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BYU grads, PhoneSoap creators who appeared on 'Shark Tank' offer 4 tips for aspiring entrepreneurs

Two BYU graduates, Dan Barnes and Wesley LaPorte, appeared on a Jan. 30 episode of ABC’s “Shark Tank” and closed a $300,000 deal with Lori Greiner, the “Queen of QVC," in exchange for a 10 percent equity stake in their company. Their product, PhoneSoap, sanitizes cell phones using ultraviolet light while also charging them.

Barnes and LaPorte, who are cousins, were students and roommates at Brigham Young University when they read a news report about cell phones having more germs than a public restroom. Through testing, they found the claim to be true. In fact, according to Fox News, “a cell phone has 18 times more bacteria than a public restroom.”

“We talk about your phone being dirty, but why?” Barnes said. “We shake hands, we open doors and then we touch our phone. Or we put it down in public places or on your kitchen countertop while you’re cooking, and then the rest of the story is you wash your hands, but when you touch your phone, it undoes your whole cleaning process, and your hands are filthy again.”

The two grew up in different parts of California, Barnes in Orange County and LaPorte near San Jose. Despite the distance, they have always been close and have always wanted to create a business that solves a problem. The filth on smartphones was the problem they had been looking for.

They began by researching existing solutions but found them to be insufficient and potentially damaging to phones. It was while working with medical research that LaPorte learned that UV lights are used in the medical field to sanitize technology. He wondered if this light could be used to sanitize smartphones. He discovered it could, and the cousins developed PhoneSoap.

Their product has been proven effective. It even appeared on the Discovery Channel, where a scientist tested it, and the phone came out of the PhoneSoap Charger completely free of bacteria.

PhoneSoap was not born overnight, though. It is the result of hard work and encouragement. Barnes and LaPorte took advantage of the opportunities that were offered to them as students at BYU and reaped the benefits as they built their business.

“BYU was a great help to us," LaPorte said. "Provo, in general, helped us foster the entrepreneur spirit with a tight-knit community of entrepreneurs in this end of the valley. BYU has competitions that really help you move along the process from idea creation to application to market research all the way to execution.”

After graduating from BYU, they were ready test the market. According to the "Shark Tank" Success blog, Barnes and LaPorte created a Kickstarter page and raised $45,000 more than their $18,000 goal. With $63,000 from 1,200 financial backers, the two were able to refine their product. In addition to the Discovery Channel, their product was featured on the Huffington Post, NPR, and The Today Show before it ever appeared on "Shark Tank."

While these reviews were overwhelmingly positive, and the success was sweet, Barnes and LaPorte have also faced opposition along the way. However, the two say that their experiences as missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Barnes serving in the Montana Billings Mission and LaPorte in the Brazil Brasilia Mission, helped them learn perseverance.

“The mission gives you confidence to talk to people about pretty much anything,” LaPorte said. “Not everybody wants to talk about religion, but that’s what you do as a missionary. Pitching PhoneSoap to not just 'Shark Tank' but other business-type competitions is the same kind of thing. It makes it less nerve-wracking.”

Barnes said their experience as missionaries has also helped them as they have worked with a variety of people.

“When I was in corporate, I worked with a variety of people from different countries or just completely different walks of life that you have to learn to communicate and work well with, no matter if your views are different," said Barnes, who worked for Zappos and American Eagle Outfitters before transitioning full-time to PhoneSoap in January 2014. "I think just from an overall perspective, the mission definitely helped us practice those traits at a young age.”

These skills and others led them to the pitch of their lives when they appeared on "Shark Tank." The two remember being nervous as the double doors opened and they walked down the hallway toward the panel of potential investors, known as “sharks.”

“It’s kind of a one-hit wonder,” Barnes explained. “You go out there, and make your pitch in front of the sharks, and if you mess up, you mess up. … There is an aspect of unknown, especially with these sharks that you’ve watched for years. I’ve watched them for years, and then all of the sudden you’re standing in front of them making your pitch.”

There was a moment in the middle of the pitch when the two thought they might not be offered a deal, but they walked away with almost exactly what they asked for. The episode aired in late January, and they have already begun working with QVC to promote their product. The two plan to release more products, keep customers interested and maximize what they were able to accomplish on "Shark Tank."

They say their membership in the LDS Church has given them a unique and valuable perspective as they face the challenges and excitement of running a business.

“Being a member of the church gives you a long view to what’s important,” LaPorte said. “You know that money’s not important or social status, so as you try to accomplish things secularly, it makes it easier to know that it’s important to work hard and try hard, but at the end, of all things, what really matters is just that you’re a good person and you keep the commandments. That’s what’s important, and it kind of makes the stresses of business easier because your perspective is a little bit bigger than what’s happening in front of you right now.”

Barnes and LaPorte offered four tips for others who have big ideas and dream of starting their own businesses or developing their own products.

1. Find a mentor

“Find someone who’s been there and done that,” Barnes said. “We try and do that with other companies now. We’ve helped other companies launch. If we had found someone who was willing to help us who had done manufacturing in China, our product would’ve been out much sooner. Now again, the struggles we went through were incredible to learn from, but I think No. 1 for me is to find a mentor."

2. Work hard in the day, work hard at night

“No. 2 is to realize that it is a lot of work,” Barnes said. “This is only my opinion, but I enjoyed the process of having a real job while launching this business in the background. I learned invaluable things and have an incredible network from that. That network has helped me launch my business.”

3. If you are religious, don’t lose that

“You get so busy," Barnes explained. "You go to church every Sunday, and you talk about what’s important. You talk about spiritual things, but, ironically, when you go to work all week, you’re very invested in temporal things because owning a business correlates very closely to your income, so you’re thinking all the time about, ‘How do I grow my business?’ and you’re always thinking about numbers. You’re always thinking about the bank account. There are so many temporal things on your mind because you have to think about those things to be successful, so having that (religious) perspective really does help.”

4. Go after opportunities

“I would say that if you have something that you love and you’re passionate about, you should definitely do it,” LaPorte said. “Life is short, and you have to just kind of go after opportunities that are right in front of you right now because if you pass them by, they’re just gone. Each step in the evolution of PhoneSoap has been one opportunity after the other. It’s just a matter of taking advantage of those opportunities and blessings.”

Email: mjones@deseretdigital.com