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Pitching Lessons from Applying to Shark Tank

Entrepreneurs Jessica Tenuta, Co-Founder and Head of Design at our portfolio company, Packback, and her co-founders Mike Shannon and Kasey Gandham, are some of the best pitchers in the startup ecosystem. That’s something any person who watched their episode of Shark Tank might know. But a lot of the skill, poise, and confidence that helped them received funding from Mark Cuban for their e-textbook rental company, they developed and refined while applying to Shark Tank.

For Packback, an early-stage just gearing up to launch its first pilot, the show clearly paved a path to recognition and support from the broader community, including customers, partners, and investors, but it also helped them think about how to pitch their business compellingly and simply enough to appeal to millions of people.

So how exactly did applying for Shark Tank make the Packback team members better pitchers?

In the application, they had to clearly explain your product, the problem it solves, and the market, along with several other pieces of their business. Essentially, it’s the same as a really engaging investor deck. Jessica stresses: you’re applying to be on a television show, so your story has to make for good television and grip millions of viewers. When you’re presenting to investors in the real world, you need to grip them in the same way.

“The reason [Shark Tank] takes companies is their story. It’s really about who you are, and why are you solving the problem you are solving more than about your product or your metrics. That needs to come through in the paper application.”

While metrics are still critical to the success of your pitch to investors, they’re only important if they support your story of the problem you are solving. Ultimately, it comes down to how well you understand your market, your audience, and its problem.

The fact that Packback was made up of a team of students who were encountering the problem of inconvenient and expensive textbooks and trying to solve it made for a story other people wanted to see. It was a key differentiator.

Jessica pointed out, “When you’re living your own life, it’s really hard to recognize what’s unique about your story. Our biggest unfair advantage was being students. A lot of people have an unfair advantage and don’t see it. [To succeed] you have to role-play as the person you’re hoping to pitch to see your unfair advantage objectively.”

The next part of the application was the video, which the Packback team used to play up their “unfair advantage.” They filmed at their alma mater, Illinois State University, and talked to students about the problems they were facing with textbooks every day. The result was a video that compellingly told Packback’s story by demonstrating the scope of the problem and why the founders were uniquely poised to solve it within the constraints of the 5–7 minute video format. Once again, this exercise of talking about why they were the team to solve the textbook problem in 5 just minutes helped refine their pitch.

With such a unique story and a real pain to solve, it’s no surprise that Kasey and Mike were called into a final screening pitch meeting in Los Angeles. At this point, they were assigned a producer who could determine at any point whether they would make it onto the show. Their big challenge was to deliver a bite-size pitch, one that conveyed what the product did and why it mattered in 30 to 45 seconds.

Concision is one of the most important parts of a successful application. As Jessica highlighted, “If you ramble on the paper application, then [the casting agents] won’t think you’re able to be concise.” Long and difficult to understand doesn’t make for good television or a good pitch, whether its delivered on paper or in person. Kasey and Mike were able to break their company down into one easy-to-understand concept “24/7 e-textbook rentals for $5 or less.”

Packback successfully made it through the final screen, and the rest is history. They reached a handshake agreement with Mark Cuban on the show, and then went under deeper due diligence until the deal finally closed.

The process certainly wasn’t easy or smooth, and it took a long time, but ultimately, the application prepared Packback to build better pitches and a better business. It also gave them the much-needed confidence to push forward.

“Knowing that you’re so early and your pilot has only been out for two weeks and there’s not a lot of data to show for it, and still feeling comfortable putting yourself out there to eight million people is hard. At that stage, you might have a tendency to want to wait until you’re really fleshed out as a company and ask ‘should we jump on it now or hold off’?” However, being a successful entrepreneur means overcoming that fear, taking the risk, and ultimately, “jumping at any opportunity that comes your way.”

Photo via Packback