By Brady Rhoades
On a recent episode of the Emmy-award winning Shark Tank, a 17-year-old entrepreneur—a born salesman—pitched a product that would help prevent Plantar Fasciitis, a debilitating foot condition.
This prompted toothy smiles all around from the sharks, until the teenager stated that he planned on skipping college and pursuing his business full-time.
Those smiles turned to winces.
“I’ll be devastated if you skip college,” said shark Mark Cuban, a billionaire who owns the Dallas Mavericks. Cuban gently lectured the youth on the importance of learning science, technology, engineering, finance, statistics, and marketing.
“Knowledge gives you the greatest competitive advantage,” he said, adding that he ran businesses out of dorm rooms while in college.
Everyone knows that Shark Tank is about entrepreneurship. And everyone knows there are lucrative opportunities in Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Math (STEAM). The economy is leaning—and none too lightly—in that direction.
Just take a gander at a few of the tech-startups that have made it big by partnering with sharks:
- Groovebook: People love snapping pictures on their phones, but until Groovebook, there really wasn’t an easy way to get them printed and placed into an album. With Groovebook, users can select photos right from their camera roll, and upload them to the app. The selected photos will be printed and delivered right to your door in the photo album of your choice. Founders Julie and Brian Whiteman got the idea when Julie lost all her family photos on her smartphone. After its deal with Shark Tank, Groovebook sold to Shutterfly for $14.5 million;
- PhoneSoap: Thanks to PhoneSoap, your phone can be properly cleaned. Makers Dan Barnes and Wes LaPorte landed the deal on Shark Tank. That move earned PhoneSoap a spot on QVC, where it made the bulk of its initial earnings. By the beginning of 2016, Phonesoap had sold more than 100,000 units after landing a retail deal with Bed, Bath, & Beyond;
- Breathometer: Charles Yim’s Breathometer brought six sharks together. It was a feeding frenzy. The Breathometer was a mobile device app and attachment initially developed to analyze blood-alcohol-content level. The idea was that the Breathometer could help party-goers make better judgments and avoid drinking and driving. The cast of the show agreed to go in on a deal with Yim. Since then, Yim has raised $1 million and has a new product called Mint that monitors oral health.
Shark Tank, which has become a cultural touchstone in America and around the world, premiered in August 2009 and aired 14 episodes through January 2010. In August of that same year, it was renewed for a second season. Season 2 secured a Friday night time slot.
By 2013, CNBC licensed exclusive off-network cable rights for the series from ABC.
Shark Tank is now in its ninth season, and stronger than ever. Sharks have invested more than $100 million in contestants’ businesses, turning dozens of entrepreneurs into millionaires.
The show has won four Emmys, in 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2017.
The show’s success comes, in part, from its premise. Entrepreneurs present their products to the sharks, who are tough, sophisticated investors. Also accounting for the success is the educational value the show provides: viewers learn about profit margins, scale-ability, branding and more.
But make no mistake: the sharks are the stars; they draw eyeballs to the screen.
Viewers have gotten a glimpse into the minds of Richard Branson, Troy Carter, Ashton Kutcher, Chris Sacca, Phil Crowley, and Kevin Harrington.
The mainstays have been the straight-shooting Cuban, take-no-prisoners investor Kevin O’Leary (“Mr. Wonderful”), QVC phenom Lori Greiner, real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran, global tech-innovator Robert Herjavec and fashion visionary Daymond John.
This season, baseball great and business superstar Alex Rodriguez and Skinnygirl Cocktails founder Bethenny Frankel (who you might also recognize from The Real Housewives of New York) have joined the show.
The diversity of the sharks is a big part of Shark Tank’s appeal.
There have been women, African-Americans, immigrants and, now, a Hispanic (Rodriguez).
That means viewers get all manner of perspectives.
In turn, the show attracts a diverse group of entrepreneurs. Any businessman or woman worth his or her salt will tell you that a key to success is drawing from the biggest talent pool available. Contestants’ ideas matter; their knowledge matters; their work ethic matters. Their gender, race, religion, age … not so much.
A Shark Tank panel recently discussed secrets to the show’s success, and keys to success in business, touching on tech-startups and the importance of inclusion when it comes to talent. Here are some nuggets from the sharks:
- Frankel, on how she branded Skinnygirl: “I used that platform (TV) to communicate with women about business, be relatable, to tell people about my life. Through stories on the show I created my brand in real time, from the logo, to the concept, and so I think the audience enjoyed watching it happen. A lot of the time with Shark Tank people were successful already, they were making money, I was completely broke when I was on housewives and so people watch it unfold… For me, with the creation of the skinny girl margarita, to me it was a simple, basic idea. It was the first ready-to-drink low calorie cocktail. I didn’t know anything, and it was a male run business. I pitched it to everyone and no one wanted to do it. People didn’t even come to the meetings. And I didn’t know what licensing meant, I didn’t know what equity meant, I just had this idea. You just are hustling. It’s about the execution, it’s the hustle.”
- Rodriguez, on his transformation from athlete to investor: “I was always thinking about life after baseball, I was looking at athletes, average career is five and a half years… At 18-19, I started thinking that I didn’t want to be one of those guys who ran into financial trouble so I started ARod Corp out of fear… and now I manage over 15,000 apartment units in 15 states and we have over 500 people working for us. I’ve been doing this for a while and it is a great thrill and privilege to be allowed on the Shark Tank platform and do what I’ve been doing. Help young entrepreneurs, collaborating, and helping them meet their dreams and mentor them. And of course being the first Hispanic shark is something to be really proud of.”
Rodriguez also talked about the importance of failing. That’s right. Failing.
“I always tell young entrepreneurs to not to be afraid to try, failure is part of it. When people think about my career, they think about the championships, the RBIs, the home runs, but what they don’t realize is that I’m fifth all-time in striking out, so that means I have a Ph.D in failing. But I also have a masters in getting back up and that’s what America is all about, getting back up, not getting defined by your mistakes, and pushing forward.”
- Daymond John, AKA “The Brandfather,” on the beauty of owning your own business: “I find it gratifying when we found out that it was one of the top shows in Kids and Family. There is nothing wrong with kids wanting to be a rapper or player, but when they realize and understand what their parents go through, they want to start their own businesses, they are creating their own business, and we are creating entrepreneurs. ”
- The ever-optimistic Herjavec, on the importance of diversity: “Look at the diversity on this stage, that’s what I love. There is no color, race, or sex for success … We are all different, look at all the different answers. We all respect each other. You see people come out in the pressure, and I can’t help but empathize with these people.”
- The shrewd, motherly Corcoran, on her love of the show: “What’s satisfying for me and for us sharks is when we look back at own careers and we were enormously at risk, we didn’t know when we were going to get paid, we didn’t even have a payroll. And so what we get to do as sharks is that we live through that experience again and again.”
- Greiner, known as the “warm-blooded shark,” on the value of digital media: “You can also do things digitally, that’s huge. Today, you can do digital tests. You can do a Facebook ad, or an Instagram story. You can find a world of information, and if that works out, then you can do an infomercial.”
Griener knows what she’s talking about. She’s negotiated deals for Simply Fitboard, Scrub Daddy and Sleep Stylers, netting hundreds of millions in sales
- O’Leary, whose sale of The Learning Company to Mattel in the 1990s made him a multi-millionaire, on honesty: “Shark Tank is a place where not everyone can win; you need to tell them the truth.”
- Cuban, nothing if not astute, recognized the coming tech-boom as early as 1982. Perhaps that’s why his eyes sparkle when an exciting tech innovation is introduced on the show.
After graduating from the Kelley School of Business in Indiana, he started his own company, MicroSolutions, a system integrator and software reseller. The company was an early proponent of technologies such as Carbon Copy, Lotus Notes, and CompuServe. In 1990, Cuban sold MicroSolutions to CompuServe—then a subsidiary of H&R Block—for $6 million.
About a decade later, Cuban become a billionaire during the dot-com explosion, selling Broadcast.com, a pioneer in webcasting, for more than $5 billion.
What’s going to be the NBT (Next Big Thing) to hit Shark Tank? Given that a generation of students are getting schooled in STEAM, the possibilities are limitless.
Isn’t that a big reason why we tune in?
“Technological change always accelerates,” Cuban said. “It never stagnates over time.”