The news could not have been much worse for Michelle and Jason Barsosky. They were both laid off on the same day in 2010 from the same company where they both did pharmaceutical sales. They lost their cars, their cell phones and their computers, all of which belonged to the company. And they had twin girls who were one-and-a-half years old at the time.
“We were both pretty devastated,” says Michelle. “We basically were just kind of wiped out.”
But with little left to risk, Michelle saw a business opportunity staring her in the face when she dealt with her twin girls.
Barsosky, who graduated from NC State in 1997, had struggled to find a good way to feed her daughters at the same time when they were infants. “When you have two, logistically it’s hard. It’s really hard,” she says.
Barsosky tried to prop her daughters on pillows. She tried to put them in bouncy chairs. She searched the Internet, figuring someone would have developed a pillow or some sort of device that would help mothers feed their infant twins at the same time. But she didn’t find anything that worked.
“Out of necessity, you come up with something,” she says.
So Barsosky got out her mother’s old sewing machine and made her own pillow. It wraps around the mother while providing soft spots to rest infants on each side. It even included a back support to make the process more comfortable for the mother. The pillow worked. It worked so well, in fact, that Barsosky took it with her whenever she was out with her daughters. Other people saw it, and were impressed. Some asked where they could get one. Some even suggested that Barsosky should patent it, and try to sell it to others.
She did just that, and suddenly Barsosky had a new job — as the CEO of the Twin Z Pillow company.
Barsosky had to learn on the job. She made her own website and taught herself the ins-and-outs of Internet marketing. She found manufacturers — all in the United States — to make the various pieces of the pillow. She connected with clubs around the country for parents with twins and triplets, sometimes donating a pillow to a club to help spread the word about the Twin Z Pillow.
“That first year, we gave a lot away to see if it was something they liked, to get our name out,” she says. “That really worked out well for us.”
Sales were initially done through a couple of websites and the U.S. and United Kingdom versions of Amazon.com, but Barsosky wondered if she should try to arrange deals to sell the pillows through retail stores. When her husband’s boss (Jason was able to land another full-time job) suggested that they try out to be on ABC’s hit reality show Shark Tank, Barsosky was curious. The show gives entrepreneurs a chance to pitch their businesses to potential investors, who can also serve as mentors as entrepreneurs seek to build their businesses.
“We really wanted a deal,” says Barsosky. “We needed someone to mentor us.”
They got a deal, but only after having four of the so-called sharks put in bids to invest in Twin Z Pillow. Barsosky and her husband, in an episode aired last Friday (along with a pitch by another NC State alumna, Sharon Bui, for her sorority apparel company), decided to go with investor Lori Greiner following a debate among the sharks about whether Barsosky should stick to online sales or try to expand into retail. Greiner had argued in favor of expanding into retail sales.
But after taping the show last September, Barsosky and her husband decided not to sign the deal with Greiner. Instead, she says, they decided to continue to focus on online sales.
That’s not to say that Barsosky didn’t benefit from being on Shark Tank. Interest in the Twin Z Pillow spiked following last Friday’s episode, and Barsosky says this week will be their biggest sales week ever.
Barsosky works out of an office in her home in Atlanta, and she loves that her job makes it easy for her to be with her daughters throughout the day. The company has three part-time employees and other products in the works.
“I love that I help moms,” Barsosky says. “We get so many testimonials from moms saying that the pillow has literally changed their lives.”