Hooked on Shark Tank TV Show, and Marketing Lessons

I am hooked on Shark Tank, the new ABC business reality TV show. Originating from the other side of the pond as Dragons’ Den on BBC, then on CBC, Shark Tank is now here in the US.

The premise of the show: five investors (also known as “venture capitalists” or “VCs,” but on the show they are…”sharks”!) listen to pitches from entrepreneurs seeking an investment into their businesses. That business may be an active, “real” business operation, like Tod Wilson, the very first entrepreneur on the show, who successfully secured an investment in his retail and wholesale pie business. Other proposals might come from one person with a great, or not-so-great, product idea, reminiscent of the past ABC series American Inventor.

The VCs might extend an offer to invest in the entrepreneur’s venture, perhaps offering to buy it outright, using their own money on terms they specify. The entrepreneur might accept, counteroffer or decline. Things get even more interesting when VCs compete against one another when presented with an investor pitch particularly like  (whoa, “feeding frenzy”!).

I like Shark Tank because it gives the viewer a taste of what’s involved with starting a business and getting money from outside investors to make it a reality. You have to have a product or at least a product idea that solves a problem that people will pay you for. The entrepreneurs, virtually all of whom initially offer a sliver of ownership for a hefty investment, soon realize they must give up substantial, even majority, ownership in the business in exchange for an investment. And you had better deliver an effective presentation.

I like the Shark Tank review by The AV Club which sums up what the program has going for it quite well:

So what does Shark Tank offer? Frankly, it offers a lot of solid business advice in a time when solid business advice is lacking. The five “sharks” at the show’s center are about as far from someone like Jim Cramer or the rest of the CNBC buffoons as you can get because they’re investing their own money and not trying to get you to invest your money.

All that said, there is one key piece of entrepreneur homework I would like to see more of on Shark Tank: market research.

One example from episode 2 [Season 1]: I chuckled along with the investors labeling as “madness” Mary Ellen Simonson’s sticky note holder for laptops invention (you stick it to the side, or both sides, of your laptop to then put sticky notes on). Her ill-fated presentation still appears on the Shark Tank video page as a “Madness Moment.”

I later recalled there is a somewhat similar product for PC monitors out there already, presumably making money: cardboard PC monitor frames, typically used to hold…sticky notes. This suggests Ms. Simonson’s similar idea for laptops isn’t that mad. Unfortunately, only after Ms. Simonson lost credibility after a weak presentation did she mention she had done “market surveys.” By then, her pitch was all but over and there was no presentation of that market research.

I would at least have liked to have heard about her marketing surveys: were the surveys “real” and how did they suggest a valid market (I suggest business laptop users on the road, myself included, wouldn’t be interested, but families switching to a laptop as the “family PC”…maybe?). She certainly should have led off her pitch with this marketing research. Doing so would have at least led, if nothing else, to a more polite “I’m out” from the investors.

A much more intriguing product from episode 1 was entrepreneur Tiffany Krumins’ “Emmy the Elephant,” a talking toy elephant whose trunk ingeniously hides a medicine dropper inserted inside, to help small children take their medicine. The very clever idea, Ms. Krumins explained, came to her while taking care of a special needs child who frequently had to take medicine and always fought it.

Ms. Krumins almost left empty-handed: She did secure an investment from investor “shark” Barbara Corcoran, but only after the other four sharks bowed out.

One red flag: When asked whether she had tested of Emmy the Elephant with children, Ms. Krumins explained she felt she had already successfully tested “Emmy” with one of the the hardest children out there, a special needs child in her care. Point taken, but that left open the question how widespread the problem of medicine-taking is for non-special needs children, more able to understand the medicine will make them feel better, so they cooperate and take it without difficulty. Market research of a large sampling of children would have answered this concern, presumably in favor of Emmy.

What’s more, Emmy the Elephant may well be a product even more targeted for nervous new parents than for children – surveys of new parents hopefully confirming this would be called for as well.

Who knows, with that market research in hand, maybe Ms. Krumins’ cute little elephant might have sparked a full-on feeding frenzy…shark fiiiight! (And a better offer).

I will continue to watch and enjoy Shark Tank, and encourage you to do so also, with an eye and ear for market research from investors justifying an investment.

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One thought on “Hooked on Shark Tank TV Show, and Marketing Lessons

  1. Hooked too! Agreed on all points=thanks for the great summary-I shared your post on FB and Twitter!

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