Q&A with Shark Tank Vet & Entrepreneur, Lori Cheek
Lori Cheek is an architect-turned-entrepreneur, founder, and CEO of Cheekd— a mobile dating app that makes missed connections obsolete. She is also a Shark Tank Veteran, was recently listed as "The Digital Dating Disruptor", and "One of the Top 10 CEOs to Watch." A University of Kentucky Architectural Graduate, Lori is no longer building structures; she's now building relationships.
Can you tell our readers about your background?
I'm a small town Kentucky native and University of Kentucky Architecture graduate. I'm now a- NYC-based architect-turned-entrepreneur and CEO of Cheekd.com - it's like online dating but connecting people in the real world. After working in architecture, furniture, and design for 15 years for companies such as Christian Dior and Vitra & Karkula, I came up with an idea that led me into the NYC world of technology.
What inspired you to start your business?
In February of 2008, I was out to dinner with an architectural colleague. He’d spotted an attractive woman at a nearby table and scribbled, “Want to have dinner?” on the back of his business card and slipped it to her as we were leaving the restaurant. He left with a date. I left with an idea.
After over two years of brainstorming how to remove the “business” out of the business card, I launched Cheekd-- a deck of ice-breaking dating cards with a unique code that led the recipient to the privacy-protected online dating profile of the mysterious stranger who slipped them the card where the two could start communicating online. It was like online dating but backward. We’ve since pivoted Cheekd into a hyper-speed mobile dating app that gives users the ability to never miss a real-life potential “love connection” thanks to a cross-platform low energy Bluetooth technology, which sends users an immediate notification when someone (within their criteria) comes within a 30-foot radius of them. It’s real-time and works on a subway or a plane without any cellular connection.
Where is your business based?
On the Lower East Side of NYC
How did you start your business? What were the first steps you took?
The Saturday afternoon after coming up with the idea of Cheekd, I gathered a group of friends for brunch, added many bottles of wine and we spent the day brainstorming about the “pickup" lines, designs, and ideas for the (soon-to-be-named) “Cheekd” cards. I continued this concept and branding process for a few months while working my full-time job at Vitra, a Swiss/German furniture/design company. I’d never started my own business and struggled with the actual “business” side of creating the company. I found myself walking around in circles with this great idea for almost a year until I was introduced to a couple of gentlemen who loved the idea and suggested we sit down the following Monday morning and bring the idea to life. We met, as suggested, and by the end of the week had a business plan and started the process of incorporating, patenting, trademarking, sourcing vendors, building the site, etc. They became my official partners and nearly one year after our initial meeting, we launched Cheekd.com.
What has been the most effective way of raising awareness for your business?
A few months before our initial launch in 2010, I’d hired a PR firm that managed to get a couple of small articles written. After paying them nearly $10K, I realized I had more heart and passion for the subject, had tons of connections to start out and could do whatever they were doing (but better) and decided to go for it.
The growth of my startup has been solely dependent on PR and marketing alone. I’ve managed to land my business on TechCrunch, The Wall Street Journal, The NY Times, Forbes, Inc., Washington Post, HuffingtonPost.com, Fox Business, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine, Success Magazine, NY Observer, Wired Magazine, TimeOut Mag, ABC World News Tonight, Pix11, The NY Post, Elle Magazine and many international equivalents on a ZERO marketing budget. My advice? "Don't just think outside the box; Get rid of the box!" Be creative. Think Guerrilla. And if that doesn't work, sometimes it just doesn't hurt to "ask." I've ended up on the news many times by just calling up the news channels and asking them if they'd be interested in featuring my business. It's sometimes that simple.
What have been your biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?
The financial struggles have definitely been the most challenging aspect of my business. After four tumultuous years of building my startup with the wrong partners, lots of bad decisions and some major rookie mistakes, I was determined to find a way to take my business to the next level … and what better way than to apply to ABC’s Shark Tank.
In September of 2013, I found myself walking down that scary shark infested hallway into a stare off with 5 of the harshest millionaire investors in the world and after getting shot down by all five Sharks, I looked them in the eye and said, “Trust that you’ll all see me again.” Although those final bold words of mine ended up on the cutting room floor (adding insult to injury), in the 48 hours after the broadcast, Cheekd.com received a record breaking 100K unique visitors and our inbox filled up with thousands of emails insisting that the “Sharks” were “out of their minds” for not investing. Nearly fifty of those emails were from interested investors. Since the Shark Tank aired in February of 2014, I found the missing links from years before. We’ve raised 5 times the amount I’d sought on the show and I’ve gotten a CTO on board who’s helped facilitate and finance the new face and technology behind the new Cheekd.
How do you stay focused?
Over the past seven years, I’ve tried working from just about everywhere in NYC… a handful of co-working spaces, a members only club called The Soho House, coffee shops and even sometimes at a bar! The place I’ve found I have the most focus is at home at my kitchen table. I find a great Spotify channel, put on imaginary blinders and buckle down for hours on end. I save so much time in the day because I never have to a). get ready b). commute and c). leave for coffee or lunch because they’re always at arm’s reach. There’s always reliable wifi and no one is around to distract me.
One of my favorite focus hacks comes with the help of an appropriately named app called Stay Focusd. When working from home, Facebook and Twitter can be a major distraction. StayFocusd helps avoid these distractions by restricting the amount of time you can spend on them. The Google Chrome extension lets you set specific time restrictions on certain websites with a 10-minute default option. Once your time has been used up, the sites you have selected to block can’t be accessed for the remainder of the day.
How do you differentiate your business from the competition?
Our app sets itself apart from other apps because it gives the option to interact with a match before starting a virtual relationship with the compatible user. After setting up your page and what you’re looking for, Cheekd will then send you notifications when a potential match is nearby. Instead of encouraging users to continue to hide behind a screen, Cheekd pushes you to engage in social settings while paying attention to potential matches in the area. Our new dating app gives us the power to light the spark face-to-face first and leave the talking for later.
What has been your most effective marketing strategy to grow your business?
Definitely creative/ guerrilla marketing. One of my favorite stories to date was from Dublin’s Web Summit when over 800 startups were exhibiting (90% of them were men) and I decided to stand out by wearing Angel Wings throughout the conference. When I was checking out of my hotel to head back to New York, I looked down at Judy Dench on the cover of the Irish Times and there I was right next to her (me on my laptop with my Angel Wings— inside there was another 1/4 page picture mentioning my business) Ireland knew about Cheekd.com.
What's your best piece of advice for aspiring and new entrepreneurs?
My strongest advice for others considering taking the leap is if you truly believe in your idea, give up excuses and doubt, surround yourself with a trusted and talented team, bulldoze forward and DON’T. LOOK. BACK.
What's your favorite business tool or resource? Why?
After running a small business for over seven years, I've learned to never underestimate the power of networking. My advice is to take every advantage possible to meet new people; Efficiently communicating and never dismissing a single soul-- you never know who you're talking to, who they might know or how they'd be able to contribute.
Who is your business role model? Why?
I don’t get star struck by many entrepreneurs but Richard Branson is an absolute phenomenon to me. He did what he loved and money followed. Worth billions of dollars, he started his first magazine at the age of 16 and now his Virgin brand covers everything from telecommunications to space tourism.
As I’ve been building my dream for over six years, I feel like there’s so much to learn from other successful entrepreneurs. Richard Branson is one of the greatest tech and business minds of our time and I’d die to have him as a mentor. I believe that even at this stage of my business, he’d have some powerful guidance and advice to potentially push us to the next level. And now that our dating app works in-flight (via Bluetooth), I’ve got high hopes of partnering up with Virgin Airlines to help Cheekd users join each other’s Mile High Clubs. ; )
What do you have planned for the next six months?
As a spinoff to Cheekd, my partner and I have launched a new mobile Bluetooth app called Networkd, which makes IRL connections for people looking for networking opportunities. The way that people currently network at both small and large events is a disaster. We’ve both attended hundreds of events and no one knows who's who.
As a speaker, you have no idea who is in the audience. As an attendee, you have no idea who is sitting next to you and the networking opportunities are never that fruitful. Our new app will allow attendees to make real life connections at events when someone within their interest (whether it be an investor, a developer or simply just for a networking opportunity) is within Bluetooth radius (30 feet). It’s like LinkedIn but in the real world. Check it out at http://networkd.io! We’re currently launched on the Google Play store and iTunes is up next. And in other news, we just pitched the new business at the casting call for ABC Shark Tank’s upcoming season.
How can our readers connect with you?