Alum brings hats to Canyon Ventures, 'Shark Tank'

Noggin Boss creator Gabe Cooper, a GCU graduate, shows off his oversized hats, which earned him and business partner Sean Starner an opportunity to pitch on “Shark Tank.” (Photo by Ralph Freso)

By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

There have been enough God moments in the development of Noggin Boss to fill one of those oversized hats the company sells.

There was the pandemic that stalled the startup before it even started but actually proved to be a blessing.

Cooper (left) and business partner Sean Starner make their pitch on “Shark Tank,” which airs at 7 p.m. Friday on ABC.

There was moving into the Canyon Ventures Center at Grand Canyon University and noticing that several other occupants needed sewing help.

There was the perfectly timed phone call to a man who knows people who can sew – and needed something like Noggin Boss to help those people create some desperately needed income.

And, finally, there was being chosen from thousands of applicants for “Shark Tank.”

The television appearance by Gabe Cooper, who graduated from GCU with a business degree in 2002 and an MBA in 2010, and his business partner, Sean Starner, was aired Friday, and Cooper and Starner did more than make a deal with the sharks – they made "Shark Tank" history (more on that below). 

What is Noggin Boss all about and why has it come to a head with sports fans? Cooper said it has been 50 years since the last true innovation in the sports promotion space – the foam finger. But hats are popular, so they had an idea: “Let’s make a giant hat and see what happens.”

He compared the development phase to “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” – the first one was too big, the second one was too small but the third one was just right.

Then they tested it at events. The reaction: “Where did you get that? How can I buy that?”

“So it kind of passed our gut check,” Cooper said.

Maybe they were onto something big (pun most definitely intended). But then, just a few weeks after it was introduced at the Waste Management Phoenix Open pro golf tournament in 2020, the pandemic struck. Sports and all other events were shut down.

Problem? Not at all, as it turned out.

“What was great was, we were able to get on the phone because all these buyers had nothing else to do,” Cooper said. “They had no budgets, but they had time on their hands.

“So we were able to talk to buyers of all these professional teams, all these corporate sponsors, and at least let them know, ‘Hey, when you’re ready, when the world opens back up, we’re here for ya.’”

They also had to pivot the business to create local operations because overseas travel was suspended, too. They found space in north Phoenix and plan to move the whole operation to Canyon Ventures in the near future.

“It made us innovate and stay relevant, which was hard,” Cooper said. “Keeping our business debt-free was something we were very proud of. As the opportunity for ‘Shark Tank’ came on, and it seemed like the moment was moving in all kinds of different directions, God opened the doors at just the right time.”

Move to Canyon Ventures

When the world finally started to reopen last year, Cooper read about Canyon Ventures and was introduced to its director, Robert Vera, by a friend.

GCU grad, interesting idea – talk about a good fit for Canyon Ventures. And for the University. As the company’s website says (note the last six words), “Founded in 2019, Noggin Boss was formed by two best friends who love all things faith, family, sports, business and charity.”

The good fortune built on faith didn’t stop there. Soon after opening his Canyon Ventures office in January, Cooper noticed that several other startups in the business incubator needed sewing help. So did he, for the patches on the Noggins.

A friend runs one of the GoTEN Ministries, which helps refugees get resettled in the United States. When Cooper called him, his buddy was at a church conference in Texas and had just walked past a table with books written by another Gabe Cooper – and had thought of his friend Gabe.

The man said this:

“You’re not going to believe this, but we just started a sewing class. They make purses for $10.’ But it’s really hard for them to find work because they have to watch their kids and their husbands are working all day.”

They're now sewing for Cooper and other Canyon Ventures outlets. The God moment then got even more divine.

The man later called and asked if Gabe knew where he might be able to find furniture for a family that had just moved into an empty condo.

Cooper was only vaguely aware that Canyon Ventures shares the building with the new GCU CityServe warehouse. But he asked around and, not long after, the condo was fully furnished thanks to the initiative that is approaching $1 million in goods distributed to those in need.

It’s Cooper’s way of doing what he can to show his gratitude for all the blessings that have come his way. He also is giving back to GCU – he has been a frequent speaker in Colangelo College of Business classes, and his staff includes three alumni and soon will employ four students.

“As an alum, I know what good souls the students are here,” he said.

Said CCOB Dean Dr. Randy Gibb, “We so appreciate Robert’s work in the Phoenix entrepreneurial ecosystem – getting the word out about the amazing opportunities at Canyon Ventures, it is just one startup at a time. We are excited to see how Noggin Boss can grow and have our students working and learning with them on their journey.”

Where to get Noggins

Cooper is hoping the unusual nature of his Noggins will help the company quickly reach top speed when it ramps up to full operations. The hats retail for $65 with a fashion patch, and a hat with a custom logo is $65 plus a one-time fee of $50. They’re available at nogginboss.com.

The most obvious use of the hats is to be noticed at sports events. They’re so big you don’t even need sunscreen on your face – and you’ll certainly get noticed.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban dons one of the Noggins at “Shark Tank.”

“Fans want to promote what they’re excited about, and there’s no better way than wearing one of those Noggins to an event,” he said. “You’re guaranteed to be on the Jumbotron or TV. It’s not a matter of if, it’s just, how many times will you be on it?”

Cooper and Starner also are targeting the promotional market. For example, a Noggin fetched $1,000 as one of the auction prizes at a charity golf tournament.

One obvious question remains: Why do people like oversized hats?

“I think it does something to your brain that just automatically makes you pause for a second and go, ‘Something’s not right here,’” Cooper said. “Once you catch up to what’s happening, it makes you smile and laugh. I think that natural hit of human dopamine is just something that’s contagious.”

Cooper is still shocked that Noggin Boss was even chosen for "Shark Tank." The show had casting calls before the pandemic, and he thought the people who make the decisions would need to meet him and Starner and see the hats to truly appreciate what they were doing.

Instead, they had to apply online, and Cooper heard there were 40,000 applicants for this season alone.

“So it really is a miracle to get a call back,” he said.

And when they got the call, they did a lot of research before going on the show. Cooper's family binge watched all 12 seasons in a matter of a couple of months ("I owe them the best vacation ever," he said) to see what was successful, what was bad, how the sharks reacted and what their pain points were. 

"We noticed that when an entrepreneur walks in, the first thing they do is totally set off the sharks with their evaluation. They ask for way too much money, and they want to give away zero equity because they feel that this is their baby and it’s worth way more, in their minds," Cooper said. "So automatically you’re upsetting a shark tank. When there’s blood in the water, you’re done. We said, ‘What if we went the far other way? What if we said we’re not looking for a lot of money, and then we’re going to give away a healthy amount of equity?'"

As a result, they requested only a $50,000 investment for a 25% stake in the company, emphasizing that their main goal was the investor's help with licensing issues they've encountered in the sports world. One of the sharks, Daymond John, immediately offered the money but for a 30% stake, and after hesitating for a second – Barbara Corcoran said she might want to make an offer, too – Cooper and Starner accepted it.

As they exited, they were told that it was the fastest close in the history of the show.

"There was so much buzz around the set," Cooper said. "Every place we encountered 'Shark Tank' staff leaving the set, they were telling us, 'Congratulations on the fastest deal!'" 

Most importantly, they had gotten the investment they need. But they earned something else that's hard to obtain – the admiration of the sharks.

"I love those guys. Those guys are great," Corcoran said as they walked off the set. 

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].

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Related content:

GCU Today: Canyon Ventures helps Lux Longboards keep rolling

GCU Today: Investors see the value in Canyon Ventures Center

ABC15 Phoenix: Phoenix hat company Noggin Boss hoping to team up with Suns, expand business

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