When a friend asked entrepreneur Kyle Bergman, maker of Swoveralls (sweatpants made from overalls), if he’d like an introduction to a producer at Shark Tank, the answer he gave was a resounding "no." The business was still a side project at the time, and Bergman didn’t think it was ready for that kind of attention.
His friend, however, took no notice of his reluctance. In April 2019, Bergman went on TV, and pitched his product to Mark Cuban, Lori Greiner, and Barbara Corcoran.
In one way, Bergman’s instincts were correct: he walked away from the show without a deal. But he says the impact of his prime time TV appearance has been transformational for Swoveralls. “At the time, the daily traffic to our website was just in the hundreds,” he says. “But the night [the show] aired, it was in the tens of thousands. I would do it again, 100%.”
Nearly 1,100 brands to date have pitched their business ideas to the investors – and audience – of Shark Tank. Plenty of brands in the Thingtesting directory – from home cleaning company Blueland to one of the show’s biggest success stories, Scrub Daddy – have made their own appearances. By the end of Season 10, which wrapped in 2019, 499 deals worth a total of $143.8 million had been made. On average, founders that strike a deal with the sharks give up 27% of their business in the exchange.
On paper, that may not seem like that great a deal – preparing for the show can take up days or even weeks of a founder’s time that could be better spent focusing on growing their business, while those that do strike a deal are often giving away a significant chunk of their business at what is often considered a low valuation.
There are two things that make it worth it, the founders say. First, is the expertise the sharks bring to the table (Cuban, Shark Tank’s most prolific dealmaker, found and sold multiple startups in the 1990s). Second, is the show’s enormous reach. Shark Tank’s most recent viewership figures show that it’s pulling in 4.4 million Americans per episode – that’s a whole lot of potential new customers.
Kaylin Marcotte, the founder of puzzle brand Jiggy, estimates that she spent at least 50 hours in total preparing for her 2021 appearance on Shark Tank. “There’s a lot to balance when you think about how you want to use that platform,” she says. “It’s a pitch, [like] a VC meeting, it’s also a TV show, it’s an opportunity to story tell and build brand visibility, and it’s also an opportunity for personal brand building, and to tell my story as an entrepreneur.”
Part of the prep included submitting a self-filmed audition tape, which serves as a practice run for the pitch the founder will make – in a single take – on the day of filming. Marcotte says producers guide this process, providing notes and feedback and asking for audition tapes to be resubmitted until they are pitch perfect.
Filming day itself is a slick operation, with founders going in one at a time to be chewed up and spat out by the sharks. While viewers see a 10-minute distillation of a brand’s pitch, in reality founders spend roughly an hour getting grilled by the sharks, with questions covering everything from their own personal journeys as entrepreneurs to getting down to the hard numbers of the business. Managing these celebrity personalities, while also getting across the points the founder themselves wants to make to the wider audience, can be tricky.
“You definitely have to steer it,” Marcotte says. “They’re all throwing questions at you at the same time, talking over each other, trying to lead it in one direction or another. You have to take a deep breath and – to whatever extent you can – control the room.”
Pitches can even become emotional. When Aisha Chottani, founder of relaxation drink brand Moment, was pitching, the sharks listened intently as she talked about her journey from Pakistan to the U.S., via South Africa, to launch her business, and the tension it created with her family. “I come from a part of the world where you are supposed to be very modest, and you’re told not to sell yourself,” she explains. “It was a really reflective experience. I felt my entire life was coming together in that hour I was with the sharks. I expected it to be all about business, but they created such an open ambience and environment where you could share all of that.”
Even after the days spent preparing, filming, and emotionally recovering, an appearance on the show is still not guaranteed. Bergman says that he submitted his audition tape in July 2018, but it wasn’t until the better part of a year later that he found out his pitch would air. “I flew out to Los Angeles in mid-September to film, but all of July and August I was meeting with producers, and at any point they could have said ‘you know, this isn’t [working], we’re going in a different direction].’”
Marcotte’s appearance saw her sparring with Cuban to get the best deal for her business. After going back and forth on the terms, Marcotte walked away with $500,000 and a promise to match Jiggy’s fundraising efforts, in exchange for a 15% equity stake in the business.
Just over half of the pitches that appear on the show result in a deal, and it’s common for founders to walk away without a cent in their pockets.
Deal or no deal, however, brands do typically experience a boost in sales after going on the show. Chottani says that over the weekend her episode aired in November 2020, Moment took in 4,000 orders and received 800 emails responding to her appearance. Jiggy, meanwhile, says it saw a 30-fold sales increase over the weekend of its April 2021 airing.
This bump doesn’t end immediately after the show is aired, either. Bergman says he can tell when a rerun of his episode has been on TV, because he’ll still see a small sales boost. Meanwhile, “as seen on Shark Tank” brands can lean on the slogan to tap into the show’s broader cult following – Amazon even has a section on its website where fans can shop the show.
The Shark Tank sales lift provides an ultimate test in business resilience. Founders are typically only given a few weeks’ notice before their show is set to air, Bergman says, making it difficult to prepare increased production runs in advance.
“A lot of things broke for us,” Chottani admits, recounting the stomach-dropping moment that she realized, as the show was airing, that the email address listed on the Moment website was incorrect. “It was such a great test – if I ever have to scale so quickly again, I know exactly what I need to do.”
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