Talk about a deodorant-don't-fail-me-now moment.
Jess Edelstein and Sarah Ribner, buddies since their days at Friends' Central, were on the set of ABC's Shark Tank in September to make a business pitch to a lineup of entrepreneurial big shots.
They were seeking $50,000 to help elevate a business the twentysomethings launched in March 2014, PiperWai L.L.C.
Should the pressure and studio lights get to them, they were ready, fortified with their own PiperWai natural deodorant.
No sweat. They wrapped 45 minutes later with a $50,000 investment for a 25 percent stake in PiperWai from real estate maven Barbara Corcoran. Consider it more affirmation of a product that has had a dream debut in a tough-sell category.
It is also another significant step in furthering an entrepreneurial dream Edelstein, 27, a native of Lower Merion, and Ribner, 26, who grew up in West Mount Airy, have had since a lemonade venture the summer after fourth grade.
"This is the game-changing venture we've been dreaming about launching since we were kids," Edelstein said.
Like so many entrepreneurs, they set out to satisfy a personal need. "I wanted to wear natural deodorant," said Edelstein, a 2011 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, where she majored in psychology and theater arts. A Broadway internship cured her of producer aspirations. After some career hopping, she got a real estate license in 2013.
Edelstein also started experimenting in her kitchen to come up with a natural deodorant. Her inspiration was Ribner, who had switched to organic products in college but had trouble finding an effective deodorant.
The pivotal test came in November 2013, when Edelstein persuaded Ribner to take some of her "concoction" to hot-and-humid Guyana, where Ribner was volunteering as a tutor for a month.
"I was taking a potentially really big risk of smelling bad," Ribner recalled.
Edelstein recalls a call from an Internet cafe in Guyana going something like this:
"It's a million degrees here. This deodorant is working!"
After Ribner's return from Guyana, she and Edelstein perfected the formula - including activated charcoal powder, magnesium hydroxide, baking soda, and a proprietary blend of 11 essential oils. The gray cream with a citrus/minty fragrance is applied by finger and goes on clear. A roll-on form is planned.
"The feedback from our beta testers was overwhelming," Edelstein said.
The consumer response since the Dec. 11 airing of their Shark Tank appearance was even more so: nearly $800,000 in sales in the first 72 hours. Each 2-ounce jar sells for $11.99 plus shipping, and lasts about three months.
"This is completely beyond our wildest dreams," Edelstein said Tuesday. PiperWai is a combination of Edelstein's dog's name and a tribe in Guyana. For the first 16 months, Edelstein and Ribner handcrafted their deodorant at a community kitchen in Fishtown.
Production was moved in September to Power Line Packaging Inc. in Conshohocken, and a fulfillment center now is handling orders Edelstein used to mail from her Center City apartment. PiperWai raised $27,000 in the late spring through an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to spend on branding and website redesign.
About 70 percent of sales are via piperwai.com, the rest from 40 retailers nationwide, soon to include Whole Foods, said Ribner, an urban studies graduate from Penn who is working on an M.B.A. from Columbia Business School.
"They've really hit on something here," said Jolene Hart, a beauty and health coach, author of Eat Pretty, and director of education at the Nutritional Aesthetics Alliance.
A deodorant's effectiveness is largely based on the user's pH and body type, Hart said. PiperWai consists of "a combination of ingredients that work well."
Not that Corcoran was convinced of any of that when she outbid Shark's Lori Greiner for a piece of PiperWai, saying she was more sold on the "enthusiasm, dedication, and thoroughness" of the company's founders. She said she had expected $20,000 in postshow sales.
"I could not have been more dead wrong on the demand for the product," Corcoran said. "They just stepped into a groundswell of people who want it."