Thursday was probably a normal day for you. You got up at the same time you usually do. You took the same train / bus / car. You walked into the same office. But in the labyrinthine basement of the Willard Hotel, Thursday was far from a normal day. For almost all of the entrepreneurs gathered in the hallways and strewn around the conference rooms, it was the culmination of all their hard work, energy and money. It was their big chance. They were going to be on Shark Tank.
At least, that was the dream. The Shark Tank casting team had rolled into town, putting out a call for “diverse ideas and voices,” and diverse is what they got. All sorts of different ages, ethnicities and genders were represented in the room, and the business pitches couldn’t have been more disparate. There were independent filmmakers, aspiring Mark Zuckerbergs, cyber security experts and makeup enthusiasts. Every time you thought the room was starting to empty out, a new crop of budding entrepreneurs rolled in, filling the room with their nervous energy.
After pitching your product to the room and fielding questions from your fellow entrepreneurs, you were put in a group and placed in line to enter the real pitch room with Shark Tank‘s casting agents. We caught up with a few folks before they entered the dreaded room (Mr. Wonderful wasn’t actually there, but a few entrepreneurs seemed worried that he would pop around the corner any minute) to talk about their business ideas, ask them about their favorite Shark and talk about the pitching process.
When I was in elementary school we were given a project to invent something. That was it. Those were the parameters. Invent something. My partner and I invented a Welcome Mat that would automatically unlock the front door when you stepped on it. Hey, there’s some potential there. It’s that kind of potential that brought Natalie Norton to The Willard to pitch her business, New Secrets Tea. When Natalie was 19 she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and was told she would never have children. “I thought about what it would be like to cut out part of my body and even at 19 it just didn’t sit well with me, so I didn’t do anything,” Natalie said. And she continued to do nothing for an entire year.
Well it wasn’t quite “nothing.” You see Natalie’s father is from Jamaica and her mother is a registered nurse so she took her father’s plant-based healing knowledge and combined it with her mother’s medical training to cobble together a medicinal tea. For an entire year, three times a day, Natalie drank this tea made from sarsaparilla, valerian, woodworm and dandelion. Then the impossible happened, she got pregnant. “I kind of have a magical vagina,” said Natalie. Unfortunately she miscarried but it was that miscarriage that finally brought her back to the doctor where she was told her cancer was gone. She attributed it to the tea. There’s just one small problem. “It tastes gross,” she said.
Natalie became a certified herbalist and went to work on creating the unthinkable, delicious medicinal teas, and that’s how New Secrets Tea was born. She won the opportunity to set up shop at BWI Airport but it doesn’t allow her to provide taste tests. Despite that, Natalie did $190,000 in retail sales last year. Now she wants the Sharks to finance an expansion to other airports where she will hopefully get a permanent kiosk, with running water! She is now engaged and has two children. If she makes it onto Shark Tank and captures the interest of one of the Sharks that would be huge for her and her family. The question is, which Shark does Natalie want to work with? “I’m not sure who I’d pick but I definitely want to say no to Mr. Wonderful.”
“I’m all in for my business,” says Alyssa Vásquez, the energetic founder behind the start up YouBelong, LLC, a website (and app) that aims to connect people with church groups, “And I’m looking for someone who’s all in for my business.” She works as an office manager by day, but by night, she audited classes at American University and joined a start up incubator to help get YouBelong off the ground. “I worked on it little by little,” she explained.
It’s a project that’s three years in the making, but it doesn’t seem like Vásquez’s passion for YouBelong is waining. She’s confident during the first pitch, delivering her personal story, talking about the community benefits of YouBelong and diving into the financial aspect of the business (she plans to charge churches to advertise within the app) with conviction. You’d have no idea that she was caught off guard. “I was practicing a one minute pitch all last night,” she says, chuckling to herself, “Then I walked in here and found out it was a three minute pitch.” Regardless, she killed it.
The room is buzzing with excited tension. One man paces around the back, practicing his pitch. Another woman adjusts her blazer. There were a lot of blazers, except for one woman who bounded confidently to the front of the pitch pit wearing yoga pants and a purple hoodie with the words Soka Tribe written on it. “When I say Soka Tribe you say YAY,” she yelled. Shermica Farquhar has an absolutely infectious vibe about her as she launches into her practice pitch. “Soka Tribe is a community of cultural exploration. It has a carnival feel all about freedom, expression and connectivity.” But what is Soka Tribe?
Soka Tribe is a dance fitness class that brings the Caribbean Carnival to you. It’s high-cardio. It’s dance-heavy. It’s fun. This isn’t why Shermica wants funding from the Sharks. Not really. She has brought these classes to schools all over the country and she wants to set up scholarship funds to keep it going. As a former director of charter schools Shermica has experience working with kids. Having Trinidadian parents has helped her bring this aspect of her culture to them, but it’s expensive. Much like most of D.C., when Shermica moved back here after attending college at Georgetown she had a full-time job that was more full than fulfilling. “I came here to open a school,” she said. “A couple of months into that I ended up moving to Nashville instead, which didn’t work out, but I didn’t want to work for anyone else. I was done with all that.” She sounds like Say Anthing’s Lloyd Dobler who would have made an excellent Shark Tank contestant.
For the first time in her life Shermica didn’t have to be some place and she didn’t have to answer to anyone, which was the perfect time to start Soka Tribe. It’s now being taught in cities all over the country but working with kids and helping to introduce them to her Trinidad background was something that really spoke to her. Knowing that she cannot do this alone she showed up at The Willard Hotel in the hopes of getting on Shark Tank. The big question remains, of course, which Shark do you go with? “I was told to go with Mark Cuban but a friend of mine works with Daymond John and only has great thing to say about him so we’ll see.”
After watching pitches for apps that helps you film the police, an idea for an expensive luggage tag named after an Ingmar Bergman film and a social networking app that creepily uses Bluetooth to connect you with people you pass on the street (spooky). A theme starts to emerge from the pitches. And that theme is everyone forgot to bring their damn business cards. For a group of people who are so clearly ready to fight for their dreams, it’s boggling how often they apologize and claim they weren’t shipped in time, or they forget them at home. Finally after chatting with some people between pitches, a purple business card finds its way into my hand. At the top is a bright white logo with the words “POLE CON” written in a sharp, modern font.
“I really want to get out the world about pole dancing,” says Colleen Jolly, the CEO behind the International Pole Convention. “People think about pole dancing and they think of strippers, which is awesome. We love strippers, we love sex workers, but pole is more than that.” Jolly is the very definition of enthusiastic. Before she purchased PoleCon from its previous owner, she ran a highly successful visual communications company. “I taught people how to do awesome marketing, awesome infographics and I’ve taken that and really pushed it into the marketing I do for PoleCon,” she says.
Wearing her bright purple hoodie (a relaxed look compared to most of the suited up folks in the room) she talks about how pole dancing has become an international exercise movement. “I want to create a licensing concept. We are actually international, so we’ll be PoleCon Mexico and PoleCon Australia, not just PoleCon right here in the US,” says Jolly, explaining one of the things she’d like to accomplish with the Shark’s money. But at the end of the day, that’s not her only goal, “I really want to get the world out there about what pole dancing could be, and if I can get a little bit of money to keep growing my business, that would be awesome.”
After chatting with people waiting to do their official pitch, we wandered the hallways trying to find someone who had already been through the process. The first pitch room was finally starting to empty out, but no one was leaving the audition room. Were they hiding the entrepreneurs away? Was there a secret Narnia door we didn’t know about? Just before we were about to give up and start raiding the pastry basket at the science convention down the hall, we ran into an incredibly cute little dog in a pink sweater and her equally as lovely owner Sugar McMillian, the man behind Easy Hook, The Original Dog Hook. “Diana’s my good luck charm,” McMillian says, talking about his adorable dog (who’s name after the song “Dirty Diana”). “Any defense mechanism because I’m coming in and selling, she just knocks it down.”
McMillian developed the Dog Hook because he was looking for an easier way to manage Diana when guests came over, or her had to take her out. “Gates and crates do what? Separate. Dogs don’t want to be separated, they’re pack animals, but our human behavior is to separate them,” he explains. “So, I’ve developed a product that allows your dog to be a part of the environment without dominating the environment.”
The hook is simple enough. It’s a sturdy, metal hook that attaches (or detaches) to a wall plate. You tie your dogs leash to the hook and voila, you’ve got a mobile dog post that looks much nicer than tying your pup to a stake or putting them in a crate whenever guests come over. As of right now, McMillian’s product is in 14 Ace Hardwares, nine hotels and eight cafes. It’s McMillian’s third time auditioning for Shark Tank, but he’s confident about his pitch. “When I first came, I only had prototypes,” he says. “I had no idea what it takes to get in a store. Barcodes, barcodes were crazy, being EDI compliant… Giving the sell sheets, getting your stuff for PR. I had no idea what that was.”
Now that he’s market tested and has been on a few different start up shows (like Elevator Pitch), he feels good about the product and how this pitch felt versus the first two times. “t’s a little more intimate, you can be yourself a little bit more. You can even adlib and throw jokes in there, whatever it takes. And there is no time limit,” he says, adding that he plans on asking the Sharks for $225,000.
Lately I’ve been way more emotional than usual and I can’t tell if it’s my new therapist, my old hormones, or just a general increase in love for the world and the people in it (cool brag I’m basically a guru). Whatever it is, my immediate reaction to the room of entrepreneurs attempting to present their ideas (and subsequently their hopes and dreams) to the Sharks of Shark Tank was I LOVE THESE PEOPLE. It’s a lovely, scary thing to try to give a piece of yourself to the world and ON TELEVISION NO LESS. And while people are of course trying to make a buck they are also trying to leave their mark.