“That dog has a bowtie on,” Kevin O’Leary says in the opening montage of tonight’s Shark Tank season premiere, “That’s insane!” This clip reel imagines the dumbest possible version of the show. There really is a dog in a bowtie, you see—which is insane, in case you weren’t aware—and many other entrepreneurs came up with funny ideas, too. Some of those ideas have bright, shiny lights on them, and that’s how you know they’re good. All the best inventions light up.
The montage also casts Shark Tank as a feel-good story: An announcer boasts that the show has created more than 9,000 jobs, one of which is presumably Job Claim Maker-Upper for Mark Burnett Productions.
And then there is the promise of ugliness. For the first time ever, the announcer tells us, the show will feature Barbara Corcoran and Lori Greiner, together on the same stage. The disembodied voice does not point out that these are the only two lady Sharks, but his implication is that it’s dangerous, or at least unwise, to put that many X chromosomes in one room. As evidence, we watch the fur fly. “What Lori does well,” Barbara says, “is sell product.” Meoww! “Barbara, when did you become the teacher of the Tank?” Lori Greiner says. Hisssss!
If the Shark Tank we see in the first two minutes resembled the Shark Tank we see in the remainder of the hour, the show wouldn’t be worthy of note. It would be yet another televised power trip in which a panel of sneering millionaires manipulate and humiliate a parade of “regular folks” who are just looking to make their dreams come true. While Shark Tank is not immune to sensationalism, it is not that kind of show. And it’s a testament to the producers that, as they enter their fifth season, they have kept Shark Tank from turning into something worse than it is.
This program is an anomaly: A primetime network show (on Friday night, yes, but still) that offers sophisticated insight into the task of running a business in America. Shark Tank is unafraid to immerse itself in debates over numbers or to discuss financial instruments without condescending to viewers. And if none of that stuff makes for a good pre-credits “sizzle reel,” oh well. Let the producers have their imaginary catfight if it makes them feel better. They still put on a good show.
Josh Brooks, Postcard On The Run—seeking $300,000 for a 5-percent stake
The central concept that fuels Shark Tank is not rags-to-riches glory—that’s just an occasional side effect. Instead, the production is built around the subjectivity of capitalism. Nothing has a sure value here. Entrepreneurs present the Sharks and the viewers with a heady cocktail of prototypes, balance sheets, strategies, and hope. Inevitably, there are gaps in the picture they present. Those gaps are where Shark Tank lives. The investors’ job, in essence, is to discern the nature of a given company’s unknowables. Perhaps those hazy bits represent opportunity, or risk, or certain doom. The fun is in watching the Sharks poke and prod and reach their conclusions.
That essential subjectivity is on display in the show’s first segment. Josh Brooks has a retro-future idea. His smartphone app takes your digital picture, uploads it to his Postcard On The Run service, and turns it into a postcard that is then delivered through regular old postal mail. You can also shoot video: A link to your video is encoded as a 2D barcode on the postcard, and from there, it’s dead-simple for Grandma to say, “What the hell is that thing?” and throw your postcard in the trash.
Most of the Sharks are rightly dubious of this cockamamie idea borne back ceaselessly into the past, but the reasons for their doubt are varied and telling. The segment practically serves as a “meet the Sharks” session for viewers just turning in (which is probably why this episode was chosen for the season premiere).
“There’s nothing proprietary here,” O’Leary says. He always occupies the center chair in the Shark tableau, and that’s because he represents the purest ideal of unregulated capitalism. In O’Leary’s view, the markets are ruthlessly efficient and efficiently ruthless, such that there is always a more ferocious and well-equipped competitor waiting to cut an entrepreneur off the knees. When “Mr. Wonderful” says that there’s nothing proprietary in Brooks’ concept, he means that even if it turns out to be any good, somebody is just going to come along and steal it anyway.
Mark Cuban, the internet billionaire and Dallas Mavericks owner, is on the panel because his bravado makes for “good television,” but while he can be grating, he also knows how to tell a good story. While O’Leary probes for weak spots through which competitors can tear an entrepreneur apart, Cuban often focuses on a young company’s narrative arc: Here’s what has happened, and here’s what will happen next. Cuban usually makes the story entertaining. In this case, Brooks got $1.6 million in investment capital for Postcard On The Run; he now has $185,000 in cash. A veteran of the various dot-com booms and busts, Cuban believes that he knows how this story ends: The capital dries up, the company can’t make payroll, and “you’re doomed.” He declares himself “out.”
Lori Greiner is the “queen of QVC,” and she mentions her connection to the network a couple thousand times per episode. Greiner was added to the cast in the third season as a fill-in for Corcoran, and her appearances have only become more frequent since then. She’s the weakest member of the cast, because her mannerisms are attuned to the cloying environs of a home-shopping channel, so she sometimes seems out of place on a “real” TV show. Greiner likes to make observations about the people before her—praising their passion, say, or their ineffable heart. I always get the impression that she’s looking for a personal story that can compress into 15 seconds of heartwarming patter for a QVC segment.
Barbara Corcoran, who made her money in the New York real estate business, tends to let her gut reaction to a product guide her. She’s a pleasure to watch because she has a preternatural ability to envision herself as a customer of the business in question. As a result, she often picks up on details that the other Sharks miss. In this case, she notes that Brooks’ app produces a postcard in which the signature is scrawled but the body text is typewritten. (The user can choose the font, Brooks explains.) Corcoran points out that the whole idea behind the business is that you embrace the warmth of a postcard over the impersonal touch of a text or an email—the typewritten message “takes the ‘warm and fuzzy’ out of it for me,” she says. “I’m out.”
Robert Herjavec, the Croatian-Canadian software mogul, looks for “vision.” Herjavec wants to observe an entrepreneur and feel that he can see the same future that they see. If he doesn’t get that simpatico feeling, he gets antsy. Surprisingly, Herjavec sees the vision here, and after some dickering over the value of Brooks’ cutting-edge postcard technology, he makes a deal.
Of course, all the tendencies I’m ascribing to the Sharks here are just that—tendencies. The Sharks are not mere role players, thankfully. Their philosophies are more fluid than that, and their perspectives shift on a case-by-case basis. Plus, sometimes when the sharks are touting a closely held belief for the umpteenth time, there’s a sense that they’re just reverting to their familiar stock lines. Perhaps O’Leary really does worry about how “there’s nothing proprietary” about Postcard On The Run, or maybe that’s just his way of saying he hates the idea without saying he hates the idea (because he’s saving that for later).
And sure, Herjavec might be on board with Brooks’ vision. He almost might be banking on the fact that the audience who is watching Shark Tank at home on a Friday evening overlaps nicely with the cohort of people who would be interested in the idea of a business that makes it easier to send a postcard. The show itself is the unspoken sixth Shark in the cast, and it’s a partner on every deal: Mark Burnett Productions gets a small share of all the businesses that appear on the air (read the disclaimers in the credits), and the national TV advertisement is obviously an enormous boon to any consumer product. Would Herjavec invest in Postcard On The Run if this meeting took place in a conference room instead of a soundstage? That’s a much harder sell.
Shark Tank Update: Wicked Good Cupcakes
The show makes no effort to hide the fact that its prominence automatically helps businesses whether or not anyone invests. The producers embrace that reality with check-in segments that document the world-beating success of past Shark Tank entrepreneurs. On occasion, these segments feature businesses that didn’t even get a deal from any of the investors, which seems odd until you realize that it’s all about demonstrating the “power of Shark Tank” (a phrase that comes up often in these check-ins).
Tonight, a past investment by O’Leary is featured: a Boston business that sells cupcakes in jars. Now here is a thing that, by all rights, should not exist. And yet the people who make these cupcakes and put them in these jars are making approximately trillions of dollars. Shark Tank is “creating the new America,” O’Leary boasts. He does not ask whether we want to live in this new America, an America where confections are compressed and smeared across the interior of glass containers so that we might gaze upon them before we shovel them into our quivering, sweat-soaked maws and line the walls of our intestines with accretions of cake and frosting. Because who wouldn’t want to live there? America: more delicious than ever, thanks to Shark Tank.
Lynnae Schneller & Ali Cullinane, Lynnae’s Gourmet Pickles—seeking $125,000 for a 20-percent stake
Look, more jars! This time, they’re filled with pickles, a food that belongs in a jar. BORING. “We’ve got ourselves in a pickle, and we need your help to meet increasing demand,” says Lynnae or maybe Ali—who can be bothered to keep track. Lame little lines like this one are apparently an important part of an entrepreneur’s Shark Tank pitch, given how often they come up. The zingers are never amusing in themselves, but it is fun to watch the whiplash that occurs when the guests have to transition from their cutesy prepared routine to the Q&A portion of the proceedings. On account of I am a terrible person, I watch closely to see how long it takes for the entrepreneurs’ faces to transition from perma-grin to outright fear. This pitch falls to pieces as the Sharks express skepticism that there is a huge market for $7 jars of pickles—excuse me, GOURMET PICKLES—but Lynnae and Ali hold up pretty well. Smile!
This segment is also notable for the politeness with which the Sharks reject the pitch (which all of them do). Perhaps the lamest “no” comes from Herjavec, who explains, “I’m Croatian. Croatians love pickles. But it’s very rare that they eat sweet pickles. I’m not the right investor. I’m out.”
Dr. Albert Amini & Dr. Richard Amini, RoloDoc—seeking $50,000 for a 20-percent stake
That politeness is a contrast to the next segment, in which two doctors pitch their half-idea for an Internet something with doctors or whatever that’s online and social of medicine. Most of the ideas that appear on Shark Tank are at least plausible businesses, but occasionally the producers will be cruel and chum the waters with a truly dire pitch. It’s not enough for an idea to be bad, though—Burnett’s team must have to sift through thousands of awful businesses, after all, so mere badness is not a distinguishing factor. Rather, the producers have a talent for picking terrible ideas that fail in a specific manner that will resonate with viewers at home.
The horrendous RoloDoc pitch is effectively a sendup of every Facebook wannabe that has disgorged itself onto the Internet in the past few years. The good doctors Amini rely so much on empty buzzwords that I’m not sure they’ve ever used a computer. The Sharks ask them again and again, what is special about RoloDoc? Their answer: “We’re adding social media.” And here is the groundbreaking pitch with which Dr. Albert Amini intends to convert the masses: “Instead of saying, ‘Follow me on X site,’ you say, ‘Follow me on RoloDoc.’” If only Friendster had thought of this!
Cuban decides to walk over to the doctors and get in their face as he rejects their pitch, a move that almost makes them sympathetic for a moment. Cuban clearly regrets this awkward stunt by the time he sits down again, as he gets extra-defensive when Herjavec chides him. (This is above the baseline level of Cuban defensiveness, which is already quite high.) Cuban’s bullying does illustrate that the show’s conflict is not really akin to the feeding frenzy that the title suggests. Rather, the tension between investors and pitchmen works best when there’s some distance between them, with the successful titans of business passing judgment on the aspiring class below. When Cuban gets petty, his projection of success flickers, and he’s down on the level of the supplicants. There’s nobody left to even theoretically admire.
James McDonald & Cole Egger, SweetBallz—seeking $250,000 for a 10-percent stake
On the 1970s version of Match Game, all the contestants who went to the bonus round had to choose one member of the celebrity panel with whom they’d play the “big-money Super Match.” Everyone always wanted Richard Dawson (to the point that, after a few years, the producers had to change the rules of the game to mix it up). Mark Cuban is the Richard Dawson of Shark Tank. He’s the most famous and wealthy of all the Sharks, and many of the entrepreneurs seem to feel that they haven’t really “made it” until Cuban offers them a deal. (When one of the other Sharks makes an early offer, watch the guests’ eyes—they often drift over to stage right, where a taciturn Cuban is biding his time.)
Cuban is also the most profligate with his investments—a fact that the other Sharks mock in this episode—so he often ends up competing with other members of the cast for an investment. This may be one reason that he was made a permanent cast member, as it’s undeniably fun to watch rich people fight over something they want. It’s likewise enjoyable to see savvy entrepreneurs exploit the Sharks’ competitive spirit and make them bid against each other. (For their part, the Sharks respect ruthlessness and often compliment a business owner who extracts the sweetest deal possible.)
It’s clear early on that these two men who manufacture balls of cake want their own Dickie Dawson deal, but all of the Sharks enter the fray, with a mess of deals that ultimately coalesces into a two-way choice: Corcoran and Cuban’s offer of $250,000 for 25 percent or the other three sharks’ offer of the same amount for 30 percent. If the latter group’s lack of star power wasn’t enough to sink their chances, O’Leary’s decision to ask for an extra 5-percent equity is the death knell. (I wonder if O’Leary grew a bit less excited about cake balls and decided to bump up his ask as a poison pill.)
The final showdown is a pleasure to watch, but Shark Tank does lose some of its zing when all of the investors are basically on the same page about a business’ merit. In these moments, the show lacks the vibrancy of competing viewpoints. It’s important to see the Sharks not just fighting but also disagreeing, because therein lies the show’s implicit message: There’s more than one way to interpret the American Dream.