Friday, January 24

Q&A: ‘Shark Tank’ propels former UCLA tennis player’s company to success

Once a freshman on the UCLA men's tennis team, Zack Fleishman turned professional before an injury led him to join the start-up Shark Wheel, which was just recently featured on the show Shark Tank two weeks ago. (Aubrey Yeo/Daily Bruin senior staff)

After one season on the UCLA men’s tennis team from 1998 to 1999, Zack Fleishman decided to turn professional. He ended up playing 10 years on the professional circuit before a mountain biking accident forced him to retire from the sport. Along the way, Fleishman was introduced to David Patrick, and the two went on to start the company Shark Wheel. Two weeks ago, Fleishman and Patrick went on the television show “Shark Tank” to pitch their company to celebrity investors. They left the tank with deals from three investors joining their startup. The Daily Bruin’s Derrek Li caught up with Fleishman to talk about his experience at UCLA, what it was like being on “Shark Tank” and the current state of his company.

Daily Bruin: Before we talk about Shark Wheel and “Shark Tank,” can you talk about your experience on the UCLA men’s tennis team?

Zack Fleishman: I grew up playing tennis as a kid all throughout Southern California and practicing at UCLA all the time. I gravitated toward tennis because I loved the one-on-one aspect of the sport – I loved that tennis is the only sport where coaching is not allowed, and you have to figure out everything by yourself.

I received a scholarship to play at UCLA, which was my dream school. I made a decision after my freshman year to turn professional. It was a tough decision because I loved going to school at UCLA so much, but I felt that in order to compete at the highest level, I had to do what all the international players do – which is turn pro at 18 years old.

DB: How did you go from professional tennis to Shark Wheel?

ZF: I actually got to No. 11 in the United States and No. 127 in the world, and the week that I reached my career high, I had a traumatic injury. I flew off a mountain bike. My tire popped, and I flew headfirst over the handlebars and had to get reconstructive shoulder surgery. I tried to come back and play, but then my shoulder re-tore in the same spot, and I had to have another shoulder surgery. That knocked me out of competition.

I met David Patrick through my tennis coach at the time. I’ve been obsessed with science my entire life, and my coach introduced me to David because David had made a major scientific discovery and knew that I would be very interested to hear about it.

In the course of about eight months, it ended up turning into a business relationship, so that’s how Shark Wheel was born. Just seeing the wheel even roll for the first time was mind-boggling, but when we actually saw that it had competitive advantages – that’s when we knew it could be a business.

DB: So what exactly is the Shark Wheel, and how does it work?

ZF: The science behind the wheel shows that everything in nature chooses to move in an alternating motion, whether it’s the way a shark swims, the way a snake slithers or even the way humans walk. The most efficient motion is actually an alternating path – it provides more stability.

When we really wanted to go into business, we decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign, and it went viral. In 30 days, we had well over a million views and we raised almost $80,000. We were only asking for $10,000 dollars, and we had more than a thousand orders. We had all the media attention. We aired on the “Discovery Channel” for reinventing the wheel. We were on the cover of Los Angeles Business Journal. I mean, every single major news story carried us.

DB: What exactly were you selling in your Kickstarter campaign?

ZF: We entered the skateboard market. David and a big part of our team had been lifelong skateboarders, and we knew skateboarding was one of the few markets in which people buy just wheels. It’s a market that we could get into easily, that we had expertise in. Our business model was to get into as many licensing deals as possible. We see ourselves having advantages in everything from wheelchairs to military vehicles.

DB: Why is it called the Shark Wheel?

ZF: The shape of the wheel when you see it in its singular version, it’s actually identical to the shape of a shark’s jaw. Identical. It is a shark’s jaw.

DB: How did your company get on the “Shark Tank”?

ZF: We applied to season five, but we didn’t get accepted. But then we applied again in season six, and we were told that there were more than 100,000 applicants, which was just a staggering amount of people. I think there were five stages or so that we had to advance through, from interviews to video submissions, and we ended up getting accepted.

There’s only a certain amount of things that I’m allowed to say, but what I can say is that it was the best thing that we had ever done as a company. We were able to meet some incredible investors, and we were able to get in front of millions of people. I walked on many center courts at all the Grand Slam tournaments, from Wimbledon to the U.S. Open to the Australian Open, and it still didn’t prepare me for walking onto the stage for “Shark Tank.”

DB: Have you found that playing tennis at UCLA has helped you now that you’re in a whole different world?

ZF: Absolutely, tennis is such an individual sport by nature. However playing tennis at UCLA, it’s a team event. It’s the one time at your entire tennis career where you’re on a team, and so you learn to work as a team. I was born and raised through tennis to be an individual and to fend for myself, to be able to figure out everything on my own, but through UCLA I was able to figure out how to communicate as a team and it has helped me out tremendously at Shark Wheel. Not only do you have to try to grow your business, but you have to be able to mesh well with all the team members, especially at a startup company.

The coolest thing is right before our episode on “Shark Tank,” we had just gotten into the UCLA Store and we are now selling the Shark Wheel there. Of all the places in the world that we’re selling, it’s my favorite place, because it’s my one home place where I grew up playing tennis. I’m so excited to walk by and be able to see my product that I put so much hard work into for other UCLA students to be able to enjoy.

Compiled by Derrek Li, Bruin Sports senior staff.

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