Middlebury entrepreneur snags $500K from ‘sharks’

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College alum Cam MacKugler knew he had a winner in his Seedsheet invention, a product that allows anyone, virtually anywhere, to grow their own food.
And while his tiny, three-year-old company has been selling product at a nice clip from its headquarters in Middlebury, MacKugler knew Seedsheet could do a lot better if fertilized with major capital.
All he had to do was survive a little time in a “Shark Tank” — a reality TV show through which MacKugler made a convincing enough sales pitch to leverage a $500,000 infusion of capital from Lori Greiner, one of the celebrity investors on the popular show that airs Friday evenings on ABC. MacKugler showcased his product for seasoned investors — and to a TV audience of millions — during Shark Tank’s April 7 show.
MacKugler knew an appearance on Shark Tank would place more eyes on his product and provide a direct link to resources to grow his company. Seedsheets features a weed-blocking fabric sheet that is embedded with dissolvable pouches, similar to laundry detergent pods, that contain organic and non-GMO seeds with a buffer of soil. Seedsheets are planted by placing a Seedsheet directly on the surface of soil and watering until the pouches dissolve and the seeds sprout through the aligned openings in the weed-blocking fabric. Customers get a compact, well-designed and weedless garden, in which to grow herbs and other fresh ingredients for salads, tacos, hot sauce and other foods.
It was while test marketing the product last fall at a major expo in West Springfield, Mass., that MacKugler received encouragement to secure a spot on Shark Tank. The show features a panel of “sharks” — accomplished entrepreneurs looking to invest in promising new business ventures. The sharks include billionaire Mark Cuban; real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran; Greiner, referred to as “Queen of QVC”; technology innovator Robert Herjavec; fashion and branding expert Daymond John; and venture capitalist Kevin O’Leary.
“I applied through their very unassuming online process, which involved a paragraph email to [email protected] introducing myself and Seedsheet,” MacKugler said during an email exchange with the Independent. “I didn’t really expect an answer because I remembered reading that over 40,000 companies apply each year for about 150 spots, but just one month later I received an email back from producers and was off to the races. We were still very young in our business when I applied, and had just completed our very first gardening season actually in business. We had grown from a successful Kickstarter campaign to being carried in 46 Home Depot stores, and I figured that our rapid traction could possibly entice the show’s producers.”
Except for experiencing a few jitters upon walking onto the light- and camera-filled set of a major TV show, MacKugler was quite comfortable reciting his brief Seedsheet spiel.
“Relatively speaking, it was actually a fairly normal business pitch compared to the fun and quirky ones I’ve done here in Vermont,” MacKugler said. “I’ve participated in the Peak Pitch event at Sugarbush, where entrepreneurs ride the chairlift with investors and give their ‘elevator’ pitch, and I’ve participated in the Road Pitch, where investors travel around Vermont on motorcycles and stop off in select towns to hear presentations. So when compared to yelling my pitch over snow guns, or speaking to a room of leather-wearing Harley riders, presenting the Seedsheet story to the Sharks in a ‘business’ setting was ironically normal.”
He was introduced as “an architect and environmentalist who uses his skills to design a way to make anyone a gardening guru.”
After delivering his presentation and announcing his desire to get $500,000 in exchange for 10-percent equity in the company, MacKugler fielded questions and reactions from the “sharks.”
Daymond John was highly complimentary of Seedsheet, but said he felt it presented “too many challenges” and declined to invest, as did Robert Herjavec.
Greiner professed her love for the idea and offered a $500,000 stake for 22 percent equity in the company, with Cuban offering to join in that offer. O’Leary made a bid of $500,000 for 15 percent equity, which he eventually lowered to 12.5 percent.
Ultimately, MacKugler accepted Greiner’s final offer of $500,000 for a 20-percent stake in Seedsheet.
“Lori was the most emphatic about our product, and when she said, ‘I freaking love this!’ I knew that it was going to get very exciting,” MacKugler said.
After John and Herjavec bailed, Greiner and O’Leary made competing offers and a massive ‘shark fight’ ensued, according to MacKugler.
“While the TV show does have the dramatic music overlaid on top, I will honestly say that it was as tense and nerve-wracking during the pitch as it appears on air,” he said. “Kevin, who is notorious for proposing tough royalty agreements and loans went off-book and made an impressively competitive offer, which took me by surprise. In the end, it was Lori’s connection with the product, her passion for growing food, and her absolute mastery of retail sales that led me to enthusiastically do a deal with her.”
MacKugler is quickly working to capitalize on his Shark Tank appearance.
“It’s only been a week since the show has aired, and our time has been overwhelmingly occupied with fulfilling the thousands of orders that have resulted from our Shark Tank episode,” he said. “We’re very lucky to have had our episode air when it did, fortuitously aligning with the start of gardening season. We are going to continue to feed off of the exposure that Shark Tank has provided for this season, and then work this fall to secure purchase orders from other retail channels for 2018. The show has definitely legitimized us for a lot of people and stores, so I’m hopeful that the exposure will simplify our sales outreach going forward and help us land large accounts for next year.”
In the short-term, MacKugler was set to join Greiner on her show “QVC live” this past Friday, April 14.
“Between Shark Tank and QVC, that’s close to 15 million people that will learn about Seedsheet in just seven days,” he noted.
Seedsheet has already ramped up production to meet the new, elevated demand, and the team is expecting ongoing growth as it secures new orders for 2018 and gets repeat business from prior Seedsheets customers.
For now, MacKugler doesn’t expect Seedsheet to get too big for Middlebury.
“We are content with our current space off Exchange Street right now, and as we increase our manufacturing efficiencies and invest in more mechanical assembly processes and equipment, we will be able to produce more units in less space,” he said. “Eventually, we will probably have to move into a larger facility, but we love being located in Middlebury and hope to remain part of the burgeoning startup scene here for a long time.”
Right now the company has three full-time employees, including MacKugler, Director of Operations Dave Castle, and Mollie Silver, in charge of sales/marketing and product development. The company recently brought on five part-time workers to help meet the recent surge in orders.
“We have been producing and selling about 10,000 units per month, and will only increase efficiencies as we scale and invest in manufacturing,” MacKugler said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]

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