Why Shark Tank is Annoying and Flawed

Admit it. You’ve had a down-night in a hotel room, mindlessly flipping channels and hating yourself for reading the room service menu for the seventh time. You know you should be out, eating a nice dinner and enjoying the town you find yourself in. In the haze of travel, self-loathing, and fatigue, however, a bright light appears. A siren calling you. A beacon of hope.

You find Shark Tank on the tube and notice there are 4 episodes in a row. Your night is made.

You feeling me?

If you don’t at this point, then the rest of the article won’t be of any interest. But if you do…then please be patient- this piece won’t take more than a few minutes.

Shark Tank is captivating on many levels. The “Sharks” themselves are a varied group, both in level of success and in style. From the polite Lori to the mordant “Mr. Wonderful,” they employ vastly different rhetorical styles. Each is successful-yet-quirky.

The entrepreneurs range from sophisticated and confident to, well, downright banal and stupid. Many come on the “Tank” ill-prepared. Many of the ideas for which they are garnering investment are the go-nowhere fantasies of “Wantrepreneurs.” Still other ideas are brilliant and in a few famous cases turned out to be insanely profitable companies.

The Sharks are arrayed like royalty, seated comfortably, while the entrepreneurs stand like supplicants, pleading their cases. Often, they have props-modern day alms bowls. The Sharks are uniformly engaged in the conversation while the Entrepreneurs range from intense and articulate to wooden and metaphorically “stoned.”

The Sharks are competitive with one another but, as is the case with oligarchs of all types, are often collusive. Some of the entrepreneurs are dexterous at playing them off against each other while others annoy them all as they ham-handedly search for the best deal. Once in a blue moon, three, four, or five of the Sharks co-invest.

While I have no idea how the entrepreneurs are selected from what I assume to be a large applicant pool, the Producers of the show clearly know how to create good TV. No doubt, they can spot the prepared ones with great ideas and the rank amateurs with non-starter companies; they choose a mix of the two for appearance on the Tank. We viewers learn from the good ones and indulge in voyeuristic elitism when beholding the bad ones. We simultaneously cringe and revel in the agony of rejected entrepreneurs who squander a chance for investment from these luminaries. We become at once empaths and Springer-esque tyrants.

For the middle of the road supplicants with their barbecue sauces and clothing items, one gains a newfound respect. In a bottle of sauce, a floral jumper, or a new-fangled hook are the congealed hopes dreams, and sweat of people driven by the desire to create and who are, perhaps, beguiled by stories of overnight millionaires. These are the stories that make America what it is- for better, worse, or neither.

And therein lies the rub. The story that animates the show, that forms its ontological foundation, is a flawed one.

The Entrepreneurs, however, are not the problem. No matter how poorly spoken or lackluster the idea, they are for the most part people driven to build.

The Sharks are in fact the problem. They are what makes the show annoying and deeply flawed.

At the most elemental level, the thought that riches allow one to sit in judgment on others is nauseating. Many of the Sharks take it further, believing that their position of institutional power allows them to upbraid and demean the hapless supplicants. While not all Sharks are rhetorically as harsh, they all share the view that they are on a perch- condescending and oracular.

The Sharks also view the world through the specificities of their own experience. Each one has a version of the “when I was X, I did Y” homily. This is the definition of arrogance- extrapolating from one’s own limited experience to create a generalized view of truth. Such hubris impels the rich and powerful to mold institutions in the shape of their own biases and to port lessons from business into areas of life that operate on entirely different models. Building Facebook doesn’t mean you can “fix” Education nor does making Microsoft a powerhouse suggest that you understand agriculture or medicine.

While these behaviors make the Tank tough to stomach, the most annoying part has nothing to do with philosophy.

The most annoying part of Shark Tank is the hypocritical business advice most of the Sharks offer Entrepreneurs.

If you’ve watched even one or two episodes of the Tank you’ll know that about 3 minutes into each presentation, one of the Sharks asks something equivalent to “So, how much money is the business making?” For those folks who have invested heavily into an idea, who are betting on the come line, who know that great ideas need seed money, development, and nurturing, this is the moment where the Tank goes south.

At this stage, when the entrepreneur suggests that profit is yet to come, that investing now is the way to get to profitability and growth, the Sharks jump in. They discuss how much they like to make money, how businesses have to be profitable and so on. They talk about cutting costs, changing price points, and so on. All seemingly sensible-if-ordinary feedback.

But hold on. Look around you. One Shark invested heavily in Uber. So where’s the profit there? Another sold a dotcom for billions. Was it making money? Isn’t the mantra of the Valley that losing money while building a base is in fact the right strategy?

What’s good enough for the oligarchs should surely be good enough for normal, working people who happen to have had an idea they believe in right?

Nah. Not in the Tank. In the Tank, the entrepreneur is merely plankton.

That is the story for most- they don’t make millions and fly private planes.

So, yeah, I’ll probably binge watch the show again. But my Sharks sunk in my estimation a long time ago.