- At the “Shark Tank” casting call, I felt as if I were rubbing elbows with 600 near-celebrities.
- I saw pitches for products as varied as keto-friendly doughnuts, frozen meatballs, and snap-on buttons.
- Impressively, none of the entrepreneurs seemed that nervous.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The Mensch (a Yiddish word that roughly translates to “a person of integrity and honour”) was designed as a Jewish alternative to the Christmas-inspired Elf on a Shelf. And what might have been viewed as a gimmick had enough potential that the entrepreneur behind it walked away with a $US150,000 investment.
From that December night nearly five years ago, I was hooked. Each week I’d tune in to find out: Who would wind up dead to Mr. Wonderful? Whose prototype would break during the pitch? Who would wind up embracing Barbara Corcoran in a bear hug when she promised to propel them to success?
As a reporter for Business Insider, I’ve had the chance to interview several “Shark Tank” alums, whether the founders of Bombas socks or the high-school sweethearts behind Lollacup, and it always feels like meeting an international celebrity. I mean, these people have been in the tank. What have I done with my life?
Then, last week, dreams came true. I attended an open casting call for “Shark Tank” in New York City, where 600 entrepreneurs (representing about 350 companies) had the chance to pitch their business in hopes of making it on the show. That’s 600 near-celebrities!
After a few hours there, I felt emotionally exhausted – and I hadn’t pitched a thing. Here are the parts of the experience that surprised me most:
No one seemed especially nervous.
If I were about to pitch my life’s work with the chance of snagging a powerful investor and landing a spot on national television, I’d be freaking out. I’m not even sure I’d make it into the conference center – I’d just pass out in the line to get in.
But all the entrepreneurs I chatted with seemed … fine. I even spoke with some founders who were a few minutes away from pitching a casting agent, and they were more excited than anything else.
Instead, most people seemed confident …
Patricia Arder, the founder of PillowPeepers (glasses meant to allow you to sleep on your side comfortably), told me she hadn’t even rehearsed her pitch much since she knew her business so well.
… and were there mostly to have fun.
Joseph Chiodi, the founder of the Famous Meatballers(frozen Italian-style meatballs) said he wasn’t nervous because he viewed it as a “shot in the dark.”
He’d also already won first place on Rachael Ray’s seventh annual “5-Alarm Cook-Off Challenge,” which featured New York City firefighters like Chiodi.
Some companies were really established.
One of the first founders I met was Katey Evans, the vice president of sales and marketing at The Frozen Farmer. The company turns produce (including “ugly,” or misshapen, produce) from its third-generation family farm into ice cream and sorbet.
The Frozen Farmer had already received a video from Bethenny Frankel saying she’d be willing to invest if they made it onto “Shark Tank.” Evans had flown in from Delaware with her two young daughters (one dressed as a strawberry) to pitch.
One company even had celebrity clientele.
Marius Morariu is the cofounder of the beauty and wellness brand Tracie Martyn. The company has been around for about 20 years – “before it was cool to be into wellness,” Morariu told me – and has a shop on Fifth Avenue in New York City. It offers Rihanna’s favourite facial. (Still, I’d somehow never heard of them.)
Morariu said he’d just found out about the casting call that morning and decided to give it a shot.
Others were fledgling businesses with potential.
Before the doors to the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in midtown Manhattan officially opened, a woman bounded over to me bearing doughnuts – specifically, Ohketo Doughnuts.
Brennan Terry launched the company, which makes what it calls “guilt-free” pastries geared toward people on the ketogenic diet, just six months ago. But she said she’d gotten encouraging feedback so far.
“We’re really excited to be able to pitch to ‘Shark Tank’ and to see where it can take us,” she said.
I never would have thought of some of these business ideas.
I introduced myself to two brothers dressed in what I thought were tuxedo shirts. As it turns out, they’re the founders of The Magnetic Button by LI Solutions Inc.
The Magnetic Button turns standard shirt buttons into snaps meant to allow you to get dressed more easily. One of the cofounders, David Puglia, told me he’d come up with the idea 20 years ago after having an operation that made it difficult to use his hands for things like buttoning up a shirt.
To me, this product seemed hugely innovative and useful – but if you’d left me in a room to think for the next century, I never would have come up with it.
You’re not supposed to use the most overused phrase on the show.
Once the first batch of entrepreneurs had filed into the Javits Center basement, the casting director Mindy Zemrak ran down some rules and best practices.
Among them was the one thing you should never say to the casting agents: “If I can get 1% of a $US20 billion industry…” If you’ve watched even a few episodes of “Shark Tank,” you know this is a line that many entrepreneurs repeat – and are often given grief about.
Instead, Zemrak said, the casting agents want to learn about you and your company. “‘Shark Tank’ is 50% about your business or your product and 50% about you and your backstory,” she said. If you took out a second mortgage or depleted your kid’s college fund, for example, they want to hear about it, so they know you’re “all in.”
Each entrepreneur I met was impressive and inspiring.
I thought Zemrak’s guideline about telling your story made sense. Glasses, meatballs, sorbet, or buttons – by far the most interesting thing about each company was the people behind it, who’d taken a creative business idea and run with it.
Just before I left for the day, I met the Knoetgen family, who were pitching Love of Country Clothing, a “patriotic clothing line” made in the US and dedicated to those who serve in the military, fire, and police departments and as first responders.
Joseph Knoetgen, an active-duty medic in the air force, told me he and his family had a personal investment in the company. “It’s not just a line – it’s not just a brand or a company,” he said. “It’s what we believe in.”