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'Shark Tank' investors fight over idea a single mom financed with $40,000 meant for her retirement

Heather Stenlake pitching the Bridal Buddy on "Shark Tank."
Photo by Kelsey McNeal
Heather Stenlake pitching the Bridal Buddy on "Shark Tank."

Heather Stenlake is a divorced, single mom living in the Poconos of Pennsylvania with her two daughters. She put $40,000 of her retirement savings towards inventing and producing a sheer slip that holds up a bride's wedding gown. The slip allows a bride to pee without sullying her dress, or needing help to use the toilet.

It took Stenlake 15 years and a personal reinvention to go from having the idea to developing her product into a company. But Stenlake eventually found the confidence to launch her business: Once she did, her inspirational attitude won over the investors on hit reality show "Shark Tank." By the end of her pitch, which aired Friday night, Stenlake had multiple sharks clamoring to invest in her business, the Bridal Buddy.

Stenlake started working in the bridal industry in 1998 and customers constantly asked her what to do when they have to use the restroom. In 2002, she came up with the idea for a solution and the blueprint for what would eventually become the Bridal Buddy. She also was having children at the time, so Stenlake put her idea away, and focused on being a stay-at-home mom.

In 2015, Stenlake rediscovered her notes for the Bridal Buddy, and moved to turn the latent idea into a business.

"I am divorced now but I never stopped thinking about my product idea. And all though I didn't have as much encouragement as I would have liked back then, I have a lot of it now," she says. "I put $40,000 of my retirement money in this product. That wasn't easy, but I am glad that I did it."

Stenlake appeared on "Shark Tank" seeking $75,000 for 10 percent equity in her company. At the time the show was filmed, Stenlake had made $195,000 in sales. The Bridal Buddy's retail cost is $29.95, and $14 for Stenlake to make.

"Surround yourself with positive, encouraging people because that is the way you get ahead." -Heather Stenlake, Founder, the Bridal Buddy

The sharks wanted to know why she put her idea way for more than a decade. She strategically and gracefully avoided talking about her personal life.

"Life happens. Without going into too much detail, all I will say is this. You know, surround yourself with positive, encouraging people because that is the way you get ahead. And I have found that out the hard way. Unfortunately it took me many years to figure that out," she says.

Her observations about her own journey were heartfelt and sincere.

"I believed in myself and I kept working on it and working on it and trying to get the best possible version of it. And here I am and I am proof that you can overcome any obstacle and get where you want to be," Stenlake told the investors. "Focus on the future. I am done with the past, but it is a learning experience for me."

Stenlake reveals she approached the largest retailer in the industry, David's Bridal, with her product. However, the retailer wasn't interested in selling the Bridal Buddy, because they didn't want to be associated with using the bathroom.

Mark Cuban backed out because he doesn't want to work in the bridal industry, and Robert Herjavec backed out because he doesn't think the business will grow without being in retail locations where brides buy their dresses.

With two sharks out, Marissa, the woman modeling the Bridal Buddy, then chimed in with an inspirational speech in support of Stenlake.

"I would like to say something on Heather's behalf. Heather is an incredible human being. When she approached me about this, I was already working two jobs and the idea of trucking around at bridal shows on Sundays for eight hours in a cold auditorium was not all that appealing," the model said.

"But you know what, I got up here and I showed my underpants to the international community because I believe in Heather. And sometimes when you love somebody, it means you show everybody your underpants," Marissa added. "She is brilliant and I am telling you right now, the way that brides respond to this product, I think some of ya'll are making a mistake. They freak out."

Moved by Marissa's speech, Lori Greiner and Kevin O'Leary got in on a joint deal, offering $75,000 on the condition that they would each own 25 percent of the business. Marissa, with her impressive sales skills, would also be brought in as a 25 percent owner.

The other sharks protested the deal, arguing Stenlake would only be left with 25 percent of her company. Cuban, speaking to Stenlake, encourages the mom to avoid taking the deal. "I forbid you," Cuban says.

That's when Barbara Corcoran steps in. She relates to Stenlake's grit.

"When you told me it took you 10 plus years to get going, I was out right away. I am thinking, how did it take ten years? But you know what I have learned? I have learned, as long as you get back up who the heck cares when it is but you stand and you get counted for yourself," said Corcoran.

"And I was also reflecting back on my boyfriend who ran off and married my secretary and gave me the gift of my life when he said, 'You will never succeed without me.' So I get you. You are never going down again," Corcoran added.

The real estate mogul offered Stenlake $75,000 for a third of the company.

Greiner, seeing the deal being swept out from under her, wants a re-do on her first proposal with O'Leary. She takes the demand for Marissa to be part of the deal off the table, saying she and O'Leary will take 20 percent each. That would leave Stenlake with 60 percent ownership.

Stenlake then looked for the two sharks to come down in their equity offering to 30 percent. Corcoran slides in, offering $75,000 for 30 percent equity. And then so did Greiner and O'Leary.

In the end, Stenlake went with the combined offer from the two sharks, Greiner and O'Leary.

When they finally leave the tank, Stenlake thanked her model for her speech on her behalf. "Of course! I am not going to let them push you around," said Marissa. "I don't care who they are!"

See also:

Why billionaire Mark Cuban invested in an Afghan saffron start-up run by veterans on 'Shark Tank'

Why 'Shark Tank' investors Daymond John and Kevin O'Leary got in a bidding war over wine for cats

Mark Cuban, Daymond John and other 'Shark Tank' investors share 10 things you have to do to be successful

False 'Flag': Here's why billionaire Chris Sacca eviscerated a pitch on 'Shark Tank'

Disclaimer: CNBC owns the exclusive off-network cable rights to "Shark Tank."