When Sarah Blain looks back at 2016, she can honestly say that “it started out as the worst year of my life.” On one particularly bad day months ago, two monumental events occurred.
“The day my husband left,” Blain recalls, “was the day that ‘Shark Tank’ called.”
On Friday, fans of the ABC show (9 p.m.) will get to see the result of that fateful phone call. Blain, a 34-year-old Boca Raton divorced mother of two, faces down “Shark Tank“‘s cast of ultra-successful investors as she pitches her Christmas-themed business and hopes for a bite.
And as the year ends, the trained graphic artist reflects on how that long-awaited call came at exactly the right time.
“(The show) was something I wanted to do for a while, but the timing was never right. This was a crazy year, but I’m a huge believer in faith,” she says. “(The call) was like ‘OK, God’s got you. You’ve got one day to be upset about this, but you’re gonna be OK. Pick up the pieces and let’s go.’”
Blain’s business, Sealed By Santa, offers personalized letters to children from St. Nick, including a special Santa seal and the official North Pole postmark. Blain also offers packages including cocoa, chocolate, an ornament created by elves and even a framed certificate assuring that the recipient is on the Nice List.
“We’ve sent out hundreds of thousands of letters, and there’s a warmth you get from making kids happy, and making lasting memories,” she says. “It’s kind of cool to get something in the mail. Kids love running to the mailbox. We personalize the letters. Sometimes they come from grandmothers who have us write in a P.S. that says ‘Grandma Helen loves you.’”
The decade-old Sealed By Santa has been very successful for Blain but it’s not her first business. Raised in Belleair Beach, on the west coast of Florida, she came to Palm Beach County to study graphic arts at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. She “worked for the Man” as a graphic designer for a local magazine for two months, “which was great, but it was not me,” she says. “I am not a desk job kind of person.”
This was at the same moment in pop culture, about a decade and a half ago, when Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie and other trustafarians were becoming stars armed with famous last names and a habit of conspicuous consumption. That consumption spilled into fashion, with graphic T-shirts that featured blithely ironic odes to excess.
Blain created Snobwear Clothing, with shirts reading “I only accept little blue boxes,” as in Tiffany and Co., and “I only hang with Louis,” as in Vuitton. The pithy Ts sold out, garnering a lot of attention and a cease and desist order from Tiffany.
“I was like ‘OK, sorry, I didn’t know!’” says Blain, who kept selling other non-blue box-related shirts for five years until the graphic tee craze “started to die. I realized that I needed to do something that wasn’t a trend. At that point in my life, I was dating (her soon-to-be husband) and wanted children. I didn’t want to go to a job. I wanted to be a mom.”
Blain decided to combine her love of Christmas with her graphic arts background and launched Sealed By Santa, a business where she could both indulge her joy in the holidays with a seasonality that would let her “get away with (being very busy only) a couple of months a year. I didn’t have an easy pregnancy. I didn’t even know how I would make it worse but I couldn’t do a 9-5 job. I was on bed rest. It was horrible.”
The business survived, and then thrived. Blain won’t say how much money Sealed By Santa has made so far - that detail is often a crucial part of the pitch, drawing either impressed shock or disappointing head shakes from the Sharks, including Mark Cuban, Lori Grenier, Barbara Corcoran, Robert Herjavec, Kevin O’Leary and Daymond John. She’ll only say that “people are surprised” by how well it’s done.
“Shark Tank” had always been a goal for Blain, “but I never took the steps to do it,” she says. The call came precisely at the end of her marriage to her ex-husband, who, she says, has been and remains an involved dad to daughters Sienna, 6, and Milan, 3.
“When they called it was one of those conversations where I was like ‘Who is this?,’” she says, laughing. “It was a very cool moment. They asked if I wanted to do an interview.”
She made a video to send to the producers, even though she was in busy preparation for the Christmas season, and in the thick of being “a single mom with two kids. It’s crazy. I gotta tell you that I laugh at some people when they talk about putting in a full day. They have no idea,” she says.
Two months after making the video, “they called me about a week before (the scheduled) shooting” and invited her out. That second call came during a time almost as stressful as the first, “because I had just sold my house. So I moved the entire house and the next day went to California.”
Blain made the trip knowing that there wasn’t even a guarantee that her segment would air. Having watched the show, she was sure “to do a lot of pre-leg work on each shark,” so she knew their backgrounds and who she thought would be “the best fit for my company. I went in knowing I needed a deal. I was not walking out without getting one.”
She can’t elaborate on details, but says that she filmed for about an hour and a half, even though each segment is about ten minutes when it airs. Although she was very well-prepared, with her business numbers “on a page in front of me, but…there’s so much stress going on. I forgot my entire pitch! But everyone was much nicer than I was expecting. I was expecting to get demolished, but they did not do that. There was one that I don’t think was a fan. But I got a lot of great feedback.”
Blain can’t say whether she did get a deal from one of the Sharks, but she does confirm that even going on the show has meant “great exposure. When it came out that I would be on there, I got emails from people saying ‘You’ve been sending my kids letters for years. Thank you so much.’”
“Shark Tank” has also proven to Blain that she’s setting an example for young entrepreneurs and for young girls, including her daughters. With her hard-won success “I hope that I’m teaching my girls that they can be independent women, and that they don’t have to rely on someone. If they find the love of their lives, great. If not, they got this.”
As 2016 ends, Blain says that “I tell people that it (began) as the worst year of my life but it’s turning out to be the best year. Things are so much better for me and my kids. I have such a great support team. I don’t complain about it. God is good. I was coming out of a bad situation, but everything turned out so great.”