Surviving ‘Shark Tank’: local entrepreneurs surprised by TV’s impact

Diana Harbour reached what for many people would seem like their entrepreneurial nirvana: appearing on ABC’s Shark Tank. But at a recent Athens viewing party for her TV segment, Harbour’s eyes kept darting from the show’s airing to her laptop.

Online traffic to the 33-year-old’s fashion business, The Red Dress Boutique, was skyrocketing.

“Please don’t crash the site,” Harbour said quietly to herself.

Too late. Her website crashed within a minute, done in by millions of hits, though she didn’t learn about it until later.

The Shark Tank giveth, and the Shark Tank taketh away.

At least 11 Georgians have survived a monthslong gantlet to land on what has become the nation’s biggest stage for people who start something from scratch. Among them are an Atlanta emergency doctor, a former pro wrestler in Smyrna and two Macon moms. On Friday, Patrick Whaley is slated to be on the show pitching a line of weighted training clothes developed by Titin, his small Sandy Springs-based business.

The show, now in its sixth season, puts entrepreneurs before a panel of potential investors — the sharks — who can be both encouraging and brutalizing as they decide whether to strike a deal.

Most Georgia entrepreneurs who have been on the show say the experience was remarkable. It can send sales soaring, they said. But they also warn: It’s not likely to make you rich.

“Almost everyone I know on Shark Tank says it was a rising tide that raised their ship, but it wasn’t a tsunami and it didn’t allow them to sell the boat,” said Amy Baxter, whose segment on the show aired earlier this year.

A physician, Baxter pitched her Buzzy4shots device that lessens fear of needle injections. She didn’t take offers made by the sharks, but her website traffic jumped from 300 hits a day to 35,000 just after the show aired. It also got her attention from potential partners and customers, including major buyers and distributors overseas who learned of the product through international airings of the show.

Shark Tank feeds some viewers’ quiet desire to better their lot. But entrepreneurship in general has broader importance in the nation’s economy. New and young companies are a big driver of job growth, according to the Kauffman Foundation, which promotes entrepreneurship.

On Shark Tank, the climax to each segment is whether the sharks will strike a deal to invest in one of the ventures. But getting funding wasn’t a priority for some entrepreneurs on the show.

“I didn’t want their money,” said former pro wrestler Diamond Dallas Page. “I wanted to have their knowledge.”

Page pitched sharks on his exercise and nutrition system called DDP Yoga. But he didn’t get a deal after offering investors a 5 percent stake in his company for $200,000.

Funding from investors can help build a business, such as by expanding websites, ordering crucial inventory or launching marketing campaigns. There also are expectations that entrepreneurs who strike a deal on Shark Tank will get invaluable advice from the sharks, all of whom have built their own successful businesses.

The show is taped months in advance of airing and not all of the segments will appear on TV. The entrepreneurs usually get only about two weeks notice before the airing.

Page used that time to prepare, such as adding 27 servers to handle extra web traffic. After the show, he pulled in $1 million in sales in just six days, he said. That’s equal to a fourth of his revenue for all of last year.

The rush eased, but the Smyrna entrepreneur said even eight months later he still gets about 10 orders a day from Shark Tank fans, each paying $79 to $89 for his system.

Page said his ex-wife, a partner in the business, had initially urged him not to go on the show. The business was already established. Why risk going before sometimes cranky investors on a show that gets to edit the segments any way it wants?

“She said, ‘They are going to try to make fools of you guys,’ ” Page recalled. “The surprising thing was they treated us so sweetly in the edit.”

Aaron Marino of Kennesaw went on Shark Tank to pitch his Alpha M DVD system designed to show men how to dress with style. Marino said his real goal was to draw attention for his YouTube channel, where he gives advice on style and confidence for men. But all his mentions of those broader online offerings were cut during editing.

“I made one sale that I can directly tie to the Shark Tank,” said Marino. He concluded his DVDs weren’t a good fit for the show and were priced too high — $197 at the time of the airing. On his website, “the traffic was good for about five minutes and then it went away and never came back.”

On Shark Tank, there’s no guarantee that a deal struck with sharks on the show will stick.

Erica Barrett agreed to sell a 38 percent stake in her Decatur-based Southern Culture Artisan Foods for $100,000. But she said the investor pulled out in the months after the show.

Barrett said she never got an explanation for the decision. But the TV appearance gave a $100,000 bump in sales for her line of fun breakfast food mixes and seasonings.

“It’s great exposure, so either way you are winning,” she said. At trade shows and on sales calls to retailers she highlights her Shark Tank appearance.

The show didn’t ease all business challenges, though. “There’s been times we’ve had cash flow issues even after Shark Tank,” Barrett said.

Even small advantages from the show can be meaningful for a tiny business.

Lori Lite of Marietta appeared on Shark Tank’s first season to talk about her Stress Free Kids line of story books and other material aimed at reducing anxiety.

Sales increased about 20 percent the year after the airing, Lite said. “If we didn’t have that bump, we may have gone out of business. We may have given up.”

Trying to take full advantage of the Shark Tank’s benefits can be a gamble.

Jenny Greer and Erin Bickley were stay-at-home moms in Macon before developing shapewear pants for women. After taping a segment for the show, they took out about a $50,000 line of credit, which allowed them to double their inventory of pants.

Within three weeks of the show’s airing they had generated $500,000 in sales. Then their inventories ran dry, and it took months for a new shipment to arrive.

“It proved (to be) beyond what we could have ever expected,” Bickley said.

In Athens, Harbour had heard about Shark Tank’s impact before she and her husband, Josh, landed The Red Dress Boutique on the show.

During the show’s taping, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and tech entrepreneur Robert Herjavec agreed to invest $1.2 million for 20 percent of the business. The deal changed in the months that followed, but Harbour was barred from disclosing anything until after the show aired.

Meanwhile, she and her husband worked closely with Cuban’s team to bolster the website. And they spent an extra $250,000, mostly for more clothes to sell.

When the show aired, the site almost instantly went down and mostly stayed that way until the following afternoon.

“We definitely lost sales,” she said. But she still logged more than $500,000 in sales the first three days, registered tens of thousands of emails from customers and added close to 80,000 new Facebook followers.

Said Harbour, “We’re exhausted.”

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