When the reality show Shark Tank premiered on ABC in August 2009, US unemployment was at a twenty-six-year high and still climbing. Today, the jobless rate has dropped off from those dire altitudes—somewhat—but this reflects a withered labor force more than it does any true economic revival. Wages lag behind inflation, wealth is concentrated among a tiny cohort, many of the jobs created since the financial crisis don’t pay very well, and a little fewer than half of all American households are just one major unforeseen expense away from skimming the poverty line.
All of which makes Shark Tank, now in its fifth season, a little hard to consume simply as entertainment, though it’s often highly entertaining on a week-to-week basis. On the show, adapted for American television from a Japanese reality format, inventors, creators and small-business owners try to extract money from a panel of venture capitalists, known on the show as “sharks,” in exchange for some percentage of ownership. The sharks hear from teenagers and MDs, parents and cowboys, beat cops and football players, and barefoot runners and homeless women. Each makes their case, describes their product or service with as much sales brio as they can muster, and waits hopefully for a shark to make an offer. Perhaps half the time, or maybe a bit more, people walk away with nothing. When the sharks do make a deal with a contestant, it’s usually in return for a much greater share of equity than the contestant was hoping to part with. Businesses that are already successful tend to attract investments. Businesses that have yet to prove themselves typically don’t get cash. Money, in short, goes to where money is, a rule of thumb that’s unlikely to surprise anyone.
You’d expect the show to get boring once you pick up on this pattern, but it doesn’t. Shark Tank shows people using their brains, in an SAT sort of way, much more than the average reality show. Every time the sharks hear a new pitch, they cross-examine the contestant on two fronts. First come the questions about the product itself: How does it work? What makes it different? Might that power cord pose a safety hazard to kids? Couldn’t a competitor just nail some boards together like this and make a cheaper version? If the contestant gives answers that satisfy the sharks, then the number grilling begins. What are your sales to date? How much did you net? What does it cost to acquire new customers? What’s your plan for growth? We get to see both the sharks and the contestants thinking on their feet, and along the way we learn about royalty structures, franchising strategies, the different categories of intellectual property, and other MBA-ish topics that we might have missed during our undergrad years reading Jane Jacobs.
Another pleasure of Shark Tank is the never-predictable nature of the business proposals themselves. Here are some of the hundred or so products pitched over the course of the fourth season: A tiny spatula with which you can dig uncooperative makeup out of the bottle. An ’80s-style arcade game console with a tap on the side that dispenses beer. A home tattoo removal kit that purports to break down the ink in your skin with halogen lights. An individually packaged waffle, to be sold at convenience stores, that contains as much caffeine as three cups of coffee. On Shark Tank, some ideas are good, some are bad, and some utterly mystify, but it’s heartening just to see so many ideas, presented back to back and by people who believe in them completely.
Midway through the fourth season, a couple named Susie and Steve Taylor went before the sharks to pitch Bibbitec, a full-body bib for infants made out of a material similar to athletic wear. Their demonstration was impressive, at least to the civilian eye—Susie squirted mustard on the bib, then wiped it away without a stain—and the appeal of a durable, reusable bib that doesn’t absorb fluids seemed self-evident.
The sharks looked receptive to the pitch until the Taylors said they were selling bibs for between $25 and $48, and that each bib cost $15 to make. On learning this, Kevin O’Leary, the bulldog of the group, started to moan distressedly like he was watching war footage. “It’s cheaper to just buy a bunch of bibs and throw them out after they get dirty,” said O’Leary, which the Taylors protested, saying one Bibbitec unit would last the better part of a kid’s toddlerhood. The sharks asked the Taylors about their sales numbers, and they were not great: 2,000 units sold in four years, $17,000 in revenue over the past 12 months. No profits in that entire time. One shark suggested licensing their miracle fabric to a company that already makes bibs, but Susie balked for an interesting reason: “When I went to the big-box stores, they all wanted me to go to China [for production . . . ] I want to make it so that people believe that America can make products that are great.” O’Leary had a different idea: “You gotta make it for two bucks, like every other bib is made for.”
It was clear the Taylors were losing the room. Susie, her voice growing thick, began to tell the sharks about a fight she and Steven had once had about bills, when they realized they were spending huge amounts of cash on bibs that just ended up in the garbage. By the end of the story, Susie’s eyes were bright and her voice was breaking. O’Leary replied, “We’re looking at it from the only side that matters—the money. You’re not making any.” One by one, the sharks dropped out of the negotiation. A few offered words of encouragement, while O’Leary got in one final bit of doomsaying. The Taylors left without a deal, although in a brief follow-up interview, Susie seemed undeterred.
You don’t need to watch too many scenes like this to realize that the sharks themselves are one of the less compelling aspects of Shark Tank. They’re certainly not as interesting as the producers seem to think. The sharks are the one element that’s constantly foregrounded, from the title on down: each episode begins with a montage explaining who they are and how they made their millions, and it’s not uncommon, following an emotionally charged pitch, for the camera to linger on the sharks’ bickering and bantering, rather than following up with the contestant who may have just made or lost the most important deal of her life. This emphasis on the house millionaires is one of the show’s greatest errors, because the fortunes and feelings of the sharks can never be a real engine of drama. Each shark, every episode, starts out rich and ends up the same way.
In season four, there are four men and two women whom the show employs as sharks. (Only five sharks appear at any one time; the two women, Barbara Corcoran and Lori Greiner, switch off from week to week. As of season five, they have started appearing in episodes together.) They sit in tasteful chairs on a set dressed as a posh conference room, facing the entrepreneur of the moment as she stands in front of them and makes her pitch. From left to right, we have Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks; Daymond John, founder and CEO of FUBU; O’Leary, who made his fortune in software; either Corcoran, real estate mogul, or Greiner, QVC host and holder of over 110 patents, mostly for household organizers; and Robert Herjavec, tech executive. To the best of my knowledge, John is the only person of color to have served as a shark in the history of the show, and there has never been an episode where fewer than 60 percent of the sharks were white men.
I would like to be able to say that all six sharks contribute equally to the dynamic of the show. The truth is that Kevin O’Leary is Shark Tank‘s center of gravity. He sits in the middle chair, nearly always leaning forward while the other VCs recline, and likes to keep his hands steepled in a way that actually does sort of recall a shark’s fin. O’Leary was born in Montreal, and sometimes seems to be on a solo mission to dismantle the stereotype of the polite Canadian; his manner on Shark Tank is blunt, self-satisfied, condescending. One thinks of Simon Cowell, the Brit who served the same antagonistic role on American Idol. It’s hard to know how much of this is an act on O’Leary’s part: there are times when he genuinely seems to be taking pleasure in savaging someone much less wealthy and powerful than he is, times when it appears that he’s just doing it as part of a pre-negotiation tenderizing strategy, and times when he reminds me of nothing so much as the heel in a WWE pinfall match, stamping and snorting and going through the motions because he knows it’s expected of him. (As it happens, O’Leary answers to two nicknames on the show, “Mr. Wonderful” and “The Undertaker,” both of which have been used as ring names by famous pro wrestlers.)
O’Leary acts as a sort of safety valve for nervous contestants: they can make mild jokes at his expense, since it’s understood that he’s the bad guy. With all the other sharks, contestants tend to be more deferential. This is one of the more painful things about Shark Tank: watching driven, intelligent working- and middle-class Americans stand there and humble themselves before a row of seated, appraising millionaires.
Each of the sharks has a different style of inquiry and negotiation (Cuban is rough-and-tumble, John asks deflating questions in a soft voice, Corcoran is pleasantly skeptical, Herjavec is twinkly and avuncular, the angel to O’Leary’s devil). Each, except maybe Greiner, has had moments where they’ve acted startlingly rude toward the people sharing their ideas with them. Herjavec likes to pick up other people’s pets without asking, sometimes while the contestant is in the middle of making their pitch for dog biscuits or pet-friendly frozen yogurt. John once thickened an H into a Hebrew Chet while negotiating with a rabbi. Cuban, who replaced an unfailingly polite infomercial producer named Kevin Harrington in the second season, is friendly toward some people and an interrupter and a berater of others. The contestants just smile and keep feeding the sharks (literally—VCs eat well on this show, since every home baker and barbecue chef will bring in a sample for the sharks to try; sometimes this leads to gratifyingly biological moments, like the episode where the sharks were pitched two energy-boosting products in a row and ended up shouting all over each other like sugar-shocked kids). It’s not particularly fun to see a small entrepreneur give a homemade cupcake to a millionaire, then listen to the millionaire sneer at her business plan. It’s also not clear whether the show understands how off-putting this is, or how villainous the sharks can look when they’re stomping on somebody’s hard work.
Something you hear a lot on Shark Tank—usually when a business pitch is heading south in a hurry—is the contestant saying, “You’re not just investing in this business. You’re investing in my passion, in my energy.” Or even more simply: “You’re investing in me.” This is always a depressing moment, because you can tell that the contestant is 100 percent convinced of what they’re saying. They know they feel a fire inside that will drive them to work day and night, a sense of determination so powerful that it can’t help but contain the seeds of success. They know they’re the hero of this story, the way each of us knows we’re the hero deep down. The sharks, meanwhile, have heard it all before. “Thank God we finally found somebody with passion!” laughs Herjavec at one point, when a contestant tries this line on him.
It’s not uncommon for Shark Tank contestants to disclose that the business they’re pitching is their family’s only source of income, or that they’ve already sunk five or six figures of their own money into making it work. (You’d think a revelation like this would be proof enough of one’s passion, but the sharks tend to react blandly when it comes up.) Contestants rarely come right out and acknowledge how truly terrible the economy is right now—at least, that we see on camera—but reminders sneak out all the time, in the form of unemployment anecdotes or comments about how everyone’s trying to stretch a dollar these days. Sometimes it becomes clear that a contestant is in very dire financial straits indeed, but this generally doesn’t make it any more likely that they’ll get a deal from the sharks, unless the sharks would look absolutely monstrous by holding out. (Toward the end of the fourth season, O’Leary and Greiner partnered with a single mother who was very competently running a home gumbo business while not having any permanent place to live. The woman came in prepared to offer up 20 percent equity in her business; the sharks ended up taking 50 percent.)
Every once in a great while, the passion appeal will work (John, whose mother once mortgaged their house in Hollis, Queens to keep a fledgling FUBU in business, seems particularly susceptible to it), and when it does, it’s almost always a genuine feel-good moment. But nine and a half times out of ten, the call to “invest in me” falls flat, and in doing so illustrates the great schism of faith that Shark Tank continually negotiates. The people standing and making the pitches believe in themselves, the way anyone trying to make something from nothing must always believe in themselves, the way, I would submit, the men and women who made America, and those who made it briefly great, must have believed in themselves. The sharks, meanwhile, believe in money. They believe in putting money into businesses that have already made money, and keeping it away from businesses that haven’t. The VCs would probably call this prudence. From outside the tank, it looks a lot like sharks circling the same spot over and over again, keeping watch over something they like, and never letting anyone into the loop who isn’t already one of them.