The show Shark Tank, where entrepreneurs pitch investors for capital, has some great business lessons . . .
1) If you get what you ask for, take it. Mark Cuban offered one entrepreneur exactly what he requested. The entrepreneur then asked for more and lost the deal. No one likes to do business with someone who gets what he requests and then asks for more; it’s a sign of what’s to come in the relationship.
2) Networks matter. The Shark Tank investors bring huge value in their networks. Daymond John got the sticker guys distribution in Best Buy as well as retail distribution for Nubrella. Lori Greiner is able to help the businesses she invests in get on QVC. When you’re looking for investors understand their networks and more importantly if they’re willing to leverage them for you. Ask about this before you sign a deal. Sometimes a deal with less lucrative financial terms is better if it brings the right network to the table.
3) Do your homework. When Mark Cuban negotiates and tells you a deal is final, he means it. I’ve seen enough episodes to know this, so I cringe when an entrepreneur tries to negotiate further and loses a deal entirely. You won’t have the benefit of seeing most people you’ll negotiate with on TV in advance, but you can still do plenty of due diligence — like researching their past deals and talking to their business partners.
The most successful entrepreneurs also know enough about the Sharks to customize their pitch. They tell each one why he or she should personally be interested in the business.
4) Get an advisory board. Getting a Shark to invest in your company is one way to get partners with experience and a network, but not everyone can be on Shark Tank. Creating a strong advisory board can also increase your opportunities; for a small amount of equity you can build a great board. I’ve found that retired executives with extensive networks are often eager to get back in the game and make tremendous advisory board members.
5) Know your absolute bottom going into a negotiation. One entrepreneur was offered a deal and needed to think about it. By the time she decided to move forward, the Sharks had talked among themselves and reduced their offer. If she knew her absolute bottom going into the show, she could have made a decision on the spot and had a better deal.
Too many entrepreneurs are unsure of what they’d accept and their hesitancy gets them worse deals. Also, if you don’t know the lowest offer you’d accept, you could commit to something you’d regret later. Of course, there may be exceptions if unexpected elements come into play, which sometimes happens on Shark Tank.
6) Solve your own problems. The most successful founders built companies to solve problems they faced. They’re building for a market they understand and are passionate about. A couple examples are Travis Perry who developed ChordBuddy to help his daughter learn to play the guitar and Eric Corti who invented the Wine Balloon to better preserve wine after he and his wife opened a bottle.
Of course, the problem you’re solving has to address a sizable market. No Sharks wanted to invest in Ledge Pillow because they didn’t think the market was big enough.
7) Investors buy into people as much as ideas. The Sharks get most excited about a passionate, likeable entrepreneur. Be honest. If that’s not you, and you need investors, consider finding a partner who fills this role.
8) Do a deal that works for everyone. The Sharks often say they won’t invest in something because they don’t have the right background or connections to help the business. If you’re looking for investors, try to find those that can help you by serving as more than just a bank. In any deal, whether it’s related to VC or not, make sure both sides provide value. You’re probably going to do more deals in the future, and a one sided deal won’t be good for your reputation.
9) Listen. The Shark Tank investors offer great advice when they turn people down. If you’re told “no” don’t be so displeased that you can’t listen to the rationale. And, if they don’t tell you why, ask so you can leverage that advice moving forward. This is a chance for insight from experts.
10) Don’t respond to people you’re pitching with disdain or sarcasm – even if they say something nasty. The people who do, tend not to get deals. How you act in a pitch will shape what potential partners think it would be like to work with you. In fact, maybe they’re pushing you just to see how you’ll react under pressure.
11) If you can’t sell, learn to. This lesson is for everyone. Even if you’re in a large company, you need to sell your ideas and yourself to get ahead. In the case of investors, Sharks are looking for people who can sell. And, business valuations are significantly higher when someone has revenue. Do whatever you can to get sales prior to approaching investors. Mark Cuban stresses that selling is one of the most important skills for entrepreneurs in his great book, How to Win at the Sport of Business.
12) Prepare. I’ve seen entrepreneurs on the show who don’t know their financials or seem to freeze up in the middle of their pitch. When you’re going to a meeting or pitch, practice enough that you can talk about your business even in stressful circumstances and please know your financials. The most successful people are usually over prepared. This is something Barbara Corcoran mentions in her excellent book, Shark Tales: How I turned $1,000 into a Billion Dollar Business.
13) Demonstrate your commitment. Investors want to see that you’ve taken a risk – investing your money and time — showing that you believe in your business. Don’t ask for their money if you haven’t invested yours.
14) Patents are extremely valuable. A worthwhile investment if you have something unique.
15) Have options. You can almost always tell when someone believes they have no other options. Those entrepreneurs get a worse deal than they’d otherwise receive. Whether you’re selling a stake in your company or buying a car, you need alternatives to get the best deal. One alternative is knowing at what point you’ll say “no.”
16) Ask, “Are there any other offers on the table?” Some people have gotten much better offers when they ask this rather than responding to the offer that was given. Like anything, the more competition you can create for your business, the better deal you’ll get.
17) Don’t quibble over small numbers. I’ve seen deals get lost because someone is dickering over 1%. Don’t do it.
18) Ask for something valuable . . . besides money. Steve Gadlin and Mark Cuban were negotiating an investment in Steve’s business, I Want to Draw a Cat for You. When the financial terms were on the table, Steve asked Mark if he’d draw and sign every 1000th cat drawing. Mark said “yes.” It was easy for Mark to say “yes,” and it will add value to Steve’s business. Look for opportunities where the other side can provide additional value without any out of pocket expense.
19) The right partner offers more than financial terms. There are some great businesses that are giving up huge chunks of equity for a seemingly small amount of money. Kevin O’Leary bought into Talbott Tea at what seemed like a great valuation for him, but within a short period of time he had the business packaged up and sold to Jamba Juice. When you do a deal with a Shark you’re giving up more than you’d offer someone else, because they can exponentially grow your business faster.
20) Don’t tell potential investors they’re wrong. When you tell Sharks they’re wrong – especially in front of other people (like the national TV audience of Shark Tank) they will naturally stop listening to you. No one wants to be told they’re wrong in front of other people. Instead, say, “I think that . . .” or “What do you think about looking at it like. . . .” How you defend your position makes a difference.
21) If someone asks you to sell him something, ask, “Why do you want it?” Daymond John challenged an entrepreneur to sell him a pen. The guy did a good job, but I think he could have done better. Instead of jumping right into selling the pen, he could have asked Daymond what he was looking for in a pen and customized the pitch.
22) Find investors who are passionate about your business. The Sharks gravitate not only to the businesses they like but the ones that they’re passionate about. Kevin O’Leary invested in the tea company (loves tea); Daymond John in the trash can cover company (he said he had just lost his own garbage can cover); and Robert Herjavec in the guitar learning company (he has a lifelong dream to learn guitar). Those entrepreneurs were solving problems that the VCs personally experienced. Do research to find partners passionate about what you do. You’ll have a higher likelihood of making a deal.
23) More Sharks are better than one. Every investor will bring a different network and expertise to the table. Jewelry company M3 Girl Designs, founded by Maddie Bradshaw when she was 10, was offered $300K from Lori Greiner and Mark Cuban. Maddie said she’d take the deal if they’d let Robert Herjavec in as well. She got the same financial deal with one additional investor. See if you can increase the parties who have a stake in your business.