Meet Tiffany Krumins, the inventor of AVA the Elephant, a talking children's medicine dispenser that was developed to take the fear and anxiety out of administering medicine to children. You may recognize her and her product from ABC’s hit show “Shark Tank.” Krumins was the first female entrepreneur to receive funding from “the Sharks,” when Barbara Corcoran, the billionaire real estate mogul, saw that certain something in Krumins and became an investor in her company. With more than one million dollars in sales, AVA the Elephant is now available in more than 10,000 retail stores in the U.S and is sold in multiple languages across the world. Shortly after her TV appearance, however, Krumins was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Now a cancer survivor, her passion for helping sick children has only grown, and she’s taken huge steps to develop and implement a philanthropic mission as part of her company—donating a life-saving vaccine for every AVA the Elephant gift basket sold.
In an interview with business writer Heather Chaet, Krumins shares the details on how she came up with her (literal) million-dollar idea and how she’s using her company to give back in the most vital way.
HC: Many of us know you and your product, AVA the Elephant, from seeing you on ABC’s “Shark Tank” – named one of the top 13 memorable moments on the TV show by Entrepreneur.com. Can you tell us the story of how you turned your idea into an amazing success?
TK: Prior to appearing on “Shark Tank,” I worked as a caregiver for children with special needs. When I invented AVA, I was working with a little boy named Gibby, who has Down’s syndrome. Gibby did not do well with getting his haircut. In fact, he couldn’t have hated it more. He was convinced that cutting the actual hair hurt, just as it does when you cut your finger—there was no convincing him otherwise. Almost two years into working with Gibby, I called his mom to see if I could give [this hair cut situation] a shot. She said, “Go for it!” I knew what Gibby needed the most: comfort in something he trusted. He had a few best friends at the time, and they went by the names of Tigger and Pooh. I told Gibby that I would be cutting Tigger and Pooh’s hair, and that he could watch. He was very worried about his friends, but plopped down at the table to see what I was up to. I draped towels around each of them—to catch their hair, of course—and told them they would have to take turns and sit very still. When I first turned on the clippers, Gibby shot up out of his seat to protect his friends. I knew what I had to do. I picked up a big lock of my hair and cut it off. He looked less terrified and allowed me to [finish] cutting Tigger and Pooh’s hair. Ten minutes in, he was squealing from joy each time they successfully got a section cut.
I set up our hair-cutting studio every day, Tigger and Pooh got a little balder, and a few weeks later, Gibby let me do the unthinkable and give him a haircut. Not only was he tear-free, he was so handsome. His parents and I could not have been more thrilled.
What does a hair cut have to do with medicine? Well, it was that hair cut that led me to my million-dollar idea. About a week after the hair-cutting breakthrough, Gibby came down with something. Anytime he was sick, it made the whole family anxious because he was terrified of medicine droppers. Some days, his mother and I would have to restrain him in order to get the medicine down. After giving a difficult dose of medicine to Gibby, I sat exhausted from the process. And then I had my light bulb moment! Knowing the comfort Gibby’s stuffed animals gave him while cutting his hair, I thought, why couldn’t the dropper be shaped like an animal too?
I went home that night and created the first AVA from fabric, sponges and the insides of a recordable greeting card. When I got to work the next day, I told Gibby I wanted to introduce him to a friend of mine, AVA the Elephant. I explained to him that she could squirt milk in his mouth. He was thrilled at the idea. We gave it a shot, and I had to beg for AVA back. It was time for the real stuff: I let him know that AVA didn’t just squirt milk, but medicine too. Because he already loved her, he didn’t think twice. I filled AVA with medicine, and he opened wide, right on AVA’s cue. The best part? He jumped in the air when she praised him, saying “Good Job!”
That was the moment I knew I had something special. From being restrained to begging for more? Who would have thought? Now, kids all over the world are responding the same way.
HC: When did you realize you wanted to do more on a philanthropic level and focus your company’s energies and resources on giving back?
TK: From day one, I have wanted to give back. As a matter of fact, it is a good thing I have Barbara [Corcoran] to keep me on track because I would probably give all of my AVAs away. To see the reaction sick children have to AVA is just beautiful. Over the past two years, I have been able to give in-kind [donations] to hospitals and charities, but never on a big scale.
TK: Every time I saw something about Tom’s Shoes [and their “One for One” movement], I thought, “I want to do that with AVA.” I thought for each AVA sold, I would give one to a child in the hospital. But it was recently, while watching an acquaintance of mine struggle through the loss of one of the children at her orphanage in Haiti, that I knew it needed to be something bigger. Often we aren’t face to face with this type of loss, so it becomes “out of sight, out of mind.” I was aware that this little child’s life could have been saved had he had a vaccine prior to getting sick. That was when I knew the campaign I wanted to build.
HC: Tell us how it works.
TK: For every AVA the Elephant gift basket purchased, we will fund one life-saving vaccine. Depending on the demand and the organization we are working with at that time, the vaccine may be different. The gift basket will include a note letting the recipient know that a vaccine was funded with the purchase of their basket.
HC: What specific criteria did you use when researching and deciding which organizations to partner with on your campaign?
TK: I wanted to make sure we picked the right partner to fund them through. Being a cancer survivor, I am all too familiar with charities that spend their funding in the wrong places. I wanted to make sure if we gave X amount of dollars to fund a certain amount of vaccines, that it was actually being done. Because a specific orphanage in Haiti was the inspiration for my campaign, I wanted to know first whom did they trust to work with in regard to administration. Second, in regard to manufacturers, [I needed to see] who could give us the best cost on vaccines so we could provide as many as possible. Last but not least, because we will not be delivering the vaccines personally, I had to know that every penny we put towards the vaccines went directly to providing medicine, not to administrative costs and so on.
HC: You help fellow entrepreneurs at speaking engagements and on your website, giving advice on how to get their product to the marketplace. What tips can you share as they explore incorporating philanthropy into their daily business?
TK: Include a plan for giving back from the beginning. Even if it is a penny donated from each sale, it gets you in the mindset of working that philanthropy into your bottom line. I know as well as any small business owner how hard it is to give if you haven’t yet turned a profit. With retail products, we sometimes wait 90 days or longer to get paid. But if you have a plan to give back when you do make a profit, it will inspire you to keep going.
Your mission, much like your business, needs to be a passion of yours. I would have never survived the retail world and cancer had I not had an undying passion to help children. [Ask yourself]: “If I had a million dollars to spend just on charity, what would I do with it?” Whatever your answer is should be the goal you need to be working toward. Wanting to originally give smiles and giggles to children in hospitals by delivering my product, I realized when forming this campaign that I wanted to go a step further and see lives saved not just improved. The best part is, in the end, I will be able to do both.
HC What shouldn’t small business owners do when developing a philanthropic mission?
TK: Don’t move too quickly. Like I said before, I originally wanted to give products to children in hospitals, but I think the impact of this campaign will be much larger and will allow me to give back in that way as well. If I’m able to make a profit to cover giving more products away later, it is a win-win in the end.
HC What is next for you and AVA the elephant?
TK: We have other products in the works and continue to grow internationally. We filmed a great follow-up [during the 2013 season of] “Shark Tank” that will give you more insight into where we are headed next. Although we don’t have the air date yet, you can check our Facebook page for updates.