Many entrepreneurs dream of landing a spot on the addictive ABC TV show Shark Tank. They think about which sharks they would want as investors and even start formulating their pitches — if only in their imaginations. In the last two years, this dream has been realized three times by Columbia Business School alumni, all of whom landed deals. But, as they say, it’s not as easy as it looks on TV. While the experience can offer a boost to startups, appearing on the show can bring some unexpected consequences. So if you’re an entrepreneur, make sure you read the tips from these alumni first before diving into the tank. Shark Tank is hosting open calls around the country, including at Tech Day in New York City, which Columbia Business School sponsors. See the full casting call schedule.
Tip 1: Expect the unexpected.
Sarah Ribner ’16, PiperWai
Ribner was still in business school when she and partner Jess Edelstein pitched PiperWai, an all-natural aluminum-free deodorant, on Shark Tank in December 2015. The duo negotiated with real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran for $50,000 in exchange for 25 percent of the business.
“There is no accurate way to predict how the Shark Tank bump will affect your company, because you have no control over how your pitch is portrayed on air. The best you can do is prepare a solid website that can handle a sharp increase in traffic, and find trustworthy partners and team members who are prepared for possible volatility after the show.
In our case, the Shark Tank airing led to massive and unexpected growth we weren’t prepared to handle. We were advised to prepare 10,000 units in advance of airing, however our inventory sold out within minutes of airing. We put in a rush order for more inventory, at which point our manufacturer told us they couldn’t scale production as previously thought. On top of that, our supplies would be back-ordered with holiday schedules delaying materials up to another four weeks. Within three weeks, we were back-ordered by 120,000 jars, and our new customers were not happy. It took approximately six months to catch up to demand, and we had to hire a full-time customer service team and bring on a backup manufacturer, especially since we received even more orders every time Shark Tank aired an update or there was a rerun of our episode in the months following our initial air date.”
Tip 2: Be comfortable being uncomfortable.
Becca Brown ’07 and Monica Ferguson ’07, Solemates
Brown and Ferguson launched Solemates with one product, a heel protector that keeps high heels from sinking into soft ground or getting stuck in subway grates. They have since launched an array of footwear and shoe-care products. Their deal came from Robert Herjavec, who offered them $500,000 for 20 percent of the company.
“Despite feeling very well prepared, we were surprised by the chaos “in the tank.” It was wild to have five highly esteemed captains of industry shouting over each other and interrupting each other while we were answering questions. It felt a bit like human pinball; we were constantly trying to react to the challenges as they came (articulate intelligent responses), keep the ball in play (convey our key points), capture as many points as we could (remain poised under pressure), and avoid letting the ball go down the gutter (losing their interest).”
Tip 3: Do it — even though the sharks seem intimidating on TV!
Jennifer Wright-Laracy ’09, GreenBox
Wright-Laracy along with partners Ned Kensing and William Walsh founded GreenBox, which makes sustainable packaging for pizza that eliminates the need for paper plates, plastic wrap, or other disposable storage materials. On a GreenBox pizza box, the lid is perforated to become plates and the bottom can be repurposed for storing leftovers. The team pitched Shark Tank when the sharks and producers visited Columbia Business School in 2014. Their segment aired in January 2015, and they received a $300,000 investment from Kevin O’Leary in exchange for 10 percent equity.
“The level of exposure that Shark Tank has provided GreenBox and the degree of credibility it has added to our product and business have been priceless. Our episode has aired in reruns multiple times. The episode has acted as a prime-time commercial that most companies of our size could not possibly afford. In addition, our participation on the show has proven to be a unique selling tool when we reach out to potential new customers and exhibit our products at trade shows. People love Shark Tank and are extremely supportive of products that have been pitched on the show.
The experience made us acutely aware of the need to take advantage of media exposure when the opportunity arises. I’d watched the show enough to know that the sharks can be brutal and had trepidations about even attending the private Columbia casting. When we were chosen for the show I was terrified that we would be ripped apart by the sharks. In the end, we received offers and got treated pretty well. But, if the opposite had happened, I would contend that the exposure could still have helped our company.”