Lani Lazzari had always been an ambitious kid. In fourth grade, she sold hair scrunchies out of her backpack. By age 11, she was developing sugar scrubs made from common kitchen ingredients to ease her eczema.
She gave the skin scrubs out as Christmas presents to family and friends, who encouraged her to sell them. The idea prompted the makeover of the craft room in her family's Fox Chapel home into a work studio, complete with new flooring, lights, stainless-steel workspace and sink.
"Oh my gosh, this is so adorable, our little salesperson," her mom, Gina, thought.
She had worked in the pharmaceutical sales industry, and her husband, Don, runs his own sales consulting business.
"Let's just see what happens here. We figured she'd give it up."
But she didn't.
"I got really obsessed with it and did tons and tons of research and kept experimenting," said Miss Lazzari, now 19. "I was more aware of it than most people because of my skin condition."
In the past seven years, she has turned her Christmas gift concoction into a budding beauty business called Simple Sugars, a line of five facial scrubs, a peppermint foot scrub and a couple of dozen body scrubs in citrus and floral scents that are updated seasonally. She also manages a brother brand, Smooth for Men, that offers the same all-natural formula but in more masculine packaging and fragrances, including coffee, lime and eucalyptus spearmint.
The business has earned her recognition by Teen Vogue, Seventeen and Allure magazines and a slew of TV and radio spots. Her latest -- and biggest -- gig was an appearance last month on ABC's reality TV show "Shark Tank" in which she pitched her products to the show's panel of wealthy investors. She received a $100,000 investment from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who was born in Squirrel Hill and grew up in Mt. Lebanon. He now has a 33 percent stake in Simple Sugars.
In an email interview, Mr. Cuban said he was drawn to Miss Lazzari by her devotion to her company and commitment to sharpening her business skills. He also may have seen a little of himself in her. When he was 12 years old, he got his first taste of business by selling garbage bags door to door in Mt. Lebanon. Mr. Cuban believes Simple Sugars fills a void in the market.
"I think there is a huge need for niche skin care products," he said by email. "In this case, a product that can be used for allergy issues and as a traditional scrub at a price dramatically lower than its competition was compelling." (Many similar scrubs on the market are more than twice the price of Simple Sugars products, which start at $15 for a 5-ounce jar.)
Prior to "Shark Tank," Simple Sugars grew in slow-yet-steady increments, averaging a couple of hundred orders during a really good month, Miss Lazzari said. The majority of sales come via the Simple Sugars website (www.simplesugarsscrub.com). Scrubs also are available at select Giant Eagle supermarkets and in some local boutiques.
Since "Shark Tank," Simple Sugars has experienced the biggest business boom of its short life. Online, 10,000 orders came in within 24 hours of the show. (ABC producers tell entrepreneurs to expect a boost of 600 to 1,000 orders after their segment airs.)
"Within five minutes of her segment, her phone started blowing up," Mrs. Lazzari said. "Can this be real?" her daughter wondered.
In the past month, about 19,000 orders have come through the website, plus many wholesale inquiries. Stores that carry the scrubs are having a tough time keeping them in stock.
"The response we've gotten from the show has been completely insane," Miss Lazzari said.
"The days are running together," Mrs. Lazzari said. "We're working almost around the clock."
Before "Shark Tank," Miss Lazzari and her mom worked with a team of six people to produce the scrubs. The number of employees has more than doubled, thanks to former interns and friends already familiar with the business.
Simple Sugars' headquarters in Sharpsburg moved to a larger office down the street days after the show, something they had been planning even before the "Shark Tank" surge.
"We couldn't even possibly fit the number of people we needed in the other building," Miss Lazzari said.
The peak in product interest has made it a challenge for Miss Lazzari and her team to fill orders as quickly as they used to. The scrubs are handmade with grocery store-bought sugar (with as many as 200 bags of sugar purchased every other day) and oils and extracts from suppliers across the eastern part of the United States. To reduce the manufacturer's carbon footprint, no suppliers west of the Mississippi River are used.
"We try to be as green as possible," Miss Lazzari said.
Scrubs are hand-jarred and hand-labeled, traits that Miss Lazzari feels make the line stand out.
"Part of the appeal of the product is that it's handmade, so that's not something we want to lose even as we grow."
The business uses social media to keep customers updated on the status of their orders, calm frustrations regarding delayed shipments and to answer questions.
"For the most part, when they understand what the situation is and we're working as quickly as we can and that they haven't been forgotten about, they're really understanding," Miss Lazzari said.
"What's going on here now would rattle people twice her age," her mother said. "She's handling it with as much poise and professionalism as she does everything. It's impressive."
She learned to juggle many tasks while still in high school. As a junior at The Ellis School, she spent the year studying independently so she could keep up with her studies and work on the company. The next year, she took six weeks off from school to take a road trip across the country to promote the brand.
Miss Lazzari has always handled all of her own business meetings and negotiated all deals. Her mom helped by driving her to appointments, placing orders for ingredients and financing the business with credit cards before Miss Lazzari was old enough to take over these tasks.
"This has been her thing since the beginning. I've always made a point of saying that," Mrs. Lazzari said. "This is her business, and it's my job to be behind her to back this up."
Miss Lazzari regularly took advantage of entrepreneurship and women in business conferences and networking events in Pittsburgh and other parts of the country. Trial and error has been an integral part of Simple Sugars' success, too. When something didn't work, such as trying to sell the products through home parties and craft shows, she re-evaluated and tried again.
"I wanted to feel like I was responsible for my own success and my own future," Miss Lazzari said.
She said that desire first stirred in her when her mother was passed over for a promised promotion while on maternity leave with Miss Lazzari's youngest brother, now 11.
"Watching her go through that ... I was really discouraged about going into the corporate world one day, especially as a woman."
Now she's become a role model for other young entrepreneurs who watched her wow "the sharks," who dubbed her one of the best pitchers the show had ever featured. She receives a steady flow of invitations to speak at events and schools.
"I think it's mostly because of my car," Miss Lazzari said, referring to her white-and-pink Simple Sugars car, a 1999 Chevy Prizm that had belonged to her great-grandmother.
Getting on "Shark Tank" was a feat in itself. For season four, the show received 36,079 applications from entrepreneurs. Miss Lazzari was contacted by a producer last May.
"In addition to our standard casting process, we search for and reach out to companies with 'wow' ideas. This has been done every season," executive producer Clay Newbill said in an emailed statement. "We reached out to Miss Lazzari for several reasons. She was a young entrepreneur, we loved her story, loved her product, the success of her business and that she has had steady growth, year to year, since her launch."
Miss Lazzari had to submit audition tapes and complete lots of paperwork before being invited to Los Angeles to film her segment in late September. She learned about the filming just six days before going on.
"It was crazy," Miss Lazzari said. "When you go out and film, [producers say] 'We film twice as many people as we air, so there's a possibility your segment is never going to make it to air.' "
She found out two weeks before the show aired that she had made the cut. With Mr. Cuban's help, Miss Lazzari hopes to continue building product awareness.
"We want to get Simple Sugars more widely distributed," she said. "Right now, we're in Giant Eagle ... and soon to be in 35 of their stores, but of course they're only regional, so we want to be available on a more national basis."
She also has her sights on selling the scrubs on QVC. Mr. Cuban said his key role will be "to provide support for Miss Lazzari. It's her company, not mine."
This 19-year-old CEO plans to continue making Simple Sugars her full-time work, putting college on hold. She was accepted at George Washington University but has deferred her acceptance for now.
"There are people who go to college and hope to come out of college and be able to do what I'm doing right now," she said. "I realize that it's important to get an education, and I do want to go eventually. ... I think I'm learning so much from having this business."
Sara Bauknecht: email@example.com or on Twitter @SaraB_PG. First Published April 28, 2013 4:00 AM