Sonnet James was born out of one single mama’s desire to be a better playmate for her kids. Whitney Lundeen has taken that goal and grown it into a brand that was recently featured—and invested in!—on Shark Tank. Whitney takes us through the whole experience, from applying to preparing her pitch and finally facing the judges on stage!
First, tell us the Sonnet James story. We know it brought so many Shark Tank viewers and “Mr.Wonderful” to tears…
When I became a single mother at 25, I felt emotionally distant from my young children. My emotional piggy bank was at a zero. After a difficult childhood with addiction and abuse in my home, I found myself wanting more for my children than I had. I wanted the connection, playfulness, and joy that was absent in my home. I came up with the idea of a play dress as something my mom could have worn to remind her to play with me as a little girl, as well as to remind myself to be present and help change my family patterns.
After both of my pregnancies, I found myself throwing on my old, soft maternity shirts and yoga pants because they were comfortable and easy to clean. I missed wearing fashionable clothing and things that made me feel good and comfortable in my body. The clothes I had in my wardrobe were made of fabrics that didn’t feel like they would move with me or clean easily when I was with my kids.
Playing with my kids isn’t something that came naturally to me, but over the years I have learned how important it is developmentally and emotionally. I wanted to be better at playing with my kids, so I made a play dress.
Now, I play with my two messy, beautiful boys. It’s amazing how good it makes me feel. It’s tough being a mother. It’s even tougher if you’ve had a big trauma in your life. I have had to learn to give myself a lot of grace and self-care so I can be present with my children. I’m lucky to have access to a great therapist, meditation and yoga. And now I know that sometimes I need to take the time to just play with my boys. I don’t have to change into something comfortable. I don’t have to worry about the way I look when I’m pushing my boys higher on a swing. I don’t have to worry about whether my clothes are getting ruined. We just play.
What is the biggest challenge you overcame as a business owner pre-Shark Tank?
Growing really fast and not having enough manpower behind the growth. I grew a ton from one year to the next and I wasn’t really prepared for it. There would be a big surge and I wouldn’t have the inventory to keep up, so I’d have to work quickly and hire people really fast. I think it’s a growing pain for young businesses. There was no way I could have known how much interest there would be.
How did you decide you wanted to go into the tank? What was the application process like?
There are a lot of things I can’t say about the process, but here’s the part of my story I can tell. About a year or so before I did Shark Tank, I sent an email and didn’t hear anything. I felt like it wasn’t for me and let go of the idea. Then I got an email from them about sending a video application—I recorded a quick video and as I received requests for the next application steps, I sent things without putting too many of my resources into it. I wanted to see the process through, but I was busy and doing things so quickly. Then somehow I was in LA. It just happened.
What was your reaction like when you found out you’d be on the show?
I was exhausted when I found out. It had been a really long roller coaster ride. It took me a week or so to let go of the exhaustion and feel the excitement (and fear—how would they edit me? How would they portray me?). I did this thing that terrified me and I worked really hard for it, and once I felt the weight of that, I was proud. Sometimes it’s too easy to downplay our accomplishments and I didn’t want to regret anything, so I started telling everyone I was going to be on television. You hear your mom, or whoever, say, I should have been more adventurous. I didn’t want to feel like that. So I was telling everyone about it, including the checker at the grocery store.
How did you prepare for your time in front of the Shark Tank judges?
That is the million dollar question right there! I did so much prep I can’t even believe it. Often when there’s something that scares me, I feel paralyzed to the point that I can’t even think about it. This time, I printed out every question asked on Shark Tank. Then I narrowed it to the most common 200, and then 100, questions. I did such a deep dive into Sonnet James and then practiced those 100 answers over and over. My brother went through the questions with me so many times. I taped up pictures of the “Sharks” on my bathroom mirror, with their meanest, sternest faces, and I would pitch to them over and over. I feel like that was a brilliant move and it really calmed me down. I also practiced my pitch to anyone who would (kind of) listen to me. It was bad at first, and everyone—my friends, their husbands, my family, anyone who would FaceTime me and listen—would give me feedback. I got a lot of great feedback and criticism, which gave me the confidence to handle criticism and convinced me that I wanted to say almost exactly what I planned from the beginning. It was six solid weeks of practice and prep that gave me confidence. To be honest, my anxiety was still at 99, but my conviction about Sonnet James was at 100.
Did the questions the judges asked match up with your expectations? Did they surprise you?
Both! Most of my research said that the judges want to know what you’re going to use the money for and not what else you’re hoping to get out of it, like a mentor. I studied for that and Barbara asked me the opposite question: besides the money, what do you need help with? I knew my answer to that, but it wasn’t the question I had prepared for. I expected this fight and for them to sort of tear me apart but they were so nice. I know they were going to ask me about certain financials and numbers, so that was the part that didn’t surprise me.
How did it feel to make a business-changing decision in the span of just a few minutes in front of an audience?
It was totally fine. If someone like Sara Blakely is offering to be my mentor, it’s absolutely a yes. During the show, I waited a few seconds and Mark Cuban said something like, “you better jump on it!” but I was only hesitating because I wanted to let them finish talking. If we had been in an office, of course I would listen to what the other person is saying before responding. The quickness is part of the Shark Tank vibe, but it was definitely still a no-brainer for me.
Outside of the investment made (congratulations!), how did your appearance on Shark Tank impact your business?
One, lots of site traffic; two, increased sales; and three, lots of media coverage.
What’s one thing you’d tell future Shark Tank participants?
Just do it! Don’t spend too much money, but do it. It was a really good deep dive into my business and so educational.
How did your kids react to mama being on TV?
A week before my episode aired, I showed them what Shark Tank is. I hadn’t said anything to them about it until that point. I told them, “next week I’m going to be that person on the stage,” and they were sort of terrified for me. They were asking if the “Sharks” were going to talk to me that way. Satchel wanted me to tell everyone, like his friends and his teacher. I’m so glad we got to watch it together when it aired. Eero was playing with his friend and as soon as I walked on stage, he got up and walked over people across the room to give me a hug. They’ve been here from the beginning of Sonnet James, so it was hard to keep that secret from them for seven months.
Don’t panic! Someone gave this advice at a baby shower, but I didn’t really get it until I needed it. When something happens, just keep your cool and have open conversations. Don’t panic about what your kids think, or what their friends say, or what their friends’ parents think. Keep your cool so you don’t get that rush of adrenaline that comes with panic.
Light up when your child walks into the room. It is such an easy thing to do, and it’s how you really do feel about your children. Showing them that is so good for both moms and children.
Teach them to be curious. If you’re curious about the world, your kids will learn from that and also be curious about the world.