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BOBBIE RHOADS, MSIA ’93
CEO, FUNBITES LLC | WESTPORT, CONNECTICUT

It was while working at Revlon that Bobbie Rhoads had the idea that would morph into her rapidly growing startup, FunBites. The easy-to-use device, which has won over 30 awards for design and innovation, cuts food into shapes like squares and triangles, as well as licensed characters from Universal and Nickelodeon. Each cutter is named for a member of Rhoads’ family, beginning with her daughters — Jackie the Dreamer and Dylan the Chef — who inspired Rhoads to create the product.

Rhoads grew up in the Shadyside neighborhood of Pittsburgh, but moved to Washington, D.C., to attend American University for marketing and psychology. After working for a few years in public relations and advertising, she returned to Pittsburgh for her MBA, because of the business school’s strong reputation for quantitative training and entrepreneurial support.

In February 2015, Rhoads brought FunBites to “Shark Tank,” a reality TV show where entrepreneurs pitch their companies to would-be investors. Rhoads accepted an offer from Lori Greiner, who has a collection at Bed Bath & Beyond. Already in hundreds of stores around the world, FunBites showed up in Walmart stores this summer and continues to grow

 

What is your elevator pitch?

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As seen on “Shark Tank,” FunBites is a unique patented kitchen tool that encourages kids to try new foods and eat healthier. Even the pickiest eaters can’t resist FunBites.

It’s a great tool for a few things: One, it brings family fun back into the kitchen. Moms, dads, caregivers and grandparents can sit with their kids and make fun creations at mealtime. Two, it’s great for picky eaters. Picky eaters will try new things and eat healthier when food is in different shapes — even the simple squares. The food cutter actually pinches down the food so it’s almost like a pillow; when you put it in your mouth, it transforms into something extra delicious. When I was first trying it out, I cut up fruit and veggies into bite-sized fun shapes for my kids. They would eat healthy food as though it was candy, just because it was so much more fun to eat. I knew this was something I wanted to share with other kids.

 

What was the “aha” moment?

When my kids were little, I was working at Revlon. I would come home from work and make dinner, or lunch on the weekends. Jackie, my older daughter, was a super picky eater. She liked everything neat and organized, not even touching each other on the plate. And my other daughter, Dylan, didn’t like to try new things, especially if it was something good and healthy for you. What I noticed was that all the junk food was in fun shapes — chicken nuggets, Goldfish® [crackers], cereal and all those things. And these are what the kids would like, because they were cute and fun to eat. So I decided to make healthy food more fun and transform it into fun shapes like the junk food.  Maybe they wouldn’t even notice that these fun-shaped foods were actually good for them.

I started using tiny little cookie cutters or even just a knife to create different shapes. I made tangram puzzles, so they would play with their food and create things. I noticed if I allowed them to play with their food, they would actually eat better. I came across a study from Cornell University on kids’ eating habits. Cornell found that if you allow kids to play with their food they will eat better. I remember when I was growing up, you didn’t play with your food. You would just sit down and eat. Well, Cornell says, “Let kids have fun and explore when eating.” And, that’s what FunBites is all about. Move over junk food; at FunBites we make healthy food more fun!

I decided there must be an easier way than using tiny, little, cheap plastic cookie cutters that hardly even sliced through bread. Over the following years, I started working with a student at NYU in its design program, creating cardboard designs of what I imagined FunBites to be, and eventually got it into prototype form. We tried to figure out the right mechanisms. We made the tool so you rock it back and forth to cut easily and quickly through most any kid-friendly food.  Then we added a popper top you insert and then pop out the bite-sized pieces. Moms have told me that their kids especially like the pop out part. It creates the magic in FunBites.

 

What was it like to be on “Shark Tank”?

It was unbelievable. Exciting, nerve-wracking, but fun. Totally fun. Actually, I didn’t even know about “Shark Tank” until right after I launched FunBites. It was one of my father’s favorite shows. And, it was he who encouraged me to try out again and again. He’s an entrepreneur, too, and thought this would be a great opportunity. Plus he (as well as everyone in Pittsburgh) wanted me to work with Mark Cuban, who is also from Pittsburgh.

For the next 18 months, I tried out — not once, but three times – for “Shark Tank.” What happens with “Shark Tank” is that you go through stages. You submit a ton of information about your product. Then they have you submit a video. If they like your video, then they interview you in depth on the phone and ask for detailed financials. And if you pass all of that, then you’re in consideration again.

Each time I would make it to the video stage, and that’s as far as it would go. The third time, I almost was going to give up, but my dad and girls said to try one more time. And was the time that made the difference: I won a spot.

But it doesn’t end there. Each week until I filmed, I would submit a video of my pitch. The producers would provide feedback on what they liked and what they thought I should change, commenting on everything: “Wear your hair down. Wear a different shirt. Talk more about the product. Use this type of food. Smile more. Smile less.” This went on for 10 weeks.

Finally I got the call. I would be filming in September. Although it seemed like I had been preparing forever, suddenly it was only two weeks away. Prior to that I had a trade show in Vegas, so I decided to go directly from there to Los Angeles. The two weeks flew by as the anticipation heightened about “Shark Tank.”

 

How about growth?

“Shark Tank” brought an amazing blast of energy and awareness to FunBites. In the first four days after airing, my number one SKU had sold 100,000 units on Amazon alone. I had people in the neighborhood — kids and moms — packing up FunBites in my house for months to catch up to myself.

The other thing that happened was that doors opened up. Retail chains were reaching out to me, internationally and domestically. I started with just the squares, and now we have all different colors of squares, hearts and triangles. I have had the opportunity to sign on with huge companies like Universal with the Minions and now Nickelodeon with “Paw Patrol.” So it has been quite an amazing experience.

 

How did your MBA experience shape your company?

[Management] Game was great for learning about all the different aspects of working with a team and presenting to a board of directors. That really was important; it helped me a lot, even with “Shark Tank” — just getting prepared and understanding that process. It brought me into a real-life environment. Even just the classes were important for learning all the different aspects, from business law to marketing to accounting (accounting — not my favorite!).

 

Pivotal players who get included in your thank-you speech?

I think #1 would be my dad. If it wasn’t for my dad, I wouldn’t have known about the show. My parents taught me to never give up no matter how impossible things may seem.  That is how it went with “Shark Tank.” The harder it became to get on, the more I wanted it.   And then of course, I wouldn’t have had the inspiration without my girls, Jackie and Dylan.

FunBites is a very tightly run business. Sometimes bigger companies like Walmart can’t believe how tiny FunBites is. Jackie, my daughter, is probably one of my top employees. She does a lot of the social media. (We have almost 100,000 fans across our Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram.) Most of the work is grassroots. I have my kids, friends in the business that help, and a few people I contract out for or hire as reps. Now with Walmart, things will change a bit. Well, I guess more than a bit!

 

What “big ideas” would you like to pursue next?

FunBites is a helpful tool for kids with special needs. The squares in particular have a big draw for kids with autism, because they like very uniform, clean shapes. It wasn’t a market I initially even thought about, but it probably is the market that I’m the most grateful for. Of all the emails I get, the ones that affect me most are from the parents who say, “Mealtime has always been a struggle. We’ve been seeing so many doctors or feeding specialists. But now my kid’s finally eating, and it’s because of this little tool. I can’t believe it.” So special needs — in particular autism — is a market I will focus on in 2018.

I am in test with Walmart this summer. Everything seems to be on track, and I hope to get national distribution this winter. Walmart can help FunBites catapult quickly into a multimillion-dollar business. That would be a dream come true, right?

 

Does anything keep you up at night?

Truthfully, I don’t sleep much. I don’t seem to need a lot of sleep.  When I was on “Shark Tank,” they gave me the hashtag #EnergizerBunny. My mind is always moving. Maybe too quickly sometimes. I exhaust myself.

 

What key piece of information gets overlooked when getting started?

The biggest challenge for entrepreneurs is giving up. You just cannot give up. Sometimes with a startup, as well as in life, you take one step forward, and then end up getting pushed three steps back. You have to remember you will fall. Just try to fall forward. This Walmart opportunity for example has taken years — but a full-court press in the last 12 months. Sometimes it’s so exhausting that you think you can’t climb up the ladder again and you just want to give up, but you have to focus on the end goal and just believe it will happen.

I learned in the face of challenges to just keep moving forward. It has been extremely important to me to teach that to my girls. There have been times when they want to give up on something, whether it’s a math test or something with friends. You can’t look back. You learn life can be quite challenging. But those challenges teach us the most — more than the opportunities. Life is a gift, so make the most of it.

 

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

Take one step at a time. Never give up. Think about your business not as what it can give to you, like money, but instead what it can give to others. For FunBites it’s about making food fun and mealtime an experience kids look forward to. FunBites isn’t just a cookie cutter; it is a magical experience that brings laughter, smiles and fun.