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Swimming with Sharks

The first time Matthew Alexander seriously pitched one of his products, he swam with the sharks. The time he spent preparing to pitch his invention, Illumibowl, on the ABC show Shark Tank, among other learning experiences, taught him important lessons about entrepreneurship. Now, as a mentor for the Rollins Center of Entrepreneurship and Technology at the BYU Marriott School of Business, Alexander strives to share his wisdom with aspiring student entrepreneurs.

Matthew Alexander
Alexander and his wife, Melissa, on vacation in England. Photo courtesy of Matthew Alexander.

As a mechanical engineering student at BYU in 2013, Alexander took an introductory entrepreneurship class, which sparked his interest in entrepreneurship. He originally wanted to pursue mechanical engineering because he liked the idea of building things. However, after talking to mechanical engineers about what their jobs entailed, that career path did not seem to fit his personal career aspirations.

“When I enrolled in my first entrepreneurship class, I immediately fell in love with the subject,” he says. “I thought to myself, ‘I want to do this; I like that I can work on multiple projects at once and be my own boss.” Alexander switched majors and enrolled in the prerequisites for the entrepreneurship program.

At the same time, Alexander also started building businesses and creating products, including the Illumibowl, a toilet-light product. Before presenting in front of the sharks, Alexander and his cofounder, Mike Kannely, were required to fill out an application and pitch their product in preliminary rounds. One of the main strategies Alexander learned from his time on Shark Tank was how to market his products to a specific audience. “At Shark Tank, the sharks still ask plenty of questions that a conventional investor asks, so you need to know your business front to back,” he says.

“I watched every existing episode up to the point that we presented. I realized the Shark Tank pitch isn't your conventional business pitch; you have to tailor everything toward TV and the people watching,” he continues. “Tailoring a pitch is honestly how marketing in real life works. You can't market a product for yourself; you have to market toward your audience. Shark Tank taught me that I always need to keep my audience in mind.”

After Alexander and Kannely pitched Illumibowl on Shark Tank, Kevin O’Leary agreed to invest in the company. The successful product made a deal with Bed, Bath & Beyond, and entered stores across the country. Illumibowl was acquired in 2017 by Spark Innovation. Alexander grew immensely as an entrepreneur during his time with Illumibowl, and that company fueled his desire to create even more products.

Now, Alexander continues to work on other product ideas, including a shower diffuser and game dice made out of periodic table elements. No matter what the product is, he focuses on marketing to specific consumers who might be interested in that product.

While Alexander eventually left BYU Marriott to pursue Illumibowl and his other businesses full-time, he credits BYU with sparking his interest in entrepreneurship. “I look at my time in my entrepreneurship classes as a blessing, because those classes were a springboard that pushed me to where I am now,” he says.

Since joining the Rollins Center in 2017 as a mentor, Alexander aims to pass his knowledge of and passion for entrepreneurship on to current BYU students. As a mentor, he gives advice to students currently trying to build or manage their own startup businesses. “I love being a mentor, because I can say, ‘Okay, look at all of the mistakes I've made; now you can avoid those mistakes.’ When the students have a mentor, the process becomes faster for them, and they have an easier time succeeding in their businesses.”

“As an entrepreneur, you inevitably experience occasional failure,” Alexander adds. “By learning from other entrepreneurs, you can minimize those failures and succeed sooner. As I mentor students, I can give them a head start. I wish I started approaching mentors sooner in life, especially as a student, because I would have avoided significant setbacks.”

In addition to helping students avoid setbacks, Alexander also strives to fuel students’ enthusiasm for their products and businesses. He hopes that the students will in turn use their innovative ideas to improve the world around them. “I love sharing my knowledge and helping students succeed,” he says. "Each time a student becomes successful, we can have more entrepreneurs in the world, and I believe that entrepreneurs truly make the world a better place.”


Writer: Sarah Calvert