Shark Tank, The Sequel
It’s always Shark Week for entrepreneur Lori Cheek
BY RHONDA REEVES
Five years ago, Kentucky native and UK architecture grad Lori Cheek survived a bloodbath when she pitched her NYC startup, Cheekd, to the Shark Tank panel.
The premise of her business was a little bit Match dot com and a little bit craigslist missed connections, but with an in-person twist… Cheek’d subscribers could buy a deck of cards with ice breakers, and a link to their online profile. The way she described it, “Cheek’d bridges the gap between online dating and real-world romance by providing members with physical cards that they can use to entice people from the real world to flirt with them in the virtual world. It’s the 2.0 version of ‘Call Me.’”
Cheek poured her heart and soul into the idea, sacrificing amenities like housing and income along the way. She candidly told the sharks she had sold off her designer duds to finance the early days of the venture. (She’d worked as an architect for Christian Dior for four years.)
The sharks, however, were merciless.
“Delusional” was the word Mark Cuban used.
Kevin O’Leary wasn’t as nice, telling her she should abandon her hobby and shoot her business, “like a rabid dog.”
Barbara Corcoran was gentle but firm, telling Cheek, “you’re the right entrepreneur, but this is the wrong business.”
She told us at the time, “When I was standing in front of them and they’d all shut me down, I still knew there was no way I was going to quit.”
Her enthusiasm remained undimmed, even when a handful of online haters suggested, post-show, that the bleach (from her hair) had gone to her brain and she was an “idiot” who should go back to Kentucky.
“I’ve learned that entrepreneurship is being on a mission where nothing can stop you. It will take twice as long as you’d hoped, cost exceedingly more than you’d ever budgeted and will be more challenging than anything you’ll ever try, but if you give it your all and refuse to give up, you can trust it will be the ride of a lifetime.”
—UK alum, Lori Cheek
Five years later, she says, “I wasn’t about to give up on my dream, and their rejection only fueled me more to succeed…Since the Shark Tank aired in February of 2014, I found all the missing links in my business from all the years before. We ended up securing over six times the amount I’d sought on the show and I’ve gotten a CTO on board who’s helped facilitate and finance the new face and technology behind the reinvented version of Cheekd.”
She recalls, “Barbara gave me the most constructive advice of all of the sharks. I listened to and digested their feedback then instead of giving up, I decided to spin things a bit. Within a month of the show airing, my partner and I decided to sit down and reinvent everything to reflect my original inspiration — but into something that people would actually be more likely to adopt. We took the Bluetooth route to continue the idea of helping singles make real time/ real life connections.”
She explains, “We’ve since pivoted Cheekd into a hyper speed Bluetooth dating app that connects people in real time, versus virtual time. Connections begin in person; Cheekd helps you take the next step and continue the conversation online.”
Next up is a spinoff, “Networkd makes in-real-life connections for people looking for business and networking opportunities. The way that people currently network at both small and large events is a disaster. My partner and I have both attended hundreds of events and no one knows who’s who. As a speaker, you have no idea who is in the audience. As an attendee, you have no idea who is sitting next to you, and the networking opportunities are never that fruitful. Our new app will allow attendees to make real life connections at events when someone within their interest (whether it be an investor, a developer or simply just for a networking opportunity) is within Bluetooth radius (30 feet). It’s like LinkedIn but in the real world.”
Even some of the fully funded Shark Tank success stories have gone on to file bankruptcy, and The Wall Street Journal recently reported on several instances suggesting the show isn’t a net positive for many contestants, “Entrepreneurs who appear on Shark Tank get to prowl for attention and cash. But they can also end up being the prey.” Cheek was one of several of the show’s alums included in the recent WSJ feature.
A 2015 rerun of the show prompted a lawsuit from a viewer who said Cheek had stolen his idea. Though dismissed, the lawsuit was later filed again.
She says, “It’s still trudging forward although we’ve sent clear evidence that this lawsuit should never have even been filed,” describing the battle as “debilitating and completely distracting from any progress I can make with our business; it’s been the worst two years of my life. When the lawsuit got thrown out the first time, I thought it would be gone forever, but now it’s back a second time and this man (a viewer from a re-airing of my Shark Tank episode) is now suing me for more than $5 million.”
She says, “I’m not worried about losing the lawsuit because I have all of the evidence in the world to prove the truth, but it’s the financial toll that’s tearing me down in the meantime.”
Confident she’ll prevail, Cheek still believes in the path and process of entrepreneurship, saying, “Out of the gate, I thought I had gold in my hands. My business was covered in the The New York Times and we even got a call from Oprah Winfrey’s producers wanting an interview with me. Honestly, my journey has become more about the mission than the monetization in the end. Online dating will somehow become more organic with apps that follow in my space with VR and other tech that can help create real life opportunities. I’ve always said whoever can nail this solution to the current digitally infested online dating problem will be the next Zuckerberg. I just hope that someone will ultimately be me one day.”
“The way that people currently network at both small and large events is a disaster… No one knows who’s who. As a speaker, you have no idea who is in the audience. As an attendee, you have no idea who is sitting next to you and the networking opportunities are never that fruitful. Our new app will allow attendees to make real life connections at events when someone within their interest (whether it be an investor, a developer or simply just for a networking opportunity) is within Bluetooth radius (30 feet). It’s like LinkedIn but in the real world.”
—Lori Cheek on her new app, Networkd
In May, Cheek will be speaking at Microsoft, but she gave us a preview of what she wants to tell young innovators, “Ten years into the entrepreneurial hustle, I’ve learned that entrepreneurship is being on a mission where nothing can stop you. It will take twice as long as you’d hoped, cost exceedingly more than you’d ever budgeted, and will be more challenging than anything you’ll ever try but if you give it your all and refuse to give up, you can trust it will be the ride of a lifetime.”
She says, “from the initial inspiration for Cheek’d in February 2008 to the flash forward eleven years later, Cheekd has been the most powerful thing that’s ever happened to me. Building this business has been an incredible learning experience. I’ve taken a major risk (both financially and mentally) and surrendered my 16-year career in architecture and design, but my heart and mind are in this project every waking moment. I feel like I’m living the American Dream—I’ve given birth to an invention and people all over the world are using our app. It’s the most rewarding feeling.”
Cheek is hosting her 17th Annual KY Derby party in NYC. She encourages attendees to dress for the theme of “Southern Charm.” Derby props include red rose petals and “Talk Derby to me” stickers and fake tattoos that her parents mail to her from Kentucky. She serves Mint Juleps and Bloody Marys (for those who don’t do Bourbon) and guests gamble on several races throughout the day. She says, “It’s truly my favorite day of the year even if I am in NYC. I make it as close to the Kentucky experience for New Yorkers as possible.”
BONUS LIGHTNING ROUND
Favorite place to go when you come home to Kentucky?
Jack Fry’s Restaurant in Louisville.
Favorite thing to eat in Kentucky that you can’t find in NYC?
My mother’s banana croquettes! I’ve never seen these things anywhere outside of Kentucky in my life.
Name three things in your top right desk drawer right now.
A handwritten note from my mother that I had printed on a button that says “Be Strong Today!” a white rabbit’s foot, and a Swiss Army Knife.
What’s on the top shelf of your refrigerator right now?
A dozen eggs, 2 bottles of Health-Ade Cayenne Cleanse Kombucha, and a Hershey’s Kiss.
Who’s your Derby pick 2019?
WIN WIN WIN
You’ll know you’ve made it as an entrepreneur when…
“you’ve found yourself dedicated to a life building your own dreams instead of getting paid to build someone else’s.”
This article also appears on page 6 and 7 of the May 2019 print edition of Ace Weekly.
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