For more than 11 seasons, Shark Tank has engaged television audiences by pulling back the curtain on how small entrepreneurs might get funded. In the show, small business owners have opportunities to make compelling “elevator pitches”—that is, brief presentations of their ideas that highlight what makes those ideas of potential interest—to a panel of expert investors. These investors all have long-running experience investing in various companies, and in the show, they decide at the moment whether to offer investment of some of their own money in the novel ideas.
For entrepreneurs that earn the opportunity to be on the show, the potential is huge. Not only do they have a chance to receive substantial and often critically important funding, but they might reach a massive, nationwide audience of viewers, meaning that their target market immediately and automatically increases. But to attain these positive outcomes, they have to sell their ideas to at least three different audiences, each of which demands unique approaches.
First, they have to get accepted onto the show. An estimated 40,000 people apply each year; just 158 are selected. Thus, even though the online application can be completed relatively quickly, convincing the show’s producers to accept them requires far more effort. Entrepreneurs need to sell themselves and their products through a video and text descriptions. Because they cannot interact in person, they need to rely on strong video technology skills and be able to present themselves appealingly. One successful applicant noted that in the first several versions of his video, he and his partner came off wooden and awkward. Once they took a break to grab some pizza and wine though, they filmed an exciting, entertaining video in which he acted like a human jack-in-the-box.
Second, they have to appeal to the sharks. This highly skeptical audience comes in to the presentation ready to poke holes in the business plan—not only because they are putting their own money at stake, but also because it makes for good television if they issue tough challenges. The show does not allow do-overs if contestants make a mistake either. Thus the applicants must be totally and completely prepared, with detailed company information on hand. Before going onto the set, they should have carefully identified any possible concerns that these buyers might have, so that they can address them confidently and accurately.
Third, though receiving the funding is clearly helpful, even entrepreneurs that do not convince a shark might benefit from the increased exposure the show grants their products. Therefore, they must be prepared to serve customers who watch and are ready to buy, by having a well-designed website already available and operational and ensuring they have sufficient production capabilities to meet the new demand. With these resources in place, they can complete the sale to their end customers.
For all three audiences though, the key is a well-told story. If an entrepreneur can engage them with a totally clever product, supported by a heart-felt origin story and accounts of the adversity he or she has sought to overcome to achieve dreams of greatness by bringing a product to market, the opportunities for success in conventional markets will be that much greater.
Source: Hayden Field, “A ‘Shark Tank’ Alumnus Reveals How to Use Psychology to ‘Sell’ Customers and Investors on Your Company,” Entrepreneur, February 4, 2020; Gary Levin, “‘Shark Tank’: All Your Burning Questions, Answered,” USA Today, January 4, 2019.