Pat Yates, creator of Happy Feet | Photo courtesy of ABC/Michael Ansell

Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi might have made her name drinking and brawling in the MTV reality television series “Jersey Shore,” but Louisville businessman Pat Yates probably wouldn’t be on this Thursday’s “Shark Tank” without her.

Insider Louisville recently met up with Yates to find out how he got himself onto the show, and how on earth Snooki played a part.

There were probably a couple hundred people at the Venture Connectors lunch at the Ali Center last Wednesday, the monthly get-together of angel investors, networkers, business students and entrepreneurs. Most were busily chowing down on Hot Browns and fried chicken during the 30-second pitches, kind of an open mic session for anyone wanting to make an announcement.

These announcements are hors d’oeuvres before the main presenters; sometimes they are exciting, sometimes they are dull, and sometimes, well, they are just out of left field. Cue the unassuming Pat Yates, who proceeded to say something along the lines of: “I run a company called ‘Buy Happy Feet’ and I sell slippers designed by Snooki from ‘Jersey Shore.’ I’m going to be on ‘Shark Tank’ next Thursday, so please tune in. That’s all.”

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that Snooki slippers on “Shark Tank” is, by Louisville Venture Connector standards, firmly out of left field.

However, far from a wide-eyed newcomer to the world of business, it turns out that “P-Gel” Yates (I checked his nickname on a Jersey Shore nickname generator) has been an entrepreneur since a basketball scholarship took him from Oldham County High School to Brescia University in Owensboro 28 years ago. He started his first business, distributing John Conti coffee products in Columbus, Ohio, straight out of college, before another spell in the coffee trade in Nashville. “I earned my MBA in real-life business,” he says.

His company, Happy Feet, has been on the go for the better part of 20 years. It makes slippers – those big fat comfortable-looking slippers, often featuring sports team colors and logos. Chances are you’ve seen them, even if you haven’t bought a pair … yet.

“I sold the coffee business in Nashville then tried my hand at mall kiosks. In 1996 my family and I bought 4,000 pairs of these slippers after seeing them at a novelty gift trade show. They sold out very fast, and I have been developing the product and the company ever since.”

In fact, Yates liked his fat slippers so much that he bought the company. Very Victor Kiam, for anyone old enough to remember him. Since 2002, Happy Feet’s sales growth has been impressive, especially online – maybe not in tech terms, but certainly in slipper terms. The business went from about $20,000 in online sales in 2002 to selling about $2 million per year currently.

So where does Snooki and “Shark Tank” fit in?

Snooki, modeling Happy Feet slippers
Snooki and Happy Feet

“My kids ran into my home office one day and said, ‘Dad, Snooki is wearing a pair of your slippers on ‘Jersey Shore!’’ I had to ask them two questions: Who is Snooki and what is ‘Jersey Shore?’ Anyway, despite my ignorance, it turned out to be a pretty significant moment for us. I was flooded with requests for the same slippers, and before long we had reached a licensing agreement with Snooki for her to design and market her own line of slippers.”

P-Gel Yates and Snooki

Incredible though it may seem to anyone who endured more than a few minutes of “Jersey Shore,” Yates says Snooki has turned out to be involved, hard working and mature. “She did that show to build a brand. What people saw there — the partying and hard living — is not the real her. She is involved with the whole production process, works very hard, and is incredibly sweet. She is no diva and is far smarter than people give her credit for.”

Having signed on with Snooki, a reality TV legend, Yates then set his sights on getting on reality television himself. Seems like a natural progression.

For the uninitiated, “Shark Tank” is sort of like “American Idol” but for businesses. Inventors and entrepreneurs get 12 minutes to pitch their ideas to a panel of Simon Cowell-like tycoons, including Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who then trash their ideas, give honest advice or, for the lucky few, invest in their business.

The process is exhaustive, and just getting on the show is a remarkable feat. In 2012, there were about 38,000 applicants for the show’s fifth season, of which about 120 were filmed and grilled in front of the panel, only for about half of them to end up on the cutting room floor. Yates only found out two weeks ago, nine months after the application process began, that he has been selected for broadcast.

“I ended up making three pitch videos that are reviewed by a various production staff,” says Yates. “I also had the pleasure of filling out about a 60-page application form once they decided they were interested in me, including financials, legal disclosures and other information about my business. Getting on this show isn’t a matter of lining up for a chance to sing a song.”

Sounds like a lot of work for an opportunity to have your dreams flayed alive on national television. Not at all, says Yates: “I looked at it as an opportunity to give my business a 12-minute pitch on national television, something that might cost about $1.6 million if I bought that time as advertising. My business is established, so it wasn’t make or break for me. I didn’t see any chance of failure in it, only varying degrees of success.”

Yates may or may not have won over the panel enough for any of them to write a check; you’ll have to tune in to find out. However, he is enthusiastic about the potential opportunities.

“I’ve already been contacted by a handful of investors who heard I was on the show. For me it’s the collateral opportunities that are as important as my current business, which will survive and thrive no matter what. As an entrepreneur I am always looking for new possibilities and directions, so I have no doubt that it will be worth every moment that I put into it.”

Despite his confidence, Yates is still likely to be a little nervous come showtime. His 12 minutes of fame was cut down from 45 minutes of footage, and he hasn’t seen the results yet. “It all depends on how they edit. I got off to a difficult start. One of the panelists asked me a very tough question that I hadn’t prepared for – and I thought I had prepared for everything. I can’t say who it was other than she wasn’t very nice to me. I managed to pull myself together, had some great connection with Mark Cuban, and walked off happy that I had not only given it my best shot, but a shot I’m proud of, whatever the outcome.”

Pat Yates (minus Snooki, sadly) and Happy Feet will be on “Shark Tank” at 8 p.m. Thursday on ABC.

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Andrew Dewson was born in Spain and raised in England to very Scottish parents. Dewson was investment editor and markets correspondent for The Independent newspaper in Great Britain and has also written for The Financial Times, Financial News and Private Equity News

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