The Sharks are cold, cunning and curt.
They tell it like it is. They aren’t afraid to let an entrepreneur know when his or her idea is bad—or even terrible. They’re in it for the money and the money alone.
Or at least that’s what they make viewers think.
Last year—the ninth season of the Emmy-winning business reality show—the Sharks witnessed the single most emotional moment in Shark Tank history. “In all the nine years I’ve been on the show, I was never so moved,” investor Barbara Corcoran says. “It took my breath away.”
Corcoran, a real-estate mogul and the Shark most likely to be bleeped for R-rated language, is referencing an October 2017 episode featuring Robbie Cabral, the inventor of BenjiLock, a padlock that opens with the press of a fingertip and runs for an entire year on a single charge.
Cabral immigrated to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic and had fallen upon hard times. He wept as he talked about being laid off from his real estate job the same day his third child was born. The emotion among the Sharks was palpable.
Competition for his product was fierce. Kevin O’Leary, facetiously known as “Mr. Wonderful,” was the first Shark in, and he offered a straight licensing deal. Shark Lori Greiner, the “Queen of QVC,” also made an offer. Guest Shark Alex Rodriguez, the former New York Yankees third baseman, then spoke to Cabral in Spanish about the struggles his own Dominican-born parents faced. Rodriguez suggested a partnership with Corcoran.
“I almost had a heart attack waiting to see who [Cabral] would pick,” Corcoran says. She wasn’t alone. On the Sony soundstage in Culver City, California, the crew and guests all held their breath. Cabral, voice trembling, said he was humbled by all of the offers and had to go with his heart.
There were gasps when he announced his pick: O’Leary, widely acknowledged as the most cold-blooded Shark, or a cockroach, as investor Mark Cuban calls him.
On Nov. 30, a few weeks after the episode aired, Cabral wept again, when on CNBC’s Halftime Report, he was handed a $100,000 royalty check from the CEO of Hampton Products, a leader in the security industry.
It’s that kind of drama, heart and sometimes heartbreak that has given Shark Tank its astounding longevity. Executive produced by Mark Burnett, Clay Newbill, Yun Lingner and Phil Gurin, the ABC show, in which entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a panel of investors, has won four consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Structured Reality Program. The show, produced by MGM Television and Sony Pictures Television, will mark its 200th episode when it begins its 10th season this fall. That’s a special feat, even for generation-defining TV. Consider that Seinfeld ran for 180 episodes, while The Office ended its run with its 201st episode.
“When we started Shark Tank back in August 2009, the economy was in a rough place,” says Holly Jacobs, Sony Pictures Television’s executive vice president for reality and syndication programming. “People could not get bank loans. Then this show hit the landscape and became a place where everyday Americans got a chance to have a Shark invest in their dream.”
Over the years, roughly 1,500 pitches have been heard and $116 million offered in the Tank. “It’s one of the rare shows that has influenced and touched people’s lives far beyond the screen,” says Rob Mills, senior vice-president over alternative series, specials and late night at ABC Entertainment. “Products that have been featured on the show are represented in supermarkets, department stores and national chains across the country. There aren’t a lot of TV shows that can tout the same results.”
The majority of the show’s audience, Jacobs says, is made up of families who watch together. “Many of those kids who have grown up on the show have now become entrepreneurs,” Jacobs says. “We like to think Silicon Valley is filled with tons of former kids who grew up on Shark Tank.”
The viewership has become more business-savvy over the years, too. The show’s producers have noted that the audience is more knowledgeable and discerning each year. Executive producer Clay Newbill says the show has offered viewers what he calls, “a Shark Tank MBA.”
“During the first few seasons, we avoided deals and discussions that were too complicated,” Newbill says. “But over the years, we’ve allowed far more to be included. Our audience now understands how a royalty deal works, what advisory shares are, and other complicated business terms and strategy. And now universities—including Harvard—high schools, middle schools and even grade schools are incorporating Shark Tank into their curriculum.”
Shark Tank has helped people across the country redefine success, and witness the myriad forms it can take.
Investor Robert Herjavec, who created one of the world’s leading global cybersecurity firms, learned the nuances of success at a young age. He recalls a conversation he had with his father when he was 18 and living in the former Yugoslavia. When he told his father he wanted to start a business, his father brought home a co-worker to offer advice.
“This show hit the landscape and became a place where everyday Americans got a chance to have a Shark invest in their dream.”
“I asked, ‘Why am I talking to this guy?’ And my dad said, ‘You idiot!’ He had more seniority in the union than anybody else. To my dad, that was the most successful person we knew.” The great thing about Shark Tank, Herjavec says, “is we come into your home every Sunday and show you there is no color, race, sex or size for success. The American Dream is available to everyone.”
The Sharks have grown along with their viewers and entrepreneurs over the past decade. Following in the footsteps of Cuban, both Herjavec and Corcoran pushed themselves outside of their comfort zones and appeared on Dancing with the Stars. And while none of the three came close to winning the Mirrorball Trophy, Herjavec did fall in love with and marry his dancing partner, Kym Johnson (now Kym Herjavec).
Daymond John, founder of FUBU clothing and a branding expert, has become more invested in the causes he supports in his personal life. He’s on the board of the Petco Foundation and is “trying to do the best I can to save our little furry friends.” After a diagnosis of Stage 2 thyroid cancer in early 2017, he’s been vocal about the importance of screening tests and early detection. John is now in remission. “If I can save just one person’s life because they’re going to the doctor and getting a mammogram, Pap smear, endoscopy, whatever, that’s my new purpose,” he says.
Meanwhile, Cuban, the billionaire owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, loaned the team’s private jet to shuttle supplies to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria hit, and he’s been hinting at a possible presidential run in 2020. He’s been quoted in various news sources saying that if he can come up with solutions to some of our country’s biggest problems, it would make perfect sense for him to run for office, and he would.
The Sharks haven’t slowed down in their own entrepreneurial ventures either. O’Leary, a man with a self-described appreciation for the finer things in life, launched his own brand of wine in 2015.
And Greiner, an inveterate inventor, has been co-designing most of the clothes she’s worn on Shark Tank this season. “Not to say I hated every outfit I wore in previous seasons, but I’m a little more edgy in how I dress,” she says. Greiner says she doesn’t have anything concrete to share yet, but with fans constantly asking her where she bought her outfits, it wouldn’t be surprising if she brought her designs to market soon.
Some elements of a good Shark Tank deal are perennial, like a passionate entrepreneur and a clear vision. But listening to hundreds of pitches over the last nine years, coupled with a rapidly shifting retail landscape, has taught the Sharks some new lessons about what it takes to have a Shark Tank hit. All of the Sharks say they’ve learned countless lessons over the years, from the value in trusting their gut to being open to investing in underdogs.
John says one of the biggest lessons he’s learned is the benefit of tagging along. “There can be profit in being a bottom feeder,” he says. “If something comes in that’s in tech and I know it’s going to Mark, Kevin or Robert, I can ratchet up the deal another $100,000 or $200,000. Maybe they’ll let me in for 5, 7 or 10 percent. Either way, it’s a free ride.”
And Herjavec has learned—as have all of the Sharks—that the initial high of being on the show doesn’t last forever.
“The Shark Tank effect isn’t permanent,” he says. “That’s why I’ve become only interested in entrepreneurs who have some level of operational expertise. Getting a big hit after appearing on Shark Tank doesn’t guarantee long-term success. We’ve had so many investments that get that big pop and they go on to all kinds of other coverage. But they can’t sustain that success. After a while, it comes down to the quality of your business.”
These are the Sharks’ No. 1 lessons learned, their best deals and other fun facts from nearly a decade in the tank:
This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of SUCCESS magazine.