PHS alum finds success with novelty invention

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Matt Alexander’s determination to make late-night trips to the bathroom a little less frustrating led to the creation of a multi-million dollar toilet nightlight business and a March appearance on ABC’s “Shark Tank.”

“I think if anybody has an idea for a business they should go for it,” the 2009 Powell High School graduate said in an interview earlier this year. “Because it’s honestly never been easier. If you’re willing just to put in the time and the work it takes, it’s easier than it’s ever been.”

Alexander, who now lives in Utah, will make a public presentation from 6-7 p.m. on Wednesday at Powell Middle School to kick off a new course aimed at showing locals how to start or grow a business.

Things started for Alexander with a complaint to his brother-in-law, Michael Kannely, at a September 2014 family reunion.

“I hate turning on the stinking light in the middle of the night and waking myself up — or peeing in the dark, just dealing with that,” Alexander recalls grousing.

He had thought a light-up bathroom mat might solve the problem, but Kannely suggested sticking it on the toilet.

Within months, the two brothers-in-law had launched a Kickstarter campaign and raised $100,000 in funding for the suction-cup mounted light.

In January 2015, Alexander applied to have the IllumiBowl featured on “Shark Tank,” where start-up businesses try to convince famed entrepreneurs like billionaire Mark Cuban to invest in their business.

“There were like 60,000 companies that applied, and they pick 200 that go every season,” Alexander explained.

IllumiBowl made the cut.

In the roughly six months between the initial application and June 2015 filming, “I watched literally every episode of ‘Shark Tank’ to prepare,” Alexander said. (That was roughly 122 hour-long episodes.)

He and Kannely got around 45 minutes to try persuading the sharks to invest in their nightlight, offering a 15 percent stake in their company for $100,000. Their “Shark Tank” presentation was later edited down to about eight minutes, and it aired in March on ABC.

“At IllumiBowl, our main priorities are No. 1 ... and No. 2,” Kannely quipped toward the start of the pitch, drawing some laughs — and a grimace from Cuban.

Alexander explained the “terrible choice” of late night trips to the bathroom: having to blind/wake yourself by turning on the lights or trying to relieve yourself in darkness. The IllumiBowl, he explained, solved that problem by softly lighting up your target. Plus, he said, “it’s also very fun.”

He told the sharks many early buyers were women.

“They want to use it for potty training their kids — and husbands,” Alexander said on “Shark Tank.”

Cuban saw it as more of a novelty item and wasn’t interested, but complimented Kannely and Alexander.

“Congratulations. You thought it through and your sweat equity is turning into a real business for you,” Cuban told the innovators on “Shark Tank.”

The duo ultimately won over Canadian businessman Kevin O’Leary.

“I like it. It’s kind of nuts,” said O’Leary, whose past successes include co-founding a software company.

He offered to buy 25 percent of the company for the $100,000 and they accepted.

On “Shark Tank,” Alexander described the deal as “making my own American dream come true.”

IllumiBowl sales shot up to $100,000 in the 24 hours after the show’s airing and, Forbes.com reported, the company sold more than $1 million worth of units within the first month.

The nightlights are now in several national chains, including Bed, Bath and Beyond and Walmart.

“We’re trying to get it to every retail store we can,” Alexander explained to the Tribune this summer, saying, “We’re barely at the tip of the iceberg” with the item’s potential.

He said they’re working on some new and improved versions of the light — including one that kills germs — and completely different products within the bathroom category.

IllumiBowl has seen some flagrant knock-offs of their device from would-be competitors, but Alexander said they’ve stayed a step ahead by being the first to get into retail stores.

He said there’s often a misconception that appearing on “Shark Tank” is all it takes for success.

In reality, start-up funding can be found more easily and cheaply in other places. The appeal of “Shark Tank,” he said, is the opportunity it provides for exponential growth of early-stage businesses.

“Honestly, ‘Shark Tank’ won’t do anything for your business if you’re not willing to leverage it and put in the work it takes to take advantage of it anyway,” he said. “It doesn’t actually open any doors if you don’t go out and hustle to leverage it, to open doors.”

It also takes a made-for-TV story or product to make “Shark Tank.”

There’s little doubt that toilet-related products hold a certain zany appeal, which boosted the buzz surrounding IllumiBowl. (One Forbes.com story about the product referred to Alexander as a “whiz” solving a “wee problem” and getting “a crap load of sales” after he “plunged” into the Shark Tank.)

Alexander has told plenty of toilet-related jokes over the years and has yet to tire of them.

“I don’t know if it’s good or bad,” he laughed, adding, “I don’t know if I like them because of IllumiBowl, or if I came up with the IllumiBowl because I like them.”

Alexander’s dad, stepmom and sister live in Powell and he visits from time-to-time. Kannely’s wife, Blair (Speiser), is also from Powell.

“We were all Powell kids,” Alexander said.

Courtesy photo

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