How John Frankel Fished a Deal from Reality Show “Shark Tank”

5/14/13Follow @jpruth

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“Shark Tank” on a casual basis, and certainly not with the goal of finding potential deals. But after catching the episode with UniKey, he was pleasantly surprised. “Of all the companies I saw on the show, I believed this one might be investible,” he says.

Away from the glitz of television, there were real questions about how much money UniKey needed to raise and if it already had enough backers committed. “All the ‘sharks’ wanted to invest,” Frankel says. “Kevin O’Leary and Mark Cuban said they were going to invest.”

After contacting the company, it turned out that UniKey could not reach terms with Cuban and O’Leary. That gave Frankel some leeway to consider a deal alongside other investors. “The more I talked to Phil Dumas, the more I got a sense that this really was the sort of company that we could invest in,” he says. TV buzz aside, ff Venture vetted the company to get to know the team behind the idea. “Once we invest, we’ll be tied at the hip for the next decade,” Frankel says. Thus far UniKey has raised more than $2.4 million with an option for another $1 million.

The VC firm worked with UniKey on developing its strategy for the next three to five years. Dumas previously worked in biometrics, and Frankel saw that as asset to help the company open doors with distributors such as Kwikset. “His expertise and passion was different than a few hackers saying, ‘This is a good idea, let’s do an aftermarket product and then work out distribution,’” Frankel says.

As interesting as the Kevo lock sounds, he says, it was also important to make it “so simple that it doesn’t need an operating manual.” Connecting UniKey with lock distributor Kwikset, Frankel says, offered a fast way to get the product in front of mainstream consumers. Ideally they want Kevo on shelves at stores like Best Buy, Home Depot, Lowe’s, and the Apple Store, he says.

This all fits with a broader mission at ff Venture Capital, Frankel says, to back ideas that can change the behavior of large segments of the population. “The art to changing behavior is to make small changes,” he says. “Maybe in some future generations when people get comfortable with this, there will be no analog keys.”

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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