The cat’s meow: Western Slope entrepreneur couple pitch feline products on ABC’s ‘Shark Tank’
For the second time in two months, entrepreneurs from the Roaring Fork Valley will peddle their products on ABC TV’s “Shark Tank” show.
Emma residents Nikki Linn and Rusty Niedwick were on the reality show Sunday night to pitch pet products they are already selling as Kitty Kasas.
“They’re sort of like Legos for cats,” said Linn. Except these Legos are designed for the cats to sleep and play in.
Three entrepreneurs with connections to the valley appeared on “Shark Tank” in December with a ski tote product.
Linn and Niedwick are big in rescuing cats from kill shelters and other predicaments. Until recently, they ran their ARMI Foundation in Florida for about 20 years. While running their shelter, they realized that carpet-covered scratch pads and cardboard boxes just didn’t cut it for their felines. They got destroyed or, even worse, got soiled and created the potential to spread disease. So Niedwick came up with the idea of using durable and cleanable plastic boxes about the size of milk crates in their shelter.
Some of the colorful crates are designed for cats to snooze in. Others are geared toward recreation.
“They’re fun for cats and easy to clean,” Niedwick said.
They fitted their shelter with the crates in fall 2013 and immediately had cat people asking how they could get some. That enticed them into the manufacturing and sales business, which has had its up and downs. Kitty Kasas is a big enough operation that it is difficult for them to oversee but it’s small enough that it has no leverage with big retailers. Their profit margin gets squeezed. They thought they struck a deal with a European manufacturer for distribution on a large scale about four years ago, but said the company ended up just stealing their idea and tweaking it enough to avoid copyright infringement.
While they didn’t intend to make Kitty Kasas into a company, it’s allowed them to maintain and expand their mission to rescue cats, Linn said. She jokes that Rusty makes the money selling Kasas and she spends it on the kitties.
In a perfect scenario, they would turn the venture over to a large company and use royalties to continue the cat-saving side, they said. That led them to an open audition for “Shark Tank” last spring.
They showed up bright and early at the location in the California desert thinking they would be among the first people there. They discovered the line stretched for blocks down the street. Linn, who is generous with her smile and easy to talk to, said they enjoyed meeting other hopefuls.
“It was fascinating,”she said, “a little slice of America.”
They had mixed emotions on how they would fare.
“We went into it thinking we don’t have a chance,” Niedwick said.
On the other hand, according to Linn, they felt, “We won’t be boring.”
They are ex-bikers who met in Sturgis, South Dakota, the biking capital of the U.S. They both have ample numbers of tattoos. They both exceed six feet in height. And while they are both very pleasant, there’s just a hint of badass in them.
With those qualities combined with their pitching of colorful kitty products, they were bound to draw attention.
“Tattoos and cats, you can’t go wrong,” Linn said with a laugh.
They had 90 seconds to make their mark on five “Shark Tank” producers. All the producers are looking for in that brief audition is, “will they do well on TV,” Niedwick said.
They passed with flying colors.
They were filmed in June in a segment that includes a motorcycle and demonstrates the durability of their products. Beyond that, they can’t let the cat out of the bag, so to speak.
Regardless of what the appearance means to the future sales of Kitty Kasas, they will continue saving cats. They are building a barn in Emma, just off Highway 82 and downvalley from the old Emma brick store. The red roof is visible over an earthen berm.
Linn has part of the barn designed to serve as a place where she will be boarding cats and getting them in shape for adoption through the existing shelters in the valley. The other half of the barn will be a workshop for Niedwick.
When asked what would be the best-case scenario from appearing on “Shark Tank,” Niedwick replied, “We get good exposure and blow through some inventory. We’re going to have 9 million people see it Sunday night.”
They’re hoping to be the cat’s meow.