March 29, 2021 (updated)
Nothing speaks to the tenacity and the persistence of an individual like getting behind the wheel of a race car. The thunder of the engines and the force of rocketing 200 miles per hour around a racetrack showcases the power one machine can bring. It’s a rush of pure adrenaline for the man behind the wheel, unmatched by any other pursuit. For Charlotte native and former UNC Charlotte student Kevin Conway, a NASCAR-driver-turned-entrepreneur, the intensity of racing is nothing compared to one of the most nerve-racking experiences in television: Shark Tank.
“Driving into the corner at 200 mph is nothing compared to walking into The Tank,” Conway said. “I’d rather hit the wall at 200 than try to do that again.”
The Entrepreneurial Spirit
Shark Tank, ABC’s business reality show that lets entrepreneurs pitch their idea to a panel of “sharks” in the hopes of striking a deal, is a high-stakes game of strategy that unfolds before a nationally televised audience. The show requires preparation, drive, and entrepreneurial spirit to find a suitable “shark” for a business partner, and offers small businesses a chance to make it big or go home empty-handed.
“For entrepreneurs and for small businesses, it’s your Super Bowl,” Conway said, “so you really have to capitalize on that opportunity.”
But if anyone was prepared for the moment it was Conway. Traversing through various racing circuits since the age of six, Conway noticed that hard work and determination were essential traits that led to opportunity. By his teenage years, he saw another variable that’s not as pronounced in other sports but essential to motorsports: money.
“Money gets you the opportunity, talent allows you to capitalize on it,” Conway said. “It’s a rude awakening as a teenager to realize that talent matters, but it’s also a business.”
Throughout high school and college at UNCC Charlotte, Conway built his knowledge base interning with several companies. During his racing career, he became more involved in the sponsorship process, working with different businesses to execute their plan to advertise to their target audience. Conway gained the tools to match his talent, propelling him up the racing ranks and earning him NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year in 2010. He was steadily gaining success at high levels, but one missed phone call in 2016 provided the opportunity to go even higher.
The Start of PHOOZY
In the summer of 2016, Conway was on Lake Norman when his phone overheated. As a result, he missed a phone call that he said was “pretty important” and put in an awkward situation.
“It’s really hard to justify why you missed the call because you’re on the lake on a Tuesday and your phone overheated. There’s no way to spin that,” Conway said.
Conway went into Best Buy to see if they had any “phone coozies” that could protect his phone from the heat. When the associate said no, that’s when he decided that something needed to be done.
The result was PHOOZY, a thermal capsule for phones, tablets, and laptops that protects devices from getting too hot in the summer, or too cold in the winter during activities like skiing, snowboarding, and other outdoor activities. The PHOOZY is made from materials originally intended for NASA astronaut spacesuits, which isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Conway said that the motorsports industry and the aerospace industry share a “huge technology transfer” due to a shared problem: regulating heat. Conway’s connections in the two industries were crucial when developing PHOOZY
“I went to a couple engineers that I knew on the motorsport side and also some legitimate real rocket scientists and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to come up with a solution for this, why hasn’t anybody done this?’”
Conway also enlisted the help of Josh Inglis, a former executive at Home Depot, an avid outdoorsman, and one of Conway’s best friends, as an advisor. After hearing the idea for PHOOZY, Inglis left Home Depot and became the co-founder and COO of the company.
With a team of scientists, engineers, and one executive going through multiple ideas and prototypes, PHOOZY launched in 2017 at the GoPro Mountain Games with a single product. Even with a completely self-funded start and the multitude of experts backing the product, Conway said that success was never a given.
“There were several times where I had to take credit cards out and max them out and wonder if I was going to go bankrupt if this didn’t work,” he said.
It was a high stakes gamble for Conway and company but, within a few months, he was contacted by a few familiar stores.
A More than Successful Launch
Two months after the original launch, Best Buy reached out to the PHOOZY team about a retail offer. Conway said that he was not expecting this type of interest so early on.
“You guys do know, like, this is a company with two guys and one product, and we just launched 60 days ago,” he said of Best Buy’s interest. As a result, Conway and PHOOZY were forced to pivot away from solely online sales faster than expected. “Our strategy changed very, very quickly.”
Retail partnerships eventually expanded to include REI, Lowes, Home Depot, and more, with over 52 products in the PHOOZY catalog today.
Shark Tank and a Special Opportunity
After an initial appearance on Shark Tank fell through in 2018, PHOOZY applied again in 2020 and was accepted. The beginning of PHOOZY’s Shark Tank journey coincided with the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. All of a sudden, Conway said that PHOOZY was caught at a crossroads.
“It was very much mixed feelings, because nobody knew if Shark Tank was even going to happen, if they were going to be able to film. And we didn’t really know what was going to go on with our business,” he said.
Sales declined “almost to zero” during that time according to Conway, but what was supposed to be a dark time for PHOOZY’s business turned into a special opportunity. Early in the pandemic, Conway discovered that a crucial demographic was buying PHOOZY’s by the hundreds.
“We realized doctors and nurses were actually utilizing our product, and some of the first responders that are on the frontlines of the pandemic to help protect their phones in these environments,” Conway said.
PHOOZY pivoted again, setting up a program to provide products to hospitals and first responders in Charlotte and nationwide, donating around $30,000 worth of products in the process. The company ended up launching an anti-microbial line to the general public which instantly became a bestseller. Conway said that moves like these are part of PHOOZY’s core strategy: “We’re not just improving our products, but looking for ways that we can take our materials and our solution and say, ‘Well, what are other problems that we can solve?’”
PHOOZY is propelling into 2021 with the lighting speed and the determination of its co-founder, Conway. Several new products will be added to the PHOOZY catalog including an expansion of anti-microbial offerings. Conway said the plan is to keep PHOOZY in the Charlotte area, and he’s currently building a new house in Mooresville while racing in the GT4 America Series.
Conway’s quest with PHOOZY is driven by his oldest principles of persistence and tenacity, something he says any entrepreneur can harness while turning their ideas into reality.
“There’s opportunity around us, it’s just, we’re often limited by our own perceptions of our situation,” he said. “If you have the persistence and the tenacity, and you believe in it, you can accomplish amazing things.”
Watch PHOOZY’s Shark Tank episode on Friday, April 2 at 8 p.m. EST on ABC.