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Casting Shark Tank: Crushing Dreams and Changing Lives

Entrepreneur hopefuls arrive at the Shark Tank casting call in Atlanta, Georgia, in April 2013.

Only time will tell what lasting innovations will come out of this Age of Ideas, but one thing is certain: There are a lot of ideas. Last week, Scott Salyers, a casting director for ABC’s Shark Tank, in which entrepreneurs pitch their businesses to a panel of investors, positioned himself in a classroom at Columbia Business School and allowed students past and present to fire ideas at him, like a business version of Shoot the Freak. The series has steadily added viewers since its debut in 2009, and is now regularly the highest-rated show on Friday nights, with an average of more than 6 million viewers per episode.

“Office wellness is a hot area,” said the proprietor of Exuberancy, which brings services like manicures, pedicures, and massages to New York’s overworked and overpaid. “It’s a $2 billion industry,” said the owner of Jugglebox, which rents out plastic returnable moving boxes. “My friends were saying they found water to be boring,” said the creator of Beauty Water, a new entry into the flavored-water market.

As on the show, Salyers and his assistant bantered with the would-be contestants to get a sense of their personalities and TV readiness. “Think of us as Tupperware parties for photo organization management,” said a willowy brunette whose company trains people to “digitize” family photos for a fee.

“So it’s a pyramid scheme,” quipped Salyers.

“No, no,” she said flustered.

“Digitization, digitization,” he muttered after she left the room. “Say that three times fast.” An older man swept in: Beige suit, mortician hair, chunky gold jewelry. He was seeking $1.5 million to develop “Biosculpturetech,” a surgical device that would enable easier fat removal. “I’m a plastic surgeon, attorney, and I’ve got my securities license,” he said. “I’m a workaholic, that’s why my marriages never worked.” He told a story about a friend who had had bariatric surgery, and the indignities he suffered as a result. “He had like two-thirds of a salad and he was in the bathroom with diarrhea,” he said, then took stock of the room. “I am honest,” he said. “That’s why my marriages never worked.”

In between the relentless flow of pitches, Salyers fanned himself in the hallway. “It’s nice that they have alumni coming in,” he said, of Columbia Business School. “Usually, we just have current students.” The New York auditions were near the end of a countrywide tour of college campuses, and by now, Salyers was starting to experience Idea Fatigue, not to mention déjà vu. “A lot of pet products, a lot of baby products, a lot of apps,” he said, a little wearily. There are so many people with ideas for apps, in fact, that they will soon begin casting for another reality show, App Wars. “Very rarely does someone come in with something we have never seen before,” he said. “I feel bad, so many times I get people who are like, ‘There’s nothing like this on the market.’ I’m like, ‘I just saw this yesterday.’”

During the show's first few seasons, they looked for zany pitches — the business equivalent of the Korean guy who sang “She Bangs” on American Idol. “Like we had a guy who wanted to surgically put Bluetooth in your head,” Salyers recalls. Lately they’ve found that viewers are more interested in seeing good ideas: the kind of products and businesses they could see themselves coming up with, if they stopped watching television, buckled down, and managed to forget the one thing everyone knows about ideas: If it’s a good one, chances are someone else has thought of it.

Earlier, two nearly identical blondes had come in with a pitch for a product called Solemates, a tiny protective cap for the bottom of high heels. “I’ve seen that so many times,” sighs Salyers. “They go ‘Oh, ours is different,’” he says. “Well do you have a patent? Cause I know I’ve seen this before. A lot, a looooot.” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “A lot of times it is okay, because you can be the first one to market or you might have the personality we’re looking for.” Salyers used to cast for The Apprentice, where he discovered Bethenny Frankel, of Skinny Girl margarita and troubled -marriage fame. “The personality matters just as much as their product,” he says.

Of the 40,000 people that have applied so far, only 180 will make it in. “So for the most part we are crushing people’s dreams,” he said. “For the ones that do make it and move on you’re like, ‘Look at that, we changed their life.’” For the guy pushing Biosculptech, those odds sound pretty good. “By the way,” he says on the way out of the room. “I’ve got really graphic photos.”

Photo: Dan Harr/Splash News/Corbis