Bala: The Rise of a Refreshingly Fun Brand
If you’re one of the hundreds of thousands of people who ordered a Bala bangle during the pandemic, you probably weren’t imagining your order being frantically placed into boxes by a small family team from a two bedroom apartment in Hollywood. And you may not have imagined the team dancing around that apartment to the Talking Heads while they did it, either.
But that’s exactly how Bala fulfilled their orders.
Since founding Bala in 2017 during a chilled out yoga trip to Indonesia, husband-and-wife duo Natalie Holloway and Max Kislevitz have had a wild four years.
Known for turning dated ‘80s wearable exercise weights into fun and effective accessories that challenge the seriousness of the fitness industry, Bala achieved placements in Goop and Free People quickly after launching, then started a bidding war on Shark Tank in an episode that serendipitously aired right before the pandemic.
A low key Bala craze swept across America, fueled by the shift toward at-home fitness, with Vogue eventually declaring the Bala bangle ‘one of 2020s most important items.’
It's a rapid climb most entrepreneurs would envy, but, of course, there’s a bit more to it than that. How exactly did Max and Natalie get on Shark Tank, and how did they handle their sudden growth and the challenges that came with it?
This week, we sat down with Max to ask him how he and Natalie did it, and to get a feel for what essentially amounts to one very entertaining and insightful story.
Vanessa: You and Natalie founded Bala, then known as Bala Bangles, in 2017, after drawing the idea on a napkin during a vacation in Indonesia. Then you released your first product. Then, in 2019, you get on Shark Tank and the episode is released in February of 2020, literally right before the pandemic becomes a reality for America.
What has that been like for you?
Max: It has been absolutely wild. I think there's about 10 different ways to answer your question, right? On the one hand, most of Bala's growth has existed when we ourselves have been in isolation. And so, sure, we're seeing press and social mentions about the brand, but I've actually only seen Bala out in the wild, in real life, one time, around the Silverlake Reservoir [near our home in Los Angeles].
So it's this interesting thing where you sense that the brand is gaining momentum and people are falling in love with the products, but it feels vaguely theoretical because we still haven't actually seen it out in the wild as often as you might think.
Natalie and I, as husband-and-wife co-founders, had really envisioned Bala being more of a side project that we could continue to run alongside our careers in advertising, but partly because of the rise of at-home fitness in the context of the pandemic, Bala has now become our full-time effort.
We're really just running as fast as we can to keep pace with the interest in the brand and business. I think we've had this kind of revelation that it can be so much bigger and more interesting than we even originally thought when we were first sketching the idea for all the bangles on a napkin. So it's been crazy. It's been exciting and a lot of late nights—no such thing as weekends— but in the best of ways.
On ‘Shark Tank’ & Almost Not Making It
Vanessa: That’s amazing. I already have a ton of questions based on that answer alone. First, though, tell me about Shark Tank. How did you get on Shark Tank? What was the process like?
Max: I think our experience felt really atypical with Shark Tank. When you start a business, every single person, even if it's day one of your business, is going to say, “Hey, you should probably go on Shark Tank.” And the reality is that it's really difficult to get on the show. I mean, I think there’s something like 30 or 40,000 people who apply every season. And there's ultimately a couple hundred that are filmed for the show, and even fewer than that who ultimately make it on. And so Natalie— on a suggestion from our close friend— applied for Season 10.
So the season before, we were actually contacted, and it was this incredibly exciting series of moments where they said, “Hey, we want to interview and cast you for the show.” And we went through a number of steps before ultimately being told at the final hour that they weren't going to move forward with us.
Vanessa: You must have been devastated.
Max: We were. It really felt like a breakup. It felt like somebody was saying, “It's not you, it's me.” We felt like there was this huge opportunity that slipped through our fingers. They said to us— in a kind of concession speech— that they would call us next year, and, to extend this analogy of a breakup— it felt like they were saying, “Let's go on a break. You never know— we may get back together.”
And so we never expected the call. But sure enough, a year later, they gave us a call. We went through a similar process, albeit a little bit more skeptical of every step, because we'd already had our hearts broken, but ultimately we made it on.
I can't overstate just the immense amount of work that getting on Shark Tank was for the business [and the amount of waiting involved]. But in retrospect, that year gave us time to get the business in a better place to be able to make an incredible deal with [guest Shark] Maria Sharapova and Mark Cuban— they continue to be awesome partners for us.
And so, as devastating as it was to be broken up with, when we got back together, it was in our best interest.
Vanessa: So if we think about what life was like for you right after the Shark Tank episode aired in February 2020, no one knew what was really happening at the start of the pandemic.
When the pandemic first hit, did you and Natalie see it as an opportunity? Or were you more concerned than anything?
Max: I think first and foremost, we were scared in all the same ways that the collective consciousness was scared. Everyone was just freaked out with all of the unknown. So, wholeheartedly, we didn't see it as an opportunity. To us it was not a business opportunity.
At that time, we really would have had no idea that people were going to suddenly start trying to work out aggressively from home. I think it makes perfect sense in hindsight, but it hadn't made sense to us in foresight. I probably assumed that people were going to drink and order-in and actually be a little bit more sedentary. I think it's vaguely counterintuitive that they'd be more active.
So we didn't see it as an opportunity, but because of the exposure associated with Shark Tank, we had this incredible spike in sales and interest in the brand just before people started to shelter in place. And what we saw really was that momentum continued far longer than we thought it would before the pandemic.
Working with a Family Team During the Pandemic
Vanessa: That sounds both terrific and a little intense. Can you tell me more about that?
Max: Yeah. So when we thought we'd be on Shark Tank, we thought we’d have a huge spike and maybe it would come back to earth and kind of plateau. What happened instead is that we had this huge spike that just kept going up into the right, in terms of interest in the brand and sales partnerships.
And all of a sudden we had this at-one-time side project become our life. But yeah, it's literally, if it's 1:00 AM, I am on email trying to work out what to do next.
Vanessa: And you have a little one at home, right?
Max: Yeah. We have a six month old baby. So he was born in December 2020, so he was a pandemic baby. And so, yeah, now we're kind of juggling Bala and baby.
Vanessa: ‘Bala and baby.’ That’s great. So, having a company grow rapidly is an amazing thing. But of course, when any company grows as quickly as you did, there’s going to be some growing pains, right? Were there any unanticipated challenges?
Max: There were honestly countless things that were shocking to us in the context of that growth. I think the first was order volume. At that point, we were still shipping everything ourselves. So we didn't have a 3PL (third party logistics partner) to fulfill the orders on our behalf. And it's worth mentioning that we were fulfilling weights!
So, if you have a thousand orders of our bangles, that's 2,000 pounds worth of product. At the time, we were getting product delivered to our residential Hollywood apartment that we were renting, and a truck would pull up at 6:00 AM and unload 12 pallets, each of which were about 1,200 pounds a pop. And I would spend all morning ahead of going to my day job, unloading those pallets into this little back office that we've had.
So when the pandemic first set in and we had this flood of Shark Tank orders, I think we got 5,000 plus orders. Our family was working around the clock to fulfill orders ourselves by hand. Every single order that went out was actually fulfilled by the four of us. And then we ultimately ended up hiring one more person.
The five person team was myself, my wife, her two sisters and their childhood friends. So it was this makeshift family business, trying to keep up with this incredible demand. And I think it wasn't until April or May until we ultimately got a 3PL. When that happened, we could focus more on the marketing and growth of the business and less about just the fulfilling of orders associated with that demand.
Vanessa: That’s pretty crazy. Could you even walk in the apartment? Was there space to move around?
Max: We were living there, and there were boxes everywhere. And they were stacked up head height in every room. We ultimately got an office around that time period. We basically moved everything from home to the office. And then we were just shipping round the clock. We got some of those folding tables and just created this assembly line in this office space and just played Talking Heads all day and literally shipped orders from 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM, day-in and day-out for, you know, 20 days straight.
But there was a romance to it. It was hard but it was also incredibly fun. At five o'clock, wine would come out and we would just try to make the most of this really unprecedented situation, especially when people were sheltering in place. We had our family pod that were also our colleagues and we were just doing everything we could to keep up.
Vanessa: That’s an amazing story. So at what point were you like, ‘We need a third party to fulfill these orders for us’?
Max: I think our fear about doing it [getting a 3PL] before the Shark Tank episode aired was that we didn't want someone else to mess it up. It was too big a risk. And so we consciously accepted that we would have to do it entirely ourselves to minimize error in fulfillment.
We knew we were going to get a 3PL— it was just a question of when, and I think it was a few months of talking to different folks and really understanding who the players were local to LA that were well-regarded in the space.
Then we ultimately found a 3PL to hand the business over to. I will say that this was our first business, so if I knew then what I'd known now I would have thought through packaging and dimensional weight and bingo, shading, every line in that contract and the corresponding rate card.
And there's just so many unknowns at every step in the process. Ultimately if you're shipping at volume, you need a 3PL on your team, because otherwise you're just distracted from the things that grow the business. [You’re distracted by] those things that [only] help service the existing business. So yeah, somewhere in that black hole of shipping product, we knew that we were going to outsource to a 3PL, right?
The Art of Design-Led Accessories
Vanessa: So even before the many advantages that being on Shark Tank would give any business, you and Natalie were already experiencing success from the get-go— from the time you launched your first product. Is that right?
Max: The business was growing slowly but surely. And it's funny because I've had folks say, ‘Oh, great time to start a fitness business’ —in the context of the pandemic. And my response is usually, ‘Well, we started the business in 2017. We started at three years or, you know, two and a half years before the pandemic. We didn't start shipping product until March of 2018. But we'd been working toward this belief in design-led accessories.
At that time it was specific to wrist and ankle weights. We'd been working nights and weekends for a few years already, but now we're enjoying the slow but steady growth. So at that point, before Shark Tank, we were in Goop. We were in Free People.
We were selling online on both our dot.com and on Amazon and we were seeing order volume pickup day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month, which, when we think about the delay of our ultimately getting on Shark Tank that year, it made a big difference. Before we first applied to Shark Tank, I think we had done $250,000 worth of sales.
When we ultimately got on a year later, we were on pace to do $2.1 million that year. And so, the business was basically 10 times bigger the second year than the first. And we were able to tell a more compelling story on Shark Tank, and then Shark Tank was another catalyst for more growth.
Getting into Goop
Vanessa: That’s incredible. So, I’m curious. Before Shark Tank, how did you guys get into Goop and Free People? I can imagine having a great product that really fit the look was part of it, but how did you do it, exactly?
Max: The earliest conversations we had were about how wrist and ankle weights should make a comeback. That was our belief, right? And we felt we could accomplish this with a beautiful product design that solved for some of those functional deficiencies.
We also thought that if somebody went to a yoga class wearing Bala bangles, that everybody in the class would eventually take notice, so that there would just be something arresting about it.
The hypothesis at that point was that the same thing would happen on social media, especially just given the behavior of folks taking pictures of themselves while working out or just after the gym, that if one person posted themselves wearing [Bala] bangles, other folks would take notice. So some of the early recognition for Free People and Goop was through our social, and that really just validated our hypothesis.
A buyer at Goop picked up on the brand on social, and the same thing happened with Free People. Then, there's just this kind of early momentum where the more retailers we were in, the more visible and discoverable the products were in real life.
Other retailers would take notice and fitness enthusiasts and influencers would post about the products that they've just bought and were falling in love with. Press would write about us. So it was this thing that wasn't like, ‘1, 2, 3.’ It was, ‘1, 2, 1, 3, 2.’
Applying an Iterative Approach
Vanessa: So talking a bit more about the design, I know you and Natalie both worked in advertising for years in New York. I imagine that as advertisers, you already had a great sense for marketing a product, so that probably would have helped you. But since Bala’s products are known for being beautiful and are successful partly because of that beauty, I wanted to ask, how did you design them?
Max: I think the real skill set that we'd honed in advertising was kind of embracing a really iterative approach. So oftentimes, the first idea for an ad is a shell of what the idea ultimately becomes. You can see its potential, but you've not yet realized its full potential yet.
We were able to apply that same approach to the design, but we'd never otherwise designed a product. So the earliest version was that I literally sketched it out on a napkin when we were chatting after this yoga class in Indonesia. And it felt like a new-and-improved version of what was once ubiquitous in the ‘80s. And so that napkin sketch ultimately became a 3D render.
We'd found someone on UpWork and I think we paid them all of, you know, $100 to bring the sketch to life in something that felt a little bit more real. And then we used that to ultimately pass to a supplier to prototype. So we ultimately took baby steps towards something that was more representative of what we had in mind, but then we just found that there were all these intricacies to getting to a one-size-fits-all solution.
So for example, that my wrist is considerably thicker or thinner than Natalie's wrist or that, similarly, your wrists tend to be thinner than your ankles. We had to design for that nuance. And that actually proved to be among the more challenging things.
But it really was just taking that approach from advertising, which tends to be just making incremental improvements until you arrive at something that you're ultimately happy with. That same thing was relevant from a product perspective. And that's honestly still the approach we take with a new product, where it starts with a higher-level concept. And then we just kind of iterate on drawings and prototypes and materials until we get something that we're happy with.
Vanessa: That's really cool that you guys just drew it on a napkin to start off with and then it came to fruition.
Max: Yeah. And what's cool was that the bar was really low for the existing products, so we stumbled upon something that everybody was aware of already, but nobody had seen a beautiful or functional version of it. You know, I think that's really why they [wearable weighted exercise bands] fell off our collective radar.
They were ugly. But they were also functionally deficient. They were neoprene with iron filings. And so they'd absorb sweat and smell and get dirty. It also slid around on your wrist in this awkward way. So it's rare that you find a product that is in such need of both aesthetic and functional improvements that everyone's already aware of.
Dealing with Pandemic Supply Chains, & Selling Out for 40% of 2020
Vanessa: Totally. So, moving back to the pandemic, were there any other changes or challenges that you couldn't have foreseen that happened during that time? What about supply chains?
Max: There were tons of challenges. The pandemic had a devastating effect on global supply chains. You'd be floated for around a month of production and a month in transit. I mean, you could easily double those timelines and you'd still be wrong. Every key milestone in terms of timing was just wildly inaccurate due to the pandemic. And in fact, China, where the product is produced, remained closed after the Chinese New Year for— I believe it was six weeks. So we were out for four months after we'd shipped the Shark Tank orders, months and months, ultimately in 2020, we were sold out for 40% of the year.
So there were things that we didn't anticipate associated with supply chains, the 3PL, for example, was a huge issue. I think there's another thing that's rarely talked about: it costs money to buy the inventory long before you receive the cash associated with having sold it.
So as retailers came on board, there were just these huge cash gaps, and it's counterintuitive when you have interest in the brand. It's actually one of the markers of success associated with getting your product out there. It was incredibly stressful to actually fund the inventory associated with that demand. So it wasn't as if there were one or two— it was that there were hundreds of things. And ultimately I think we just said, ‘business day-to-day can sometimes feel more like problem-solving than it's often depicted.’
So if you imagine the day being a series of problems, I guess a solution-oriented mindset can be helpful so that you don't become overwhelmed with the fact that it feels like everything's going wrong, when in fact, those things that are quote"e ‘going wrong’ are really the markers of success and progress.
Expanding the Team
Vanessa: Yeah, totally. You've just learned from them and you continue to learn and they are in-and-of themselves markers. So, you expanded your team during this time, right?
Max: We actually did, yeah. So we were five people through January of 2021. So I guess the other side of the equation is that Bala was growing, but we wanted it to be really conservative. We wanted to make the right financial decisions, and it's not as if the business started to grow because we started to spend more, because we didn't really know how long that growth would continue.
So we waited a long, long time before saying ‘let's invest back into the business, not by way of inventory, but in terms of the team, in terms of marketing and all that the business really requires.’ It's only this year that we really started hiring. The team is now 13 people, and we have a ton of open roles. So I think we'll be closer to 25 people by end of year.
So we'll have gone from five people in 2020 to 25 people in 2021.
Vanessa: So what does that workplace currently look like for you guys? You have this office in Silverlake and you’re now inviting people to come back to the office. Is it all going to be in-office or do you think you’ll go for a hybrid situation?
Max: I mean, when you think about where we were a year ago with five people that we were all related to, and they were the bubble that we lived with and worked with in the context of the pandemic, and you kind of juxtapose that with where we are today— we're not really seasoned employers.
I think what we're trying to do is get as accurate an understanding of folks’ comfort level associated with the state of the pandemic today. And just be as fair to folks as we'd be to our much smaller family team and say, ‘If you're comfortable coming in, you're welcome to do so. If you’d really rather continue working from home, we're also okay with that. But we're really trying to create a culture that feels reflective of this fun, irreverent brand that is not taking itself too seriously, which we really feel is the Achilles heel of the fitness industry.
You know, everybody's all about reps and results and intensity. And we want to be about the love of movement and design, and looking forward to working out rather than looking forward to the end of your workout.
So we're trying to create a culture that reflects that ultimately post-pandemic, and we feel like that is largely in-person because it follows this experiential brand. And so, yeah, I think we're figuring it out as most companies are, but it was only five minutes ago that we were a fraction of ourselves.
Bala’s Future Vision
Vanessa: When you daydream about where you'd like Bala to be in say, two years, what does that look like?
Max: It's a really good question. If everything goes the way we hope it will, I think Bala is going to be the irreverent and inclusive alternative to a fitness industry that can often feel exclusionary and inherently tied to body image. A fitness industry that’s representative of archetypes that are almost unattainable.
We want Bala to be this fun, playful brand in this otherwise ultra-serious space. And we want the work to reflect that. —So I imagine walking into an open floor plan office space where some people are drawing concepts on a wall, and the weirder concepts are going to be the best ones. That the ideas that are atypical of the category are exactly the things that we want to do, that there are people, similarly testing new products. That we’re 3D printing stuff as rapidly and interestingly as possible.
So, yeah, I think we're just excited to blur the lines between fashion and fitness and lifestyle and continue to challenge the standards that have been set in this category for far too long.
Brex & Bala
Vanessa: That’s very well said. I wanted to ask— how was Brex helpful to you during the pandemic? You mentioned the cash gap— the time between paying for inventory and actually getting the money back from the sale.
Max: So, Brex for us has been a payment solution that services Bala in a really kind of flexible and intuitive way. So I do genuinely feel that Brex is the modern solution. It's ‘appropriate’ for Bala, if that makes sense, whereas some of the more traditional options really weren’t working. I don't know that I've been articulating it all that well, but yes, Brex was very key to our growth.
Brex honestly just gave us confidence and assurance that we had the right partner in place.
Simplicity as the Ultimate Sophistication
Vanessa: That's really great to hear. We always love to hear that kind of positive feedback and really appreciate it. Anyway, I realize we’re at-time, so I just have one more question for you. —It’s a philosophical question actually, but it feels relevant.
Max: Go for it.
Vanessa: Leonardo da Vinci said that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. What does that mean to you?
Max: Amazing question. I was a philosophy major. Let's see. So, in so many ways, that quote is exactly what Bala stands for from a design perspective. And what I often say is that arriving at simplicity is rarely simple. It can be the most complicated thing in the world to get to something simple that appeals to the broadest possible audience. So the quote resonates with not just me personally, but with what Bala is hoping to achieve.
Simplicity is ‘king, queen and court’ as far as we're concerned, and our hope is that people ultimately understand that fitness doesn't have to be complicated to be effective.