In December 2016, Don Wildman and Jake Sullivan came on to Shark Tank pitching their product, Hand Out Gloves, that gives you full hand dexterity while you’re on the ski slopes.
Sullivan, in his late-20s, was an able Shark Tank sales person; Wildman, in his early-80s, had a hefty business credential: starting Bally’s Fitness, a brand many of us remember even if we never set foot in the clubs.
Wildman and Sullivan had modest sales, but a patent, and some decent hustle. They asked for $300,000, split between an equity investment and a loan, for 20 percent of the company. Eventually, they made a deal with Barbara Corcoran, leaving with a $300,000 line of credit for 25 percent, after Wildman agreed to put another $300,000 capital investment into the company.
Let’s unpack that for a second. The entrepreneurs had to, first, pony up more capital — in the same amount they were seeking. Then, they gave away more equity than they wanted, a full quarter ownership stake. In exchange, they got a line of credit they have to pay back, with interest. In effect, Corcoran got 25 percent of the company for agreeing to be their banker, her money protected by fresh funds coming into the enterprise.
It’s one of those deals that makes you wonder if, once the parties walked off set, it actually went through. Often when you’re watching Shark Tank, you figure some people must exit, do a double take, and think, “What did we just do?”
(I’ve had a look. I can’t find a source that says conclusively what happened with Corcoran and Hand Out Gloves).
Corcoran apparently has her own non-Shark Tank-affiliated investment vehicle, Forefront Venture Partners, part of AngelList’s syndicate program. Forefront doesn’t handle Corcoran’s Shark Tank investments, and her partner Phil Nadel told an interviewer last year there’s a clear difference between that program and what their venture does.
“The companies on ‘Shark Tank’ are typically early-early-stage, even mom-and-pop-type level. Let’s remember, ‘Shark Tank’ is a network TV program first.
“The companies that Barbara Corcoran Venture Partners looks at are post-revenue Seed rounds or Series A-stage. They’re further along, more developed, and have a much more robust business model.”
Of course, we’ve heard that before. Shark Tank isn’t like venture capital because the due diligence happens after the handshake deal and entrepreneurs are pitching to several potential investors at the same time. The stakes are also typically higher: anyone who’s watched Shark Tank knows the investors typically want 20 to 50 percent of the company.
That doesn’t change the fact that, for the entrepreneurs, it’s a real experience, and for the sharks, it’s real money. In a 2015 Wall Street Journal interview, Mark Cuban bristled at the notion that Shark Tank wasn’t a true reflection of how non-televised investment actually works.
“We are all about numbers and execution. … Yes, it is realistic. We put our real money into these companies. Do you think I’m writing millions of dollars in checks because it’s fantasy?”
As a viewer, it’s not enough to know that it’s real, or as real as reality television can be. I want to know what happens to the people that step onto the carpet after everything is said and done. Especially to the ones you never hear about after their Shark Tank pitch airs. The on-air updates, profiles on Beyond the Tank (when that show existed) are carefully selected, it seems. Corcoran herself once told Business Insider that she pitches updates of her own investments to the show’s producers — after all, those update features on new episodes of Shark Tank amount to a little bit of extra promotion.
But successful updates are rarely the most interesting. For every Wicked Good Cupcakes that says the perpetual royalty deal they made with Kevin O’Leary was great for them, and every Scrub Daddy boosting the profile of Lori Greiner, there’s a Show No Towels (entrepreneur Shelly Ehler candidly wrote on her blog that her Shark Tank deal with Greiner “turned to crap,” but she was better for it). There also has to be more than one Sarah Oliver Handbags, whose business folded after the labor department took an unkind view of her piece-rate payment to her senior knitters.
Who would have guessed that Breathometer, who got an extremely rare deal with the entire panel — five sharks investing a total of $1 million for 30 percent — would end up a large scale disappointment, first at the stage of order fulfillment and then when the product turned out to be flawed. Often, the most interesting part of the story happens after the sharks have decided to bite, or not.
Every business has a life cycle; only a rare few last for decades or are passed between generations. Shark Tank has an unprecedented roster of small businesses, all of which appeared on television looking for an influx of cash to take the next step. Knowing the full life of those companies, from inception through pitch through failure or exit or growth or a combination of all three, would not only be instructive to new entrepreneurs, it would make compelling television. Or at least a popular online Wiki.