By the standards of reality television, ABC’s Shark Tank (Fridays, 9 p.m. EST) plays it pretty straight. Entrepreneurs with promising business ideas are shuttled to a sound stage in Los Angeles where they pitch a panel of investors—including Mark Cuban, “Queen of QVC” Lori Greiner, and the occasional Guest Shark—hoping to convince them their product is worth their time and venture capital.
Even if the Sharks decline, getting a chance to display a product in front of the show’s estimated six million viewers is invaluable. We asked some former contestants and one Shark deals curator about the pressure to perform, the merchandise with the best chance of succeeding, and why every segment taping begins with a very awkward moment of silence.
1. YOU WILL PROBABLY NEVER APPEAR ON THIS SHOW.
Owing to the allure of getting 10 minutes to advertise your product on network television for free, Shark Tank can receive more than 100,000 applications every season. Some are submitted via the show's website, while other entrepreneurs appear during open casting calls to “audition” for casting agents looking to fill the 100-odd slots for the show’s 31-episode cycles. “Watching people on television gives everyone a sense of, ‘I could do that,’” says TJ Hale, the host of Shark Tank Podcast, which follows up on contestants and keeps a log of show statistics. “But the odds are against you.”
2. CONTESTANTS CAN SPEND OVER AN HOUR IN FRONT OF THE SHARKS.
While product pitches are typically aired in 10-minute segments, business owners are often hashing out details with the Sharks for an hour or more. “The first time, I was in there 45 minutes,” says Aaron Marino, who appeared in a season four episode with his Alpha M image consultation business and will appear a second time in this season’s finale on May 20. “The second time was an hour, hour-and-a-half. When you get into the minutiae of business numbers, they cut a lot of that stuff out.”
3. ONCE YOU’RE ON SET, YOU CAN’T SPEAK FOR 30 SECONDS.
Business owners who walk through the twin doors and onto the area rug in front of the Sharks don’t get to begin talking immediately: they have to stand in silence for 30 seconds while the production crew adjusts their cameras for establishing shots. “You’re just standing there,” says Eric Bandholz, whose Beardbrand line of facial hair products vied for a deal in season six. “The Sharks are smiling awkwardly. The whole thing is pretty intense.”
4. THERE’S NO ONE YELLING “CUT.”
Once a pitch starts, it’s rarely (if ever) interrupted for anything, with the Sharks firing off questions and talking over one another to create a perfect storm of faux-boardroom anxiety for the contestant. “There’s no stopping,” Marino says. “If you mess up, you have to keep going. You have all these very dominant personalities going after you, talking over themselves. It’s sensory overload.”
5. HAVING A KICKSTARTER HELPS A LOT.
According to Hale, approximately one in four contestants wind up being “scouted” by producers, meaning they’ll be contacted by the show with a cold call. That interest often stems from having a Kickstarter that helps spread word of your product. “It’s kind of like validation,” Hale says of raising capital through crowdfunding. “You might be looked upon more favorably.”
6. THERE’S NO GUARANTEE YOUR SEGMENT WILL AIR.
Even though Shark Tank films over 100 pitches per season, the show offers no promises when it comes to airing taped segments: a handful will wind up unused. That means contestants who sink money into advertising or inventory expecting a “Shark Tank bump” could put themselves at risk if they don’t make the final cut, which they might not find out for up to a year after taping. “You get notice you’re going to be on air about two weeks before the episode,” says Bandholz. “You don’t want to invest too much into your business because you could wind up sabotaging yourself if you don’t make it on.”
7. THERE’S NO FRATERNIZING WITH THE SHARKS.
Entrepreneurs are taken from their hotel to a waiting area, and then to the set. No Sharks are introduced to them prior to their segment. “There’s no access to them whatsoever,” Marino says. “They just film one right after another. I did get to pee next to Robert Herjavec one time, though. All I said was, ‘Hey, see you soon!’”
8. EVERYONE HAS TO SEE A PSYCHIATRIST.
Once entrepreneurs are done filming, they’re immediately whisked off-set and into a meeting with a show-appointed psychiatrist for an off-air evaluation. “They just want to work through how you’re feeling,” says Bandholz. “I’ve heard from other contestants that they can be devastated by their performance, or by what the appearance might mean for their business. It’s a very intense emotional roller coaster.”
9. MOST OF THE ON-AIR DEALS DON’T GO THROUGH.
While contestants who accept an offer from one or more of the Sharks seem to have it made, it’s little more than a handshake deal. Owing to the due diligence process, Hale estimates that more than two-thirds of deals that are agreed upon in the show fall through. “It’s more like a first date,” he says. “You go back and find things you don’t like. Sometimes the deal terms change.”
10. REPEATS CAN NET BUSINESSES A BUMP IN SALES.
While most of the business boost from appearing on Shark Tank comes during the first run of the episode, the show’s presence on CNBC in repeats doesn’t hurt. “It’s never the same as the initial airing, but we do see a bump,” says Bandholz. “Sometimes they’ll show it overseas. We’ve seen orders from when the show is airing in Spain and Portugal.”
11. WANT A DEAL? THINK FOOD AND FASHION.
While contestants have demonstrated everything from construction site amusement parks to bed warmers, Hale’s numbers point to the food and beverage industry as being prime Shark bait. Out of the 107 deals Hale has logged, nearly half have been in either the food or fashion and beauty categories. But, Hale cautions, each Shark has his or her own preferences that might not align with the numbers. “Daymond John isn’t so interested in apparel anymore,” he says. “And Mark Cuban is probably not going to do pet food.”
12. THEIR COMPETITORS CAN BENEFIT, TOO.
When he received notice that Beardbrand would be featured on the show, Bandholz discovered a surprising—and unwelcome—side effect of the publicity. “Competitors will see that and start advertising more,” he says. “They’ll buy ads on the show for competing products.”
13. PEOPLE MATTER MORE THAN PRODUCT.
Hale recently interviewed the inventors of the Slyde Handboard, a swimming apparatus that can surf waves using only the wearer’s hand. “They applied for the show three times, and they told me that both times they focused on the product, they didn’t make it,” he says. “The third time, they made themselves the narrative, part of the product. You need to have suspense, intrigue, humor, tension. You can have the cure for cancer and if you’re boring, it doesn’t matter. In the end, it’s reality TV.”
All images courtesy of ABC unless otherwise credited.