Kentucky native wades into bloodbath on Shark Tank
Kentuckians optimistically tuned into last Friday’s episode of Shark Tank, eager to see Kentucky native and UK architecture grad Lori Cheek pitch her NYC startup, Cheekd.com, to the sharks. Her premise is a little bit Match.com, a little bit craigslist missed connections, but with an in-person twist.. Cheek’d subscribers buy a deck of cards emblazoned with ice breakers, and a link to their online profile. See somebody cute? Slip them a card, and they find a link to a profile that you might design a little bit like a Match profile (instead of your actual phone number or email or address). The way she describes 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.’”
It all started in February of 2008. She was “out to dinner, with an architectural colleague. As we were leaving the restaurant, he’d scribbled, ‘want to have dinner?’ on the back of his business card and slipped it to an attractive woman as we were leaving the restaurant. He left with a date. I left with an idea. After over two years of brainstorming of how to remove the ‘business’ out of the business card, I launched Cheekd.com.” The cards feature pickup lines like “act natural, we can get awkward later.” The idea is to take a personal approach to online dating by moving the initial encounter offline with a smooth physical introduction.
There was nothing like Cheek’d available when she was in school. “I find it easier for singles to date when they meet people through friends or they’ve had many encounters with the person they’re attracted to,” she says. “Fortunately Lexington seemed small enough, at the time, that you’d eventually meet whoever had once sparked your interest. I do think (like NYC), the University of Kentucky’s campus felt like a compact city, where you were physically passing people all day long walking from class to class… Imagine the ease of just simply slipping someone a card with a wink as they’re smoking a cigarette on their stoop, then you drift off. Trust me they’d be intrigued.”
Cheek has 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.) She believes it’s an idea whose time has come, and told the sharks she’d invested $120k of her own money. “Today there are 102 million single adults in America. Forty percent of them are using online dating, yet only one in five relationships begin online. I’ve built a tool that’s just trying to help make a real life introduction a little humorous yet less intimidating.”
She didn’t quit her day job at first. Like many entrepreneurs, she began as a moonlighter. She says, “When I initially started working on Cheek’d, I was still employed in the design world. I used to go into work and bring my own tiny macbook and I’d put it in front of the massive Mac they’d provided for me and I worked on Cheek’d. I felt like I was cheating on my employer, but I was getting both jobs done. After getting covered in The New York Times, I was sure when I walked in that morning they were all going to know what I’d been doing. No one said a word. I guess they don’t read the papers.”
Reflecting on the early years, she still says, “Honestly, after everything I’ve been through, I never doubted I’d make it. Call me ‘delusional,’ as Mark Cuban suggested, but I will make this business a success. You can mark my words.”
“Delusional” was one of their nicer adjectives. What Shark Tank aired was more or less a bloodbath, as each shark attempted to deflate her infectious enthusiasm. The meanest shark, by far, was Kevin O’Leary. As she re-tells it, “He demanded that I quit my ‘hobby’ and shoot my business—my passion—like a rabid dog. I remember when he started to tell me that story, my head completely went somewhere else. I didn’t even hear it and didn’t know the story until I actually watch my segment air. 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.”
Barbara Corcoran was the kindest of the five, telling her, “you’re the right entrepreneur, but this is the wrong business.”
Cheek did say to the sharks she was “out of money and resources.”
So, what’s next for her passion project? Five sharks passed on the opportunity to invest in her idea. Is it over?
She says, “A web developer and friend, who’d known my struggles, yet watched my hustle over the past years, approached me last summer (before I got flown out to film the show) and wanted to get involved. It was like an angel had dropped down in front of me. Things were getting ready to repair themselves, but it wasn’t going to change the previous story or make my ‘numbers’ any better. We’ve since rebuilt the website and have launched the 3.0 version of Cheek’d on Android, where everything on Cheek’d will be mobile. In addition to the physical cards, members will be able to search people nearby and ‘flick’ virtual flirt cards to sexy strangers they spot nearby. iPhone will be launching this week. We’ve practically started over and we’re building an entirely new platform with the movement to mobile.”
She acknowledges, “Although the biggest problem with my business has been technology based, it has ultimately been about the team I initially chose to help build my dream. The single most important thing in starting a business, is to get a talented and trusted team, with the right skill sets, that believes in your idea as much as you do. I needed a technical co-founder from day one. Four years later, I’ve solved that problem.”
As vicious as the sharks were to her, most of the response has been positive. She says, “Our inbox has been flooded since Friday night. I’ve had my team of interns with my sifting through the emails and we haven’t made a dent. Five percent of them have stood behind the Sharks, but 95 percent have sent nothing but praise, support and the main sentiment is that the sharks were out of their mind, I’m ahead of my time, to keep my head up and don’t stop. One of my favorites was this: ‘I feel like I met a cousin for the first time and we hit it off from the start. I sincerely doubt there is a stranger more proud of you. I have been on a journey for the last four years that so similar to what I saw on Shark Tank in you. Wow! I hope your appearance on Shark Tank creates the chain reaction you’re looking for.’”
She adds, “A handful of the haters have told me that the bleach (from my blonde hair) must have gotten to my brain, [that] I’m an idiot and should go back to Kentucky! There have been many indecent proposals in the mix as well. We’ve joked back with a couple of them that we are still seeking investment.”
Since the sharks were so unreceptive to her dream, does she still have a fantasy pitch in mind? “If I could stop myself from having a heart attack, I’d do anything for the opportunity to pitch Cheek’d to Richard Branson. I see Cheek’d as a great tool for travel and have dreamt of an airline partnership with Virgin Airlines since I launched Cheek’d in 2010. Imagine you spot a hottie in first class as you’re boarding, you can slip them a card that says ‘want to join my mile high club?’”
She isn’t short on nerve or guts, having “once spent four minutes on stage with Rapper, Flo Rida, until I successfully slipped a Cheek’d card in his back pants pocket.”
Asked to predict the next Dating Trend that will explode, taking the world by storm, five years from now, she says, “In a time where it seems like we’re more connected than ever, we’re actually losing the physical connection that counts. I’ve envisioned Cheek’d like this in five years… You’ve set up the characteristics of your dream date on a profile and you’re sporting a Google Glass type contraption. When the application senses that someone fits the description is nearby, your ‘glass’ starts blinking a light alerting you that they’re in range, then it advises you that ‘the love of your life’ might just be coming around the corner in 3…2…1…”
“I do think people want to meet in the real world,” she told the sharks.
This article also appears on page 5 of the March 6, 2014 issue of Ace.