Some 129 entrepreneurs out of 40,000 applicants swam with the Sharks in Season 7 of ABC’s hit business reality show Shark Tank in hopes of getting money to “start, grow or save their businesses.” Of those 129, 104 of their pitches were aired over 26 episodes and received more than $25 million in investment offers. Some of the Season 7 pitches hailed as the best in the show’s history.
To commemorate the Season 8 premiere on Friday, Sept. 23, 2016, I assembled a panel of Shark Tank experts to discuss the seven best pitches of the 2015/2016 season — Season 7 — and highlight what you can learn from them. Meet the panel of Shark Tank experts:
Kevin O’Leary, aka Mr. Wonderful, is known as the fiercest Shark Tank investor who sits in the middle chair. He is founder of O’Leary Ventures and many other businesses.
Ben Kusin, the CEO of Reviver, and his brother pitched their odor wipes for clothing on Shark Tank in 2014 and received a $150K investment from Lori Greiner. They recently started a business consulting firm called Rent a Shark.
Rachel Olsen is the founder of Best Mom Products and author of Shark Tank MOMpreneurs Take A Bite Out of Publicity ~ How 5 Inventors Leveraged the Media to Build their Business and How You Can, Too.
Here’s a look at the seven best pitches.
Mai Lieu came to the tank from Honolulu with a wide smile and energetic “Aloha.” She demonstrated the undeniable quality of her product by cutting her own hair with her CreaClip, self-haircutting tool. Her combination of likability, marketing prowess, breadth of product offerings and solid sales proved to be the perfect formula for investment, said Kusin.
“She was undoubtedly a cut above the rest,” said Kusin. “She followed the golden rule for Shark Tank entrepreneurs: You must believe in yourself and your product before anyone else will. The demo in which she ‘crea-cut’ her own bangs — Stop the insanity! — tipped the shark’s scales to her favor.”
“Mai’s humor didn’t hurt either. The ‘pinot grigio haircut’ joke had her audience in stitches,” Kusin added.
What’s more Lieu’s social media savvy proved her mettle as a marketer and a taste maker. QVC queen Lori Greiner made an on-air deal of $200,000.
“Sharks are always looking for built in marketing machines,” Kusin said. “The best scenario for a Shark to invest is one where they are throwing gasoline on a fire. Savvy investors want their money to juice an already hot deal.”
JD Claridge and Charles Manning pulled a rare feat in getting an investment from all five Sharks. Mark Cuban, Daymond John, Kevin O’Leary, Lori Greiner and Robert each bid $300,000 for 5% equity, significantly increasing xCraft Drone’s original valuation of $2.5 million. Claridge and Manning came in asking for $500,000 for 20% equity.
Claridge and Manning presented the Sharks with a patented technology and keen marketing campaign in positioning themselves as the Tesla Motors (TSLA) of drones, says Olsen. xCraft boasts producing drones with the fastest vertical take-off and landing capabilities, appealing to drone enthusiasts and aerial photographers.
“Not all drones are created equal. They are positioning themselves as the ‘aspirational’ drones consumers with taste will want,” said Olsen. “While they got lucky that Kevin O’leary had been researching drones for the past month, they clearly articulated what this patented technology could do for the aerospace industry.”
When Claridge and Manning asked, “Do you like drones that can be programmed to autopilot themselves at a terrifying speed but wish those drones were better at hovering silently?” they made the Sharks think about the application to various markets, Olsen said. By asking the Sharks about their priorities and what they were willing to do for the company, Claridge and Manning were able to devise a win-win proposal.
Lovepop co-founders Wombi Rose and John Wise pitched their handcrafted, laser-cut, 3D greeting card business in December 2015 episode. The Sharks fell in love with their pop-up cards, inspired by an ancient Japanese art form, kirigami. Rose and Wise showed they had a powerful combination of creativity and business savvy as graduates of Harvard Business School with engineering backgrounds. They seduced the Sharks with custom-made cards for each of them.
“Lovepop was extremely articulate in the opportunity,” said O’Leary. “Basically, within a minute they explained that they took an old technology, greeting cards, and used modern technology to completely modify its presentation. They were creating single pieces of art and there’s a trend emerging that all the Sharks understood: everything old is new again.”
Rose and Wise knew their numbers forwards and backwards. They nailed every question about customer acquisition costs, gross margins, manufacturing turnaround time, cost of computer-aided technology, cost of making an incremental card and the cost of producing 10,000 of the same card, said O’Leary. He invested $300,000 for 15% of Lovepop cards during the show and did a private second round investment at a much higher valuation. O’Leary believes Lovepop will grow to $100 million in sales very quickly. Sales hit $1 million the month of their airing.
Rachel Nilsson, a mompreneur from Pleasant Grove, Utah, blew the Sharks away when she told them she grew a side gig selling used clothes on Instagram to more than $1 million in sales in less than two years. Nilsson received offers from three Sharks — Kevin O’Leary, Daymond John and Robert Herjavec — who argued with each other over the best strategy for selling her rompers. She ended up making a deal with Herjavec for 15% in a March episode, featuring all made-in-the USA products.
Nilsson’s capitalized on niche need she herself had. She knew her target market and had a solution for dressing their children more easily with rompers that easily slide on and off the shoulders.
“If you go back and look online at all the other pitches that were successful you will always find that people explain right away what the opportunity is,” said O’Leary. “She was very articulate about her target market and her experience in growing her business was quite strong. It gives you a lot of confidence.”
In addition, Nilsson knew her numbers down to the penny.
“No one who’s ever come out there and not know their numbers has ever successfully been funded,” said O’Leary. “Nobody takes a chance.”
Some of the Sharks had doubts about 26-year-old Shaan Patel’s ability to run a business while attending business school at Yale and set to return to medical school at USC the following year. But Shaan Patel’s confidence and charisma hooked Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban for a $250,000 investment for 20% of his SAT test-prep business. Patel, having scored a perfect score on the standardized college admissions test, served as a perfect role model for his target market. But Patel knew his customers weren’t the students themselves, but their parents.
“That quality insight led Mark to believe this jockey was qualified to take the reigns of any company,” said Kusin. “Be confident in who you are and what you can achieve, and forward thinking investors will back you.”
“In a Shark Tank pitch, it’s imperative to immediately establish yourself as credible,” Kusin added. “Shaan scored a perfect score on his SAT, and made sure to let the Sharks know up front. Keep in mind it’s not bragging if your personal successes establish your business qualifications.”
Patel’s impressive growth from teaching at one Las Vegas location to 20 cities across the country and online in four years commanded the Sharks’ attention.
“When grilled by the Sharks, Shaan did a great job of staying calm under pressure,” Kusin said. “Key lesson for prospective pitchers: Never let them see you sweat, especially in high def. Those cameras are seriously sharp.”
Inventor Michael Robb and Tom “Ozzy” Osborne — the self-proclaimed “chief red neck in charge” served the Sharks canned beer in koozies with their dome-shaped plastic disk that fits underneath the can and keeps it cold. Osborne, wearing a cut up Beer Blizzard T-shirt, joked the Beer Blizzard was the second greatest invention of all time with greatest invention being beer. Their witty humor sealed the deal.
“Authenticity will get you everywhere and I’d argue no two Shark Tank contestants have ever been as authentic as Tom Osborne and Mike Robb,” said Kusin. “Legendary marketer Tom Peters once said ‘To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called ‘you.’ These guys nailed it.”
Mark Cuban offered them $100,000 for 25% for their Pittsburgh, Penn.-based company while Lori Greiner offered them exactly what they were asking for — $100,000 for 20% equity.
“Authenticity is critical when facing the Sharks,” said Kusin. “If you’re putting on a show, they will see right through you. Tom and Mike literally ‘drank their own brand’ and most importantly stayed unintimidated by the Sharks and their questions. They kept the atmosphere in the room light and fun.”
After securing a deal, Robb and Osborne shouted in unison: “America, you’re welcome!”
Heather Saffer, the creator of Dollop Gourmet, not only had a deliciously profitable frosting business but also a captivating story of struggle and triumph. A manager who embezzled money from Saffer’s first cupcake business forced her to shutter it. She re-opened another shop months later and won the Food Network’s Cupcake Wars competition. She wrote a cookbook and launched a line of frostings. The struggles she overcame to eventually stand in front of the Sharks was a classic example of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey in which the archetypical hero receives a call to action, slays enemies and then returns victorious with newfound strength and knowledge.
“When it comes to anything in life, facts tell and stories sell,” said Kim. “What makes Saffer’s story so powerful is that she shared her weakness moments in her journey.”
“By sharing your story, you are able to connect with your audience, touch their emotions and have them relate to you,” Kim added. “Then she backed up her claims with her personal brand even further by having a cookbook dedicated to her craft.
“Your personal brand means everything when it comes to business. If no one knows who you are, how are they ever going to know what your company is? Invest in yourself first, then your business, because while companies may come and go, the benefits of a personal brand will follow you for the rest of your life.”
Saffer received investment offers from Kevin O’Leary and Barbara Corcoran. She went with Corcoran at $75,000 for 25% equity.
This story originally appeared in Forbes.com in September 2016.