Long-time viewers of Shark Tank know the show has a bit of a mythology. It’s about finding the American Dream. Everyday people start a business out of their basements, get a bit of success, land a spot on a national television program, pitch their company to wealthy investors, and get an influx of cash.
With that influx of cash, and the Shark Tank appearance, comes free publicity through the program. That may be one reason why, in the show’s early days, the production company behind Shark Tank insisted on either two percent of profits or a five percent equity stake of every business that got in front of the investors regardless of whether or not they landed a deal. Mark Cuban got rid of this condition way back in 2013 as part of his own contract renewal. As Inc. reported at the time, the forced investment partnership with the production company may have been a deterrent for some companies to appear on the show.
While arguably the “Shark Tank Effect” has lessened in recent years, there was a time that pitching a product on the show was almost a guarantee of increased sales at least in the short term. The show’s appeal as both a platform to a television audience and a chance to come face-to-face with wealthy people ready to fork over cash has made it the dream of many entrepreneurs pining away in their basements or in their bedrooms after school.
But this is reality television. Entrepreneurs who get on Shark Tank have to beat out thousands of others vying for the position. They have to compete, not only to show they’ve got a solid business, but to convince producers they will make good television. A Shark Tank casting agent told Inc. this past April that those trying out have to do two things in order to be considered: know their numbers and show real excitement.
So it’s never been about who deserves a spot in front of the sharks. It’s always been about television. This season, however, there’s been a glaring disconnect between what the show purports to promote and the message it ultimately delivers. Only a few episodes into Season 9 and viewers have already seen entrepreneurs humiliated for no good reason and a wealthy, famous family get a deal for a less-than-innovative product.
Doubling Down on the Mythology: Simple Habit
According to the Shark Tank mythology, Yunha Kim should never have gotten a spot on Shark Tank. It wasn’t that her company wasn’t good. As the proprietor of a five-minute meditation app, she promised to connect busy people with the world’s greatest wellness teachers. But she came on set with a huge red flag, according to the Shark Tank mythology: no debt and an overflowing bank account. If she’s already well-funded, seeking a high valuation ($600,000 for five percent), why would she be there except for the free commercial?
Mark Cuban rudely called Kim a gold-digger and Daymond John claimed she’d stolen a spot from someone who could really use help from the sharks. The aggression did not go unnoticed by the show’s guest shark, Richard Branson, who threw a glass of water in Cuban’s face and countered his assertion that Kim had no right to be there. As The Huffington Post reported, contrary to the cynical sharks’ expectations, Kim indeed tried to negotiate a deal. She insisted she was looking not only for money but expertise that she could only get with a shark on board.
In a later interview with The Chronicle, the publication of Kim’s alma mater Duke University, the entrepreneur expressed her shock at how she was initially treated by the panel.
“When the comment was made, I took a deep breath and made a choice to not react to his comment and instead, focus on what I could control, which is speaking to the credibility and value of the company I’ve built.”
While the sharks at least gave lip service to the Shark Tank mythology, viewers would have to wonder: why, if they knew the investors’ probable reaction to Kim’s pitch, did they even let her into the program? Alex Dehgan of Duke University was quoted in the Chronicle article on that very issue.
“To criticize someone for coming on the show is really a criticism of the show itself for accepting her because they know exactly what she has to offer.”
More than anything, Simple Habit seemed to show that the sharks of Season 9 aren’t just hard on the entrepreneurs: they are borderline mean.
Then it got worse.
Stooping to a New Low: Trippie
On an earlier season of Shark Tank, Ryan Diew would have been showered with praise. Here was a young, ambitious, smart entrepreneur who had created a harmless product. He developed his app, Trippie, while juggling other responsibilities as a student and athlete. Trippie gives users a snapshot of amenities available when they have a layover in an unfamiliar airport.
Somehow, this pitch went awry. The sharks decided quickly Diew hadn’t done enough, either on the back end to develop his app, or in getting a full understanding of the market. They criticized his modest number of users. Diew admittedly struggled to keep it together during the interrogation and even gave a last-ditch attempt to save the pitch after all the sharks were out. All of that may have been expected, but at some point, the sharks decided to get mean. After he left the room, Cuban said Diew was a millennial stereotype, looking for a participation trophy.
On an earlier season of Shark Tank, the producers would have given Diew the opportunity to keep his dignity. But not on Season 9. Instead, they showed Diew with his mother before his pitch and afterwards when she consoled him as he was nearly in tears. In other seasons, Diew would have been given the opportunity to give sober, reflective thoughts in a direct post-pitch interview. Apparently, producers of Shark Tank preferred to package the segment in such a way as to exploit the weakest aspects of the entrepreneur’s performance.
It wasn’t fair, it was mean, and likely done for dramatic effect.
Sure, Diew cried. But so have lots and lots (and lots) of other entrepreneurs. Mikki Bey cried and Barbara Corcoran called her out for it; but as Inquisitr reported, she was able to continue with her head held high, so much so social media seemed to take Bey’s side after the incident.
According to an article on Colgate University News, the publication of Diew’s university, the entrepreneur moved forward after the incident. Trippie had 12,000 new downloads after the episode aired and Diew had taken a specific lesson from his Shark Tank experience.
“I really have taken heed of a lot of their advice. I think that I let my emotions get the best of me toward the end. I am really passionate about this, and I broke down, and that’s something I’ve learned from. I’ll never do that again.”
He went on to say they have continued to make the app better, improving its functionality.
A Colgate vice-president, Michael Sciola, gave the kind of assessment that an earlier, kinder Shark Tank panel would have given the young entrepreneur.
“At Colgate, we teach our students that it is impossible to win a game if you are afraid to take a shot. I admire that Ryan took the chance to move his business forward and know that he will use this as a learning experience. I cannot wait to see what happens next!”
Somehow, after putting Yunha Kim in the position to defend herself because she apparently didn’t fit the Shark Tank mythology, and outright embarrassing a young entrepreneur because perhaps his app wasn’t ready for prime time, the show found a new way to annoy long-time viewers. They brought on a celebrity to make an actual pitch. Sure, it wasn’t the first time, but in the context of Season 9, was all the more grating.
Height of Hypocrisy: Ice Shaker
Anyone who’s a fan of professional sports probably knows the Gronkowski family. They are not only a group of well-known athletes, but an established brand. Clear evidence of the Gronkowski name outside of sports is Rob Gronkowski’s “takeover” of Big Brother 17 for one week in 2015, which The Hollywood Reporter recalled was a “party week” for the houseguests. Having the Gronkowski’s show up in the middle of Shark Tank for a moment felt like a Jimmy Kimmel skit, except this one wasn’t a joke.
Apparently no one on the Shark Tank panel, which included Cuban, Corcoran, Kevin O’Leary, Lori Greiner, and guest shark Alex Rodriguez, thought Chris Gronkowski was taking a coveted spot on the show away from someone who really needed it. Gronkowski showed up with all four of his siblings, including brother Rob, to pitch an insulated shaker bottle. The sharks smartly suggested they call it the “Gronk Shaker,” but no one attempted to embarrass the family, call them gold-diggers, or question why they came into the tank to get a deal.
It’s a question that Chris Gronkowski actually answered, according to the CNBC recap.
“I don’t exactly need the money, if I needed just $100,000 I could probably call someone I know, and he would probably give it to me. But I need the expertise.”
The person he could call, apparently, was brother Rob, although viewers might suspect he could also call up Mark Cuban anytime he wanted. In the end the Gronkowski’s got a deal, with Cuban and Rodriguez splitting a 15 percent stake for $150,000.
Takeaway: The ‘Shark Tank’ Mythology is Dead
If the Shark Tank mythology was at all still clinging to life a few episodes into Season 9, it died with the Gronkowski deal. In any other season, the celebrity interlopers would have gotten away with it and the mythology would have lived to see another day. But after the appalling displays of Simple Habit and Trippie — to name just two — where the sharks’ egos seemed bigger than their desire to support fledgling entrepreneurs, it was the pinnacle of a show no longer willing to tell its own lies.
Viewers, no longer witnessing the myth, might choose to turn their attention elsewhere.
Shark Tank airs Sunday nights on ABC.
[Featured image by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for LIFEWTR]