Into the Shark Tank: The months before the moment

Nick Pirollo
Jun 21, 2017 · 5 min read

Back towards the end of a brutal winter in 2015, Scholly finally had its day in the spotlight on Shark Tank — ending the episode with a bit of flare and a lot of fight among the Sharks. I still get a lot of questions about the show and what it has done for Scholly but, there was a lot of work across the company both before and after that single event I never documented that I feel would be worth writing down now.

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The Scholly team during the Shark Tank airing. (left to right — Me, Eli Bernstein, Chris Gray, Bryson Alef).

Before Entering the Tank

In the months leading up to our airing, we had a lot of work to do across the board and all of the planning had to be done with the idea that our segment may not air; and if it did — we might not know until the last minute. It was a tough balance throughout, but an invaluable experience as entrepreneurs: business doesn’t always play by your terms.

From a technical perspective, our app had pretty much only grown organically since launch, with some press hits here and there, but no epic spikes. This posed a unique challenge when preparing for a possible media hit known to bring the most prepared companies to their knees. Bryson and I had never been solely responsible for taking a company from 0 to 60, but we knew we could use our experience deploying systems when something was already pinned at 100 — at Epic and Vistaprint, respectively — and a great deal of Googling to dive in. All in all, it took about 3 months of long nights to work out the kinks: load testing, caching, working on pain points in our infrastructure, planning for the worst case scenarios (I’ve learned there is no such thing as over-prepared when it comes to a site crashing) and many, many more odds and ends.

From a business perspective, there were many other challenges facing us when it came to the consumers, and they all were going to have to be tackled in lockstep. How can we maximize the show’s potential? How can we not alienate our target demographics? How would consumers react to changes between the filming version of Scholly and the one they found online?

Diving Into the Tank

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Scholly’s CEO, Chris Gray, during the pitch

The day finally came early in 2015: we got clued in that we would be airing on February 20th, 2015. We had already finished up our deal but were not allowed to discuss it until the show aired or we found out that it wasn’t going to and we also had some key information about the segment from Chris’s experience in the Tank itself that everyone around us didn’t know about. With that news, we started planning a viewing party so that everyone would get to enjoy the episode with us and collectively find out the results. This, at least for me, added a huge level of pressure to performing well during the show — besides all of the country trying to access a potentially broken site, we were now going to have friends, family and colleagues with us at none other than First Round Capital’s offices.

Regardless, we gathered at FRC’s Philadelphia office on the night of the 20th with everyone and more in attendance. With everyone mingling and chatting the episode went on and on, all the while Bryson and I were hanging in the back of the room doing final checks, setting up monitoring so we could see any and all issues going on and getting the live traffic in view from Google Analytics. Finally, the last commercial break came, signifying it was our turn, and on the big screen, Chris walked into the Tank.

The pitch went great, a strong sell, and then the Sharks dove in, trying to bite chunks out of the company’s pitch and model. Right away, Lori came swooping in and made an on the spot offer, and causing a stir among Mark and Kevin who wanted to ask more deep questions. Daymond then interrupts and jumps in to join Lori and help Scholly push its mission to help make scholarships more accessible. The deal was done and as everyone now knows, the rest of the Sharks fumed off the stage.

“I’m going to do something I’ve never done before, I haven’t heard a lot, but I’m going to make you an offer right now … so I hope you just say ‘yes.’ “ — Lori Greiner

This whole time — the minutes that seemed like hours — my head was spinning. The servers we set up were hitting their maxes, new servers were spinning up to handle the traffic and the database took a hammering, but survived. Bryson and I watched as we saw traffic shoot from 0 to over 10,000 users on the site at any given time, and it kept climbing. We scoured for problems, loaded and reloaded the site, tried searches and sign ups and finally realized the fact that we had made it through the Tank.

After It All

The days after Shark Tank were an amazing time for us. Press from around the country, on-demand and DVR watchers and insane amounts of downloads from Scholly climbing to #1 in the Apple and Google App Stores. All in all, we stayed at the top of the Apple Store for almost 2 weeks and held the Education category even longer. It was amazing, not only to see our product above apps like Candy Crush and Minecraft during the time, but also the extreme outreach of support and positive feedback as we grew.

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The Scholly Search page on iOS.

We started getting our roots across the country and Scholly became all of our focuses. Over the next year we continued to grow, come up with new features to offer students and developed more ways to get Scholly in the hands of students through our Give:Scholly program. The ride continued through winning Rise of the Rest, releasing our fully re-branded and redesigned app, growing our team, the honor of Forbes’ under 30 and more.

I’ve been fortunate enough to still be apart of Scholly and watch it grow even after leaving the day to day operations in 2016 to help build Gradifi and help fight student debt from the other side of graduation. Since our airing on Shark Tank we have helped students get access to over $50mm in scholarships and I am excited to continue to watch it benefit students into the future.

Thanks for following along. If you enjoyed, click the heart below — if you want to know more, follow me on Instagram or reach out on!

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