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Bellybuds Update Interview with Curtis Mark Williams

bellybuds updateCurtis Mark Williams has a lot to say in this Bellybuds update interview. He’s one half of the partnership that pitched the “ear buds for infants” in episode 508. He and co-inventor Matt Von Waaden left the Shark Tank without a deal, but the Shark Tank effect has propelled Bellybuds into a top-selling item on Amazon and the entrepreneurs couldn’t be happier. I caught up with Mr. Williams, an actor turned entrepreneur, recently to get a Bellybuds update on the business’ progress after Shark Tank.

Background Information

Williams was an actor in Hollywood for ten years before jumping into the business world; so was his wife (and Bellybuds inspiration), Jama Williamson. “She’s best known for her role as Aziz’s ‘green card wife’ in the show Park and Rec,” he explains. “I did a lot of guest star roles in cop shows like Law and Order. I was always the guy who showed up at the half-hour mark who might have ‘done it.’ Being an actor all those years taught me to figure out ways to get by – that’s why I went in with Bellybuds.”

His wife, Jama, was the inspiration for Bellybuds. “She was putting her ear buds on her belly because she’d read  studies that say if you play the same music over and over in the third trimester, it will actually sooth the baby. It’s common sense: we know babies can hear before they’re born. In the early days of Bellybuds, we dragged her around to trade shows. When you have a seven month pregnant woman at your booth, it shows you’re committed!”

“I guess I’ve always noticed when people use things they weren’t intended for,” he continues. “I’d seen pictures of women putting headphones on their bellies, and it made me think there’s a possibility for a new product. I had back pain in the past and the electrode stimulators they use have medical adhesive to hold them in place, so I thought ‘why not put this on a speaker?'”

“We started selling in December 2009. There used to be similar products when people had CD players – before iPod buds. We timed it well with the digital revolution. When we started moms and dads didn’t have headphones of their own – there was no way to play music in the belly that wasn’t ambient.”

Bellybuds Road to the Shark Tank

Much ado was made about removing the producer’s royalty for appearing on the show. Curtis says it was a factor in their decision to appear. “Certainly the removal of the royalty clause allowed us to go on, we weren’t going to do the show because of it. Two to five percent of a half a million in sales is a significant number for us, probably a lot of others as well. I think they’ll get better companies by not having it – hey, they got us!”

“We applied to season five in late February – early March [2013]. We heard back fairly quickly – a couple of weeks. Our video was pretty funny. I think they chose us because of the hook of two guys selling a pregnancy product. We ran everything by my wife; she’s the official unofficial decision maker! We ended up taping in July.”

Bellybuds in the Shark Tank

“The biggest difference between what you see on TV and what happens when you tape is the questions come rapid fire. They edit it to look like a conversation, but it’s mayhem. The Sharks are actors too, I get that. Mr. Wonderful is very funny – he throws out a lot of zingers that never make it on air. Overall, the edit was fairly accurate for the discussion that occurred.”

“The whole discussion with Cuban about knock-offs was a bit one-sided. We KNOW we can get knocked off. There was actually a Japanese company buying our products at retail and selling them at a mark-up! All we can do is protect it with IP and with the brand.  We want people to know our brand so when a competitor knocks off our product, we’ll be the brand people trust. We’ve seen some knock offs in China itself – some look a lot like us, some don’t. To combat that, we have plans for different tiers of products – a budget product vs  a luxury product. We’re still small, flexible, and nimble enough to pivot quickly when we figure something out.”

“The other thing we got called out on is sitting on a lot of inventory. That’s just how our business works. We know we are going to sell X amount of units in X months, so we buy in volume to get the best price. That’s how we increase our margins. In contrast, QVC purchases a finite amount of product or manufactures after they’ve made the sales.”

“The inventory we’re sitting on, we’ll sell out by Q1 [2014]. The hardest part is learning how much to order. We never got to ‘publicly’ refute those claims, but it was worth the modicum of personal humiliation to get exposure for the product. We still did a lot of pre-show PR. It’s kind of like performing in a bad play: even though you know the outcome, you still need to get people to come!”

Post-Show Bellybuds Update

“We alerted our retailers about the appearance so they could stock up. Our website stood up to the Shark tank effect, too. We made sure our server was not going to crash. We use Square Space for our hosting, so we called them and said ‘turn up the volume!’ They had a Shark Tank contestant before, so they knew what to expect. As for traffic, we typically see 200-300 hits a day; in the hour we aired on the east coast, we had around 15,000 hits. Sales more than tripled over the weekend we aired and doubled the week following the show.”

“We’re making money, we’re making a living, but, like any business, it continues to be a risk. Our sales are doubling. We did $312 K in 2012 and we’ll double that next year. A lot of that has to do with the exposure from Shark Tank. It’s all about finding creative ways to get your brand out there. Shark Tank was a great experience, we felt we were treated fairly and we  learned some great lessons. We’re very happy with the reaction since the show’s come out.”

“Right now, we just want to expand our distribution. We’re selling direct on Amazon, we’re in 130 Babys R Us stores,  90 Bye Bye Baby stores, a handful of Bed Bath and Beyond stores and  dozens of boutiques. We also sold to a doctor with string of women’s clinics and we sold a lot there. Bellybuds recently introduced a voice recording platform on the website so grandma and grandpa can record their voice remotely and it can be played back for the baby.”

Parting Words

Curtis struck me as a guy with a firm grip on his business and what it takes to make it successful. He had some good parting advice for would-be entrepreneurs:

“Just do it. Never be intimidated, because no matter what it looks like from the outside, most people are just making it up as they go along.”

I had one other question for Curtis. THAT answer is over at The Hot Dog Truck!

About Rob Merlino

Entrepreneur, auteur, raconteur. Rob Merlino is a blogger and writer who enjoys the Shark Tank TV show and Hot Dogs. A father of five who freelances in a variety of publications, Rob has a stable of websites including Shark Tank Blog, Hot Dog Stories, Rob and more.

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