ABC’s hit show Shark Tank has not only inspired a new generation of entrepreneurs but also create a genre of knockoff business reality shows like Restaurant Startup and The Profit on CNBC. The Discovery Channel’s version, Blue Collar Backers, premiered on August 26, 2016. The show is eager to fire up your business if you have a great idea for a brick-and-mortar establishment but lack the money and know how to get started.

Blue Collar Backers is loathed to called the poor man’s answer to Shark Tank. But instead of the starring a panel of uber-wealthy moguls sitting around writing checks, it features successful entrepreneurs, aka backers, from a variety of industries helping small businesses with sweat equity. Cameron Davies builds food trucks. Twin brothers and contractors Cam and Cain Roberds build shops. Ron Douglas made a fortune selling repossessed cars and became a business consultant.

Shawn Witt serves as executive producer of the show, created by Leftfield Entertainment, a division of ITV America, in New York City. Gretchen Palek is the senior vice president of casting and talent. They explain what their show is about how they’re taking on Shark Tank.

Blue Collar Backers

Ky Trang Ho: What is your show about?

Shawn Witt: Blue Collar Backers is about facilitating the American dream for passionate small business owners and visionaries who have been unable to secure bank loans to make those commercial aspirations a reality. Our cast of dedicated ‘backers’ provides varying amounts of investment cash and sweat-equity to these entrepreneurs in exchange for a stake in the business. The series features ground-up builds, rich takeaways — including small-business business metrics — and expert tips, plus a thorough market analysis of each business months after opening.

Ho: Why did you produce this show?

Witt: Banks are currently refusing over 80% of loan applications and that’s causing a real problem for entrepreneurs nationwide. These struggles were well-documented during the presidential conventions and it’s a trend we don’t see ending soon.

In developing Blue Collar Backers, we identified an opportunity to educate and inspire thousands of hopeful business owners who may have felt they’d hit their ceiling. We want anyone with a great, well thought out idea to be revitalized by the fact that there is a growing movement of independent investors who are willing to take the risks most banks aren’t and shepherd these nascent businesses towards success.

Ho: What do you hope that people will get from watching the show?

Witt: The hope is that each viewer will walk away with a solid understanding of what makes certain businesses stick out in a very competitive marketplace; what separates good ideas from bad and hopeful situations from hopeless; what questions investors ask before considering to make a significant contribution towards a project; what types of sacrifices and compromises all small business owners should be prepared to make; plus inspiration towards making their own ideas into a reality and taking them to the next level.

Ho: It sounds like a blue-collar version of Shark Tank. What are the biggest differences between your show and the ABC hit business reality show?

Witt: Shark Tank is all about the idea, sales pitch and investor assessment, everything that leads up to either a handshake or a denial. Blue Collar Backers is significantly different in that the handshake is the starting point instead of the end-goal. Our backers quickly assess a variety of businesses in each episode and decide whether they’re in or out rather quickly. Some 95% of the episode is the vision and execution of the entrepreneurs’ ideas within the parameters of the available budget, followed by a focus test designed to assess the long-term viability of the business and the investors’ projected profits.

Ho: How did you go about selecting the backers? What do you hope they will bring to the show?

Witt: Our talented casting team (led by the head of casting and talent, Gretchen Palek) scoured the nation for a wide-range of individuals varying from contractors and architects to venture capitalists and business experts. The challenge was identifying people who were not only running their successful businesses but also could “swing a hammer” and a proven history of investing in others’ small businesses.

The six cast members we chose check all of these boxes and each brings a unique personality and perspective to the program. We also cover a diverse range of regions across the country  — Denver, San Antonio, Phoenix, and Gulfport — and feature some unique brick-and-mortar projects full of rich insight and impressive end products.

Calling All Entrepreneurs

Ho: How many applicants did you get for the show?

Gretchen Palek: We pursued over a hundred businesses in and around our experts’ hometowns: Denver, Phoenix, San Antonio, and the Mississippi/Alabama border.

Ho: How did you go about finding them? What does the application process entail?

Palek: Focusing on our experts’ home states, we searched for independently operated businesses that have hit a roadblock. We contacted community organizations, read reviews of local businesses, and looked into people organically asking our experts for assistance. The process was simple: if a deserving business had a genuine need that fit the expertise of our backers, we would put them in touch to talk details. When both sides agreed that a deal would be mutually beneficial, it was time to get to work.

Ho: What qualities are you looking for?

Palek: We’re looking for hardworking small business owners in search of guidance and capital from an unconventional source. Whether it’s a new business looking to find its feet, or an established one overdue for a rebrand, our experts have the knowledge, hands-on skills, and resources to turn things around.

Ho: How should readers contact you if they’re interested in participating? What are your requirements for participating?

Palek: Interested business owners can email with their contact information and a brief description of their company. To participate, businesses must be independently owned in the U.S., have a specific need that fits with our experts’ skill set and be open to collaboration.

This story originally appeared in in September 2016.

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