Monday was Shark Awareness Day, an annual reminder that sharks have far more to fear from humans than vice-versa. In related news, it was also the first of three open calls for contestants on ABC’s (DIS)Shark Tank, the investing reality show in which entrepreneurs make live pitches for funding before a panel of angel investors. Now entering its sixth season, the show attracts more than 7 million viewers each week, placing it among the 10 most popular adult reality shows on television, even though it airs on sleepy Fridays.
Of the more than 35,000 people who now try out each season, fewer than 150 make into the tank. Anyone who has seen the show knows how this plays out: Contestants spend up to two hours getting drilled on their business by the panel of sharks. The sessions are edited down to less than 15 minutes and invariably include an embarrassing shot of a bewildered entrepreneur. In every show, at least one lucky entrepreneur gets a hug and a handshake worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
What happens next is far less inspirational. As many as two-thirds of those televised deals never come to fruition, estimates TJ Hale, who has interviewed more than 70 participants for his show, Shark Tank Podcast. Investors receive no information prior to filming, so they get to perform due diligence only after taping. They may discover legal, tax, or financial red flags. Or they can just change their minds. “One entrepreneur said basically the shark just never called them,” says Hale.
Contestants can back out, too. Some decide that the deal would give up too much of their companies, or they admit they merely wanted exposure. ABC won’t comment on negotiations between sharks and entrepreneurs; legal contracts often prohibit entrepreneurs from discussing post-show negotiations.
“Not every deal closes, and not every deal ends well, but you probably won’t hear about that because Shark Tank is the hand that feeds, and nobody wants to bite it,” says Hale.
Yuen Yung, co-founder and chief executive officer of sushi franchise How Do You Roll, received a $1 million offer on-air—at the time, the largest to date—from Kevin “Mr. Wonderful” O’Leary during Season 4 last year. O’Leary seemed eager to close, Yung says: Less than 15 minutes after taping, his representatives arrived in the green room with papers for Yung to sign. They told him that most people just sign to get it out of the way.
But it was Saturday, and Yung insisted on waiting until Monday for his lawyer. Within three months, the deal was dead. At one point, Yung says, O’Leary wanted to create a five-member board and take three of the seats, including chairman. Yung refused. O’Leary later withdrew, without specifying why.
In the end, Yung did all right without the money. Since his episode aired, he has sold the rights to add more than 100 franchise units across the U.S., Canada, and the Middle East. “You can’t buy that kind of exposure for a million dollars,” he says.