For eight hours last summer, Dallas Robinson and Mike Buonomo stood in line to audition for the hit ABC reality TV show Shark Tank. The producers loved their concise and clever pitch, and a couple months later, the 24-year-old Salt Lake City residents are on the set in Culver City, Calif., getting ready to pitch their catchy startup Kisstixx to five astute and very rich investors, otherwise known as “the sharks.”
As they walk into the proverbial shark tank passing aquariums, they prepare themselves mentally for those first gut-wrenching, pivotal minutes when they try to seal a deal. But before they even open their mouths, they have to stand before the sharks in pin-dropping silence for a good 30 seconds while establishing shots are shot.
“It seems like forever!” says Robinson, chuckling about the experience afterward. “The sharks are just staring at you, peering into your soul and you’re standing there scared to death and trying to remember what you’re going to say. It’s nerve racking!”
During that almost unbearable silence, he tells himself, “Don’t screw up. Just get through the pitch.” He knows his future hinges on that first impression. “It doesn’t look good to multimillion-dollar investors to be nervous,” he says.
And, of course, he’s right. Just ask Barbara Corcoran, the lone female shark, who turned a $1,000 loan into a $5 billion dollar real estate business and is now a contributor on the Today show. Before this season’s show, she had made deals with 11 businesses, two of which were “dead on arrival” and three of which were “definite winners.” She says one business from season 1 was sold for more than $10.5 million.
“I’m watching to see how quickly contestants crumble,” Corcoran says over lunch on the Sony Studios lot. “When they’re no good under pressure, I’m out.” On the other hand, she says, “assertiveness is a beautiful thing to watch. You believe in yourself, you have a right to be there and a right to ask. Those are beautiful qualities in an entrepreneur.”
She and the other investors have already spent hours on the set taping several segments, some of which won’t make it to air for the 2012 season.
During his initial product pitch, Robinson begins by telling the sharks that in high school he was mainly interested in kissing girls and having fun snowboarding and skiing. But he knew with dry, chapped lips, it would be hard to “ramp up his game with the ladies.” Buonomo then jumps in to say they solved the problem by developing pairs of flavored lip balms—such as raspberry and lemonade and fire and ice—that create a chemical reaction when two people kiss. And here’s where the taping gets interesting.
Corcoran and another shark, who shall remain nameless to avoid spoiling the surprise when the episode airs, decide to try out the product. Here’s what’s funny: The two of them often trade snide on-air comments and are notoriously different in their approaches to investing (she’s more intuitive; he never gets emotionally involved in deals, ever!). Now, they’re kissing on the lips and agreeing on something: “It’s actually heating up,” says the male shark. “Ooh, it’s tingly,” says Corcoran.
What makes Shark Tank fun to watch, and a hit among its approximately 5 million viewers, is the quick-paced give-and-take, as well as the bickering and the intense colluding that seems to happen among five very different personalities.
Those dynamics not only occur during filming but can also be witnessed on breaks—that is, when the sharks aren’t all on their smartphones or walking outside to take phone calls. As the cast and crew sit down to a buffet-style lunch, sharks billionaire Mark Cuban, who founded HDNet and MicroSolutions and owns the Dallas Mavericks, and Daymond John, who created the multimillion-dollar clothing line FUBU, engage in sarcastic banter.