Each day at exactly 12:00pm, or thereabouts, I get a Google Alerts email for the keyword “Shark Tank.” Usually, it’s a collection of CNBC reports on some benign statements from one of the sharks, updates from aggregate news sites on past pitchers designed (I assume) to take advantage of that SEO spike when episodes rerun, and random news stories about a new shark tank installation at a local aquarium (because Google Alerts doesn’t distinguish between Shark Tank and shark tank).
Recently, there was news in my Google Alerts about a Shark Tank entrepreneur who’d landed a deal on the show. His product? Cake in a mason jar! Shipped across the country, perfect for gifts, cleverly called… “jarcakes.”
No, it wasn’t Wicked Good Cupcakes, a Kevin O’Leary favorite who agreed to his perpetual royalty deal on the show a few years ago. It was actually The Mason Baker, who got a deal on the Australian version of the program.
Now, it might be easy to assume that James Willis — the proprietor of The Mason Baker — came up with the idea all on his own. After all, mason jars are a traditional way to store food and it’s also an easy way to make your foodstuffs look crafty.
(Who hasn’t received dry ingredients for a specific dish, say lentil soup, attractively packaged in a glass jar, during the holidays? Or is that too 1997 or 2005?)
But no, it seems Willis may even have had a heads up that the cupcake in a jar (“Jahhh,” as the Wicked Good Cupcakes folks would say, playing up the Boston accent) might work.
A Smart Company article published shortly after the successful pitch revealed that Willis (by his own apparent account) wanted to send cupcakes to his sister but they didn’t arrive in good condition. That, apparently, was his “a-ha!” moment, but he also had a model from abroad:
“It was a problem he wanted to solve and he’d seen other companies in the US tackle the same segment of the gift market.”
Other companies, like Wicked Good Cupcakes, maybe? Of course, it’s not like the Boston folks ship to Australia — and The Mason Baker doesn’t ship to the U.S. And like most new products on the market, it’s really all about marketing: new and original ideas are few and far between, and anything truly innovative would probably be too risky to get a venture capital investment anyway — at least on U.S. or Australian television.
Many products aren’t new. Many aren’t innovative, they are just sold that way — what’s the difference between a Samsung and Huawei, or, to take some Shark Tank examples, a Nuts ‘n More and Wild Friends? Branding, and really nothing more.
It’s true that these shows have a lot of time to fill on a weekly basis, and in the meantime remain compelling, giving off the illusion that it’s promoting innovation or at least entrepreneurship. You’re going to get some repeat characters, especially if there are different versions of the show happening on a few corners of the globe at the same time.
Which led me to think about what it is I like about Shark Tank so much to begin with. I don’t tend to tune in on Friday nights (whoops, I mean Sundays) to be blown away by some revolutionary products. The truth is that those pitches tend to be grating — as a general rule, entrepreneurs who claim to “disrupt” an industry are the type who know words like “disrupt” in a marketing context and are, therefore, recent marketing or business school grads.
I’m not knocking the young. Some of my favorite pitches have come from the under-25 crowd, but to use an analogy from the entertainment industry, there’s a difference between cute kids pushed on stage by overbearing parents and natural hams who love to perform. There’s the natural entrepreneur and then there’s the college grad who wants to do something — anything — to make their mark before their 20s disappear and their window of opportunity (as they see it) to make something of their lives has closed.
But I digress.
My love for Shark Tank has evolved since I first started watching. It began for me with the Canadian version of Dragons’ Den, which was on the CBC Saturday mornings and I would watch it over my coffee before heading to my Saturday retail job. At the time, it was unique. I’d never seen venture capital, a business and reality hybrid, on television, and it was fun to watch. It felt educational, and inspiring. Like I, too, could build something, with some grit and hustle and a little bit of startup cash.
A few years later, a woman I worked with at a different job actually made it to Toronto to pitch the Dragons, although her pitch never aired. The very fact that she’d been on the stage was exciting to me, even though she didn’t get any money for her small line of baby bandanas that she sold online and in some local shops.
Now, Shark Tank is a kind of comfort. The combination of the music, the voice over, the style of the set, the six sharks — let none of them ever leave, please — is like a cozy blanket. Each pitch invokes less a sense of inspiration than dramatic pause as you wonder what details will be revealed throughout the 11 minutes or so you’re engaged with the entrepreneurial story. Do they have sales? Do they have orders? Are there any hidden owners? Do they have any past tragedies that led them to give up a majority stake to someone not present for the pitch? Of course, since it’s been so many years now, regular viewers can make predictions about which sharks will bite and on what terms.
“There’s nothing proprietary about this,” Kevin O’Leary might muse. But that’s okay, because you can just go to Australia and sell the same thing. The market won’t even know the difference.