It was more than just money on the line: It was a dream.
When UCF alumnus Gaston Blanchet and his partner, Jesse Potash, stepped in front of the eponymous sharks — six take-no-prisoners business moguls whose funding could make or break a company — they knew that they had just one chance to make their vision a reality. The clock was ticking, and millions of dollars were on the line.
That vision was Trunkster, a high-tech suitcase whose central conceit, a garage-like manual door, aimed to make the zipper obsolete. More than just a suitcase, Trunkster was the culmination of Blanchet and Potash’s years of travel, an attempt to strip away the needless frills and pointless frustrations of traditional luggage into one perfect, platonic ideal: the best suitcase in the world.
“When we were both traveling, and we were both frustrated with our suitcases,” Blanchet said. “When you live out of your suitcase, you get to know it pretty intimately. You know its drawbacks.”
There would be no more stuck zippers, because there are no zippers. There would be no more lost luggage, because an integrated GPS transponder allows you to locate the suitcase the world over. There would be no more dead phones, because a battery pack and charging port is built right into the frame.
Blanchet and Potash returned with a deal more sophisticated than one you'd typically find on the show: Investors Mark Cuban and Lori Greiner would split an investment of $1.4 million for 5 percent stake in the company, and the guarantee of being repaid in full within 24 months. If Potash and Blanchet failed to meet their deadline, they would double Cuban and Greiner's stake in the company. And regardless of whether the deadline is met, the investors would each receive $1 in royalties per unit sold — forever.
But the value of a Shark Tank appearance can’t be measured in money alone. Jesse Wolfe, a UCF alumnus who appeared on the show to acquire funding for his company, O’Dang Hummus Co., said that the show was one of the best advertisements an entrepreneur could hope to secure.
“Not all the companies really even need the funding,” Wolfe said. “Obviously it helps, but to have a shark on your team when you go into big meetings clearly helps. If [the sharks] like you, if they get into a fight over you, people think that the product must be good because you’ve got all these billionaire investors fighting over it.
“At the end of the day, it’s about an $11.5 million commercial for you — for free.”
The real challenge for Trunkster was just beginning. It’s one thing to have money, publicity and a big name backing your project; it’s quite another to have an actual product. Blanchet and Potash passed through the looking glass into a world where the smallest mistake in a part might mean weeks of lost work, where supply shortages and design failures were a constant source of frustration.
“We’ve had a lot of struggles with mass production, I’m not going to lie,” Blanchet said. “We’re working with over 20 suppliers. We have like 100 different parts in the Trunkster, so there’s bound to be a problem. Sometimes we get parts that are not correct, they’re off by 2 millimeters, and just a small 1-millimeter change will affect the friction of the door, will affect the weight, everything.”
For their backers on Kickstarter, a crowd-sourced funding website, the setbacks and delays were fast becoming a source of frustration. The Trunkster team had gathered nearly $1.4 million in Kickstarter preorders prior to their Shark Tank debut; however, unlike their deal with the sharks, this money wasn’t an investment — it was a collection of orders made by more than 3,500 customers.
For Ian Cluroe, a consultant from Arizona and one of Trunkster’s early backers, the company’s failure to meet its production deadlines was beginning to to throw doubt on whether its suitcase would ever see the light of day.
“I do have concerns now whether this product will ever be delivered … it's about four months since they apparently were on Shark Tank and there have been six updates about delays since then,” Cluroe said. “The ‘weekly’ Facebook updates they promised ended in November and the only update since then was a self-promotional one in early December talking about their Shark Tank appearance.”
Though Trunkster’s Kickstarter page indicates that the suitcase should have entered mass production on Jan. 15, its website indicates that the earliest a suitcase could be delivered is in April.
Can Trunkster swim with the sharks or, like so many failed companies before it, will it sleep with the fishes?
Bernard Wilchusky is the Editor-in-Chief of the Central Florida Future. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @cameradudeman.