VT alumni find success after Shark Tank

Virginia Tech civil and environmental engineering alumna Alley Heffern (’13) and fellow engineering alumnus Jack DuFour, made an appearance on the show Shark Tank last year. The duo created the company Taaluma Totes which makes socially responsible bags with fabric from around the world. The Roanoke Times featured team. The full article from the Roanoke Times is below:

October 16, 2016

The Virginia Tech grads who pitched their backpack company on hit television series “Shark Tank” last year say they’ve been working to keep up with demand ever since.

Taaluma Totes, which makes what it touts as socially responsible bags with fabric from around the world, sold about 1,000 totes in its first year and a half (taaluma — pronounced ta-LOOM-a — is the Swahili word for culture).

The weekend its episode aired on ABC last February, the company received 8,000 orders.

The spike overloaded the small business and created a nine-month backlog. Even when things normalized, co-founders – and engaged couple – Jack DuFour and Alley Heffern said they were selling more bags than they thought possible.

“It forced us to get stronger,” DuFour said.

The show gave the 26-year-old entrepreneurs a chance to pitch their company to a group of celebrity investors, known as the sharks. They were all impressed with the bags, but said the company was too young for outside investment.

DuFour and Heffern walked away empty-handed, until the episode aired and orders began rolling in.

The couple had to beef up internal operations to push out the orders. They said they’re lucky customers stayed with them for months as they struggled to catch up.

Taaluma has since realized one of its biggest selling points is also a major bottleneck.

The fabric for the bags doesn’t come from major factories, but rather markets and street vendors hidden in small towns around the world. DuFour and Heffern built the business on the road, traveling 10 months out of the year so they could hand-select unique designs from countries like Ghana and Indonesia.

They lived in Blacksburg when they launched the business, but they don’t have those apartments anymore. Heffern’s family lives in Northern Virginia and DuFour’s is in Kentucky. That’s where they spend the holidays. For the rest of the year, Heffern says they’re the “biggest Airbnb super-fans.”

Still, they can’t keep up.

“We’ve just realized we want to add countries faster than we can travel to them,” DuFour said, speaking from Peru via an intermittent Skype connection.

Taaluma’s solution has been to crowdsource the traveling.

Instead of picking all the fabric themselves, they’ve opened the business up to anyone who wants to stop by a market next time they find themselves in a far-flung corner of the world.

Travelers have to ship Taaluma at least 15 yards of traditional material. The company will turn the fabric into about a dozen backpacks and then sell them on its website. Every time someone buys a bag, the traveler is paid $15.

DuFour says they’re still in the testing phase of the new system, but almost every fabric they’ve received so far has sold out. One traveler earned about $900.

“That’s been our favorite part of the business the whole time, shopping for the fabric,” DuFour said. “It kind of gets you into these weird experiences, forcing you to dig into the place that you are a little bit further than just the tourist sites.”

The new system is a small portion of the business right now, but the couple says they would love to see it grow into half, or more, of sales.

“If we can bring dozens or hundreds of people on board who are already traveling, they can go way more places, getting way more variety of fabric than we can on our own,” DuFour said.

As for Taaluma’s founders, they’re set to get married later this month. And then they’ll be back on the road.

“We’re not giving that up,” DuFour said. “We’re doing exactly what we want, and we’re lucky the business ties into those passions.”