5 Reasons You Should Watch Shark Tank Before Pitching

I hear maybe 50 pitches a year as a member of an angel investment group and a judge of MBA-level business plan contests at the University of Oregon, Rice, and University of Texas.

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Still, when caught having to lay down with my feet up for a full weekend (skiing accident), there I was watching Shark Tank, the show. I saw about a season’s worth of episodes on Hulu.com. Here are some things I noticed:

  1. I loved it when Mark Cuban interrupted a guy starting to talk about “a $32 billion market.” He waved him off. “Don’t tell me about the big market,” he said (I”m paraphrasing), “tell me about your sales.” I couldn’t agree more. (I think this was with Eric Corti of The Wine Balloon, but I apologize if I got it wrong.)
  2. Closely related: on the show, the sharks go quickly to sales for validation. It usually the first question: “how much of this have you sold.” There is no better validation than sales. Being capable of executing a business key, and sales is an important metric in determining this.
  3. In the second episode of the second season, when entrepreneur Brian Spencer of vurtegopogo.com wants to take his extreme pogo sticks to a mass market, the sharks agree as they advise, strongly, against it. Stick to the specialty market, they tell him. Charge more, not less.
  4. There’s an exchange in Episode 302 when shark Lori asks Raven Thomas, making specialty pretzels, why she should invest. Raven starts talking about how she’s showing her children about life. Shark Kevin stopped her and pointed out that she’s saying nothing about why anybody should invest. And I’ve seen this many times: entrepreneurs think investors want to hear about their personal commitment and results, when what they want to hear is how spending money will generate money. Raven recovers by suggesting maybe she should have instead mentioned she needs the money to fill a $2 million order, and she ends up getting investment.
  5. I like the emphasis on defensibility. In several episodes, entrepreneurs with good ideas had to prove they could defend them from competition. “What if somebody else does the same thing?” is a frequent question.

By the way, watching Shark Tank with my background reminded me of the day I asked my brother the assistant district attorney what he thought about the show Law and Order. He said it was remarkably accurate in many ways, but “they just compress the time frame.” He wasn’t referring to the fact that an episode takes an hour, but rather the impression that the process from crime to verdict takes a few days, instead of weeks, months, and so on.

And my assessment of shark tank is that it’s good entertainment, not wildly unrealistic, and of course it compresses time. More important, out here in the real world we do a lot of due diligence on an investment, so decisions take weeks or months, not minutes, and there is a ton of hard work and investigation in between. If entrepreneurs survive the summary phase and the pitch phase, then there is detailed legal investigation, market investigation, talking to customers, looking at contracts, and so on. It takes time. Investments aren’t influenced by in-the-same-room, in real time, competition between investors.

But if you’re looking to pitch angel investors, watch a few episodes. The setting, the format, and the people will be wildly different. But the underlying questions will be similar.

Tim Berry , Founder, Palo Alto Software
February 29th, 2012