After months of compiling notes and practicing pitches, contestants walk down a long, cavernous hallway, pass through wood-grain double doors and enter the scorching cone of the spotlight. The piercing gaze of their interrogators — who seem more like executioners — is hotter still.
Most contestants probably mutter to themselves “How did I get here?” Millions of viewers watching at home wonder the same thing.
How do you get on “Shark Tank”?
Full disclosure: it’s long and grueling. But fret not. The Penny Hoarder talked to two successful “Shark Tank” contestants to help walk you through the process.
Dawoon Kang, CEO and cofounder of Coffee Meets Bagel, pitched her business alongside her sister-cofounders Soo and Arum for season four. Coffee Meets Bagel is a dating app that combats what the founders see as a toxic, swipe-right dating culture by focusing on slow, meaningful relationships.
The Kang sisters didn’t walk away with a deal; they turned one down. Mark Cuban, the billionaire businessman and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, (in a rather controversial move because he was already “out”) asked the Kangs if they would sell their company for $30 million on-the-spot. They refused anyway.
Sara Margulis and her husband, Josh, appeared on season six to pitch Honeyfund, their wedding-gift and honeymoon registry website. Honeyfund is the brainchild of their own honeymoon experience: Josh built a website for his family and friends to crowdsource their dream honeymoon to Fiji.
The Sharks loved the idea, and the Margulises walked out with a non-equity deal from the Canadian multimillionaire Kevin O’Leary, aka Mr. Wonderful.
How to Get on ‘Shark Tank’
After a decade and more than 200 episodes, the entrepreneur-themed reality show is still going strong. The ratings have waned in recent years, but the latest season, season 10, still drew in about 3.5 million viewers every Sunday night (and countless viewers on Netflix). Season 11 is set to premiere in September.
Depending on the season,“Shark Tank” producers get between 45,000 and 100,000 applications, according to various reports. Only 120 or so pitches ever make it to the viewers’ eyes.
Translation: it’s really, really hard to make it on the show. Applicants have a better chance of getting accepted into both Harvard and Yale.
But behind-the-scenes advice from Kang and Margulis is sure to help those odds.
Option One: Apply Online
From left: Soo, Arum and Dawoon Kang pitch their dating app Coffee Meets Bagel on an episode of Shark Tank. Photo courtesy of ABC/Tony Rivetti
The vast majority of people applying to “Shark Tank” do it online. Kang and Margulis included, technically. In both their cases, the producers of “Shark Tank” reached out to them first and encouraged them to apply.
“Some people on the show were using [Coffee Meets Bagel] and thought it was a really interesting concept, so they reached out to us,” Kang said.
But they still had to fill out the application, and it’s a doozy. The initial paperwork includes a 17-page document that explains your business’s backstory, numbers, stage of development, need for capital and more. It took them both many months to fill it out.
Before starting on the first application, there’s an additional screener questionnaire that asks background basics.
If all goes well after the paperwork, the producers will request multiple pitch videos to see if your business comes across well on camera.
When filming your video pitch, be sure to be expressive, use good lighting techniques and prep hair, makeup and wardrobe as if you were going on live television.
“Speak succinctly about your company, just as you would if you’re cast on the show,” Margulis said.
Option Two: Attend an Open Casting Call
As the current season is airing, the “Shark Tank” crew is already on the road looking for new contestant-entrepreneurs. For season 11 there were 10 casting calls in various U.S. cities. They started as early as January and ran until July (two months before the new season premiere).
Just because you show up to one of the casting call locations does not mean you are guaranteed an audition. Lines form in the early morning hours, and there’s only a two-hour time frame when the casting crew distributes wristbands. Not everyone gets one.
And to audition, in the words of Paul Simon, “wristband, my man, you got to have a wristband.”
Preparation is key for the casting calls because a completed 17-page application is due on the date of the audition. Be ready to “wow and dazzle” the crew with a well-rehearsed one-minute presentation.
For open casting calls, there’s no guarantee of internet access, AV hook-ups or electricity. Best keep things simple.
Check ABC’s open-call schedule for upcoming audition opportunities.
Insider Tips on Preparing for ‘Shark Tank’
Before you shell out the cash for strobe lights and models for an extravagant presentation, make sure you have the basics down. Namely, your business pitch. Even if you don’t make it to the Sharks, the benefits of a well-crafted business pitch are endless.
“At the same time that you’re working on the visual presentation,” Margulis said, “you’re also working through the points of the business, what you’re asking for what percentage of the company, and answering a bunch of business questions.”
For those who make it far enough for an in-person pitch, here are some additional tips to help calm your nerves.
Hook the Sharks
The Sharks are suckers for a good, relatable story. Gimmicks like models and corny platitudes might get a chuckle but not an investment. The Kang sisters crafted a hook that doubled as their origin story, which highlighted their journey from South Korea to Silicon Valley. And the Margulises went for a subtly Fiji-themed presentation to highlight how their personal honeymoon experience led to Honeyfund’s launch.
“Play to your strengths,” Kang said. “You want to stand out and differentiate yourself because they hear pitches all day long.”
Know Your Audience
Each episode of “Shark Tank” features five of the six permanent Shark-investors. The contestants don’t know who will be there on the day of the show, so it’s good to have a few Sharks in mind who you want to make a deal with, in case your top pick isn’t there. In recent seasons, the show includes some wildcards like billionaire Richard Branson, actor Ashton Kutcher and NBA legend Charles Barkley.
“Have a sense of who each Shark is, what kinds of deals they like to do and what kind of products and services they like to invest in,” Margulis said.
But don’t forget about the audience at home. Have a presentation that also resonates with the average viewer.
“You want to make sure you’re being energetic,” Kang said. “It can feel really flat if you’re not able to express your emotions. The audience watching the show would have a hard time connecting.”
Arm Yourself With Numbers
At the very least, every contestant on “Shark Tank” needs a specific ask in the format of “x% of my business for $x.” The obvious follow-up to that question is, “How did you come to that valuation?” And that’s likely just the first question in a coming onslaught.
“We had a stack of flashcards four-inches thick,” Margulis said, which detailed revenue, sales and projected growth numbers.
“You have to be able to succinctly tell [the Sharks] how their money is going to grow your company and return back to them,” she added. “Even better if you can say, ‘Hey Sharks, I have XYZ opportunities in front of me, but I can’t execute on these without your money.’”
In addition to the million other things to be aware of, it’s important to stay in the moment and dedicate time to address each Shark. They are a bunch of big media personalities, and they all want your attention. For example, if you have an infomercial-ready product, you might be itching for a deal with Lori Greiner, dubbed the “Queen of QVC.” But don’t ignore the other Sharks.
“Investor fit is always important,” Margulis said, but if you’re not fully answering the other Sharks’ questions, it could backfire in more ways than one.
The other Sharks might “go out,” which means less competition (and likely a worse deal). They will also be less likely to give you advice.
“We definitely got some good feedback from the Sharks while we were in the Tank,” Margulis said.
Even though Honeyfund took a deal with Kevin O’Leary, “Mark [Cuban] said that he thought it was a bad idea to go after other events beyond the wedding before we had really cornered the market in the wedding space,” Margulis said.
“That’s the thing that has stuck with me.”
Adam Hardy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. He specializes in ways to make money that don’t involve stuffy corporate offices. Read his latest articles here, or say hi on Twitter @hardyjournalism.