The newest and sixth season of the Emmy Award-winning show Shark Tank premiered last week, which means I’ll officially be glued to my television set every Friday night. If you can’t find me at home watching it tonight, go ahead and file a missing persons report because something is seriously amiss.
If you aren’t familiar with the show, small-business owners get a chance to pitch to a panel of self-made millionaire or billionaire entrepreneurs for a chance to launch, grow or save their businesses. The drama is high, the stakes are real, and the business “sharks” are brutal.
Which is why, earlier this year, I jumped at the chance of judging the Tap the Future pitch contest, where startup teams get a chance to win up to $200,000 in business grant money. The best part? I would be judging alongside none other than Shark Tank star and entrepreneur Daymond John. It would probably be the closest chance I’ll ever get to being a shark—a mini shark, if you will.
Before the pitch contest began, I sat down with the iconic founder and CEO of FUBU, where we chatted, shark to shark, about everything from his budding interest in photography to diversity in the Shark Tank.
Q: Nice camera you have there! [John was toying with a DSLR camera.] Is photography a hobby of yours?
Daymond John: I’ve always loved photography, but I just got this camera. It was really [musician and producer] Steve Aoki—every time I see a shot by Steve Aoki, the shot is so crisp. So I said to myself, Let me take people through a visual of my life if I can, and let me step up my game because I have a lot of people in my life who understand photography.
People learn visually much quicker than they learn any other way, and with me being dyslexic, the last thing I should be doing is typing. So, photography’s cool.
Q: You’ve had a really fascinating career with lots of ups and downs. What would you say is the best advice you’ve ever received?
DJ: Well, there are different levels of when I received advice and what stage I was at in my life. The best advice I think I’ve received as a new entrepreneur, it was a mentor who told me to learn from the bottom up. He basically told me that there are a lot of people who have the wrong understanding of what being an entrepreneur is—“I want to be the boss and hire and fire people,” is the furthest thing from the truth.
So work hard and learn the business from the bottom up, because you never know when you’re going to need to do it yourself. And you don’t want someone holding you hostage to your business—“Oh, you can’t fire me because I know this and that.”
Q: You’ve said before that when you were starting out with FUBU, a lot of investors would assume that you would come in wearing gold chains and start breakdancing. Now that you’re on the other side of the table, were there any times you had someone pegged a certain way, but then the pitch started and they completely blew you away or proved you wrong?
DJ: That has happened many, many times. I’ll give you an example: Nasal Defense. That was a deal we did on Shark Tank. The guy came in with these plugs in his nose, and we thought it was the stupidest thing we’ve ever seen—until he tells us he sold 1.7 million units worth of the stuff. So I think the surprise is almost always going to be when someone tells us about a number or how much proof of concept they have.
I always say, you have the right to make up your own opinion, but not your own fact. There are people coming into the tank who say, “If I could get 1 percent of this multibillion-dollar market, then I’d be a millionaire!” and that’s just making up stuff. But if someone shows us this little rinky-dink and goes, “Oh, and by the way, I sold $20 million of it,” it’s kind of like when you used to watch cartoons and all of a sudden the guy’s head pops out turns into a sucker; I feel like that person!
Q: Right! Well, I’m a tad nervous to judge a live pitch contest. I mean, I’ve seen, quite literally, hundreds of press pitches, and I know what stands out to the business media, but it’ll be my first time awarding money to a startup. Any tips for me?
DJ: I’m almost always investing in the person. That is, by far, the No. 1 thing I believe I do—I think everybody else does as well. Bet on the jockey, not the horse.
And you’ll do fine. You bring something that I don’t; enjoy the process and don’t pretend to be an expert in something you’re not.
Q: As a big Shark Tank fan, my favorite sharks are you, Barbara [Corcoran] and Lori [Greiner]. So I just have to ask, how come I never see all of you in the same episode? Why do you think they usually only switch out the diverse cast members?
DJ: They’re playing with the model on who they switch out, but every one of us has been switched out except for Kevin [O’Leary] and Mark [Cuban]. And I think as you know, last season when Steve Tisch came on board, they switched out Robert, and same with Jean Paul DeJoria. The reason they switch me out with Barbara, so many women ended up requesting or complaining, saying, “Why is there only one woman on the panel at one time? Why can’t we see both of the females on there?” So they needed to satisfy that. It’s also really good to see how Barbara and Lori react to each other.
I think all sharks will be rotated sooner or later, except I don’t know if Cuban will. Cuban was bigger than the show when the show came on, and I think he’s valued. And I don’t know if they’ll switch out Kevin, because if you try to switch him out, then the other replacement will try to be the bad guy, and then they’ll just be trying too hard. Kevin is… I love him, he’s just Kevin!
Q: That’s true, I never thought of it like that; Kevin does bring that element of the villainous “bad guy” drama.
DJ: Yeah, you can put another mean guy on there, and people will go, “Oh you’re trying too hard to be like Kevin.” Kevin is just Kevin.
Q: It’s like when they mixed up American Idoland tried to bring someone in to replace Simon Cowell—you just can’t do that!