What it’s really like to be on Shark Tank, why every early-stage entrepreneur should do it, and why Paul Graham is wrong.
Recently, tech investors investors Paul Graham, Chris Sacca, and Mark Cuban went at each other on Twitter about whether going on Shark Tank is a great idea or a dangerous distraction for start-ups.
I should know. As an experienced Silicon Valley tech CEO with a successful exit under my belt, my co-founder and I decided to launch our newest start-up, Hatch Baby, via a Shark Tank appearance. This is the story of why we did it — and the costs and benefits of the choice.
First things first: Paul Graham is wrong. I can unequivocally tell you that if you meet the criteria below, you should do everything you can to try to appear on Shark Tank. Full stop. There is no other way for a start-up to get the kind of exposure that they offer. When our episode aired on January 15, Shark Tank gave us the opportunity to speak to seven million potential customers about our product, about Hatch Baby, and about ourselves. For free. If you meet all or most of the criteria below, do your best to get a spot on the show. You won’t regret it.
- You have a product that you can show. Shark Tank wants to highlight products that people can understand. For us this meant that we got to show off our Smart Changing Pad, but not our company vision. (The reality of a start-up is that your first product has to do well enough to give you the right to execute on your larger vision, so it’s a reasonable focus for the show, but can be limiting for a company). By the way, they were very discouraging of app-only businesses in the open casting call, but I believe this will change, especially with greater tech influence on the panel.
- You believe in your business and you can articulate why. The discussion is dynamic, way more so than at a typical VC pitch. We spent more than an hour on set with the Sharks who all asked questions and offered opinions. You have to passionately and persuasively argue for what you believe. Remember that the Sharks are just people too — yes, they are richer than you, but they do not know more than you do, especially about your business. You are the expert. Act like it.
- You can take a personal insult (or two!) Shark Tank knows what makes for good reality TV. That includes one panelist who will call it exactly like he sees it. Mr. Wonderful (Kevin O’Leary) is that guy. He was in true form for us. He didn’t think much of our product and he let us know in a quippy, personally insulting way. If you are someone who takes the bait and gets upset, Shark Tank is probably not going to work out for you.
- Don’t take the appearance too seriously. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare — you should — just as you do for normal VC meetings. But, if you know that you are there first and foremost to talk to the audience, you’ll focus on the right things. You should know your business and your numbers cold, but don’t go crazy analyzing past appearances or the nuances of each Shark. And know that this is ultimately a small part of your company journey. We had a good time on the show, but we also know that we have a lot of hard work ahead of us to build a meaningful business.
- Don’t need them. When we appeared on the show, we knew that our main backer, True Ventures, was supportive of doing our next funding round no matter what happened on Shark Tank. Although it’s wonderful TV when you can see the emotion of someone engaging in a life or death struggle, it makes for crazy high stakes for the entrepreneur. Do what you can to not need the money so you can keep your cool and focus about why you are there.
- But really try to get them. Although you are speaking to the audience first and foremost, you are there to make a deal. Know what deal you want, and work your way to the right deal for your company. This also means not being afraid to walk away if it doesn’t work for you. We knew about investor Chris Sacca before we went on the show and we tried to craft our pitch to appeal to him. We were lucky enough to make a deal and we are so glad we did. He’s been amazing, not only in supporting our Shark Tank appearance, but also as a follow-on investor, an active business advisor, and an avid user of the Smart Changing Pad. I understand that many of the other Sharks add post-show value to the teams they invest in as well.
- Get others excited about your appearance. You can leverage your appearance to do strategic deals and create relationships. Everyone knows about the show’s reach and would love a mention on TV. Once you have a good idea that you’ll be filming, reach out to potential partners who will help grow your business (regardless of Shark Tank). It’ll make your company look better to the Sharks and it’ll help you grow your business. And, make sure to do all you can to follow through and promote them during the taping.
- Be prepared to sell. The show is an amazing direct-response vehicle. As soon as our segment aired on the east coast, our traffic and sales took off. I highly recommend running a specific Shark Tank special or deal on your website. We prominently promoted one and sold out our entire first run of product.
And for those who still aren’t convinced enough to book a flight to an audition now, here’s a breakdown of the cost in terms of time and effort:
- Audition. Any early-stage entrepreneur has his or her one minute pitch down cold — no other prep is required. Unless you have some special connection, you’ll need to get yourself to a city with an open casting call. We did ours in Vegas during CES. It was a great experience — I met people in line who I never would have met otherwise. There was a homeless man in front of us in line with a honeymoon vacation idea, a woman behind us who had a new way of making dentures, and a couple guys from a swat team in back of her with an innovation on an emergency kit. It was a really fun group, full of fantastic energy. The producers who interviewed us seemed excited to meet everyone and seemed to give everyone a fair shot.
- Callbacks. About two months after our audition, a producer contacted us to ask us to make an eight minute video with more detail about us and our business. We had a friend come film and edit it.
- Phone Interviews, Paperwork. There are a few phone calls with your assigned producers to get a sense of who you really are and whether you can talk off the cuff. The later calls are to brainstorm your rehearsed one minute pitch. At this point, they also do a background check and some business inquiries to make sure you are legitimate.
- Dry Run. Your assigned producers will ask you to film your pitch and will give you feedback. After you get the thumbs up to film, you’ll do an in-person pitch with your props to a panel of producers who will give you feedback. We had two bumps in the road here: (1) The producers told me to shut my trap about our appearance or risk not filming (they’d heard from someone that I was asking around to learn who our guest shark would be — whoops!) and (2) They asked Dave, my husband and co-founder, to work on smiling more. Apparently, he’s a fantastic poker player, but not a made for TV personality, which is one of the reasons I love him.
- Filming. The show flies you to LA the night before you film and puts everyone up at the same hotel. That was definitely the hardest night for us. We did a dry run the night before with a friend from LA. I was absolutely terrible (fumbling over my words, not making eye contact) and was really worried about how I’d do on stage. Luckily, Dave was solid. After a restless night, they drove the morning group of entrepreneurs to the show. Everyone goes together in the morning to stand on the set to get familiar with it. It’s a much more casual atmosphere than you might think (you can’t see any cameras anywhere). We waiting in our dressing room for hours and then finally got the call that we were up.
- Go time. Dave and I stood outside the hallway doors, looked at each other, took deep breaths and waited for the “go” call. We walked through the doors and the fun began. Once we got through our initial pitch, the questions started right away. As nervous as I was the night before, I felt calm and assured on stage. We acted as a team (despite the fact that they ended up showing more of me than Dave). There are no cuts during filming — it is truly one long conversation. We were on the stage for more than an hour — from that they edited it down to a few of the most interesting minutes keeping true to the chronology of the conversation.
- All in all, I think we probably spent six days of work on the preparation and filming of the show.
Shark Tank is a highly accessible and a slightly modified — for better and worse — version of what happens in the real world of venture capital. You don’t need connections. You only need an interesting product and the guts to defend it, yourself and your valuation. There is no denying that it’s an amazing opportunity that any early-stage entrepreneur worth his or her salt should jump at doing.