For more than a decade, America’s entrepreneurs have been pitching their businesses to a formidable cast of investors on ABC’s Shark Tank. After giving a short presentation, business owners ask for a monetary investment in exchange for an equity stake in the company. The pitches on the show lead to real deals—if the investors (the sharks) choose to bite. Here’s what happened when four local businesses gave it a shot.
Snacklins co-founder Samy Kobrosly had done his homework and felt prepared to pitch his vegan pork rinds on an October 2019 episode of Shark Tank.
“I studied it like it was a test,” he says. “I had notes. I had flash cards.” But when he walked onto the set, also known as the “tank,” he froze.
“That wasn’t edited,” Kobrosly says. “I actually froze.”
After an awkward pause, Kobrosly, who lives in D.C.’s Tenleytown and started his Rockville company in 2016, began again and impressed the investors with knowledge of his company’s finances, and with his humor. “I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t spend awhile working on my, ‘I’m a Muslim from Iowa who invented a vegan pork rind,’ ” he says. Even investor Kevin O’Leary—who co-founded a software technology company in the ’80s and now runs an investment firm and is sarcastically nicknamed Mr. Wonderful for his tough criticisms and ruthless deals—cracked up. The sharks liked the taste of Kobrosly’s product, made from fresh mushrooms, onion and yuca.
Shark Mark Cuban, who owns the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, made a deal with Kobrosly: a $250,000 investment for a 5% stake plus 5% in advisory shares. Kobrosly, 34, who is still the majority shareholder, says he’s been pleasantly surprised by how closely he works with Cuban, and that the billionaire entrepreneur personally checks in with Snacklins every week. When the coronavirus pandemic hit earlier this year, Cuban was there to help. “He had multiple employees that we could literally call any time of the day,” Kobrosly says.
Soupergirl’s Sara Polon walked into the tank with her mother, who is also the company’s co-founder, by her side. “I could not have done it without my mom,” Polon says. The episode, which aired in October 2018, is a reminder for Polon of the grueling time spent pitching and fielding questions about their certified kosher, plant-based soup business.
The 43-year-old Polon, a former comedian who grew up in Rockville, graduated from Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, and now lives in D.C.’s Cleveland Park, was inspired to start a soup business after reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. She recruited her mother, Marilyn Polon, a home cook who lives in Rockville, to start Soupergirl in 2008. Their line of soups includes Split Pea Rosemary and Mediterranean Red Lentil and is sold at their retail location in D.C.’s Takoma neighborhood, grocery stores in Maryland and other states, and online.
The Polons asked the sharks for $500,000 in exchange for 10% of the business—a valuation that shocked the investors. And while the sharks complimented the soup—Sara says most of that footage ended up on the cutting room floor—much of the segment focused on the Soupergirl founders defending their valuation. In a heated moment, Cuban said, “Sara, you’re literally at risk of going out of business.” The mother-daughter duo walked out without a deal.
After filming, shark Matt Higgins, who co-founded private investment firm RSE Ventures and has invested in restaurant companies Momofuku and &pizza, reached out to Soupergirl. Sara says he told her that he regretted what happened during filming. Higgins began mentoring the Polons and put them in touch with other business owners and marketing firms. “I nicknamed him Mr. Mensch,” Sara says. “He’s a good soul.”
Potomac-based CertifiKID had already been in business for nearly a decade and had done $30 million in sales when it pitched its family-friendly deals and discounts website. “We didn’t need the deal,” CEO Jamie Ratner, 43, says. That’s partly what gave Jamie’s husband, Brian, the president of CertifiKID, the confidence to spar with the indomitable O’Leary over the terms of his offer. “No one really ever pushes him,” Brian, 46, says. “I think he was enjoying the banter.”
The wife and husband team asked for a $600,000 investment in exchange for an 8% stake in their company, valuing the business at nearly $5 million, to which shark Daymond John first responded, “Oh, this is uncomfortable.” But after hearing about CertifiKID’s financial success, the FUBU apparel company co-founder was one of three sharks to offer the Ratners a deal.
When real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran made an offer contingent upon Jamie and Brian turning CertifiKID, which was founded in 2010, into a franchise, Brian laughed out loud. “It was nervous laughter,” he says. Luckily, the tense exchange didn’t make the episode, which aired in April 2019. “I was very worried that they were going to show me laughing in her face, which really was not what I meant to do.”
O’Leary offered $600,000 for a 20% equity stake, with the contingency that he’d get a three times return on his investment if he exited the company. After a relentless back and forth, O’Leary, impressed with Brian’s negotiation skills, proclaimed, “I love you.” The shark agreed to drop the return-on-investment contingency and lower his stake to 19%. The Ratners accepted the offer, and the partnership has been smoother sailing ever since. “Now that we know [O’Leary], he’s a very nice guy,” Jamie says.
When Greg Coleman and Ben Young were in business school together, they struggled to find time to work out. A former personal trainer, Coleman thought, “If we’re having this problem as fit people, my gosh, it must be really hard for other people who are not used to making fitness a part of their lifestyle.” Coleman, 47, who lives in Kensington, and Young, 44, who lives in Washington, D.C., created the Sworkit app in 2012 with workouts and tutorials to make fitness more accessible. Their business is based in Bethesda.
When Young, Sworkit’s chief innovation officer, suggested they apply for Shark Tank, Coleman wasn’t sold on the idea. “We ended up putting in the application and not really thinking a whole lot of it,” Coleman says. The Sworkit co-founders advanced through the audition process and were set up with a producer. “They help you get your one-minute spiel together,” Coleman says.
Coleman, who is the CEO of Sworkit, remembers the moments before entering the tank. “You’re just standing in silence by the doors, waiting…to walk into a quiet room in front of these five people you see on TV every week.” The Wharton School graduates impressed the sharks with their pitch, agreeing to give Cuban 10% of the company, plus $1.5 million worth of unsold ad inventory, for his $1.5 million investment.
But after the taping, the deal dissolved. “When you go onto the show, what you see is the initial meeting, an initial handshake. Then there’s an entire investment process,” Coleman says. “There were just a couple of points that we just didn’t see eye to eye on.” Though the deal went bust, Coleman says the publicity was worth it. The episode premiered in February 2016, but Coleman says his team still sees bumps in the numbers from reruns. “I kind of affectionately call it the gift that keeps on giving.”