Photo: Emily Denniston/Vulture and Photo by Getty Images
ABC’s Shark Tank has been reliably great reality TV ever since its recession-defying debut in 2009. It’s real money and even realer stakes, but most importantly, it’s a reminder that the American dream is alive and thriving — after all, the next Scrub Daddy scion could be you!
At this year’s Tribeca TV Festival, I had the pleasure of speaking with the show’s shiver of Sharks — Mark Cuban, Barbara Corcoran, Kevin O’Leary, Lori Greiner, and Daymond John — as well as two executive producers, Clay Newbill and Yun Lingner. (Robert Herjavec, that blue-eyed delight, wasn’t able to attend.) During our hour-long panel, we discussed the show’s exhaustive casting process, why we’ll probably never see an all-women panel of investors, and the silly nicknames the Sharks have for each other. And, of course, the real reason why Cuban was initially rejected from the Tank.
What do you think Shark Tank gets right about the reality-TV experience that other shows can’t always crack?
Barbara Corcoran: A lot of associations with reality television revolve around it not being so real. But not us. Nothing is prompted, nothing is scripted.
Lori Greiner: Genuine. That’s the biggest word.
Kevin O’Leary: And it is our real money. I think this is the only show on TV where the people on the show are actually putting out their own money.
Barbara Corcoran: You can lose more money than you may get paid.
You’re about to hit your 200th episode, but Shark Tank didn’t start as an overnight success. What has helped the show endure?
Clay Newbill: The show is a format that has been around for quite awhile, based out of Japan. It’s called Dragon’s Den. By the time we got it in the U.S., it was in 30 territories, but we had a bunch of ideas for what we could do for the American version and the hosts.
Yun Lingner: When we first got the set, it was like this crazy weird spaceship newsroom with piles of cash.
Clay Newbill: The first set was horrific, we couldn’t look at it much longer! There was a little bit of fine-tuning, but as far as the structure of the show, we stayed the same. We couldn’t get Mark Cuban the first season, but we did bring him in later.
Mark Cuban: That’s not true, you rejected me!
Barbara Corcoran: You bastard.
I know Kevin and Robert were originally on the Canadian version of the show, but I’ve heard there was an audition process for every Shark before you joined the American version. What did these auditions entail, and were they as rigorous as the onscreen pitches?
Kevin O’Leary: Yeah, I had done the format with Robert in Canada. I got a call from Mark Burnett and he said, “Come to ABC, I’m working on a new idea called Shark Tank. It is very similar to Dragon’s Den and we need an asshole.” I said, “I’m your man.”
Barbara Corcoran: I had a very intense interview that I want to share. They asked me to send them my financial statement. I did, and they said, “You’re in.”
Daymond John: The producers pitched it to me as such: “This is a great show, and you have to spend your own money. We may also get Mark Cuban on there.” I didn’t know Mark at the time and I said, “Rich guys get more TV time than ever, why not take a free trip to L.A.?” So I went and had a meeting. Who is going to watch businessmen and women just doing what we do every day?
Mark Cuban: I thought I was going to go in and do a few deals, maybe I’d get lucky. I tried to buy every company that I wanted.
Lori Greiner: I got a call from Mark Burnett, and he said, “I want you to come out, I am working on this show.” I remember he called me a unicorn. He said there is no one else that does everything from soup to nuts like I do. It wasn’t drooling, it was actually fun.
Mark, why were you rejected the first time you auditioned?
Mark Cuban: We won’t go there. [Laughs.]
Clay Newbill: I will say that me and Mark Burnett definitely wanted Mark.
Mark Cuban: Yeah, it wasn’t Mark and Clay. It was ABC.
Clay Newbill: When we found out that we couldn’t get Mark, that is when Robert was plugged in instead in the eleventh hour.
Mark Cuban: What?!
Barbara Corcoran: I remember the first time I walked the red carpet with Mark. The first season nobody knew us, but the third season Mark is with us. The minute we stepped on the red carpet it was all, “Mark! Mark! Mark! Mark! Mark!”
Lori Greiner: I have pictures of that. We were told to dress up, look really fancy and great on the red carpet. And then there is Mark in jeans and a T-shirt.
Daymond John: I remember in the early years, the corporate executives or wealthy individuals who were still in business would reject the idea of going on television, even though the show was promoting entrepreneurship.
Kevin O’Leary: It took a little while before some of those people got the understanding, or understood the joke, because you can really promote your business on television. It really does accelerate these companies in a way that traditional venture investors never saw. They never saw Shark Tank coming. Now, they beg to get their products on because you get customer acquisition by the tens of millions and you get it for basically free.
Daymond John: Kevin, you’ve never not promoted your products when you have a crowd.
Kevin O’Leary: It’s funny you mention my products, because my Cabernet this year is spectacular. Absolutely spectacular. But the point is, it’s now accepted that the marriage of the media to business works. All these guys wanna be Sharks, but they wouldn’t touch it in the early years, not a chance.
What are your favorite moments in the Tank?
Lori Greiner: I love the squirrel zapper. It was supposed to get rid of squirrels and stop them from eating bird seed. The guy had a little remote control, which he handed to me, Robert, and Kevin. He says, “Now just watch this.” He simulates a squirrel jumping onto a bird feeder, and then he zaps us the way he would zap the squirrel. And an electric shock runs through all of us.
Kevin O’Leary: When you see the demo of it, the squirrel gets blown off like 30 yards. Within the squirrel community, they say the squirrels are never the same again.
Mark Cuban: I’m pretty sure it works on everything from dogs to coyotes.
Lori Greiner: And of course, Robert ran out. [Laughs.]
Daymond John: I think the most memorable one is the guy who had a big tongue that you put in your mouth and you lick your cat with.
Mark Cuban: What was that thing called?
Daymond John: Cat Licker.
Kevin O’Leary: The truth is the thing you think is going to be a huge success isn’t necessarily the one you get your highest return on. Potato Parcel, the company that puts your face on a potato and sends it to you, is my highest internal rate of return. It’s on the top of my list of my highest returns! People buy potatoes with their faces on them.
Mark Cuban: That tells you all you need to know about the deals Kevin does.
Yun Lingner: We can never guess what the Sharks are going to invest in.
Daymond John: I know where Lori’s money is invested. It’s in sponge and plastic! It’s the flea market of Shark Tank!
Lori Greiner: They are some of the best-grossing items ever. The best-selling items ever. My little pieces of crap, as Kevin would call them.
Mark Cuban: I saw an infomercial in Mexico that featured a knockoff of Lori’s Simply Fit Board. It was a guy doing something like, “Hola, me llamo Lori.”
Lori Greiner: I don’t know how that happened! We were just talking earlier today about how we see ten different people per taping day. Sometimes, later we’ll go, “What did we see today? What did we do?”
Mark Cuban: I literally have to talk to people after the show, “Wait, did I do a deal today?”
How are entrepreneurs vetted to appear on the show?
Yun Lingner: It’s a long and grueling casting process. There’s about 30,000 people who apply every year. But as far as what the actual pitch is when they come in, it’s important for us that it’s authentically happening. It’s a really nerve-racking experience. I’m actually more surprised that more people don’t bomb.
Mark Cuban: It’s terrible when they just flub the whole thing.
Yun Lingner: And when they do flub up, we tend to air them because we want it to be real. It’s not this super-polished, perfect thing.
Mark Cuban: It’s authentic.
Kevin O’Leary: It’s a big difference between rehearsals and when you actually get on that carpet. All the cameras are rolling, the lights are on you, and you got the real investors there.
Lori Greiner: I’m not gonna spoil it, but this season a guy had his props set up and he wanted something to happen and it didn’t happen. He tried it out 20 times before it happened.
Kevin O’Leary: You have to see it.
Mark Cuban: His product is a doorstop and his partner was up at the front saying, “A house is broken into every 14 seconds. It takes an average of five kicks just to bust down a door.” The job of his partner was to bust down the door. Let’s just say when we got to 20 [kicks], he stopped.
Lori Greiner: He even took a sledgehammer to the door.
Mark Cuban: It was one of the best pitches we’ve ever seen.
Kevin O’Leary: It was the funniest pitch I’ve ever seen.
Barbara Corcoran: It was so sad that we couldn’t help but laugh.
With the art of the pitch, do you value the person or the product more?
Kevin O’Leary: Tell us what the idea is in 60 seconds. If you’re still rambling five minutes later, it’s not gonna work. Here’s what I got, here’s why it works, here’s why you’re gonna be really rewarded as an investor. Look at all the pitches that get funded by me. It’s the ones where the entrepreneur comes out and says, “I take cupcakes, I put them in a jar, I FedEx them to people.” Eleven seconds. Huge hit!
Lori Greiner: Well, what was more important — the product or the person?
Kevin O’Leary: I’m always about the product. My thing is, if I own 51 percent of the company and the manager’s not doing the job, I’ll take him behind the barn, shoot him, and get somebody else. Not everybody feels that way. That’s how I feel the real world works. Watch corporate America. How many people keep their jobs more than 24 months anymore? You’ve got to perform or you’re gone. Don’t cry me a river. That’s just the way it works.
Mark Cuban: But an entrepreneur could have a skill that we can use beyond the business. Going back to the early days of I Want to Draw a Cat for You!, I didn’t care about a dude who sold cat drawings for ten dollars. But the guy was really good at internet marketing. One of the worst meltdowns we had was an entrepreneur who came in with nothing to spit out of his pitch. When I started asking him questions about his SEO marketing, he nailed it, and that was a skill set I needed. I don’t wanna go on about what it was, but now he’s up at $30 million in sales.
Kevin O’Leary: Mark, that’s a anomaly. Most people who script their pitch at the beginning never work out.
Daymond John: But it’s all the entrepreneur. It’s the entrepreneur that takes an idea called “the Snuggie” all the way to your home.
Barbara Corcoran: When I actually look at my portfolio over ten years, all the people I really like I made money with. Anybody I had hesitation in my gut and I still went for it, I lost money.
Mark Cuban: I’ll always try to ask Barbara how she feels about certain things, because her instincts about the quality of the entrepreneur are 99 percent dead-on.
Barbara Corcoran: Since I can’t do any math, he does it for me.
Mark Cuban: I’m her calculator.
Lori Greiner: For me, it’s both. I have to like what they’re pitching, the idea, and the product. And I have to like them. There’s no money or no investment worth the trouble of working with a bad person. They have to be a good person, someone I want to work with, someone who is honest, ethical. If they’re not, it’s not worth it to me.
Daymond John: So you don’t go into business with Kevin, then.
What do you do when entrepreneurs aren’t presenting themselves in good faith? What sets off your bullshit detector?
Kevin O’Leary: We call them gold diggers. We can smell it in the first couple of minutes. If what they’re asking is unrealistic or if their valuation is insane, they have no intention of doing a deal. But people now understand the value of Shark Tank isn’t just appearing on it, it’s getting a deal and getting integrated into the ecosphere where we follow up every year. You watch on television the trials and tribulations of that entrepreneur running their business and living their lives. That’s how you build a brand like Wicked Good Cupcakes. If you’re just a gold digger and you just want to get on the air, it’s going to pop and then it’s going to zero.
Daymond John: What annoys me is that those gold diggers take opportunities away from genuine entrepreneurs. They’re selfish and they’re going to do the same way of business to their partners, or if they do get a deal from us, they back out almost immediately when the cameras are off. Everybody who watches Shark Tank knows you’re going to have to negotiate. Less than one percent of the time, you get what you ask for. If you come in asking for $250,000 for 3 percent, and they go, “Okay, I’ll go to 4 percent,” you know they’re full of bullshit.
Lori Greiner: It’s not fair to the Shark, either. It’s not fair all the way around. It takes away opportunity from people who deserve it.
Barbara Corcoran: I’m not so much bothered by this because I think it’s almost obvious when they start talking. You learn to spot someone like that. You can be mean to those kids who really don’t need your money — they have moms and pops and rich folks that can help them out.
Mark Cuban: A lot of times, you see someone come along with two advanced degrees. They went to Harvard and Stanford. They have a doctorate and their Ph.D. and their M.B.A. and their J.l. all in two years! They think they can outsmart all of us!
Barbara Corcoran: They always know the numbers inside and out. That doesn’t count for much.
Mark Cuban: You might be smarter than one of us, but there’s no chance you’ll be smarter than all five of us. And that’s where a lot of those deals really go south. If someone comes on and tries to take advantage of the show, that gets me mad.
Kevin O’Leary: We’ve had companies that came to us with crazy evaluations, they didn’t get a deal, then they go out into the world and they get the living you-know-what kicked out of them. Let me give you an example: Plated. Arrogant as hell, crazy evaluation. Two years later, after the meat-grinder of life chews them into deals, they end up being one of the greatest acts in Shark Tank history. They’re worth $300 million now. Or another one: Those girls from Harvard with their ridiculous ask for Coffee Meets Bagel. Two years later, after reality squeezed their heads like a teenage pimple, they were willing to do a deal.
Mark Cuban: It was a dating site, Coffee Meets Bagel. I created a hypothetical: “If I offered you $30 million, would you take it?” And they said no. Now, literally every six months, an article will pop up: “The time I turned down Mark Cuban’s $30 million.” And it’s like, What? But to Kevin’s point, having the power of the show behind you really does make a difference.
Kevin O’Leary: Sharks could call the CEO of the largest retailer in America and actually have their call returned. When you get a product that’s going to retail everywhere, I call the CEO and say, “Look, we think this product is going to explode on Shark Tank, your buyer should look at it.”
Lori Greiner: No, they go “…Kevin O’Leary?” [Imitates phone hang-up noise.]
Lori and Barbara, do you think we’ll ever see an all-women panel of investors in a future episode?
Barbara Corcoran: Oh, sure.
Kevin O’Leary: That sounds sexist to me.
Lori Greiner: Yeah, that’s what I was going to say. I really believe in gender equality, so I think that’s almost going too far. I really feel that everything in life should be 50-50 male and female. Women should have as much opportunity as men. We should be represented the same. There should be a division of labor in the home, too, so that women don’t feel guilty or have a work-life balance issue.
Barbara Corcoran: I feel the same way. In my home, I do 95 percent of the work, so I believe 95 percent of the panel should be female.
Yun Lingner: This season, we do have three guest sharks that are female.
Kevin O’Leary: I will say that the majority of my returns over my decade of investing in female-run companies on the show. They seem to take … they’re better at managing the risk and mitigating the risk of small private companies for a whole host of reasons.
Lori Greiner: It’s not because you crack the whip on them?
Kevin O’Leary: No, I actually did some work with PricewaterhouseCoopers recently about debt and equity, and do you know what we learned? The women were setting lower goals for themselves and achieving them more often. So, there’s something there. You know the old adage, You want something done, give it to a busy mother? Maybe there’s truth in that. I’m a huge advocate for investing in women-run businesses because I make more money, and that’s a good reason.
Daymond John: I would talk to the advantage of women communicating more about why they’ve taken an action on something. They don’t make a lot of egotistical decisions. They analyze it more instead of putting in ego.
Mark Cuban: From my perspective, it’s not just about gender. It’s also ethnicity, where you’re from, perspective and life experiences, confidence. Everybody brings something different to the table and we’re all now connecting our entrepreneurs, so it’s not just about what they do inside their own company. It’s also being able to leverage that diversity of perspective.
Barbara Corcoran: That’s enormously helpful, because sometimes being an entrepreneur can be a lonely business.
We all know and love Kevin’s “Mr. Wonderful” nickname. But do you have other nicknames for each other?
Barbara Corcoran: Well, I have some mean ones for them — Chatty Cathy, Short Stuff, Daddy Warbucks.
Kevin O’Leary: Barbara’s called Bozo.
Mark Cuban: We all know where our flaws are. Everybody thinks that I talk too long.
Kevin O’Leary: It’s true.
Mark Cuban: But not as bad as Lori!
Lori Greiner: I’m trying to encourage and help them!
Barbara Corcoran: I sit right next to Mark and all he does is point out how long-winded Lori is with her comments, and then always proceeds to outdo her.
Daymond John: I sit next to Lori. I’m spending half my time going, “Will you shut the fuck up?!”
Lori Greiner: I’m gonna spread some love on Daymond, because this was the first year I sat next to him and I don’t think that people realize he’s hilariously funny. I would be laughing so hard I couldn’t stop, and I’m sure I made the pitches like three times as long because I couldn’t compose myself.
Kevin O’Leary: If you all join us on the set and watch a day of shooting, some pitches go an hour, and they become seven or eight minutes of magical television. I sit there on a Saturday morning watching the show, I suddenly remember the pitch and think, “How the hell did they cut that thing down?”
Lori Greiner: There are cameras on each one of us, so for each pitch if it goes an hour, think how many minutes of just one pitch that they have to look through.
Kevin O’Leary: There’s another tell that we’ve learned over the decade — when all the products are on the table, the pitch is over, and the cameramen and the grips are trying to steal the stuff. That’s a really good sign.
Clay Newbill: Also, these people really are sharks when it comes to eating.
Lori Greiner: Mark is very trim, very fit. He watches his body, right? The other day, a few platters of fried food came in. We’re all taking a few bites and I look over at Mark and it’s just … totally gone.
Clay Newbill: This company recently came in to cater and let’s say it wasn’t healthy in any way, shape, or form. They had a sandwich that was 2,000 calories and a bunch of fried food — deep-fried Oreos, all this mayo dressing, special sauce. They handed out a big sample platter, which could feed a family of four. Mark ate it all. One or two pitches later, Mark’s like, “Uh, everyone, my stomach is hurting.”
Barbara Corcoran: How many burps did you do the other day on the set, Mark?
Mark Cuban: Oh God.
Barbara Corcoran: Fourteen burps. I counted.
What would you like the legacy of Shark Tank to be?
Barbara Corcoran: How many jobs have we created now?
Clay Newbill: Over 100,000 jobs.
Barbara Corcoran: We’ve inspired those people and created the idea that entrepreneurship and running a business is a very sexy thing to do. What else could we ask for?
Daymond John: I grew up 30 miles away from here. To be 30 years beyond that and to travel those 30 miles to be here now, I would’ve never known what millionaires and billionaires want to ask in a room. When kids want to be Sharks just as much as they want to be actors and athletes, there’s nothing wrong with that. They can have a discussion and have the financial intelligence to go out and follow their dreams and not fail. That’s what I want out of the show.
Kevin O’Leary: What Shark Tank represents in the way it came to pass during a time of financial turmoil in 2008 and 2009, America decided, “Why should I risk my career working for a big company when I can do it on my own?” We found the market, the market found us, and boom. I don’t think it ever stops.
Yun Lingner: Everybody has an “Oh, I have an idea for a business” moment. What we’re so proud of is that we put that power back in the hands of people and we made them entrepreneurs.
Mark Cuban: You get a feeling in the pit of your stomach and you get all excited and you tell your friends and they go, “What a great idea.” Then you Google it and realize, “Ah, nobody else has done this yet!” But then you don’t know what to do. Our legacy is going to be, when you watch enough Shark Tank, you’ll know what to do. That’s the message we want to leave: With an idea, with effort, with a little bit of chutzpah, anything is possible no matter who you are, what you look like, or where you’re from. If that’s our legacy, I’d be very, very happy.
This interview has been edited and condensed.