How 2 Maine Lobsters Rolled the Shark Tank

It was more than a new startup, it was a destiny born in childhood. With that sort of momentum, rules don't apply.

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By John Boitnott

Courtesy of Christian Thomas Hynes

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

To people who run small businesses or startups, getting on Shark Tank and leaving with an investment is a dream that seems unreachable. But there's one company out there that didn't want the publicity, didn't need the money, and actually had to be coaxed into finally participating on the show.

Cousins Maine Lobster, founded by cousins Jim Tselikis and Sabin Lomac, has a stand-out success story amongst other Shark Tank success stories. It's a story of genuine people creating a genuine business that they were seemingly born to create.

A business inspired by childhood experience.

"We're both coming from Maine, we grew up there. Our mothers, and family is still there, and everything basically evolved around lobster. Whether it was the weekends, or the holidays, or pool parties, and there was always lobster rolls, and steaming lobsters, and our crazy mothers, wine and clams, and oysters, and everything you can think up. That's how we grew up," says Lomac.

When Tselikis and Lomac graduated college, Tselikis was working in Boston, while Lomac was working in Los Angeles.

"I went out to visit him and hang out for a bit, and we just had an awesome time for a few days," Tselikis says. "Ultimately ended up talking about family... what brought us together, and what was important about all that between loyalty and the way we grew up as kids. We basically said, 'let's do something together' and it ended up being a food truck."

Related: From Food Truck to Franchise: How These Cousins Turned Their Love of Lobster Into a Business

The two ended up bringing authentic Maine lobster cuisine far away from its beloved New England to Los Angeles, where it quickly changed from a passion project into a serious business.

"It ended up taking off, literally on the first night with long, sixty-, seventy-person lines, and it never stopped. The day before we opened, we had a little piece in UrbanDaddy. [Our] Google Voice line just started ringing off the hook with customers and people that wanted to come see us and eat our food," Tselikis says.

But it wasn't just foodies excited about lobster rolls who took notice of Cousins Maine Lobster. The night before their first event, they had already caught the attention of Shark Tank's producers.

Defying the rules of the 'Tank.'

"They had seen it in UrbanDaddy, they knew it was coming and over the next few months, we basically kind of did that process with them. Discussions back and forth, about our business, how it all works and our story and our brand," Tselikis continued.

You'd think they would have been jumping up and down with excitement at this point, right?

"We actually said no to them, twice."

The two entrepreneurs were still figuring it all out, and weren't sure which direction they wanted to take their business. Eventually, Shark Tank's producers convinced them to do the show.

"We opened in April of 2012 and we actually aired on Shark Tank in the fall, October of 2012. Since then, it's kind of changed everything. It was very early on, so we don't really know what life would have been like without it," says Tselikis.

But it wasn't a matter of just showing up for the pitch and collecting a Shark's money; the entrepreneurs prepared long and hard for their fifteen seconds of fame. Through their study of the show, which included watching fifty episodes and memorizing questions from the individual sharks, Tselikis and Lomac had already made up their minds on who they wanted to bring on as a partner.

"We had heard such good things about Barbara that we really wanted to partner with her," Lomac explains. "We just had a really good feeling, in that you can communicate well with her."

Related: The Entrepreneur's Ultimate Tip List for Communicating With Investors

Their way or the highway.

Unfortunately, that's not how Shark Tank works for the average participants. The pair was told they couldn't choose when to be on the show. But Tselikis and Lomac are not your average participants, and they gave the producers an ultimatum.

"We said, "Put it this way, we aren't going to show up unless Barbara is there,'" says Lomac.

After making their demands crystal clear, the producers buckled and the founders were brought on the show while Barbara was there. And just as they planned, they ended up striking a deal with Barbara Corcoran, despite being offered a very good deal by Robert Herjavec.

"They were kind of competing with each other, and Jim says, 'How are you going to help us?'" Lomac explains. "He (Herjavec) didn't like that. He said, "I don't need to prove myself to you,' in so many words. I am here on this stage for a reason."

Barbara countered Herjavec's response by answering the entrepreneurs' question, which they felt was very humble and reaffirmed the pair's original thoughts about her. She took a 15 percent stake in the company for $55,000.

Related: Barbara Corcoran's 6 Pearls of Wisdom for Young Treps

Thanks in part to their success on Shark Tank, Cousins Maine Lobster have opened up their business to franchisees, built their first brick-and-mortar store, and reached $20 million in sales. They took advantage of their opportunities in a way that may seem untraditional, but worked out due to their intelligent vision and genuine passion.

John Boitnott

Entrepreneur Leadership Network VIP

Journalist, Digital Media Consultant and Investor

John Boitnott is a longtime digital media consultant and journalist living in San Francisco. He's written for Venturebeat, USA Today and FastCompany.

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