Shark Tank

How to Win on 'Shark Tank'

What all 495 pitches say about wowing investors.
This story appears in the October 2016 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

In Shark Tank’s seven seasons (the eighth begins September 23), a total of 253 teams scored deals and 242 did not. What made the difference? “Presence and personality matters just as much as ideas,” says Vanessa Van Edwards, founder of Science of People, a human behavior research lab. Her team studied the winners and losers, and found patterns that every entrepreneur should know. Here are her 10 biggest takeaways on how to succeed with the Sharks—or any investor.

Know your numbers

Illustrations by Andrew Roberts

1. Know your numbers.

Investors are numbers people, and that means you need to know your digits cold. Fuzzy arithmetic was deadly in the Tank: In 64 percent of “no” deals (and only 32 percent of “yes” deals), the entrepreneur tripped up on their math, didn’t have hard numbers, or asked for an unrealistic equity split. Be credible or else. It’s not an overstatement to say that this tip matters more than any of the nine that follow.

2. Start with a smile.

Make the right entrance: A full 45 percent of those who scored deals had entered the Tank with a smile. And the numbers went up further when the smile was combined with a friendly nod of “hello”: That combo made entrepreneurs 9 percent more likely to get a deal. It’s a small, simple way to tip the scales in your favor—but you have to do it early, when first impressions are still being formed. Smiling throughout a pitch is only moderately helpful.

3. Be interactive.

Sharks, like everyone, want to touch and play with stuff—especially before putting money down. That’s likely why 81 percent of successful pitches were interactive. Of course, some entrepreneurs have an advantage here: If you have a product that the Sharks can play with, give it to them (that accounted for 55 percent of interactions.) Have food? Feed them! (That’s 21 percent.) And entrepreneurs without physical products can still have fun: They can make the pitch itself interactive (as 13 percent did).

4. Spin a yarn.

Everyone loves a story. Thirty percent of successful pitches included some kind of captivating narrative—an experience or personal anecdote told by the entrepreneur. It provides context and interest and, done well, can humanize your pitch. When an investor feels invested, well, they just might invest. Unsure of what to to share? Try framing your personal story as a hero’s journey—a time-tested formula in which you were inspired to try something difficult, struggled for a while, and then finally succeeded. Of people who got funding, 21 percent told a tale like that.

5. Be relevant.

Sharks like invest in little sharks—which is perhaps why 9% of ‘yes’ deals involved a Shark who said they ‘saw themselves’ in the entrepreneur. (In Season 7, Mark Cuban even called a 16-year-old founder “Mini Mi”, and then gave him $100,000.) How do you make a connection? Do your research, so that you can drop little hints: “Like you, Damon…” or “I did the same thing as you, Lori.” One caveat: Don’t focus too much on the sharks of your gender; when Science of People broke down how many men and women the Sharks invest in, they found no clear pattern.

6. Entertain at all costs.

So far all of these tips are just as useful inside the Tank as they are in the real world. This next one is up for debate. Science of People found that 63 percent of successful pitches involved something unexpected or bizarre—either a wacky product or pitch. (Remember when, in Season 3, the founders of the lip balm Kisstixx made Kevin O’Leary and Barbara Corcoran kiss? Cha-ching.) Van Edwards says this is evidence of the Pique Technique, a psychological principal that claims humans always prefer the unexpected. So should you captivate your investors, perhaps with something memorably odd? Maybe! But are people being especially wacky on Shark Tank because it’s a television show? Well... probably.

7. Project confidence.

Your mother was right to nag you about your posture. Entrepreneurs who have good posture, stand tall, and don’t cross their arms—all while appearing relaxed—do best. The Science of People team ranked power stances on a 1 to 5 scale—1 is for the slouchers—and found that looking confident gave entrepreneurs an edge. Intriguingly, it wasn’t an enormously large edge: Successful entrepreneurs had an average 3.98 rating for their power stance, and unsuccessful ones came in at 3.83 on average. But still, every little advantage matters. Stand strong.

8. Use vocal power.

Entrepreneurs with relaxed, consistent vocal tone fare better in the Tank than those with voices that squeal, sound anxious, crack or break, or even drone on monotonously.

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being squeaky and 5 being low and smooth, successful entrepreneurs had an average 4.23 vocal power rating. Unsuccessful ones rated 3.93. The right vocal power is be hard to achieve, but deep breathing can help keep voices steady.

9. Make them laugh.

No shocker here: Humor pays. Science of People literally counted all the laughs, and found that successful pitches had an average of 2.15 humor moments. Unsuccessful pitches had an average of 1.93. And of the 10 entrepreneurs who scored the biggest deals in the show’s history, four made the investors laugh during their pitch.

10. Leave the tank.

Kevin O’Leary often says, “Bad things happen when you leave the Shark Tank.” But is that true? The data says no! Of the 253 total “yes” deals on the show, 42 involved entrepreneurs leaving the Tank to get advice or talk over the deal. Of the 242 “no” deals, only 13 involved leaving the tank. That’s 17 percent success versus 5 percent failure. Math doesn’t lie. If you need more time, ask for it... whether on the show or in an investor’s office.

Now here’s the big asterisks on all this: Science of People was only able to tally what they saw on TV. In real life, each pitch in the Shark Tank studio went on for far longer. That means this data isn’t perfect—but it is good advice, no matter what shark you pitch to next.

Edition: December 2016

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