Cofounder, COO & Product Lead of Amber
I?m a designer/entrepreneur from the small town of Gloucester, VA and a recent graduate of James Madison University. I went on Shark Tank this season and took some heavy blows (to put things lightly). I?m writing this from the perspective of a young entrepreneur who had a pretty devastating experience in the tank and had some time to reflect on it. I figured it may be interesting for people who watch the show, young entrepreneurs, or just curious readers to get a glimpse into the life of a Shark Tank reject and struggling entrepreneur.
Since Shark Tank, I am no longer full time at Amber. I currently hold a job as a user experience designer for a series B tech startup in Reston, VA and founded my second company building an enterprise SaaS product around digital inventory management for 3D printing. I?m sure I will write more blog posts about that industry, but let?s not get off track.
After inputting my thoughts for an upcoming article (possibly book) about life after the tank written by a fellow Shark Tank alum Scott Jordan (Founder of SCOTTeVEST), I decided to formulate the lessons that I learned into more concise thoughts and a rough list (at the bottom of the page). Some of these are common sense for entrepreneurs, but you may need to hear it again.
What Happened to Amber After we Aired?
What bothered me the most is how the episode is portrayed opposed to what happened. Did we get utterly annihilated? Yes. Were their points valid? Yes. (Okay, let?s change that to a maybe given a clear lack of knowledge in biometrics). We were portrayed as young college frat boys patching together a makeshift company and that story is far from the truth (I?m way too much of a nerd to wear greek letters). There?s nothing more motivating than having a crowd to prove wrong. Did we make mistakes? Absolutely. I think I stopped counting our near death experiences, but just as a quick rebuttal to some of the harsh tweets, posts and articles; I wouldn?t trade this experience for anything.
Though we can?t talk about what wasn?t aired, all positive comments were completely stripped from our segment and it really wasn?t as bad as how it looked on TV. Though Robert and Mark made completely valid points, the entire conversation (and mainly the defense) was not accurately portrayed. Regardless, we took Mark and Robert?s critique into a product pivot that ultimately led to investment. We brought the unit price down to $75/unit, added a pay-per-use model that utilized an app based payment system, produced customer tracking metrics, utilized a rewards program and honed our customer acquisition and retention value propositions.
After the episode aired, we got an influx of supportive comments alongside negative critique. It?s a crazy experience having people ignorantly and boldly launch personal attacks on your intelligence, motives and personality while simultaneously seeing strangers take the time to write thoughtful letters supporting you and your business. From a business perspective, being B2B was difficult. We weren?t selling to consumers and our buyer segment was highly unlikely to be watching the show on a Friday night. Post-Shark Tank, we had interest from manufacturers and distributors, but not many direct buyers like most consumer products had. Granted, we did secure some funding after the show, but given the upfront costs in developing hardware, was difficult to scale effectively.
Would I Go on the Show if I Knew What I Know Now?
Just because Shark Tank reached out to us, we should not have gone on; we weren?t ready. Do I regret going on? Absolutely not. The wealth of critique, opportunity, and connections we gained was something I wouldn?t trade back and helps me today in my current venture. However, having the opportunity to be aired on Shark Tank should be examined from all angles. Here are just a few lessons I learned from going onto the show with high hopes, yet becoming one of the ?worst pitches in Shark Tank history?.
1) Public Perception
Just like pitching to Venture Capitalists, you have one shot to make an impression and then the bridge is burned. I am not necessarily talking about burning bridges with the sharks, but more so with your brand and the public. In the case of Shark Tank, the perspective of the sharks is often transmitted to the public, especially when negative. Unfortunately, our product needed consumers to trust in the technology in order to have a heightened user experience. With the sharks soiling that root ideal, potential customers questioned the validity of the technology. Should they know any better? No. When a TV personality portrayed as an industry expert to the public makes a statement, it becomes concrete. Though we spent countless hours honing the technology, we continued to run into trust issues with our potential customers.
2) Is Your Product/Business Suited for Shark Tank?
In our case, our product was B2B2C (Business to Business to Consumer) and in a position that wasn?t suited for Shark Tank. If we had 100 units deployed, $50k monthly revenue and wanted to go on Shark Tank to expand to more cities and raise brand awareness, I believe we would have profited from Shark Tank. Instead, we went in defending a mere idea, pitched a vision, and ended up labeled as one of the worst pitches in Shark Tank history. Young companies are fragile and regardless of whether you think you have the next big thing, if given a second chance, I would prove market validity of the product AND business before entering the tank. This seems like a no-brainer, but when faced with the excitement of Shark Tank, you have to take a step back. I don?t agree with harsh reactions to pre-revenue companies, but we just needed more time.
3) Shark Tank is immortal. What you do will follow you forever.
From the perspective of someone who was utterly destroyed on Shark Tank, keep in mind it?s a global stage that may never truly fade away. Before going on Shark Tank, I consulted a TV personality who was a national television veteran. Among his valuable advice was something that stuck with me throughout the experience, ?Always be aware?. He was talking about body language, facial expressions and language. We are very aware of how different our airing was as opposed to the actual events, but viewers are not. Though they made my cofounder look like a total jerk, he?s just a passionate type-A entrepreneur who acted in the moment as anyone would when they?re backed into a corner. Keep in mind he drove a company to gain enough traction to appear on Shark Tank, and built out six functioning units of a product he sketched on a napkin just months prior. If you have done that, please throw the first stone. I have never seen anything closer to the definition of self-starter.
Keep in mind that what?s true in history is true here, the victor writes the story. In the same vein, I have deep respect for the founders that made it, who truly beat Shark Tank and are now writing their own stories. Me, on the other hand, as an entrepreneur who left the company I went into the tank with, lost. With a second venture in the works, I?ve taken my lessons with me, and that failure drives me every day, but that failure will always be a few clicks away; for better or for worse.
Here it is: Lessons I Learned From Being Rejected on Shark Tank:
1. Just because Shark Tank reaches out to you, doesn?t mean it?s the right decision for your business.
I guess this mainly pertains to everyone with a twinkle in their eye and the hopes of being one of 65,000 odd applicants that make it on the show. Shark Tank isn?t right for everybody and it definitely wasn?t right for us. Would I be saying this if we got a deal? Probably not, but I?m looking at this from a different perspective. If you have a direct to consumer product, you could get utterly embarrassed on the show, burn down the set, curse out Kevin, cry your eyes out, run off the stage and still get thousands of customers the day of your airing. There are exceptions to every rule, but we didn?t really understand who our customers were. We thought we were selling to people charging their cell phones, when we were really selling to venue owners who probably aren?t watching Shark Tank on a Friday night.
2. Always be aware of your body language, facial expressions and your words.
This applies to every day life. You are constantly communicating with the world around you. You are always sending a message, you are a brand. Be aware of that. In the case of Shark Tank, they can take one clip of you about to sneeze, play it five times over, and somehow make it look like you?re crying. Okay, that may be an exaggeration, but there?s a reason they had a hard time making me look upset and angry. I was constantly aware of what I was communicating on set and what I would be communicating on screen. I?m told all the time ?You handled yourself so well?, but there wasn?t much to handle. Though they could do what they want with the rest of the situation, I made it impossible for them to manipulate me.
3. National TV is immortal. Those seven minutes will try to define you.
That episode will always be there, those tweets will always haunt me, and the articles still come up on google searches. Currently, those seven minutes have defined myself and the business. That?s part of the reason I?m writing this. It?s a start to work on changing that. The main point here is whether it?s national TV, work you do for a company, or what you post online, your words and actions become permanent. You are constantly adding to a popcorn trail that defines who you are. Keep that in mind.
4. The story is written by the victors.
Just like history, the victors define the stories. In the case of Shark Tank, they can manipulate the situation any way they want. They made us look exactly how they wanted, which doesn?t put them in the wrong. Just be aware of who?s telling the story in any given situation before making judgements.
5. It?s a show and a hollywood representation of Venture Capital
We knew this going in, but from what I saw, it?s all a game and the name of the game is to get aired, not get investment. It?s no secret that most of the deals don?t make it past due diligence. The valuations are ridiculous and I?m surprised people aren?t over the sharks gawking over every ?crazy valuation?.
6. The best motivation is a crowd of people to prove wrong
It?s a strange experience having people say whatever they want behind the protection of a computer screen. Being rejected on a mass scale has been a powerful motivator to prove all the mindless keyboard trolls wrong.
7. Make enemies
Yeah, my cofounder said he wanted to punch Robert. To be honest, that was bold and not great publicity, but it got us aired on the season opener (for better or for worse). What I learned, as an entrepreneur, is to pick fights. Put a target on a competitor?s back and spend every hour beating them. You run faster chasing the leader.
8. Critique is good. Be agile enough to make changes, but just because they?re experienced, doesn?t mean their words are law.
I know it?s your baby, we?ve all been there, but we?ve also had ugly babies. Keep an open mind to understand what?s ugly about your baby and stay agile enough to change it. At the same time, advisors, investors, and people off the street will try to tell you how to build your product and run your business. Chew on their advice, but just because they?re leaders in their field or have a Lamborghini in their garage doesn?t mean they know what?s best for your business. This is a balancing act.
9. Don?t take the media as an ultimate truth about you or your business
It?s easy to believe what people say about you or your business, but don?t let them manipulate the truth. We did a poor job of managing the media, but we never let it affect how we thought about ourselves and our business.
10. Be smart about when to walk away, it doesn?t mean you?re giving up
Kenny Rogers? Know when to walk away, know when to run. A mentor once told me that good entrepreneurs push through walls, but great entrepreneurs know when to walk away. It may be a great idea, but maybe the market doesn?t want it or the timing is off. There?s a lot of motivational posters about chasing your dreams, but keep in mind all the fatal stories behind every entrepreneur that spent all their money, sold their first born and ended up being successful. There have been thousands that didn?t walk away and their businesses became a ball and chain in their lives. Keep in mind that this is a gut check and not about listening to anyone telling you your business won?t work.
11. Shark Tank won?t kill your business. Either the market didn?t want it, you needed to pivot, or you didn?t execute. There are no excuses.
Forget ideas, they?re a dime-a-dozen. It comes down to execution; no idea is a golden ticket to success. Shark Tank won?t make or break your business – whether you get investment or storm off in anger ? but what you do about it will. The important things are what you learn after a failed business and why things happened the way they did. Every time you will execute better and better. That is far more valuable than some ?great idea?.
12. Investors don?t care about Shark Tank
Do real doctors like Grey?s Anatomy? They think it?s stupid.
13. Prove viability, don?t pitch hopes and dreams
I honestly did not believe this before. I thought if you had a great idea, people would get excited, throw money at you, put a crown on your head and call you King of the North. That?s not the case. If you tell me you need money to prove market validity and you aren?t building advanced weapon systems, then you?re wrong. We should have spent more time testing and less time pitching. Did we get to that point? Yes, but it was way too late in the game.
14. Early financial partners should care as much about your business as you do. Early investment is like a dating game, not Shark Tank.
There?s a ton of value in who you bring on as financial partners early in the game. Make sure your values and vision line up or you will be in a world of hurt. This has come from friends and colleagues who have made the mistake of taking money from ROI-minded individuals and their businesses are run by the board who want to see a return, not run by a vision. Keep in mind that a Venture Capitalist?s sole mission is to make 10x his/her investment and exit. They aren?t there to fulfill your vision. It?s the dark side, but sometimes you can?t live without them.
15. You are the expert on your business. Truly believe that when people try to tell you about your technology.
You know your product better than anyone else. This seems simple, but it?s easy to believe what everyone else is telling you about your technology, market, and business is true just because they?re prominent entrepreneurs. They don?t know you or your product and they shouldn?t be driving it. No one else is going to sell your business, so know it inside and out and be confident that you?re the expert.
16. ?I?m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.? ? Thomas Jefferson
This sums it up perfectly. We all need a little luck, but the lucky breaks are all anyone ever sees. Nobody sees all the hard work and failure leading up to it. Everyone has a break, but the distinguishing factor is whether you capitalize on it or not. The bottom line is that I believe luck is generated. Nothing just falls in your lap and if you believe that, keep playing the lottery.
For those who made it through this entire post, bravo. This is the first time since the airing that I?ve made an effort to externalize what happened, what I did about it, and what I?ve learned. If this motivates one person or helps push towards some kind of understanding, I think it?s worth it. The journey is different for each person and I?d love to hear different perspectives on what I?ve talked about here. It?s okay to disagree.
If you have any comments, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org