Heaven forbid that you’re ever stranded in a blizzard. Building a fire would not only keep you warm but also help rescuers find you. Being able to start fire under such extraordinary conditions is the difference between life and death. The satisfaction of getting emails from four people who swear InstaFire, a fire starter, saved their lives fuels Konel Banner and Frank Weston’s passion for their business.

Through trial and error, Banner and Weston developed and patented InstaFire. They boast it’s the safest and yet most powerful all-natural and yet most powerful firestarter, charcoal briquette lighter, and emergency fuel on the planet. Made from volcanic rock, wood pellets, and other inert materials and sealed with a paraffin wax, Instafire burns twice as hot as a regular wood fire. It dries out wet wood and eliminates the need for kindling. It can burn on snow, ice and water. It can withstand a 20- to 30-mile-an-hour wind. It is non-volatile so there are no unexpected flare-ups. Best of all, the resulting ash can be used as a natural fertilizer.

Banner debuted it in 2008 and invested about $30,0000 he had saved from owning a computer distribution company, R.K. Wholesalers Inc. Sales over the first seven years totaled $2.1 million.

Banner and Weston appeared in a patriotic Shark Tank episode, featuring all U.S.-made products in February 2016 (Season 7, Episode 9). They asked the Sharks for $300,000 for 10% of the Riverdale, Utah company. A consultant valued the company at $3 million based on the patents, current sales and projected sales. O’Leary Ventures founder Kevin O’Leary initially offered $300,000 for a third of the company and later dropped it down to 20% after Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and QVC queen Lori Greiner offered them $300,000 for 33% equity.

FUBU founder Daymond John initially offered $300,000 for 20% equity and 33 ⅓% of online sales and came down to 20% equity and 25% online to compete with Cuban and Greiner. Banner and Weston settled at 30% equity for $300,000 from Cuban, who would focus on online sales, and Greiner, who specializes in retail.

Shark Tank launched InstaFire into Do it Best, Orgill, Home Depot Canada, Amazon Launchpad, Bass Pro, Ingles, Academy Sports, Bed Bath and Beyond. Distribution to Walmart, Target , and Home Depot expanded. They’re working on getting on QVC and into grocery chains including Albertsons, Safeway and Supervalu.

Before Shark Tank, InstaFire sold at home improvement retailers — Home Depot, Meijers, Ace Hardware and True Value — and distributors — Wise Foods and Emergency Essentials. InstaFire is manufactured in Clearfield, Utah. Each pouch costs $0.125 to produce, wholesales for $0.74 and retails for $1.49. It’s also sold in two-, four- and five-gallon buckets.

Banner serves as InstaFire’s CEO. He shares how they developed the product, surprises they encountered in the Shark Tank and what it’s like to work with Cuban and Greiner.

The Spark for an Idea

Ky Trang Ho: How did you come up with the idea for your business? Ex. What problem were you seeking to solve?

Konel Banner:  I grew up loving the outdoors.  I have been involved in scouting for many years as an Eagle Scout, raised four sons to be Eagle Scouts and also served as a Scoutmaster.

I was at a mountain man rendezvous when I saw an old man burning a rock. I was a Scoutmaster at the time so I bought a few to burn for novelty purposes for the boys. About three months later, I brought out the rocks and everyone was disappointed when the rocks wouldn’t light. The boys weren’t impressed and neither was I.

A year later I saw the old man again and lightheartedly told him “you’re the horse’s rear-end who sold me those rocks that didn’t burn.” We laughed for a minute. Then he invited me to look at what he was doing with the concept at that point.  He had the basic idea but he had run into several problems. The rocks didn’t burn for me because the fuel had evaporated. It also released smelly fumes and it wouldn’t burn as long or as hot as we wanted.

I offered to develop the idea and told him we would pay him a royalty.  He was thrilled with the offer.  It was at that point I met Frank Weston, now the president of Instafire.

I was looking for a natural long-term storage fuel that I could store 30 years or longer and then use to cook food or boil water in a disaster or power outage.  Frank wanted a fire starter that would work in virtually any condition.

Ho: How did you go about making a prototype, sourcing the materials and finding a manufacturer?

Banner: We wanted to be safe. It had to work the same every time and it had to be storable for a long period of time.  We also wanted it to be made from natural materials.  We found a rock that when heated to a high temperature would pop like popcorn and became very light and absorbent.  We experimented pretty much each day in an owl infested warehouse for over nine months until we had the formula right.

Ho: What hardships did you encounter in developing and launching it?

Banner: There were several.  One, in particular, was when we very first started, we partnered with a company that was going to help us market, package, sell and distribute InstaFire. Our job was just to manufacture in bulk.  The volume was good at first. But we soon realized that they were mostly filling their warehouse with a bulk product and they were not pushing it very hard. They stopped ordering from us for more than months.

We kept talking to them. We needed to have orders in order for us to survive.  We were given an ultimatum that either we were to give them half of the rights to our name and a full exclusive or they would not do any more business with us.  We realized quickly that the initial good intentions soon turned to greed and they wanted more than what they had.

We had a big decision to make.  We tried every way we could in order for them to continue to help market and we would do more on our own.  Their answer was “No – It’s all or nothing.” We felt betrayed and felt we had no other choice than to decline the demand and go out totally on our own.

Being totally on our own was very scary and very challenging. But it has proven to be our greatest blessing.  Because of that decision we had to sink or swim so to speak.  We hired a rep firm who called the big box stores and went to work.  We are so grateful we made that decision.

Explosive Market Potential

Ho: Who is the target market for your product?

Banner: Our target market is anyone who ever starts a fire or needs a fire in the future for any reason: campers, backpackers, hunters, snowmobilers, or any outdoor enthusiast. Our charcoal starter is for those who grill outside using charcoal briquettes and those who own a wood-burning fireplace, wood-burning stove or fire pit. It’s essential for home emergency kits in case of a disaster or power outage. You can use it to boil water, cook food and heat your home.

Ho: What made you think it could be a successful product?

Banner: We knew we had something good when I showed a few people what I was working on.  One customer bought 50 buckets to start, others were buying five to 10 at a time.

Then we gave some to a relative who then gave it to a friend who rode horses.  He got stuck in the Unita mountains in Utah in an early spring blizzard.  He said, “I couldn’t even get dry pine needles to stay lit and I was in trouble, then I remembered I had some InstaFire in my saddle bag.  I shielded the wind and snow to get it lit and it stayed lit, I was able to build a fire using dead limbs and I think it saved my life.” That’s when we knew we had something special.

Firing Up the Shark Tank

Ho: What did they like most about you, the company and/or product?

Banner: We believe that they saw the potential of sales on a continuing basis.  InstaFire is a consumable.  You burn it. There are no defectives and when it is used, people need more.

Ho: Was there anything you wished the producers included that was edited out?

Banner: Yes. Mark Cuban made a comment when we were deciding on whose offer we wanted to accept.  He said, “do you want 70% of a watermelon or 100% of a grape?”  That really made sense to us that we had an offer with two sharks who would potentially make us more money than if we went with one shark.

Ho: Was the edit fair to you?

Banner: Yes, but it would have been nice for the audience to see what was the deciding factor for us.

Ho: How did you prepare for your appearance? What made it a success?

Banner: Once we knew we were going to go to California to film, all we did was study to know all of the answers that might be asked i.e. how much charcoal is produced each year, how many charcoal grills are sold each year, how many times do people grill each year, how many campgrounds are there in the USA and Canada, how often do people camp etc?

We also got with experienced mentors who could grill us on every question and how to answer them.  In short we really worked hard to do our homework.  Practice, practice, practice!

Ho: What about being in the Tank (or whatever happened before or after) surprised you the most?

Banner: The biggest surprise was how separate they kept all of the others who would also be presenting and how they kept us in the dark as to what would be happening next.  Now we understand why, but at the time, it was surprising as we really wanted to get to know others going through the same experience and get their take on things.

Ho: This is very interesting. Why did they keep you separated and don’t tell you who’s going on next?

Banner: We learned later that they didn’t want any one of us to have an advantage over the other, because even though our products don’t compete, we do compete to be on the show and if one gets more information than the other then I guess they feel that would give them the upper hand.

Ho: If you could do the show over, what would you do differently?

Banner: We felt really blessed the way the show went and felt good that we were able to put out our message in a way that was understood.  However, I think we would have tried to negotiate a little more with Mark and Lori to get the percentage down a little.  But we felt good either way.

Ho: What can you teach others about your Shark Tank experience?

Banner: Prepare, study and prepare more.  Know everything there is to know about your industry and why your product is the best solution for whatever problem you are trying to solve.

Ho: What are the secrets of a successful audition and appearance?

Banner: Put your message across in a very intriguing way in a one- to two-minute presentation and then know your numbers.  Be confident in your product and excited to share it. You are not only pitching to the sharks but also showing millions of viewers out there watching, what your product is and does.

Post Shark Tank Flare Up

Ho: How did the deal that was made on air compare to what happened afterward? Did Mark Cuban and Lori Greiner really give you $300,000 for 30% of your company?

Banner: Yes, they did. We got exactly the deal as it was in the tank. We were able to order our new packaging machines right away.  If not, why did you make a different deal?

Ho: What are Cuban and Greiner doing for your business? How are you working together?

Banner: Their teams are amazing.  The biggest thing is their relationships and experience in knowing how to do things.  It cuts the learning curve down a lot.  Being on Shark Tank has given our company “legitimacy” in the eyes of others. So when we contact companies, they are more likely to take our calls.

Ho: What kind of return have Sharks made from investing in your business?

Banner: They have received $7,200 (as of May 2016).

Fiery Goals and Challenges

Ho: What are the biggest challenges facing your business now and how are you addressing those issues?

Banner: One of the biggest challenges is how do you tell the world about InstaFire.  Mark’s team is heading up the online advertising and marketing.  They are teaching us step by step on how to market ourselves using social media and other online strategies.

Ho: What was the most effective thing you did to get more exposure for your business before going on Shark Tank?

Banner: Hiring independent reps to get us into a few of the big box stores.

Boiling Over With Business Wisdom

Ho: What business books do you recommend people read and why?

Banner: The Goal: For people in manufacturing, it teaches you the priorities of manufacturing and how to do it.

How to Win Friends and Influence People: teaches how to treat people.

7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Teaches you how to keep motivated and set your priorities.

The Richest Man in Babylon: Helps you understand how you can reinvest money into the company for long-term stability.

Ho: What are you favorite business websites, tools or resources that you love and why?

Banner: Trello is an organizational board we use that multiple people can collaborate on. We use this for keeping track of our orders, to do lists, who is assigned to do what and when it’s due. It helps us keep track of where each of the orders are at in the process of getting orders out to our customers and invoiced.

Evernote is a database that keeps track of all the things to do and things that have been done. It’s basically the inbox for everything that is going on in your life or business. We can archive information that we have. If someone has a question of what has been done in the past, we have a way to look it up.

Quickbooks for accounting.

Ho: What’s the worst mistake you’ve ever made in business and how can others learn from it?

Banner: Trusting others to move our business forward without our knowledge of what they were doing or to whom.  So, when we parted ways, we didn’t have a good customer base or knowledge of what was being done or how it was being done.  Our advice is to stay involved in all aspects so you know exactly what is going on.

Ho: What is the best advice and/or business insights you’ve received from your Sharks, Mark Cuban and Lori Greiner?

Banner: Trust your gut instincts because they are usually right.  Get advice from those who have already done it before and don’t try to reinvent the wheel.

Ho: Is there anything else I should have asked?

Banner: Perhaps if the sacrifice has been worth it?  The answer is yet but it has certainly taken a long time. It’s been seven years so far for us.

Another question might be: What is your favorite thing to say about your product?  The answer is: All good fires start with Instafire.

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