On her 15th birthday, Rachel Zietz took on five Sharks – and lived to tell about it.
Zietz, a sophomore lacrosse player at Pine Crest (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.), started every game as a defender and rarely came off the field this season.
There were tense moments, including a season-ending 10-9 overtime loss to American Heritage (Delray) in the regional semifinals.
But no game can compare to the adrenaline rush she felt when she traveled to Culver City, Calif., and walked onto the set of ABC’s Shark Tank to pitch her company, which manufactures what she believes is a sturdier version of backyard lacrosse goals and rebounders and has amassed $1.5 million in sales in two-plus years.
The episode, taped in June, aired Friday. She did not find out until March that the segment would be selected to air.
“I thought, ‘This will be the scariest thing I will ever do. No meeting or public speaking will ever be as scary as this,’” she said. “But I also felt prepared. I had watched a lot of prior episodes, and I knew the questions the Sharks typically asked. When I watched the show, I would pause the DVR and see if I could answer those questions about my own business.”
In addition to that bit of homework, friends of Zietz’s father acted as Sharks, asking her tough questions in a mock version of the show.
When it was time for the real Shark Tank to begin, Zietz walked through the set’s double doors wearing her green No. 8 Pine Crest jersey and holding her lacrosse stick.
“Hi Sharks,” she said confidently. “My name is Rachel Zietz, and my company is Gladiator Lacrosse.”
Zietz went on to explain that she was seeking a $100,000 investment in exchange for 15 percent equity in her company.
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Lacrosse is her passion, Zietz said on the show, but her parents “weren’t huge fans of me throwing my dirty lacrosse balls against the walls of our house, and they definitely didn’t want me breaking any windows.”
Zietz said she spent hundreds of dollars buying a lacrosse goal and rebounder, only to have them rust and fall apart “very quickly.”
Feeling there were scores of others like her who were let down by the available equipment and knowing that lacrosse is one of the fastest growing sports in the nation, she set out to design and manufacture her own equipment.
She found the “Gladiator Lacrosse” domain name for $10, and off she went on the heels of participating as a seventh grader in a program for young entrepreneurs offered through the Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce. Her company had $200,000 in sales in its first year.
On the show, Zietz delivered a flawless pitch. She provided a quick demonstration of the rebounder, which has a trampoline-like surface that allows players to practice their catching and throwing skills. She also ripped a shot into the goal.
Ultimately, Zietz did not get a deal, but the Sharks came away impressed.
“The fact that you are the brand – you play the game. It’s so credible,” venture capitalist Kevin O’Leary said. “When people look at which product to buy, they’re going to buy from a player.”
Added Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban: “You deserve a lot of credit. You found a niche. What you’re doing is phenomenal.”
Keeping the secret
Zietz, who flew out to California with her parents, Sam and Sheila — both also entrepreneurs — had to keep the details of what happened a secret from June 24, 2015, when the show was taped until it aired.
On Friday, about 40 people – including all her lacrosse teammates and coaches – gathered at her house to watch the show.
No one – not even her siblings or closest friends – knew if Zietz got a deal with the exception of her parents. As a minor, she had to tell them … but no one else.
“Everyone squealed when her face was TV,” Pine Crest coach Eileen Pliske said. “We were all on the edge of our seats because we didn’t know how it turned out.
“When she didn’t get a deal, everyone was shocked.”
Perhaps it was for the best.
After all, she got free publicity from being on Shark Tank, a show that last year had an overall viewership of more than 9 million people, making it the most watched show on Friday nights among the 18-to-49 age demographic. Her TV appearance also has led to other media opportunities.
Better yet, she didn’t have to give away a piece of her company, which she started at age 12, taking a $30,000 loan from her parents, which she has since paid back.
Since January 2014 – when she was in class and got a thrilling text notification that she had her first sale – Zietz’s business has taken off. In addition to her website, she sells on Amazon and eBay as well as at some specialty stores and at local tournaments.
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Zietz said the market for lacrosse equipment is $100 million. She hopes to “dominate” that market, and she’s now selling Gladiator apparel as well.
She employs a college student to fulfill orders, and she’s a captain on her lacrosse team while pulling down a 4.59 GPA at Pine Crest.
As for her smooth performance on Shark Tank, Pliske said it wasn’t a surprise to those who know Zietz.
“She is poised in every situation,” Pliske said. “She doesn’t get frazzled on the field, and that’s what you want from a defender.”
Zietz, who is 5-foot-8, plays midfield for her club teams. But Pliske needed her on defense, where she produced four goals and one assist last season on a 12-7 team.
She made first-team all-district and second-team all-region and was named an alternate for the Florida national team.
Zietz also had 25 groundballs and 25 draw controls, numbers that reflect her quickness and her determination to get the ball.
“Possession is often the biggest part of a game,” Pliske said, “and she’s a big part of that.
“There were times this past season where we were ahead and I took all the starters out and I would look up and notice that I forgot to take out Rachel. I just feel better when she’s in the game.”
Because of her excellent academic record, her lacrosse prowess and the status she is building in the business world, Zietz can “write her own ticket” to college, Pliske said.
Zietz has come a long way since she first started hanging around her father’s office at age 4. She would organize his files and listen in with great fascination as he made business deals.
Now she helps her parents – who met at law school – with marketing and social-media strategy for their financial technology business while accepting advice from them as well.
“My friends all say they want to come work for me,” Zietz said. “But I want to play lacrosse, too. I would love to play in college as long as it’s at a school with a great business program.”