Whiteville native Harriet Edwards Mills and her husband Patrick were featured on the season finale of the popular ABC reality show “Shark Tank” Friday night.
The Raleigh couple pitched their business model to five self-made multi-millionaire and billionaire investors, hoping to persuade one or more to provide both expertise and capital to help Wine and Design grow.
It was a show that the participants and the television audience will long remember. The Millses did more than talk about painting. They provided the “sharks” with an abbreviated Wine and Design experience by bringing in drinks, blank canvases and “Richard,” a mostly-nude model, to paint.
Harriet Mills and a friend opened the first Wine and Design studio seven years ago. She had been laid off from a corporate job and was the mother of 1-year-old Patrick.
“I wanted flexibility to be with my son, and I wanted a way to pay the bills,” she said. “I’ve always worked in sales and enjoyed interacting with people.”
Said Mills, “Wine & Design provides ‘memories and a masterpiece’ in just two hours. Each painting session is led by a local artist, who provides step-by-step instructions to first-time painters, aspiring artists and/or self-proclaimed pros.” Participants carry home their paintings to keep.
Class offerings include five divisions for all age and experience levels. Art Buzz Kids programs target children as young as 4 years of age.
Adult groups sponsor a painting session as a business team-building exercise or to celebrate a special occasion. Private bridesmaids’ parties and baby showers bring friends together to paint and laugh. Individuals can also attend public classes on their own. Although most sessions take place at the franchisees’ well-equipped studios, the “On Wheels” program can travel to a host’s home.
A growing business
When one of the artist-teachers showed interest in setting up a second studio, the two founders agreed that it was time to franchise their business.
Now, said Harriet Mills, “Wine & Design offers prospective entrepreneurs and artists an opportunity to build a career that provides flexibility needed to maintain a healthy work-life balance in a fun, family-focused atmosphere.”
During the years while Harriet Mills saw her company grow to 76 studios, she also gave birth to her daughter Abigail, now 5 years old.
“We’re trying to grow strategically in the Southeast, and we’re starting to grow on the West Coast,” her husband said. “North Carolina is definitely one of our busiest markets, but we could accommodate 10 to 15 more franchises. We want to become a household name.”
The couple knew that it would take outside investment and advice to accomplish their goals.
Months of preparation
In March 2016, Harriet Mills said, she and her husband were watching the award-winning reality show “Shark Tank” when one of his clients made a pitch. “I went to the ‘Shark Tank’ website and found out how to apply to be on the show.”
Two months after filling out an initial application, the Millses received a phone call from the show’s producers asking them to create an audition video. They were given only 48 hours in which to complete the assignment.
“We knew we needed to catch somebody’s attention to get on the show,” Harriet Mills said, “so we went with the bachelorette theme.”
More interviews followed, and the couple was notified in July that they had been chosen for a slot on the show. Filming would be in mid-September at the Sony Studios in Los Angeles.
Harriet Mills would be seven months pregnant with the couple’s third child by then.
Nerve-wracking? “100 percent!”
Preparing for their appearance took “a lot of help from family and friends,” Patrick Mills said.
Being on a studio lot, where numerous TV dramas and game shows were being filmed simultaneously, “was a neat experience,” he said. “It was exciting and fun.”
Nevertheless, “It was a little more intense than we expected.”
The couple had prepared their pitch for months, practicing on camera as well as off. Sister-in-law Jessica Edwards, who lives in Wilmington and is a veteran of several TV shows, coached them on how to stand and speak for the best image on camera.
The couple left 8-year-old Patrick and 5-year-old Abigail with grandparents and flew to Los Angeles for five days. Two days were spent on the Sony lot.
The “Shark Tank” staff brings in eight to 10 “pitchers” a day, filming the entire season during two weeks in June and two weeks in September.
The Millses spent “pre-pitch day” going over and over their presentation, with 15 or more cameras pointed at them and production assistants rushing them around and telling them what to do. Pitch day itself was even more intense.
“We had to be there at 6 a.m., to do hair and makeup for our afternoon filming,” Patrick Mills said.
“We were on stage one and a half hours,” Harriet Mills said. “They asked us questions and got us to tell stories, then they interrupted us. There was a lot of back-and-forth for a long time.”
Only a few minutes of the interaction would make it to the edited version to be broadcast later.
“It was very intense,” her husband said. “I think it was their goal to fluster us. They were constantly talking over one another. Of course they want to make it good TV.”
Would one describe the atmosphere as nerve-wracking? “One hundred percent,” Patrick Mills said. “Harriet was in her element on stage. She’s a rock star. She’s great at what she does. My nerves were a little worse.”
Very little of that anxiety showed in the broadcast, however. “The producers did a good job editing to make us look OK,” he said.
Standing out from the rest
Wine and Design knocked the investors out of their usual aloof stance, not only with the sensational nude-modeling approach but also with the company’s excellent track record. All five “sharks” responded with enthusiasm and wisecracks to the painting exercise. They peppered the Millses with questions relating to capital, interest rates, franchising and other technical aspects of the business.
“Wow,” investor Robert Herjavec said, “I’ve never had a business come in here that has franchised so well, so early on.” Herjavec tendered the Millses an offer of $500 thousand for 33 percent ownership of Wine and Design.
Kevin O’Leary countered with an offer of a line of credit to be paid back, with a smaller percentage of the company changing hands. A bidding frenzy ensued between the two “sharks,” putting the Millses in the enviable position of having a seller’s market.
To put their success in perspective, “Shark Tank” invites four business owners to make their pitches each episode, and there have been 24 to 28 episodes per season for eight seasons. Out of about 850 pitches made, said Patrick Mills, only 330 have led to deals closed with the investors. “For us to be in that position is a great accomplishment,” Mills said.
The right choice
Harriet and Patrick Mills conferred before accepting O’Leary’s offer and leaving the stage victoriously.
“You’re making a mistake!” Herjavec called out to them.
“I think they made the right choice,” fellow investor Barbara Corcoran said. “They don’t want to give up as much equity as you wanted them to, and that shows the right attitude toward their business.”
Patrick Mills felt good about the choice afterward, saying, “I think it was the right thing for Harriet, her partner and all of the franchises.
“What sets Wine and Design apart from our competition is the different kinds of classes we offer. Also, we really give back to our communities. All of our franchises are required to hold one event a month where they give a portion of their proceeds to a charity. The biggest fundraiser of this year is May 18 (tonight).”
The May 12 airing of the “Shark Tank” episode “was perfect timing” to promote the company-wide fundraiser, which benefits people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease).
“All of our franchises are participating in Project ALS,” said Mills. “We hope to raise $50 thousand through Team Chris Combs. Chris was a baseball player for N.C. State.” The website for the team is www.teamchriscombs.com, and 100 percent of the proceeds for this event go to Project ALS.
The next steps
The Millses are now benefiting from the business expertise and the infusion of new capital that O’Leary brought them. Patrick Mills said that O’Leary “has done a wonderful job with all the companies he’s bought and sold. Two new franchises are set to open in Arizona within the next month.
“We also wanted additional exposure for our existing franchises,” Mills said. The TV appearance has led to 100 or more inquiries a day since Friday from people interested in purchasing a Wine and Design franchise in their area.
The night the show aired, the company website received 100 times the hits it logs on a typical day.
Cooper James Mills, the baby who spent two days in the “Shark Tank” two months before he was born, is five months old now. “He’s my good-luck charm,” his mother said.
The company website is www.wineanddesign.com. A gallery of photos shows classes at work on large and small projects, none of which are nude portraits.