Joe Altieri, Inventor and Founder of FlexScreen
Many people will tell you that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Today’s guest says, “you have to change.” Do you have an innovative product but are holding onto the fear that you can’t compete in an industry that is resistant to change? Today we talk to Inventor and Founder of FlexScreen.com, Joe Altieri. Altieri shares with us how he was able to make and keep his brand relevant in an industry saturated with competitors who haven't changed their basic product design in over 100 years.
In today’s episode of Harvest Growth Podcast, we’ll cover:
● Building a business from a garage to 150 employees and 7 production facilities in under 7 years
● How to help your team share your passion for your business
● Behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to appear on Shark Tank and work with one of the Sharks
● And so much more!
You can watch the full interview HERE.
Visit FlexScreen.com to learn more about this innovative window screen and even Buy Now & Measure Later!
Do you have a brand that you’d like to launch or grow? Do you want help from a partner that has successfully launched hundreds of brands that now total over $2 billion in revenues? Visit HarvestGrowth.com to set up a free consultation.
Jon LaClare: Today's guest started his business 7 years ago out of his garage and now has over 150 employees and will hit $25 to $30 million in sales this year. His Shark Tank deal was one of the growth drivers and he shares what it was like to be on the show from a behind-the-scenes perspective. His product shook up an industry that hadn't really changed since 1907. Innovation in such an old industry can make it hard to get people to change, but he found a way that can work for any unique product, including yours.
Welcome to another episode of The Harvest Growth Podcast, focused on helping consumer product companies, inventors, and entrepreneurs harvest the growth potential of their product businesses. Today, I'm really excited to be speaking with Joe Altieri from FlexScreen. You can find him at FlexScreen.com. We'll hear a lot more about his story, how he got started, what the product is, et cetera. This is a fascinating story. You're going to love this interview, so I encourage you to listen. Joe, thanks so much for joining us on the show today.
Joe Altieri: Oh, I am so happy to be here. First of all, I have to tell you I wish I knew about your podcast when I was starting on my journey because, man, what you're doing to help inventors like me-- I bet you there's so many people that have not had to stub their toe as many times as I did because they listen to you and the interviews that you do. Thanks for that. I really appreciate it.
Jon: Oh, you're making me blush.
Thank you so much. I love it. Frankly, I always get asked the reason we do this. For one, it's a lot of fun. Just meeting everybody I've been able to interview so far is just really fun to talk to, and you've got great backgrounds. Today, especially, I'm really excited. I know it's also helpful for the listeners. Likewise, like you said, my goal is to educate, motivate, and inspire inventors and product marketers at all stages. I hear great comments coming back from good interviews like this one will be, I'm sure. It's a lot of fun for me too, so thank you. Let's start off by talking about FlexScreen. For those in our audience that maybe haven't heard of it, tell us, first of all, what is the product?
Joe: We have the world's first and only flexible window screen. I guess the name gives a little hint as to what it is, but we sell window screens and they're very, very low profile so you can't see them when they're installed in the window, and they're extremely easy to take out because the sides flex in. They don't get damaged as easy. All the things that people hate about window screens, we've solved with our product. That was the goal. Actually, I was only trying to solve one problem when I invented this, but we solved a lot of them that homeowners have with window screens.
Truthfully, I can't do it justice just talking about it. You have to see it. Definitely check out our website and see the video because when you say, "Flexible window screen," to people, people are like, "What do you mean?" You have to see it.
Jon: You've done a great job on your website. Again, FlexScreen.com. Again, we'll put that in the show notes for everybody so if you're driving, be sure to check it out later on to really see. There's a great video at the top of the page that in two seconds, you get it. You see what it is, you understand, and also why it's important, I would feel.
I just took out a screen from my upstairs window this weekend. I was repainting shutters, climbing on my roof for my very first time. I hate heights, but part of the problem beyond that was just dealing with those screens. They get dirty, they're a mess to deal with, they're heavy, bulky, hard to get in and out, and of course, the bottom little clip was busted.
Most of them get broken so easily. I can only imagine our next windstorm and the thing's going to fly out. Obviously, solves a lot of problems for anybody who's dealt with their own screens.
Can you tell us a little bit more about how'd you come up with the idea originally, other than you identified the problem. From there, where'd you take it to actually design and develop this?
Joe: I didn't have a big engineering firm that I was a part of or that I could even afford. This is birthed out of my garage. I've been in the window and door industry for close to 25 years now. In the window and door industry, of course every window that gets sold has a window screen on it. They are the bane of the window manufacturer's existence. They are the highest complaint out in the field. It's just tens of millions of dollars of damage that happens in our industry because of window screens.
I was just trying to solve some problems that my customers had. They didn't want-- They get scratched easy. They were aluminum screens, your old style screens. They get scratched easy, dented easy, they get damaged to the point-- I think it's 3% to 5% of aluminum window screens that get produced in the US have to be repaired or replaced before a homeowner actually gets them in their house. It's a huge, huge, huge number.
This was just birthed out of my customer's frustration with the product that I sold. I was a salesman in the window and door industry, and one of the products I sold was window screens. People kept saying, "Can't you come up with something better? Isn't there something else out there?" I'm like, "No, there just isn't. This is what they've always been." Literally, I set up a little workshop in my garage. I pulled my wife's Yukon out of the garage, told her that, "Hey, it'll just be out in the driveway for a couple weeks." Two years later--
Again, it was just a labor of love. It was a hobby. I knew that there had to be something better, but it was nights and weekends just me trying to-- I'd go to Lowe's and I'd walk down the aisles and go, "Can I make a screen out of that? Can I make a screen out of that?" I'd look online, order stuff from Grainger's. This is really product development, old school, make something from whatever you can get your hands on type of process.
It took me about two years and I just had what I call my bubblegum and duct tape prototype. Literally, it was ugly. When I made it and I put it into the little sample window that I had, I was like, "Oh, I have something here." I'm like, "Wonder if anybody else is going to think I have something." I downloaded an NDA off of Google and showed it off to some of my contacts in the industry. They said, "Hey, this is pretty cool. We love it. Now you have to figure out how to actually make it. If you do, we're interested."
That's how it came-- Like I said, this is the old school American dream. Started in the garage. I'm not an engineer. I'm a sales guy. This was just trial and error. I'm sure an engineer, somebody a lot smarter than me, could have figured this out in two months, not two years.
Interesting fact: window screens have been the same for over 100 years. A metal window screen with that rubber spline was invented in 1907, patented in 1907. It was really a industry that was ripe for disruption. I didn't know it at the time. It was just, "Hey, this is what has always been done," but it was just an industry that was ripe for disruption because nothing had changed, which is great in some ways because nothing had changed, and a real pain in the butt in a lot of ways because nothing had changed.
Again, I'm sure we can talk about that a little bit more, but that was-- Changing a mature industry is tough. You can have the best idea in the world, you can have the greatest invention, the greatest product, and trying to change people's perspective off of something the way that they've always done it-- It looks different, it tastes different, it feels different. Man, that took us years to get to the point where we've actually had started, the snowball has gotten to the point where there's been market acceptance on our product.
Jon: I talk to a lot of inventors and many that we've worked with over the years. We've launched hundreds of products ourselves for clients, et cetera. One of the common themes is it's difficult to change consumers' minds. If they've been doing one thing this way, you've got to educate them to know there's a whole other way of doing it.
For you, I imagine there's the double problem. You've got consumers' minds that buy the windscreens, but you've also got the dealer or manufacturer side that you sell-- on the B2B side. They're also ingrained and may probably be more so. They've got their system set up for the old way of doing it, for the old screens, et cetera. Did you see a big difference? Was it harder to educate or to change one audience versus another?
Joe: The problem that we faced was-- I was in the industry, and so when I came out with the finished product and we actually started manufacturing, we got really famous in our industry really, really fast because we won a bunch of awards. Everybody that I showed it to loved it. The problem was the window manufacturers weren't the end consumer of the product. The window manufacturers, those are who I need to sell screens to, that's where all the volume is. They had to educate their dealer, and then their dealer had to educate the homeowner. It wasn't just two steps. It was three steps to get there.
Even though I solved a ton of problems for the window manufacturers and saved them money, they're like, "We can't do anything unless the dealers want it, unless the dealers want to change, and the dealers won't want it unless the homeowners want it." Just to give you an example, we did $400,000 worth of business in our first year. That might seem like a lot. It is nothing. We're doing more than that every week right now. We had millions of dollars invested, and our first year of business, we did $400,000. It didn't come close to paying the bills.
It was really disappointing because, again, I had letters from window manufacturers saying, "This is the greatest thing that's been in--" The investor pack was outstanding. I had people lining up to invest, but I couldn't get to the consumers that actually needed to accept our product. We just started trying to come up with ways-- I couldn't afford a Super Bowl ad. I couldn't do the traditional marketing.
We realized pretty quick-- It took us about a year-- In the whole scheme of things, that's pretty quick. It took us about a year to understand that our message was going to the wrong people. We started doing stuff to get to the homeowners, and we did it through social media. We just had no choice. We didn't have the money, so we we just started filming fun videos, me making fun of myself, throwing screens off of buildings, running them over with cars, hitting them with hammers. A couple of our videos just blew up, which got the attention of homeowners, which then started driving some demand to the window manufacturers. That's how Shark Tank came about as well, through those social media efforts.
Jon: Yes. From what I understand, there's so many people have this dream of being on Shark Tank and it can be a great boon to your business for sure, but they approached you, right, originally?
Joe: They did.
Jon: As opposed to you reaching out to them. That's not a normal story. How did that happen?
Joe: It isn't. We actually thought it was a joke.
I'm sure most of your listeners hear this. If you have something cool, everybody is, "You should go on Shark Tank. You should go on Shark Tank." I had heard that for the couple years that we had been in business before Shark Tank. When they called us, they left a message on our voicemail. I'm like, "This is somebody, one of my buddies giving me a hard time." Then they sent an email the next day and I'm like, "They really put some effort into this."
Then the callback number was Sony Pitcher Studios. I'm like, "Okay, this might be real." Literally, when I went home and told my wife, when I finally clicked that this might be real, I'm like, "I'm 70/30. There's still a pretty good chance that this is a joke, but somebody supposedly from Shark Tank reached out to us."
They reached out to us. From my understanding, every year there's hundreds of people that go actually film, and you don't get to see all of them. Of those hundreds of people that film, they only reach out to between 5 to 10 companies that they actually find online. The year that we shot, we were one of them.
It's incredible what people go through to get on the show. There's cattle calls. Somebody told me there's over 100,000 applications a year that they get. We were really honored to have them actually reach out to us because again, we probably wouldn't have done it. We probably wouldn't have gone through all the steps, because it is a process to get on. Even though they contacted us, we still-- All we did was jump in line a little bit. We still had to go through the whole vetting process, and it was a lot of work.
Jon: Once you got on the show, how was the experience?
It is very much like you see on TV, except longer and more intense. The first thing is it's a TV show. They ramp up the drama and and all that stuff. Mr. Wonderful is actually a lot nicer in person than he seems like on the TV show. I was in front of the sharks answering questions, doing everything for 2 hours and 37 minutes.
Joe: It was nuts. I went back to the hotel, did a little bit of celebrating, a couple minutes celebrating, then I slept for 15 hours. Literally, it is just-- There's just so much pent up, so you have all of this months and months of prep going into it, and then you do it and it's exhausting, and then it's over. You have all that relief, all that adrenaline's gone, and all that stuff. I literally slept through a day and a half. It was nuts.
Yes, it's intense. You are fighting for your company in front of these people and 30 million people that are going to see the episode. That's not lost on you because there's 50 other people in the room with you from directors to audio people, and there's cameras zooming around and doing all that stuff. You know that you are in a high pressure situation from the minute you strap on. Literally, you put the microphone on and in your contract-- They tell you this over and over again, "From the time we put the microphone on to the time we take it off, we own every bit of that footage and we can use it."
They can't do something that makes it seem like you're-- They can't have you answer a different question with a different answer. They're not going to do that, but they can use it to ramp up drama. They can do the things that people do for TV shows, so you have to be really, really careful with what you say. There's no timeouts. There's no, "Oops, I didn't mean to say that." It's theirs. If you watch episodes, there are people that do that. They're like, "I didn't mean to say that." They're like, "Well, that's making the air." Of course it is, because that's good TV.
It was a great experience overall, but I tell people this: I would do it again tomorrow, but I would not do it again for the first time, if that makes sense. Knowing what I went through up to that point, I probably would not because it's so much stress. It really, really is. Once you do it and once all that anxiety goes away-- Like I said, I'd have no problem going and doing it again. It's probably a lot like jumping out of an airplane. The first time is terrifying. The second time you're like, "Yes, I've been here, done that. My feet are on the ground. I'll do it again."
Jon: Yes exactly. I can only imagine that. You did have the chance to go back on the Shark Tank. Your first episode aired early 2020 and then the second one was in 2021, so just over a year later. Talk to us about that. How was the second experience going on? Same product. It was just a reporting on your success. Other than that, how was it different than the first time?
Joe: Well, the first time is very impromptu. You're just going out there and everything is it is what it is. When they do the update episodes, it's not scripted but they want you to look good. When you're in front of the sharks, they don't care if you look good. Truthfully, a lot of times, they don't want you to look good. Not to say they don't want you to, but the TV is better if you do poorly. With the update episodes, they want you to look good. It's very storyboarded out. "Hey, we're going to do this, and then we're going to have shots of the factory. Then we're going to have shots of Lori," and all that stuff.
We were a little disappointed because our update was in the middle of COVID, so Lori couldn't travel. They couldn't even send a camera crew out. We did everything and they did a-- Doing stuff through COVID, Shark Tank-- I don't know how the other TV shows did. Shark Tank went above and beyond. The update episode was so well organized. The way that they did everything, it was fantastic. Their producers made the shift. If you watch, you probably have no idea that a lot of those videos were shot on people's iPhones. Luckily for us, we have a professional-- I have people that work for me that do video and stuff like that, so it was a little bit easier.
A lot of what they did, they were like, "Hey, set up your iPhone and we're going to shoot this through an iPhone." They did a great job piecing it together. Typically, Lori would've come out to one of our factories or gone to Home Depot because we had just launched with Home Depot. We didn't get a chance to do any of that stuff because of COVID. We're trying to get them to do another-- We have some new stuff happening and we're trying to get them to do another one, and it looks pretty promising. Maybe at that point, Lori will come out to our offices or something, and have some fun that way.
Jon: Yes. Keep us posted. Love to see that one too.
Joe: Yes. Absolutely.
Jon: How is the experience of Shark Tank? How did it help your business?
Joe: The Home Depot thing happened because of it. We're in every single Home Depot in the US, so of course that helped. There is a reputation that Shark Tank has and the sharks have, that once they put their name on something, it gives you immediate credibility. That's huge. Putting that "As seen on Shark Tank" on our packaging and things like that, people trust it. Again, our shark, we partnered with Lori Greiner, people trust her and they know that she's not going to sign up with a company that's doing garbage.
Again, because we're still trying to get the word out to the homeowner, so even though we're on Shark Tank, even though we have viral videos out there, and all that stuff, there's still a lot of homeowners that don't know what FlexScreen is. The reruns and all that stuff-- Shark Tank's one of the only shows in the world that runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Jon: True. Yes.
Joe: We hit CNBC. Every couple weeks, we're on, one of our episodes is on and just the regular Shark Tank is on. One of the fortunate things about us is our episode aired right before COVID hit. As they were canceling sporting events and stuff like that, they needed programming. We got six views in the first year of prime time. They canceled NBA games and they shoved Shark Tank in there.
Joe: It was the current season. We got a lot of prime time TV in that first year, which again is really rare. It'll probably never happen again. We were fortunate there. Like I said, it's the notoriety and then the retail deals. Then, of course, just partnering with one of the sharks. They are really intelligent people and they legitimately, if you strike a deal with them on the show, they try to get that deal closed. They legitimately want to invest in your company and they want to invest not just their money but also their time and expertise.
Lori's expertise is retail. As we were going through with Home Depot from the displays down through where everything's located, all that stuff, she was involved, which was surprising to me, but she was in the middle of it.
Jon: Oh, awesome. That's fantastic. You hear more and more positive news. I think there were some wrinkles the first season or two as they figured things out, but for the most part, it's been very positive. They've been really helpful to anybody, especially when they invest in them. Obviously, even without that, the PR of the show has been really beneficial.
For those in our audience, again, that may never appear on Shark Tank whether they want to or should or not, what learnings have you had in your business the last few years as you've grown? I do want to couch this with some of your success we haven't shared yet. You've gone from your garage, literally, to now 150 employees, growing like gangbusters, like crazy. Your revenues, what are your revenues at? I think you shared a range with me before.
Joe: Yes. This year, we'll be between 25 to 30 million. Again, from seven years ago, we were at 400,000 to 25 or 30 million. We've grown quite a bit. We're opening up another manufacturing plant. We have seven manufacturing plants-
Joe: -now, once the new one is open. We'll be close to 200 employees by the end of the year. I'm constantly learning. Like I said, I'm a sales guy at heart. Now I'm running a really large corporation and you have to change. Who I am when I was out there putting 200,000 miles a year on my vehicle showing off this crazy invention, to now where, again, we're hiring people, I have 200 people working for me, I'm a different Joe from back-- Future Joe will be completely different as well.
You have to recognize that truthfully, the most important thing to our success is the team that we have. I have a lot of young people that work for me. They've gone above and beyond to bring the passion that I have, that I've put into them-- Again, we sell windows screens. It's not the sexiest thing in the world to get behind, but they're passionate about it and you can see their passion. That goes out to our customers and our employees.
Everybody from the guy who started yesterday understands that we have a passion for what we're doing, and that we're growing, and that there's tons of opportunity in our company. Some of our plant managers started off as $10 an hour employees. Now they're running a manufacturing plant and they're able to provide really, really well for their families now, just because they answered an ad for an entry-level employee.
Like I said, those types of things are just so important. I was trying to do everything the first couple of years, and I realized really quick that I'm going to crash and burn, and I'm not doing very well at it. I had to get other people that I can empower. Man, I am not a micromanager at all. I'm like, "Look, if I give you this, it is yours. Let me know if you need any help," because I just simply don't-- There's not enough hours in the day.
Jon: I love the word you used, passion, because when you find the right people, if they share your passion for your business and for the product, they're going to succeed. They'll figure a way to do it. Not everyone's going to be the best fit or the smartest or the most experienced or whatever, but if they've got that passion, like you said, they'll figure it out, they'll make it work, and they'll be contributing to your team.
I think it's something that often gets left behind, or maybe it's secondary for product-based businesses, but it shouldn't be. We spend so much time focused on the product, on how do we grow the awareness, product sales, whatever your measure of growth is, but to make all that work, it really comes back to the team that's behind you. The people that are helping you, it's such an important element of it. I second that for sure and thank you for that advice.
I got to ask you: you had a great trajectory of success. I'm sure our audience, some of them have done something similar in their business. Many of them are hoping to. They're looking ahead and this has been great advice. Have there been any resources that you have found especially helpful for you and your business along the way?
Joe: The first thing is never stop trying to find those resources because there's people that speak to me that might not speak to someone else. When we first started going down the social media side, Gary V, who's cliché now, listening to Gary V, but Gary V was the reason that we went into social media. It was just like, "Hey, look, if this guy says to do it, we're going to do it." Literally, we just followed his path. "Hey, if you create a piece of content, you can create 10 pieces of content." That's what we were doing. He's not quite as relevant for our company now but man, his stuff was really good. There's tons of Gary Vs out there that might speak better to one of your listeners than Gary did to me.
I love consuming knowledge. I read a lot of books. One important book for our company was a book called Fascinate by Sally Hogshead. Her whole thing was, "Different is better than better." That's her famous quote. That was really important to us as we were struggling with we have this better product but I can't get anybody to buy it. Her whole thing was, "Don't talk about how much better it is, talk about how different it is. Don't try to pigeonhole your product into an evolution, make it a revolution." That was huge for us.
Truthfully, it was somebody that I was on their podcast and they were like, "You need to read this book." I read it, and then I read it again, and then I read it again. It really, really helped us to define our marketing strategy. Again, it's not a marketing book per se, although she is a marketer. It's not a step-by-step, but it's more of a vision for how you can put how you can position your product in, a lot of times, a very mature market.
Jon: Yes. It's fascinating, no pun intended, but that's really an interesting way of putting that. I hadn't read that book yet. I'll have to check that out too. We've been in the infomercial world for a long time. I founded this business back before Facebook and other platforms were very big, doing the as seen on TV stuff. We do a lot on the digital side now, but on either side of the business, we deal a lot with innovation.
One thing I've learned over the years is there's a core segment of the audience, of consumers out there that love innovation, love new products. If you can just hit that right audience, almost no matter what your product is, they'll jump on it. There's the other side of the market that is they like the old stuff. No matter what you tell them, no matter how much better your screen is than existing screens, the 100+ year old product they've always had, they just want to stick with it. They're very conservative in their choices, and it's going to be hard to break those down. Some eventually will buy, but in the beginning, focusing on different as opposed to--
We spend so much time often explaining why this is better than the alternative, but part of the excitement is being different. There's such a love for uniqueness, for innovation out there. It's a good way of putting that. Obviously, you have to make your product better. They have to be happy with it once they get it. They have to see a reason to keep it and to buy more, but part of the story is just being different. That's a great way of putting that.
Joe: Yes. Incremental improvements, a lot of consumers don't care about. I hate to say it like that but they really don't. You look at anything from refrigerators. We were out looking at refrigerators the other day, and it's such a boring purchase but there are companies that, "You touch a button and now you can see inside your refrigerator." I'm like, "I have no idea why I want this, but it's so different that I want it." Again, we bought a boring refrigerator, but there's things out there that are starting to--
The iPhone, it's an amazing example of that. The Blackberry did a lot of what the original iPhone did, but Steve Jobs didn't go up there and say, "Hey, this is a little bit better than the Blackberry." They're like, "No, this is an iPhone. We don't even want to talk about that." They never talk about their competition. "This is who we are. This is what we do. We are different." It's a different way of looking at your product that, again, might help some people to shift a little bit to make it easier for a consumer to make that decision.
Jon: Great way of putting that. Joe, this has been a great interview. Is there anything along the way I didn't ask you that you think would be helpful for our audience?
Joe: Well, the one thing is, I guess if I can give any advice or anything like that, is just get started. Through Shark Tank, I've had a chance to talk to a lot of inventors. Where does the inventor moniker start? Is it because I have a product or because I actually sold something? People that have ideas and do have maybe some rough prototypes and things like that, there's this fear of getting started, that fear of taking that step. It's really hard to get over.
As somebody who's been there, done that, one of the things when we brought in some investors, part of the decision was they insisted that I quit my day job. This had to be it. I was burning the bridges or burning the ships, and this is my only path forward for success with my family, unless I want to go sell cars. That was a big decision. Getting started is probably the most difficult part of the whole journey, and that was key. It really was. Luckily, I have a wife that's really, really understanding. If I can have another piece of advice, make sure that your spouse, partner, whoever is on board with what you're doing because if they're not, this is going to be a really tough road for you to go down.
Jon: Yes. I work with people that own other marketing agencies and a few of them, they're husband and wife who work together, founded the agency, and they talk about that. In reality, my perspective is many of us don't do that from a day-to-day basis. In reality, every entrepreneur does. Your spouse has to be there. They are part of the business. Whether they're involved or not, they are a definite part of it. They're going to go through the struggles and the joys eventually. Along the way, you've got to get somebody supportive. That's great advice too.
Joe: Yes. My wife and I have talked about this in the past. Our business is one of our children, not a mistress. There's a huge difference there. There really, really is. My wife is not involved in the day-to-day, but she's very supportive. She's very supportive with me and our whole staff loves her. She comes in and stuff like that. I've never made it a mistress. It's never been the family or the business. They've been part of each other, so really important.
Jon: That's a great way of summarizing that too. Well, thanks again. I do want to encourage our audience, please check out FlexScreen.com. You can also go and check out JoeAltieri.com. The spelling of both of those are in the show notes. Again, if you're driving, please go back and check it out later to learn more about this great product and about Joe and his journey along the way as well. This has been really helpful for me, and I'm sure our audience as well.
Also be sure to check out Harvest Growth Podcast to see other episodes we've recorded. If you like this episode, and you want to learn more about how you can profitably grow your consumer product business, please subscribe to our show and leave us a review at iTunes or Google Play.
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