By any measure, the idea that the founders of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania-based Banana Loca came up with in 2019 was a quirky one: a gadget that cores and then fills bananas with foods like Nutella or peanut butter. But Renee Heath, 38, and Bechara Jaoudeh, 39, believed in it enough to invest $280,000 of their personal funds to develop it.
In the five months prior to the show, the two-employee company had about $135,000 in sales, driven by organic marketing and influencers posting about the product. But the founders' time and expense really paid off in December 2021, when they got an appearance on Shark Tank, where Mark Cuban and Kevin O'Leary together bought 25 percent equity in the company for $250,000, including a $3 per unit royalty until Heath and Jaoudeh paid the $250,000 back.
After the show aired, Heath and Jaoudeh spent a week living in their warehouse in Camden, New Jersey, while fulfilling more than 11,000 orders for the $28.99 device. And that was just one obstacle along the way to having a successful product. Here are some of the biggest challenges--and lessons learned--from the Banana Loca founders.
Get help from nontraditional sources
When they were first engineering their gadget, Heath and Jaoudeh focused on making it accessible to everyone from children to the elderly. "There was nothing we tried that could take Nutella and shove it down a long, thin cavity," says Heath. "We needed something that was easy to use, so we had to create it."
For assistance, they looked outside of the food industry to DesignThink--a Phoenixville, Pennsylvania-based industrial design company with experience in cardiology valves and stents, as well as expertise in syringe techniques and fluid dynamics that would be useful for developing the injector device. In the experimentation phase, Heath and Jaoudeh also bought metal straws, cupcake frosters, pineapple corers, and a Play-Doh press to spur inspiration.
Keep teaching yourself
Prior to Banana Loca, Jaoudeh and Heath did not have any experience in bringing a physical product to market. Jaoudeh, who is also co-founder and CEO of digital marketing agency Philly Marketing Labs, had sold a jarred seasoning through Whole Foods years earlier, but creating a durable plastic product came with a unique set of challenges. Finding a manufacturer proved especially difficult--the founders looked into Chinese companies but the distance and language were barriers. When one candidate turned out to be only a reseller, they turned to their networks for a trusted connection. Eventually one of Jaoudeh's contacts introduced them to a manufacturer representative in China.
Even after finding the right fit, it wasn't smooth sailing: They faced tariff hikes and the first product shipment was on one of the boats that got stuck in the Suez Canal in March 2021. Throughout the process, Heath and Jaoudeh had to continually teach themselves the ins and outs of supply chain issues. "We weren't playing with investor money," Jaoudeh says. "We were taking money away from our savings and families to fund this. It was really important we didn't make any mistakes."
Be prepared for negative reactions
Following Banana Loca's Shark Tank episode, videos on TikTok went viral of users testing and commenting about the product. Many failed to use the gadget properly, according to Heath and Jaoudeh, which initiated negative reviews. It was difficult for the founders to respond to every video, leaving them in need of a way to give new and potential customers a reliable how-to guide.
As a working solution in the second production run, they implemented a multimedia approach on the Banana Loca packaging. When users open the gadget's box, they immediately see a banana graphic holding a stop sign directing them to a QR code to connect to the company's website. Jaoudeh says the move has improved customer satisfaction, and he and Heath now are working on further building out the site's how-to section and product education strategy.