New Yorkers have the cronut and San Franciscans the cruffin. Thanks to Jovan English, Angelenos have the brookie, a brownie and cookie hybrid baked like a cupcake. But it may be a long while before lines snake around the block for brookies the way they do cronuts and cruffins. English has yet to open a storefront. Her Los Angeles-based company, Milk + Brookies, is still a side project. English and her partners, Marques Brooks and Naimah Harris, all still work at day jobs and bake from 5 pm to 1 am. They only sell online and through occasional pop-up stands.
Until they dive in full-time, they’re just a “bake sale” as Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said when Milk + Brookies appeared on Shark Tank in October 2015. They asked for $100,000 for 20% of the business, valuing it at $500,000. The valuation was miles richer than their tasty treats considering they only had $14,000 in gross sales before entering the tank. The sharks surely enjoyed the Brookies but declined to make an offer, contending they were too early to invest in.
The night their episode aired online orders skyrocketed 3000% from the prior day. Thanks to their Shark Tank appearance, they are negotiating a deal with a major TV shopping network. They received numerous inquiries to open brick-and-mortar stores and considered opening a shop inside a hotel chain. They are trying to develop both vegan and sugar-free options but don’t know when those will debut.
Brookies are baked to order in mouth-watering flavors: red velvet, peanut butter, snickerdoodle and a handful of others. They cost $24 for four, $36 for six or $48 for 12. Brookies used to sell in a trendy Culver City, Calif. wine bar named BottleRock, until it closed down, and an online grocer, OpenTaste, which has also shuttered.
English spent $15,000 of his savings to start the business. It started as a hobby in October 2012 and officially launched in February 2015. She spent every waking moment working on the business in some way: baking, masterminding new recipes, creating marketing campaigns and attending events to get exposure.
English shares her recipe for a successful Shark Tank audition, strategy to become an upscale household brand and much more.
Ky Trang Ho: Tell us about your background. What were you doing before you started your business?
Jovon English: I am the senior manager for division operations for the Homeless Outreach Program Integrated Care System (HOPICS). My role here is to ensure that the day-to-day operations run smoothly. Also, I assist with fiscal planning and budgeting and look for ways to secure monetary and non-monetary donations.
Before my employment at HOPICS, I worked in the financial sector as a relationship manager for 10+ years. I managed relationships with individuals that had $2.5 million to $3 million in investable assets. I also held financial education seminars for large companies on topics including but not limited to investing, home buying, retirement and paying for higher education, etc.
Hunger to Create an Alternative
Ho: How did you come up with the idea for your business?
English: I had an intense craving for brownies and cookies but knew that I did not need to eat both. When my cravings are strong, self-control does not exist. My solution was to bake the brownie and the cookie together as a cupcake. That way I could have both. This is my version of portion control.
Ho: What made you think it could be a successful product and service (especially when there are so many competing products)?
English: I felt that this product would be successful based on the reaction that I received from people that consumed brookies. Specifically the reaction from those people that are not closely connected to me, i.e., family and close friends.
Ho: What hardships did you encounter in developing and launching it?
English: When developing the greatest challenge was determining flavor combinations and how we could get brookies to people that were beyond our circle. Once we launched making deliveries became was more challenging than we anticipated. We didn’t realize that short-term parking would be such an issue, needless to say, delivery zones became our best friends.
Savoring the Shark Tank Experience
Ho: What was that time in between the taping and show finally airing?
English: Hectic and Anxious. Once you film you are only notified if you are appearing on the show, they offer no guarantees that your episode will air. We were barred from discussing our experience with anyone, and continued to call the show GoldFish Bowl (something we began during the early stages of the casting process), making the “Sharks” less intimidating when we discussed it amongst ourselves.
We recognized that the turnaround time was typically two weeks and a day and when that time elapsed we all got nervous. Our day-to-day remained the same. We processed orders daily and even held our very first pop-up shop.
Ho: What did they like most about you, the company and product?
English: They loved us as individuals and enjoyed the product. Barbara even stated something like “Usually you get one great person and two duds, but you guys are all great.”
Ho: Why didn’t you get a deal?
English: They stated that we were too young of a company. Mr. Wonderful offered to give us whatever we wanted, but we would all have to quit our jobs. All of the sharks that were present invited us back after we grow as a company.
Ho: Should you have done anything differently?
English: Nothing, the experience was amazing. Literally from completing all of the paperwork to present day, we have learned so much. Having the opportunity to get advice from such successful entrepreneurs was more than we could have asked for. We have taken heed of the suggestions and have become a better company as a result. Thanks, sharks!
Ho: How did you prepare for your appearance?
English: Rehearsed the pitch, to make sure the timing was precise. Prayed. Reviewed our numbers to make sure we didn’t get eaten alive. Prayed. Called them goldfish and not sharks, making the experience much less intimidating. Prayed.
Reminded ourselves that whatever happens, this is an experience of a lifetime. Even if we didn’t walk away with a deal, we knew that we had an opportunity that most young companies will never see. Prayed
Ho: What made it a success?
English: We were truly ourselves. We smiled, laughed, sang Beyoncé and danced. We were relatable.
Ho: What about being in the Tank (or whatever happened before or after) surprised you the most?
English: The responses that we get from people that saw us on the show, often people want to hug us and take pictures
Ho: If you could do the show over, what would you do differently?
English: I would wait a little longer to go on the show. This would allow us to display that we have more knowledge of how to operate a business of this type. We would negate the notion of being “too young of a company” a possible get a deal.
Ho: What misconceptions do you think viewers have about the show?
English: People think that the Sharks are rude or mean but they are all very nice and extremely funny.
Ho: What can you teach others about your Shark Tank experience?
English: Take it for what it is. You are getting advice from entrepreneurs that have experienced the highlights and pitfalls of business ownership. Remember that they are sharing their opinion, occasionally it may be harsh, but it is just that, an opinion. People should not take offense to it.
One would be better served listening to what is said and asking themselves if making the suggested adjustment will benefit their company or hurt their pride. We loved the idea of a build-a-brookie, being able to customize your brookie flavor.
We wanted a website that allowed you to be interactive and visually build the brookie as you placed an order. The Sharks told us that wasn’t scalable. We had a brief discussion on our pitch, and that option was removed the following day. It was one of the best decisions we have made to date.
Ho: What are the secrets of a successful audition and appearance?
English: Be yourself, know your product, know your numbers and be open to the feedback that they are giving.
Cooking Up New Business
Ho: What are you doing now to move your business forward and expand?
English: Continue to market and advertise. Continuing to operate as a client-centric business. We would like to expand our reach and increase our relationships with corporations. We have begun co-branding when gifting. We are also preparing to launch a fundraising division and looking to have monthly ordering package options.
Ho: What are your goals for your business over the next year and five years?
English: To make milk+brookies a household name. We would like to solidify our brand by getting large distribution deals. In five years’ time, we would like to be in the position to have brick and mortar(s) in the major markets, positioning ourselves in ways that we don’t over saturate the market but remain an upscale experience.
Ho: What is your media and marketing strategy?
English: We continue to be active on social media and place advertisements in magazines. We plan on doing some radio advertisements and would like to make more television appearances. We also send direct mailers to existing clients, do interviews and occasionally have pop-ups.
Ho: How do you acquire new customers and what are your customer acquisition costs?
English: Most new clients are acquired through referrals and social media. The cost to acquire new clients in minimal. The bulk of our marketing and advertising budget is spent when we have pop-ups.
Ho: What was the most effective thing you did to get more exposure for your business before going on Shark Tank?
English: The two things that were most effective before Shark Tank was appearing on a local television news show during the Sunday morning broadcast and being featured on GILT.
Ho: How do you find business partners, instructors, salespeople, etc.?
English: We haven’t looked for business partners or instructors. But when looking for salespeople, we take the traditional approach and place ads. We also look at our social media to see who our most vocal Brookie Monsters are and see if they are interested.
Ho: What qualities do you look for?
English: When looking for business partners I look for people who understand the vision and direction of the company, people who are honest about what their contribution will be. When looking for salespeople, it is important that they are assertive, but not overly aggressive. The salesperson should be inviting. Brookies are relatively new, and the shape that we use is very familiar, an explanation is often needed.
Some Advice to Chew On
Ho: What business books do you recommend people read and why?
First Things First by Stephen Covey: This book demonstrates how one can live a bountiful and successful life by prioritizing what is truly important. Mastering this skill is extremely helpful in business because everyone will provide you with unsolicited opinions on what you should do to be successful. Knowing how to discern between what is useful and what is just fluff is the key to success.
Ho: What are your favorite business websites, tools or resources that you love and why?
English: I’m a huge fan of these websites:
I love the convenience of having access 100% of the time. And I like to feel like I am up to date with the current event and topics. These sites also give me ideas about how other entrepreneurs handle success and challenges.
Ho: What’s the worst mistake you’ve ever made in business and how can others learn from it?
English: Assuming I knew what my customers wanted, I learned to proactively ask questions and test the market. Being reactive often leads to missed opportunities.
Ho: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
English: Plans fail at the beginning, not the end.
This story was originally published in Forbes.com in April 2016.