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This Entrepreneur Pranked Mark Cuban on National Television. The Shark Was So Impressed He Offered to Invest $640,000 — in Empty Boxes. Ryan Walther, co-founder of prank gift box and gag gift company Prank-O, combined his passions for comedy and business.

By Amanda Breen

Key Takeaways

  • Ryan Walther and Arik Nordby were colleagues at The Onion when they launched their gift box company Prank-O.
  • The co-founders appeared on 'Shark Tank,' where they pranked the Sharks and even struck a deal with Mark Cuban.
  • These days, the company continues to focus on distribution and awareness — and, of course, making people laugh.
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Ryan Walther, co-founder of prank gift box and gag gift company Prank-O, has had a passion for comedy from a young age. "It goes back to when I was in third grade, and I saw David Letterman do Velcro Man," he tells Entrepreneur. "Right then, I said, 'I want to do that.'" Walther didn't "become the next king of late night," but he did work at the satirical news outlet The Onion for more than 20 years.

It was there that Walther met his co-founder Arik Nordby. Nordby would bring fake gift boxes to The Onion store, which always sold out fast. Walther saw potential in the product, and when a little bit of research revealed the plethora of gift-giving occasions in the U.S. — and that no company was the go-to brand for comedic gifting — the wheels continued to turn.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Prank-O. Arik Nordby, left; Ryan Walther, right.

"I felt that gifting had become obligatory and mundane," Walther says. "Aren't parties supposed to be full of laughter? So at that moment, I sought to develop a brand that brought great comedy to gifting occasions and parties."

Related: 'Don't Follow Your Passion': Mark Cuban Shares the 'Worst Piece' of Business Advice He's Ever Received — And How Changing That Mindset Can Lead to Success

"[With] everything that we do, we want to make sure people are laughing."

Walther and Nordby launched Prank-O — "a 21st-century gift company that delivers laughter and experience" — in July 2013. The first set of boxes included the Crib Dribbler, "kind of like a gerbil feeder [for] a crib"; the Wake & Bake Dream Griddle Alarm Clock; the Family Blankeez that covers up to eight people and even an SUV; and the Sizzl Bacon Scented Dryer Sheets.

"[With] everything that we do, we want to make sure people are laughing," Walther says. Essentially, Prank-O gives consumers "the keys to the car," he adds: Whoever shows up to the party with one of the comedic boxes in tow "[is] going to be the hero, where they deliver the prank pack, and the whole room erupts with laughter and passes it around, and it's a ton of fun."

One of the business's earliest hurdles was explaining to potential retailers that there wasn't actually a product in the box. But once they were in on the joke, the "light bulb" went off — and "they absolutely loved it," Walther says. Prank-O landed Urban Outfitters as its first account during the 2013 holiday season; Target, Kohl's, Walmart and numerous others followed.

Related: Turn April Fool's Day Into a Marketing Success With These Innovative Strategies

"We came out in our RynArik uniforms and presented different prank packs that were positioned as RynArik products."

In August 2018, a producer from Shark Tank called Walther about appearing on the show. Walther initially shot the idea down, much to his co-founder's — and the producer's — surprise. When the producer called back to ask why he'd declined, Walther said he "wasn't interested in selling the company in seven minutes." The producer explained that there's a due diligence period wherein either party can back out of a deal without penalty, and Walther was on board, as long as Prank-O was able to stay "on brand" — and prank the Sharks.

The producers loved the idea. "We came up with a skit where our company was RynArik Technologies, technology solutions for tomorrow, today," Walther recalls. "So we came out in our RynArik uniforms and presented different prank packs that were positioned as RynArik products. I was wearing a prank pack we brought to life: a magnetic plate that stuck to your head so your kids could eat a meal while they sat on your shoulders."

Image Credit: Courtesy of Prank-O. Ryan Walther, left; Arik Nordby, right.

The Sharks "were confused," Walther says — then "certainly became amused." When the duo revealed themselves as the co-founders of Prank-O, the company behind empty gift boxes, Mark Cuban was impressed. Prank-O had done $10 million in sales since 2013 and was on track for nearly $3 million in 2018. Although Walther and Nordby initially asked for $640,000 for an 8% stake, Cuban negotiated $640,000 for a 25% stake. The deal didn't close after the due diligence period.

Related: Humor Can Make You (and Your Employees) More Influential — If You Do It Right

"The studio is underwater — nobody can really know that — with sharks circling above you," Walther quips. "That kind of makes it a little more intense."

"I'm an empty box baron. Not many people in this world sell empty boxes."

The Onion is a social commentary on news, and Prank-O is a social commentary on consumers, Walther says. To stay current and relevant, Prank-O is constantly innovating to keep up with "the ever-changing times of products and technology." It's about layering "fresh" parody on what's new in the marketplace, he adds.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Prank-O

These days, Prank-O boasts a nearly six-figure email list with an open rate that can reach 60%. Still, marketing and distribution remain two of the company's most significant challenges. Many people simply aren't aware of the product, Walther says, and distribution in the gift space can be tough with Hallmark's and American Greetings' hold on the market. Selling through Amazon in addition to brick-and-mortar stores has been helpful, he notes.

Looking ahead, Prank-O has plans to "bring the Prank-O-verse and its characters and inventors" to life with a not yet disclosed media project, and next year, the company will launch Prank-O Labs, "which will essentially bring brands to life on and around April Fool's Day" — "a great day to spread laughter."

Related: 5 Corny Jokes Will Get You Past Cold-Calling Gatekeepers

"I'm an empty box baron," Walther says. "Not many people in this world sell empty boxes. We navigated it pretty well by building a nice following and continue to come up with new styles that make people laugh and find their way into press coverage, which certainly helps. So overall awareness certainly grows year over year."

Amanda Breen

Entrepreneur Staff

Senior Features Writer

Amanda Breen is a senior features writer at Entrepreneur.com. She is a graduate of Barnard College and received an MFA in writing at Columbia University, where she was a news fellow for the School of the Arts.

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