A year ago at this time, Erica Cole was getting ready to launch the Kickstarter campaign for No Limbits, her fledgling line of amputee-friendly jeans. Her fundraising goal back then was $12,000.
Next week, she’ll be angling for bigger fish in much deeper waters on ABC’s Shark Tank. Now in its 13th season, the reality series has helped dozens of companies achieve breakthrough success, including many that have topped $100 million in sales.
Will No Limbits join the list? Tune in next Friday, April 1, to find out. Cole’s episode was taped a while ago, but we have no idea what to expect—and Cole’s not in a position to drop any hints. She is, however, full of good news about No Limbits, including new product offerings, new hires, and a new location, all of which you can read about below. The company is fresh off a triumphant appearance at Runway of Dreams’ Fashion Revolution show in Los Angeles, and it’s a finalist to participate in the Moosejaw Outdoor Accelerator program.
I read that you’re moving No Limbits to Richmond, Virginia. What’s the motivation behind the move?
I started the company in Iowa, and there’s really no startup community there. I needed to move the business to someplace where there’s a little bit more going on. We moved to St. Louis because we got an Arch Grant this year, and I like the area, but the startup community still isn’t super active. There’s not a lot of engagement here. And I really need to be around people who know what it’s like to have a startup. I was on a small accelerator program in Richmond [known as Lighthouse Labs] and ended up falling in love with the area. They have a really robust ecosystem out there. So that’s what’s prompting the move.
Is there a specific program you’ll be tapping into in Richmond?
I’ll be in the 1717 Innovation Center, pretty close to the downtown. Startup Virginia is also out of that space, so we’ll be part of that network also. The thing about having a startup right now is that the environment is changing so rapidly, you have to learn from the people who are just one or two steps ahead of you. Because if they’re five steps ahead of you, they went through the startup phase so long ago that their experience isn’t necessarily valid anymore. It’s just such a rapidly changing environment.
Richmond has a large network of startups that are at around the stage I’m at. But I’ll also be working with the former chief marketing officer of CarMax on a regular basis, [and other] people who have been really high up in corporate settings, which is also a valuable kind of insight. So it’s both the peer-to-peer relationships, but also mentorship from people who have been in larger roles so you’re getting the perspective of what the company looks like if it gets to be big one day.
You’ve gotten a lot of really great opportunities in a short span of time. There including the Target incubator program, the Arch Grant, the Richmond startup community, and the invitation to Shark Tank. Why do you think your business idea is drawing such a favorable response?
It’s a couple of things. First of all, there are a lot of people in [the adaptive clothing] space, but they’re almost all huge brands. There are not that many startups in this space. So it’s a huge, new, unique space to be in. That’s one thing.
The other thing is that the timing is right. In the same way that there was this push for body inclusivity in the plus-size category, now we’re seeing that in the adaptive space also. The timing is just so perfect. And we have, frankly, a unique story and perspective on it because we’re coming at it from the angle of experiencing the problem. There are a lot of non-disabled people in this space, but our team is built from people who experience disability. So it comes from a more genuine place. We’re not just checking a box. That’s something I’m really proud of. We’re attracting talented people who experience these problems, and that’s a signal that we’doing something that’s meaningful to people.
I also have read that you have a couple of new products in the pipeline. What can you tell me about those?
Yes, we’re super excited about them. We have some wheelchair products launching this year, some sensory-friendly products we’re developing, and then we have a limited-dexterity collection that would be really useful for arm and hand amputees, as well as anybody who doesn’t have fine motor control in their hands.
Thanks for those updates, I appreciate all of that. So let’s get to the Shark Tank episode. Without giving away any spoilers, tell me as much as you can about that experience.
I have to be careful, because it was pre-taped. It stands as the singular most incredible experience of my professional career, if not my life thus far. It was just such an intense experience, including the lead-up to it. Maybe even more the lead-up. You’re preparing for two audiences: You’re preparing for the sharks in this super-intense investor meeting, but you’re also preparing for what people are going to see who are watching at home. It’s not like any other investor meeting that I’ve ever had. But people think that it’s highly produced, that it’s fake, that there are multiple takes, and that was not the experience at all. You have the meeting, and they just have cameras running the whole time. Just being selected to go on the show at all speaks to, again, what I was talking about before—like, how ready this space is for innovation.
How did you get chosen to appear?
I had a different experience from most contestants. A producer from Shark Tank saw my Kickstarter video and just reached out to me cold. And she was like, “Have you ever considered going on Shark Tank?” I just kind of laughed, and I literally thought it was a joke. But we set up a call, and she said, “I’ve already shown your Kickstarter video to some other people in the group, and we think you would be a great fit just based on that. So you can just use this video with your application.” So we kind of skipped the first round of screening, which I don’t think I would have gone through otherwise because I didn’t think we were ready at the time. I even told the producer I’d rather wait until we’re a bit more established, and she made this argument: “We’ve been running for 13 seasons. You never know how many more seasons we’re going to have.” At the end of the day, no matter what happens with this company, I didn’t want to have any regrets. And I knew I’d have regrets if I didn’t pursue this opportunity.
I ended up spending two entire months working on a 90-second pitch. I’ve never spent so much time preparing for so little.
Sounds like 900 hours of prep for a 90-second pitch.
Exactly. It was a very intense couple of months leading up to the filming, and then all of a sudden they send you a plane ticket. I was gonna take my mom out there with me, and I was gonna take a teammate out, but because of COVID I had to go by myself, which was scary. It’s like the American Idol opening when they show like the small-town girl with her guitar going out to LA to make her dreams come true. I was that girl. But it was Shark Tank instead of American Idol.
So you get there, and you have your own trailer. It felt very movie star-ish. And then I was just waiting for a really long time. it was like eight hours that I was just sitting there, waiting to film, knowing that at any second they could knock and be like, “Go! Go! Go!” I was starting to get nervous that we weren’t even going to be able to film at all. They don’t guarantee that they’re going to film, so that was going through my head for hours.
And then finally, I did get that knock. I literally had someone lint-rolling me, two people doing my hair, and someone doing my makeup backstage. And then you’re just standing in front of the doors and they say, “Okay, you’re gonna walk down this hallway and stand on the X.” And then there are the Sharks. That’s the first time you see them, and that’s the first time they see you. A lot of people think they have an information packet on you beforehand, but they do not. That is genuinely the first time they’re seeing you and the first time they’re seeing your pitch. They can ask as many questions as they want, and obviously they edit it down to fit in the episode. But they don’t have any other information on you.
I realize there’s only so much you can say before the episode airs. But can you at least reveal if you felt like you really connected with at least one of the Sharks?
I did. I felt there was some excitement, like we were kind of building a relationship during the course of the filming. But that wasn’t the person who. . . . Well, I’d better just say this. I thought I had prepared for every possible scenario, as far as how much we would be willing to take, how much we’d be willing to give, the valuation of the company, and what people were gonna ask for. And in all of that preparation, I did not prepare for what actually happened. It was much more interesting than I thought it was gonna be.