What’s Real About Shark Tank? I Asked This Entrepreneur Who Took Down $1M

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A version of this article previously appeared Forbes.

When I learned that one of my former UC Santa Barbara students scored a $1 million investment from the Shark Tank judges, I reached out to see what insights he might be able to share with his fellow entrepreneurs. Whether you love or loath the show, his responses might surprise you.

Jeff Overall, Founder and CEO of PolarPro, was successful because he properly balanced the show’s need to entertain its audience, while delivering a professional pitch of his solid business. The entertainment factor was his exaggerated, surfer bro delivery which charmed the judges, but didn’t distract them from the underlying fundamentals of the business.

I recently caught up with Jeff and he candidly shared his thoughts regarding his Shark Tank experience and whether or not he felt the return on his efforts were worthwhile. You can check out his Shark Tank pitch HERE (go to the last segment of the video and be ready to watch an annoying onslaught of commercials).

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John Greathouse: Tell us a bit about PolarPro and what motivated you to launch your company right out of college.

Jeff Overall: I launched PolarPro my senior year at UC Santa Barbara. I was skiing a lot on the UCSB ski team and found a solution to improve GoPro’s video quality. I sat on the product for a couple of weeks until I realized I had a minimal viable product on my hands. I think the biggest inspiration to get this product launched right away and not wait until graduating was from your Entrepreneurship class I was in at the time.

Greathouse: You attended UC Santa Barbara's Technology Management Program (TMP). What skills did you find were the most helpful when you launched your business? If you could go through the Program again, are there skills you would further hone?

Overall: I think the most valuable skill I learned throughout the TMP program was how to sell. Learning the basic principles of selling, and how to close deals have been the most valuable in starting PolarPro. The second most valuable skill I learned in the TMP program was how to build a ten-slide deck. Granted the deck was geared towards investment in your class, but I use a variation of this method in almost every sales meeting. I would say the third most important concept I picked up was from the book you forced us to read Guy Kawasaki’s “The Art of the Start”. I still use a lot of Guy’s insight as I try to build PolarPro. Also in your class you made us read your blog posts. At the time I thought of these as busy work but am glad I was exposed to all of the insight, as I still reflect on them to this day.

The only thing I wished we spent a little more time on was tradeshows, like how to prepare, exhibit, and follow up at shows.

Greathouse: Yes, getting a return on trade show dollars can be tricky. Another challenging aspect of your business is hardware management. I assume you have become quit the expert in manufacturing, inventory control and distribution. Did you hire someone with expertise in these areas or was it something you and your team learned along the way?

Overall: I have had to learn a ton about manufacturing. Since the beginning I constantly wanted to make our products better and more refined. There was no way I could have hired anyone with our ultra-bootstrapped budget, so I had to take it upon myself to learn the ins and outs of manufacturing.

Distribution was another area I learned along the way. I only knew one thing about distribution in the beginning and that was not to give out exclusivity, everything else such as margins, logistics, international marketing, and tradeshows have all been learned along the way. Inventory control has always been a challenge; it is extremely difficult to manage cash flow between new product development and building existing inventory, but these are all things I had to pick up as we grew.

Greathouse: Ha. I am glad my anti-exclusivity message sank in! Besides inventory and distribution, what has been your greatest unforeseen challenge and how did you overcome it?

Overall: The biggest challenge / obstacle we overcame happened at our second tradeshow. At the time we only had two filters for the GoPro camera. We rolled up to the show and walked by the GoPro booth. We saw two identical filters on display in their booth and my stomach dropped. I remember thinking, “Should we just pack up and go home now?”

After the initial shock went away, I knew we probably could not compete with GoPro, as the product they showed was identical to ours. So at that moment, I realized we would need more products in case one gets knocked off or looses steam. So I guess I should partially thank GoPro for copying our product and pushing us to innovate new product lines.

Greathouse: What prompted you to invest time in securing a spot on Shark Tank? I've read that less than one percentage of the applicants get in front of the sharks and only half of those pitches make it onto the show. Despite those steep odds, you must have felt pretty bullish to put in the necessary time.

Overall: I knew I had a pretty good shot. I mean come on, Southern California surfer, in an industry that is on fire right now, how could they say no? <laughs> Every season I would watch and say to myself, “How the hell did this company get on the show?” I knew I could be more entertaining than a lot of the entrepreneurs on the Tank, and I also had a legitimate company. I Finally I decided it was time and showed up to a casting call in Los Angeles.

Greathouse: I’ve cautioned entrepreneurs to not take pitch lessons from Shark Tank in the past and I’ve received a lot of pointed criticism, including getting Tweeter flamed from Mark Cuban.

My point is that the show is Reality TV and not a seminar on fundraising. That said, what lessons do you think entrepreneurs can take away from the show, both the backstage experiences you had, as well as those on camera.

Overall: I think most of the pitches on Shark Tank provide mainstream America with a broad generalization of the investment pitch. But would I walk into Rincon Venture Partners with the same 45-second intro? Hell no. The two venues are completely different.

On Shark Tank, the entrepreneur needs to be entertaining enough to get the episode to air. If I were to walk into a pitch at RVP, I would pitch my company in a more professional manner and tone down the surfer bro accent. The QA portion is actually very thorough and I imagine these would be the same questions asked in a traditional fundraising setting. They usually only air the entertaining questions, a lot of the dry questions the sharks (use to) make their decisions on are not aired.

Greathouse: What do you think "hooked" the judges when it came to your pitch? Anything you would change now that you've had time to reflect?

Overall: Probably any/all of the following: 1. I built the company with zero debt 2. Grew to $5 mil in sales in 4 years 3. Diversified the product line away from one brand/category 4. Reinvested all of the money back into the company.

Greathouse: The pitches obviously have to be edited for TV. How long was your actual pitch and were there parts that were edited out that you had hoped would make it into the final cut?

Overall: The actual pitch was an hour and a half. It was way longer than I expected, and they cut it down to about ten minutes of airtime. I had a pretty good idea of what they were going to air - the entertaining lines. There wasn’t anything in particular I wished they would have aired. I was happy with the final cut.

Greathouse: In addition to the incremental capital from two high-profile investors, what other concrete benefits did you derive from your appearance on the show?

Overall: Visits to our site were through the roof that night, and held steady through the week. Before Shark Tank, we had an average of 6 to 10 people on the website at any given time. The night of the airing we peaked at 9,000 concurrent visitors on the site. We had 45,000 unique visitors Friday and Saturday. Surprisingly, the traffic did not drop off either, we are still averaging 100-150 people on the site at any given time, which is pretty sweet. I think the biggest boost is going to come from closing deals with Best Buy, Target, and a few other retailers who were on the fence before the show.

Greathouse: That’s awesome. How do you plan to deploy the Shark Tank capital?

Overall: We are planning on using the capital to scale our current GoPro and Drone Inventory. Right now we have to airship everything in. If we can order 60 days in advance, we can ship it via ocean and save a ton of costs. Most importantly, we have plans to increase our drone accessory line, and also add a new accessory line for mobile phone imaging. We will also have some capital to act quickly on emerging trends in the constantly changing digital imaging space.

Greathouse: Other than getting recognized when you buy groceries, have you experienced any other ancillary benefits of being on the show?

Overall: Haha, I actually have only been recognized twice in public. I’m no celebrity yet, but maybe one day I will get there. To me the biggest ancillary benefit of being on the show was giving the company credibility, I mean up until last year my Grandma would get on my case about getting a “real job,” now we have a lot of the big box stores calling us back.

Greathouse: What is the extent of the involvement you have had with the show's investors, to the extent you have called upon them for assistance.

Overall: It’s pretty funny, the show really makes it seem like the investors are apart of everyday business and decisions. I personally have not talked to either of the investors since taping, the only contact I have had with them is through their team, as we work through due diligence.

Greathouse: What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs who aspire to make it onto the show?

Overall: I would say if you can be entertaining, and have a product that has some traction go for it! At the end of the day it is a TV show and needs to be entertaining. If you can be entertaining, you should have a pretty good shot. I think it is worth investing the 40 to 60 hours of time for the most engaging brand awareness platform on TV.

Greathouse: In the past, the show asked entrepreneurs to share future profits and/or give up equity in their companies as compensation for including them in the show. My understanding is that this is no longer the case. What was your experience in this regard?

Overall: I did not have to give up any equity to the show, or give profit sharing to be on the show, that would have been a deal breaker for me. The only cost to be on the show was the time it took to apply, rehearse, and film.

Follow John’s startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse.

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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