The Shark’s Bait on AOL

“Daymond John is perhaps the coolest of the sharks,
and has the most expertise in bringing retail products to market.”

What It’s Like to Swim in ABC’s Shark Tank

by Lisa Johnson Mandell

While some reality shows may be scripted or staged, ABC’s ‘Shark Tank’ is the real deal: real entrepreneurs investing their own real money in the dreams of real Americans. About the only things that are not 100 percent authentic are the piles of money you see laying around the set, and the shark tanks that line the hallway that leads hopeful entrepreneurs, eager to make their product pitches, to the panel of hungry “tycoons.” What appear to be aquariums full of hungry predators are actually digitally projected images. And that’s a good thing. There are more than enough sharks on hand already.

AOL Jobs was recently invited to go behind the scenes of the popular ABC TV show that is currently in its second season, airing on Fridays at 8PM. This time around, to give the show a little diversity, billionaire Mark Cuban is sitting in on a number of episodes, as is entrepreneurial entertainer and investor Jeff Foxworthy.

The day AOL was on the set, Cuban was jovially upping everyone’s game, handing out million-dollar investments like Halloween candy. The other sharks, Barbara Corcoran, Daymond John, Kevin O’Leary and Robert Herjavec, had mixed reactions to his exuberance. They were gratified to see that more business ideas would be funded, but bemused about the fact that Cuban was raising prices and snapping up some of the best investment opportunities. The competition between the sharks is real, too.

A Cuban Twist

“I love this stuff!” Cuban enthused. “This is what I do all the time. I’ve invested millions just from e-mails. Here on ‘Shark Tank,’ I get to meet people I’d never come in contact with otherwise.” He wasn’t joking. Shortly after making that statement, he offered one person four million dollars.

You can’t help but be intrigued watching teachers, firemen, housewives, etc., being made millionaires in a matter of minutes. That’s how long it takes some people to accept the sharks’ offers, but the actual presentations last much longer than what you see on TV. Some people are on the hot seat, fielding razor-sharp questions, for more than an hour, as the sharks grill and probe and calculate every detail of their ideas.

Each episode is not shot individually. The sharks are required to wear the same outfits for several days, because no one knows which segments will be combined into which episode. There might be several rejections in a row, or several million dollar deals in a row. Producers like to mix them up. Wearing the same clothes for days on end is especially trying for Corcoran and John, who are the most stylish sharks in the tank.

The Sharks Have Many Faces

This is the ‘American Idol’ of venture capital,” says O’Leary, who made his fortune in educational software and sold his company to Mattel for $3.7 billion. If that comparison is accurate, he would be known as the Simon Cowell of the group, as he’ll take pot shots at the other sharks, as well as the contenders. He likes to think he’s just calling it as he sees it.

It would be unfair to compare Corcoran with any of the female judges on ‘American Idol,’ however. The real estate magnate and author built her $5 billion business from the ground up. She started her professional life as a waitress, and had 20 different jobs by the time she was 23. She’s known for going on instinct, by heart more than head. The others say she’s a “softie” but she’s also known for bringing more successful businesses to fruition via ‘Shark Tank,’ than any of the others.

Daymond John is perhaps the coolest of the sharks, and has the most expertise in bringing retail products to market. He began his career selling caps on the street in Queens, and went on to found the uber-successful FUBU clothing line. Now he’s internationally diversified. He’s calm but deadly. “I don’t feel bad about going for the jugular,” he says. “If they walk out of here with anything, it’s 100 percent more than they had when they came in.”

Robert Herjavek makes hundreds of millions in high tech and owns his own island off the coast of Florida, but, as the son of Croatian immigrants, he’s surprisingly down to earth; while not as saber-toothed as O’Leary, he does enjoy mixing it up with him every now and then. “The insults are sincere,” he says. “We always try to beat each other to the punch.”

All the sharks are surprisingly focused on the business at hand. You would think people of their stature would spend their breaks barking into cell phones, doing million dollar deals and retreating to luxurious trailers at lunch. But this is not the case. They eat with the rest of the crew, standing in line for their chicken and salad, and they wait on themselves, instead of commanding a troop of assistants.
They take their jobs on the show very seriously, but the glints you see in their eyes are not always calculating. Sometimes they’re eyes are sparkling because they’re having the time of their lives making people’s dreams come true, and making a decent profit in the process. “That’s the beauty of this show,” beams Cuban. “That’s why America is great!”

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