Lessons Learned from a Shark Tank Survivor

I’ve given a lot of pitches – to investors, customers, friends, and to really anyone willing to listen. Some go well and others are complete disasters, but all give me the opportunity to make the next one better. Recently, I was given the opportunity to pitch our product, Napwell, on ABC’s Shark Tank.

To see the full segment including Q&A click here. We are in segment 3.

Shark Tank was never on our list of priorities. My co-founder and I were in the middle of our Kickstarter campaign, which achieved 130% of its goal, when we saw a tweet from the casting director. Being huge fans of the show, we had to give it a try.

While I have successfully raised money from investors and have even been on TV before, being in “The Tank” was so different. Sure, it’s like a normal investor pitch, only with millions of strangers watching you share your dreams (no big deal). Here are three lessons I learned that can hopefully help you start your company or survive a tough pitch.

  1. Set the stage

The show is structured to make the Tank intimidating. The Sharks are not only professionally impressive, but also very experienced at sparring with entrepreneurs and making compelling television.

When strategizing for the pitch, I recalled advice from my high school tennis coach: playing to your opponent’s strengths puts you at an immediate disadvantage. In other words, instead of being reactive, be bold and set the stage. The first iteration of our pitch was completely different from the one that aired – it was dry and filled with statistics to highlight our scientific backgrounds.

At the last minute, we scrapped our initial plan in favor of pajamas and sleep zombies. We thought our pajama look would force the Sharks to question our legitimacy and lead them to ask the questions we wanted to answer. We knew that our strength as a company is our academic backgrounds and entrepreneurial experiences. It was probably a shock to them that Justin is a PhD candidate and that I have already launched a few start-ups.

This lesson extends beyond the Tank. While pitching a product, the more you control the flow, the more confident and prepared you will be. Setting the stage is especially important when presenting to a group with as much experience as the Sharks.

  1. Always be selling (and closing)

Preach, Alec Baldwin, Preach.


While Shark Tank is an amazing and rare opportunity to pitch to a powerful group of investors, it is also a way to share your brand with millions of potential customers. Even if all the Sharks passed, we knew that there were future investors, partners, and customers watching at home.

While answering the Sharks’ questions, we tried to make sure that the audience understood the problem that our product solves. To make our message as clear as possible, we created a list of three talking points:

  1. We are experts in sleep science
  2. We have achieved lofty sales targets without spending a single dollar on marketing
  3. We are solving a problem that affects hundreds of millions of people

Entrepreneurship requires you to sell not only your product, but also yourself. Though the target may change, you will always be trying to convince investors, customers, and even employees to buy your vision of the future. I’ve yet to meet a successful entrepreneur who cannot do this to some degree. In order to close the deal, either work on developing this skill or partner with someone who can.

  1. When trying to win, you have to be willing to lose

If you haven’t seen the episode, <spoiler alert!> we did not receive funding from the Sharks. It’s okay: their objections were very reasonable. In fact, it was a risk for us to be on Shark Tank at all. Napwell is still in the very early stages. While some of the companies on the show already have millions in revenue, we are still improving the product and incorporating early customer feedback.

While we knew that a negative reaction from the Sharks could bruise our egos, we couldn’t turn down this learning opportunity. After all, a rejection from the Sharks is just the judgment of five people. If your goal is to make a significant impact, it’s naïve to think that there won’t be stumbling blocks along the way. The key is to not let it affect your confidence. Of course we wanted the Sharks’ support, but the show also needs high ratings, and they achieve that through interesting companies and founders like us. We took comfort in the fact that we deserved to be there.

Having worked with and befriended many incredible founders, I have noticed one constant: unwavering confidence. The best entrepreneurs are those that are willing to face impossible risks in order to win. If those risks turn into failures, they are resilient and adaptable. They turn them into lessons, instead of disasters.

That’s it. I’m happy to say that we survived the show and even enjoyed our experience. I hope you can use these lessons to improve your pitch, and I look forward to watching you in the Tank.


Discussion — 9 Responses

  • Linda Ewen 01/28/2015 on 2:00 am

    The Sharks were wrong. I am looking forward to the product.

    Reply
    • neil Linda Ewen 01/28/2015 on 6:30 pm

      Thanks Linda!

      Reply
  • Elton 01/28/2015 on 8:39 am

    It was fun to see you guys on TV! Looking forward to the Napwell masks 🙂 I guess the Sharks don’t take in ideas that aren’t already proven to turn a profit, but I still think it’s a great idea.

    Reply
  • Mo 01/28/2015 on 5:01 pm

    I also thought the sharks were wrong and look forward to your product. It’s really interesting to hear that you guided them to your strong credentials. So smart.

    Reply
  • codetaku 01/28/2015 on 6:22 pm

    Do you think that appearing on the show was worth the ownership you had to give up just to appear? I believe it’s 1% or so?

    Reply
    • neil codetaku 01/28/2015 on 6:31 pm

      They removed that provision from their contracts a couple years ago.

      Reply
  • Chad 01/28/2015 on 7:50 pm

    I saw you on the tank and just wanted to share some hopefully constructive feedback.

    1) being a fan of the show, the timing was just off. They don’t do investments at this stage. Few exceptions are products that demo very well

    2) product. The mask looked cheap and crappy. I know it’s a prototype. I wouldn’t spend 20$ on it. The lighting is the product. I’d focus on that. If I could put your lights on my mask I’d spend 20$ on it.

    Reply
    • neil Chad 01/29/2015 on 12:07 am

      Hi Chad, thanks for the feedback.

      1. I agree, though going on this early was a huge risk when Shark Tank calls the opportunity is worth the risk.

      2. I subscribe to launching a product as soon as possible to get feedback, will write a post about that! We are working hard to make it better, and your concept about just supplying the lighting is something we are working on.

      Reply
  • Sammy Smalls 03/24/2015 on 10:51 am

    Thought you guys did a great job with the pitch. Have been watching the show for years and never have I seen these five sharks sit there and listen as intently as they did. Clearly earned their respect.

    Reply