Lessons From ‘Dragons’ Den’: Why It’s the Judges, Not the Entrepreneurs, That Make the Pitch

Shark Tank announced last week that Alex Rodriguez would be back on Season 10 as a guest shark. It’s not a shock; with the amount of time that ARod spent hanging out with cast members outside the Shark Tank studio it seemed he was either angling for a permanent spot on the program or trying to up his profile as an entrepreneur.

But the idea of J.Lo’s beau taking up residence on Shark Tank doesn’t sit well with many who have become accustomed to the revolving panel of six that has held court on Shark Tank over the past several seasons.

The show has shifted personnel before — Lori Greiner and Mark Cuban were both late additions to the program, and both started as guest sharks — but since Shark Tank has probably seen its peak success, the idea of swapping out investors feels like a half-hearted attempt to renew the show, and it probably won’t work.

Here’s why guest sharks are usually problematic. Those of us who are Shark Tank connoisseurs typically tune in to, first, see the panel; and second, see the entrepreneurs. What makes the show compelling, typically, is feeling like you know the sharks well enough to predict who is going to jump on what deal, and on what terms.

A guest shark may introduce some unknowns, but it also disrupts the appealing interactions the sharks have with each other. Because at the end of the day, it’s the shark discussions, fights, and one-upmanships that make the show.

And on that note, let’s revisit my all-time favourite pitch from either Dragons’ Den (Canada) or Shark Tank (USA). With the qualification that I stopped watching Dragons’ Den years ago, about the time it started to cycle through judges with reckless abandon, expanding the panel to six with Dragons who didn’t seem really interested in making investments and who may have only been there because the CBC offered them a paycheque.

The pitch, almost nine years old now (November 2009), was for Clayton Hollingsworth’s Higher Vibrations Wholistic Healing and Wellness. (If you’re not in Canada, you may not be able to play the video at that link, so bear with me on my descriptions).

Facing a panel that consisted of Kevin O’Leary, Robert Herjavec, Brett Wilson, Arlene Dickinson and Jim Treliving — for my money the Dragons’ Den version of the current Shark Tank six in terms of best panel the show ever saw — a young, self-described healer from Edmonton, Alberta, walked on stage and proceeded to lay out a number of healing tools, including singing bowls and a crystal skull.

His ask? He was “opening himself up to receive” whatever the Dragons wanted to offer for his work.

“So for any amount for any percentage,” Wilson said, to which Hollingsworth replied that it was hard to place a value on what he does. Asked what he would use money for, he said, “for support,” explaining that he does not currently charge for his services.

He called himself a facilitator, helping people to work through blockages.

“Bowel blockages?” Herjavec said, to which Hollingsworth, undeterred, replied that often physical symptoms have other causes, so maybe, yes.

The Dragons began by snickering, all five, although only Herjavec seemed completely unwilling to even hear the guy out. By the time Clayton brought up Dickinson and O’Leary for a singing bowl demonstration, it was clear that two Dragons in particular were triggered by the pitch.

Herjavec was highly irritated, “out” before even having to say the words, and barely willing to give Hollingsworth the courtesy of a fair evaluation. (Think Mark Cuban any time anyone comes on Shark Tank pitching a nutritional supplement, except in Herjavec’s case it was particularly jarring because of his “nice Dragon” image).

Wilson — a political conservative who made significant money from oil — was on the opposite end of the spectrum. He closed his eyes in seeming meditative openness when Hollingsworth began to make sounds with the bowls, flanked on either side by O’Leary and Dickinson, representing male and female energy, holding crystals in their hands.

During that energetic demonstration, Dickinson and O’Leary (who always makes good television for these kinds of interactive skits during pitches — to my recollection, he’s “married” Barbara Corcoran twice on Shark Tank) were suppressing laughter. Then there was a shift. The smirk from O’Leary turned to a look of amazement. He scanned Clayton up and down as he made deliberate movements with his hands. The voiceover said that the demonstration had “pacified the Dragons.” That was not an overstatement.

For Wilson and Herjavec, it sent them even further apart. After O’Leary and Dickinson returned to their seats, Hollingsworth answered questions about how the crystal bowls work, to the sudden polite attention of everyone on the panel except for Herjavec. Robert, still irritated, said, “Oh… kay, can we…” and he began to argue with Wilson, who basically told him to keep quiet with restrained frustration.

“When did this become the hold each other’s hands and love each other show?” Herjavec asked, and it was O’Leary who seemed to want to be peacemaker, saying calmly, “ok, listen kids…”

“Hey I’m an investor, he came here to ask for money, I thought,” said Herjavec. Wilson pushed him to go out, and he did.

The pitch is so fascinating because of how deeply triggered the panel becomes, as if the subject matter itself held specific meaning for them. That triggering was more pronounced because there was no business here. The Dragons could not default to questions about sales or revenues or projections or debt. It came down to, “does this resonate with you or not.”

It’s unlikely Clayton Hollingsworth would have made it on to Shark Tank, not just because the size of the U.S. market is so much larger but because a pitch like that could do nothing but ask the sharks to offer some kind of personal assessment about whether or not the practice he presented was worthwhile.

On Dragons’ Den, Treliving politely said it was not the space he was in, so would be out. Dickinson recalled that her father used these holistic healing techniques when he was going through cancer, so she respected it, but would be out, wishing Hollingsworth good luck in his life.

O’Leary chose to talk about measuring worth through money. He said Hollingsworth chose not to do that, but, “that’s ok,” it didn’t mean either way was bad. “My point is our metrics are different,” O’Leary said, before also going out.

Wilson said he worked closely with crystals and healers when he went through cancer, calling it an important part of his healing. So he offered to give Hollingsworth $5,000.

After he left, Herjavec again spoke up, “Look if we are going to do donations, I know a lot of places…” Dickinson said it was not a donation request, he had simply left it to the Dragons to decide what to give.

At the end of the pitch, text on a title card revealed that before Clayton left that day, O’Leary had given him $500.

In terms of being compelling television, this was clearly more about the Dragons than the entrepreneur. It’s an unusual case, but demonstrates how it’s about the reactions more than what’s being pitched. Sometimes that works with guest sharks, but more often than not, it doesn’t.

Think about when Richard Branson threw water on Mark Cuban after Cuban called a female entrepreneur a “gold digger.” Branson was soundly criticized by fans. If it had been a regular shark, he would have gotten less heat. A guest shark doesn’t have the clout to walk out on an argument after a pitch — think of O’Leary, Herjavec and Cuban walking out on a post-pitch disagreement after Greiner and Daymond John got an investment in Scholly — a guest shark would be more inclined to toe the party line, so to speak, and make nice. That’s fine, but it’s less interesting television.

 

 

 

 

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