Reality TV show Shark Tank is where entrepreneurs sink or swim

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An entrepreneur walks down a dimly lit corridor, alone and nervous, with nothing but a business proposal. The large wooden doors open. $1 billion stares back from leather seats.

Welcome to Shark Tank, Ten’s newest reality TV show where hopeful entrepreneurs ask five Aussie multimillionaires to invest hundreds of thousands, millions even, in their idea. In return, investing sharks get an ownership percentage. After contestants make their pitch, the sharks pick apart every fine detail in a swirl of facts and figures. It’s an impressive display of expertise. Contestants who withstand the firing line of questions are made an offer.

The concept originated in Japan’s Tiger of Money and has been recreated in America’s Shark Tank and the UK’s Dragon’s Den. In 2005, Network Seven attempted an Australian version of Dragon’s Den before discontinuing due to poor ratings. But Network Ten are hopeful given Shark Tank‘s success in America, nominated for an Emmy earlier this year.

Estimated by Ten to be collectively worth just under $1 billion, the sharks include Andrew Banks (of Talent2), Naomi Simson (RedBalloon), Janine Allis (Boost Juice Bars), Steve Baxter (entrepreneur and investor), and John McGrath (McGrath Estate Agents).

The Australian sharks are markedly kinder than their American counterparts. Shark Tank Executive Producer, Paul Leadon, says “it isn’t like blood in the water, which tends to be the US version. This is far more gentle.”

Shark Andrew Banks says this is because “Australians like to give people a go. They back the underdog.”

“For an Australian shark to say ‘I send my money out like soldiers and they come back each day’ (as Canadian entrepreneur Kevin O’Leary famously did in the US Shark Tank), I mean Australians will go ‘who is he kidding? He’s dreaming! Is this a comedy show?’ So I think we’re real, we’re a bit more grounded.”

That said the successful chairman of Talent still loves a metaphor. “The thing I love about sharks is they have to keep swimming or they die. So I’m definitely one of those. [I have] to keep moving,” Banks says. On the show, he is authoritative but rarely cruel.

Naomi Simson, who launched RedBalloon from home with a second-hand computer, opts for a straight-shooting attitude. “I did bring out my mummy voice a few times,” she says.

“Fourteen years ago, I would’ve been the one at the other side of the table, pitching an idea that nobody had ever heard of,” Simson says. “Probably the sharks would’ve said no to me. They would’ve said ‘You’re dreaming!’ But that’s what it takes to run a business: you’ve got to dream.”

The show is full of dreamers. Mums, scientists, university students and teenagers from across Australia dared to present their ideas, from apps to medical technology to the “hamdog” (hamburger hotdog).

Many have put a lot on the line to launch their businesses. The sharks themselves know a lot about taking risks. Banks borrowed $5000 he didn’t have for his first business, and $200,000 for his second.

So when does taking a risk turn into demise? “I think it’s going from the rational to the irrational,” Banks says. “Ninety per cent of small businesses fail because a lot of people have too much courage and passion and not enough planning.”

The sharks are kind, but they’re not afraid to devour an idea that won’t make money. “We’re not in business for the donations!” Simson says.

“We don’t have to be nice,” she says. “In fact often we do people a far greater service by challenging people to greatness.”

“This is not a ‘get rich quick, if you get on the show, everything’s going to be okay’. Business is hard. Business is tough. There’s never a silver bullet.”

Shark Tank, Ten, Sunday (Feb 8), 8pm.

Published in Sydney Morning Herald, 29 January 2015.

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