust in 1999. About two years later I was recruited to run the e-commerce division of a large multinational corpora- tion. I've been into sales, marketing, and consumer package goods since 1994, always with a focus on the digital as a means for marketing and sales. What advice would you give to others thinking about auditioning for Shark Tank? I would tell anybody who's thinking about it: go for it. You never know what could happen. I heard that there was going to be an open audition, and I went out and sat on a . curb at 3 a.m. to get my wrist-band. It's like the lottery. You never win if you don't try. ........................... December 19-December 25; 2013-o Page 7