Shark Tank Success Secrets

My wife and I have a Friday night ritual. Where years ago we used to pound shots to celebrate the end of the work week, these days it’s much less exhausting to throw on sweats, open a bottle of red, and gleefully make fun of other people’s dumb business ideas.

ABC’s hit show Shark Tank, which finds amateur entrepreneurs pitching their crazy homemade products to bigwigs in hopes of landing fat funds, isn’t just the best hour of entertainment on television. It’s also an open invitation to play investor from the comfort of your couch, or if you’re like me, hatch hypothetical harebrained businesses that might someday fetch you a windfall.



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We usually predict with accuracy which inventions on the show are doomed to fail—the bacon alarm clock was a duh, ditto the energy drink for cougars—but where my wife and I differ is in evaluating my own ideas: I think I’m a genius. She thinks I’m an idiot.I’ve tried defending my schemes to no avail, arguing their merits while luring her with the promise of millions of dollars. “Doesn’t sound practical,” she’ll say as she dismisses each plan, and with it, each million. “No one would actually buy that.”Maybe not. But to truly gauge the potential success of my products, I had to seek the opinions of people with actual investment expertise. People who have bankrolled brilliant businesses like mine. After all, how many guys walk away from an idea because one person told them it was stupid? I needed to hear the truth. I needed to give hope to men like me, with dreams as big as their hearts.

I needed to enter the Shark Tank.

Now, nearly all of the people who land on the show have legitimate companies they’ve spent many years—and lots of cash—cultivating. And they still get denied, ridiculed, and eaten alive for our amusement. I have no patents, sales, or tangible business sense, so I would have to rely solely on my pitches and undeniable charm if I were to impress the intimidating investors in charge of my fate.

Here’s what happened when I asked these Sharks—among them Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and FUBU founder Daymond John—to offer their honest assessments of my ideas. SPOILER: While I won’t be ditching my day job any time soon, that doesn’t mean you’ll have to stick at yours forever. On the next pages, you’ll find the secrets to creating a dynamite business, winning loyal customers, and most importantly, striking it filthy rich.

Though I could have fed the Sharks a hundred half-assed pitches, I settled on the four services that I thought would draw the least scorn. I was wrong.

1. “Honeyshots”

The pitch: This is something I thought of on my honeymoon last year. My wife and I trekked to beautiful St. Thomas, and while we logged plenty of hours in the hotel room, we were forced to take awkward iPhone photos of each other—and worse, selfies—while we were off seeing the island’s sights. With Honeyshots, we could have worked with our resort to hire a local photographer to tag along for a day and take wedding-caliber photos of us hiking, snorkeling, and boozing at the beach. But not behind closed doors, because that’s porn.

What do the Sharks say? 

I first pitch to Kevin O’Leary, a.k.a. Mr. Wonderful, a Canadian venture capitalist who made his bones selling software companies. “It’s a really bad idea,” says O’Leary, the show’s resident hardass. “Cell phones are getting better and better at taking high-resolution pictures, so the idea of selling that service and having somebody pay for it when the majority of pictures are free is bad. Plus, you would pay a fortune to find someone just at the right time on their honeymoon who would be willing to try it. Actually, it’s an incredibly stupid idea. Shame on you.”

Well, that’s a bit harsh. I then offer the idea to technology guru Robert Herjavec, who tends to be far more forgiving of shaky pitches so long as the product makes sense, like Honeyshots. He’s the show’s father figure, in a way, so maybe he’ll throw me a bone. His critique: “Horrible idea. And I’d be worried about your marriage.” It’s getting a little personal. “When I got married, we went to an island in the Maldines and stayed in a hut the whole week. If you’re on your honeymoon and thinking about business first, you have bigger problems, my friend,” says Herjavec, only cutting deeper.

Like a wounded bird, I flock to Cuban, hoping for friendlier feedback. Echoing Herjavec, the billionaire fires back a familiar reply: “Horrible idea.” Why? “Because most people save up every penny they have to travel and enjoy their honeymoon. Why spend any on some schmoe to take pictures? It’s a feature. Not a business.”

This is going great so far.

The lessons:

Identify the problem.
That’s how every good business pitch starts, says Herjavec, and he doesn’t see a problem that warrants the existence of Honeyshots. “The simpler and more common the problem, the greater the potential,” he says. “I don’t have people coming back from their honeymoon saying, ‘Gosh, it was perfect—but I wish we had a photographer with us the whole time.’ You need to tell me what the pain is. Because I inevitably want to know how we’re going to fix the pain.” I was bummed that I came back from an amazing week with crappy Instagram photos. Investors are banking on bigger pain than that.

Tell a concise—but compelling—story.
My Honeyshots pitch is a little long-winded, and O’Leary notices immediately. “I want to hear an entrepreneur explain his idea in 90 seconds or less,” he says. “I want it to be so simple and easy to understand that the investor, me, gets the idea right away. That’s important because I know going forward that he’ll have to explain the idea many times to customers—and quickly.” And just for added measure, O’Leary tells me, “you shouldn’t quit your day job.”

John is less saucy. “Marketers are basically just amazing storytellers,” he says. “Tell me an amazing story. When that works, you’re on your way to potentially have a business.” Just keep it quick, and avoid the water works: “I don’t care if your granddad is the oldest surviving merchant marine and his dream is for you to have a business,” says Cuban over email. “No long back story.”

The cast of Shark Tank, from left to right: Mark Cuban, Barbara Corcoran, Kevin O’Leary, Lori Greiner, Daymond John, Robert Herjavec. Photo Credit: ABC2. “His and Herseys”

The pitch: Just like there are matching, custom-embroidered towels for husband and wife, here are customized sports jerseys for newlyweds. Again, I’ll bring it back to the honeymoon: I saw a million “Just Married” shirts on the plane and on the island—and guys even wore them, too. So how about “Just Married” sports jerseys for men and women? They’d make great wedding gifts, and you can potentially license them with the major sports leagues.

What do the Sharks say?

“There’s just nothing proprietary about it,” O’Leary says, explaining that anyone could go to any online T-shirt site at any time and write the words “Just Married” on the back. (I guess that’s true.) “There’s nothing to defend or protect that idea,” he says. “You’ll get ripped off in 10 seconds, and nobody’s going to make any money off of it.”

Herjavec agrees. “Say I’m the L.A. Lakers. You come to me and give me your idea, and I say, ‘Andrew, get the hell out of here. That’s a horrible idea.’ What are you selling to the teams that they can’t do? What is the business?”

Good points, all.

The lessons: 

Have more than an idea.
Or in my case, come with more than a (totally sweet) name. “Ideas are like assholes,” Cuban says. “Everyone has got one.” Adds O’Leary: “Great ideas are a dime a dozen. You’ve got to understand that a business needs to make money for its shareholders. At the end of the day, everything else is irrelevant.”

Before you talk to investors, you’ll need to formulate a business plan, demonstrate that you’ve got the sales—or at least a proof of concept with potential customers—and show you can execute your idea. One way to do that: See what kind of response your potential product gets online. It’s the fastest, and often times most accurate, way to test your idea, John says. “Shoot a homemade video and send it out there. Maybe it takes off virally and has 20,000 Facebook likes or 50,000 YouTube views. That shows you there’s a level of interest in it. It’s a small, affordable step.”

Play nice.
I continue to brag about how good of an idea I have—and especially how incredible “His and Herseys” is for a name—which rubs Herjavec the wrong way. “Arrogance is a big turn-off,” he says. “You can never underestimate the power of being nice in a pitch. It’s good to be strong, but it’s bad to be overpowering. We’ll go out of our way for people we like, and shut down the people that piss us off.”

Let’s see if my next two ideas are any better.

3. “Pick Magnet”

The pitch: I’ve played guitar for almost 20 years, and have never held on to a good pick for much longer than a week. Whether they fall inside the guitar or behind the couch, I lose picks like loose change—and there’s nothing worse than using actual loose change to strum strings when you can’t find a Dunlop anywhere. I want a place to store my picks that I can easily find to retrieve and return them. My solution: Put tiny magnets in the picks and in a guitar capo—which already clamps on to a guitar neck—so you can stick the picks to the capo and store them there. It’s revolutionary, really.

What do the Sharks say?

“I’m a guitarist, too, and the pick issue is a big one,” O’Leary says. (Finally, an in!) “But your idea isn’t going to work.” (Welp.) Here’s why, he explains: “People know the strength they like in terms of a pick, so they’re not going to use one with a magnet. And the answer for picks is that they’re so inexpensive. You simply put them in stashes all over the house. I carry a pick in my left pocket all the time, because you never know when you might need a good one.”

I get a similar response from Herjavec: “You’re over-engineering a small problem,” he says. “Look, I’m old and I need reading glasses all the time. I spent 6 months trying to figure out a way I could always have my readers with me, then one day I realized that reading glasses cost $2 at drug stores. So I went out, bought 20 pairs, and put them in every car, office, and house I have.” Sure, easy for a multi-millionaire to do.

John is intrigued, but questions how big the business can be. “Is this something that you can hope to get patented, and then sell it to a pick company? I need to know your vision and the size of the business, and do you have two, three, four, seven versions coming down the road?”

I do not.

The lessons: 

Always think cheap.
Herjavec calls me out for making things complicated. “If you’re losing more picks, just go buy more picks. Never underestimate people’s willingness to do the lowest-cost solution,” he says. If you think you’ve settled on the perfect product, see how you can simplify it even more. In some cases, like my D.O.A. Pick Magnet, that means realizing there’s no need for a business in the first place. Bury the casket and move on to your next dazzling idea.

Predict the future.
The Pick Magnet may not have legs, John says—but it’s up to you to figure that out first. Plan for how you’d grow your product to make it even better—ROBOT PICK MAGNET?!?—and how you’d scale it back if it fails at first pass.

4. “ConvoCups”

The pitch: Sometimes when I’m at a party talking to friends, conversation can inevitably turn a little dull, and needs a spark. Enter: ConvoCups. These are red Solo cups—let’s say there’s 50 to a pack—with a fun conversation starter on each one. Everything from “What are your five favorite albums of all time?” to “If money weren’t a factor, what’s your dream job?” to “What’s your best idea for a business?” (My answer: ConvoCups.) Naturally, college kids can turn this into a drinking game. Maybe they’ll use the cups for beer pong: Every shot the other guy makes in your set of cups, you have to drink what’s inside and answer the question.

What do the Sharks say?

“That will probably sell,” O’Leary admits. Yeah?

“That doesn’t sound like a bad idea,” John says. “It’s kind of like the fortune cookie of red cups.” Hey now!

“Great idea,” Herjavec declares. HAVE MERCY, I’VE DEFEATED THE SHARKS.

And then: “There is an app that does this,” Cuban replies, sending a link over to Conversation Starter, which does, in fact, do this. My dreams are shattered. I’m crashing back to Earth. There will be no second home in the Hamptons for me.

Still, I’m chalking this one up as a big, fat win—even if the Sharks have a few reservations. “You can’t trademark or patent it,” O’ Leary says, “but what I like about it is you’re taking an existing product that is already proven—cups—and making it more interesting. The negative side is that anyone can do it.”

“How do you get it into market?” Herjavec wonders. “And how do you get people to buy it? Nobody’s going to wake up and say, ‘Let me go to the store and buy this. It’s an emotional buy that someone’s going to make when they’re already there. ‘Ah, I’ve got this party coming up. What do I do?’ Do you hit party stores? Book stores? The challenge is getting in front of the consumer when you make that decision. But good idea.”

I’ve got a million more where that came from, Robert.

The lesson:

Don’t copy someone else’s idea.
Maybe it’s the most important message of all. I’d be a millionaire right now if I had only done the proper research to see whether or not something like ConvoCups was already out there. Don’t let an app break your heart and vulture your touchdown at the goal line. “Just go online and see what exists,” John advises. In fact, Cuban writes that the number one thing he must hear from would-be entrepreneurs in the Shark Tank is that their product is unique, and “that unlike you 🙂, they have done their homework,” delivering one last blow, this time using a smiley-face.

So in the end, Mark Cuban may not have given me his money. But at least he gave me an emoticon.


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