Today the hit TV show, Shark Tank, is celebrating a huge milestone of $100,000,000 invested in companies. This got me thinking about our experience with Shark Tank, how it all went done and how Mark Cuban’s investment completely changed the trajectory of ilumi. So here is the story about how our lives got flipped turned upside down, and I’d like to take a minute just read right here about Shark Tank and being on the air…. Not bad right?
To give you the full story, we need to rewind before our episode aired on national television in April 2014. Swapnil and I started ilumi out of MBA School at UT Dallas. Neither one of us had truly started a company before and while ‘our cup overfloweth’ with passion, vision, and determination, we weren’t exactly rolling in it. By necessity, we had to be extra creative in fundraising. I our journey, we’ve drawn quite a few wild cards when it comes to raising capital. We competed in national venture competitions that netted $45k in prize money, raised $200k in crowdfunding, and over the years have really found out the meaning of capital efficiency. So in April 2013 when we heard that Shark Tank was holding auditions in Dallas, it just seemed right, and so begins our Shark Tank Story.
It was a sunny Saturday morning in April when I arrived at the American Airlines Center in Dallas with the first ilumi prototype in hand and a light up ilumi tee on my back (it actually lit up with noise). There were hundreds of people waiting outside, and someone was passing out numbered wrist bands for the audition. I got my wrist band and was told to come back later. After a quick lunch, I returned to the AAC and the place was empty, and I thought I blew it. I found a few producers still packing up inside WFAA studios and they let me pitch. Though I wouldn’t recommend it, in hindsight I think pitching last was one of those serendipitous things that helped us stand out from the crowd.
A couple of weeks later we received an e-mail from a producer at Shark Tank. They were interested! (high-five). Well, it actually took months of filling out forms, speaking with producers, and working on our ‘pitch’ before we were asked to fly out to Los Angeles in September 2013 and film. That was the point where things got real. As a founder, you better know your company, business, and be able to clearly communicate that to any customer, partner, and especially investor. Filming on national television though? Any mistake, slip-up, or just bad luck could kill the company and stick around us for years.
To try and avoid things going wrong, we prepared for what could go wrong. The whole team (wives included) studied episodes of Shark Tank, wrote down common questions, preferences, and especially those fast-ball traps. We role-played every scenario we could think of and rehearsed answers to every possible question. My wife, Lorena, made the trip to LA with us, and I remember pacing our small hotel room with Swapnil the night before we filmed while she aggressively questioned our valuation, doing her best Mr. Wonderful impression.
The following day, we arrived at Universal lot for filming. I’m not film star, but the process was completely legit. Each company has their own trailer, makeup, hair, and then there’s the set of Shark Tank. Being on the set of a TV show was a once in a lifetime experience, but I wouldn’t say that Swapnil and I quite enjoyed it. We were nervous! If anyone has ever done a live demo, you know that usually what can go wrong, does go wrong. We were sitting in our trailer, frantically trying to upload approved music for the music sync demo to our iPad when word came, it was show time. Just like you see on TV, we walked through the hall, the doors opened and there they were, Robert, Lori, Kevin, Barbara, and Mark. After an awkward two minutes (see below), we started our pitch, “Hello Sharks…” And we were off.
After that, my memory of the whole experience is a blur. The demo worked flawlessly, we had multiple offers on the table, almost lost an offer to Mark, but ended up closing the deal. All of the preparation, hard work, and practice was worth it, and Mark agreed to invest $350,000 for 25% of the company. The episode still re-airs every now and again, and you may be able to find it on YouTube if you’re lucky. A lot of folks ask us what it was like, and for the most part it’s a lot like what you see on TV. Here are a few things from our experience on the show that you may not know:
- Shark Tank is filmed about twice a year for a few weeks where hundreds of companies pitch each time. Hence the reason they always wear the same clothes in each season.
- You don’t meet the Sharks beforehand and they don’t receive any information about your company beforehand. It’s not scripted or rehearsed, it’s real.
- Right after you walk in the ‘Tank’ and before your pitch starts, you have to stand in place with in front of the Sharks for two minutes without saying anything to capture the signature swooping pan shot that opens each segment. Awkward is an understatement, but we tried to look around the room, making eye contact and smiling at each Shark.
- Each company presents for about 30 minutes to an hour. In our case it was about 45 minutes. There are no time outs, cuts, or breaks. Anything you say is fair game for better or worse.
- One of the biggest challenges was managing the room. The Sharks don’t take turns asking questions or speaking, and most of the time multiple people are speaking at once. Editing cleans the audio up afterwards so it seems much more orderly. I’d equate the experience to trying to hit a Nolan Ryan fastball, except there are five Nolan Ryan’s all pitching at the same time.
- Though it seems all Sharks intend to follow through, the deals agreed to on Shark Tank are not binding. Afterwards, each Shark and company work through due diligence and the actual investment contract. More often than not the deal falls apart because of the Sharks or the company. We finalized our investment contract in March 2014, and Mark Cuban became an official investor in iLumi Solutions, Inc.
- After you film, there’s no timeline provided or even guarantee for when your segment will make it on TV. Two weeks before our episode aired, we received an e-mail from the producers.
Life After Shark Tank
After Shark Tank, our team has grown from five to fifteen. From prototypes to hundreds of thousands of real products lighting up homes and business across the world. We are incredibly proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish, but also know we have a long way to go.
No, we haven’t been deep sea fishing with Mark in the southern Gulf, but Cuban is still an investor in the company and has been a huge help. He and his team are a big reason why we are now in Best Buy, Home Depot, and Amazon. What’s most surprising though is how our Shark Tank story itself has become such an integral part of our DNA here.
One of the amazing things about the show is that it is reviving the Entrepreneurial American Dream. Work hard, think big, and anyone can create the world of tomorrow. Because of Shark Tank, people can see our journey, the work we put in, and the sacrifices we make. I like to this makes people root for us, not because we are an ‘underdog’ but because of the promise that they too can live the American Dream.
So congratulations to Shark Tank and really to Mark, Robert, Lori, Kevin, Barbara, Daymond, and everyone involved. Thank you for all that you’ve done for us and thank you for what you do for the hearts and minds of millions of people across the world.
Founder & CEO, ilumi