Tag Archives: Shark Tank

The American Pitch

Selling Lemonade in 1960 Wikipedia.org
Selling Lemonade in 1960                   Wikipedia.org

At the beginning of the American Century most citizens believed that social mobility was possible if a person was bold and audacious enough to seek it. 

In a professional baseball game a pitcher’s arm may only last 50 or 60 pitches.  But playing the game of American life may require that we never stop. To each other we pitch for charities, business ideas, book proposals, movies, advertising campaigns and political contributions.  Most of us know the rules. Make the best case you can in a compact time period you are given. And never get caught throwing curve balls.

One kind of pitch is the fundraiser. It’s perhaps a function of our times that we are flooded with invitations to attend events designed to raise money for causes that are worthy, but starved for support.  A recent fundraiser at a posh country club was raising funds for a non-profit organization that provides basic housing and life skills for the developmentally disabled.  Amidst the brie and smoked salmon a room of well-healed people joined an auction to bid on weekend getaways and meals at 4-star restaurants, with all of the money going to the cause. Similarly, local newspapers regularly feature heartrending attempts to crowd-source the costs of an essential medical treatment that a community member cannot otherwise receive. Only in America do we seem to miss the irony of ubiquitous pitches made by neighbors to find dollars to fund services that other advanced societies provide to all.

A friend in London notes that she mostly encounters sidewalk pitches for non-profit organizations. But the appeals are usually to benefit distant populations suffering from famine or other scourges. The goal is to make a quick plea for a worthy cause, with a follow-up request asking the listener to immediately text the money to the needy group. Another friend in Denver confirms a similar pattern, but for more local charities.  She cautions that a walk up busy 16th Street at the center of downtown is done more easily if pretending to talk on a phone. That apparently keeps those who are ready to pounce at bay.

We have also institutionalized pitches.  Candidates meet with potential donors mostly in private to make the case that they alone can rescue the nation. Presidential politics has now become a fully commercialized enterprise. PBS television stations have similarly turned their once-gentle requests for funds into sometimes gaudy infomercial extravaganzas. Television has even enshrined the act of making a pitch in shows like CNBC’s Shark Tank, where the proposals of budding entrepreneurs function as a kind of entertainment.  We get to see how potential investors react to a “hard-sell” made by a dreamer claiming to have invented the next big thing.

The man “on the make” is an American type, enshrined in such social science classics as Daniel Boorstin’s The Americans (Vintage, 1973) and David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd  (Yale, 1961).  As members of a younger and still unformed society our forbearers knew that social mobility was possible if a person was bold and audacious enough to seek it. This kind of up-by-your-bootstraps optimism marked the dominant style of early MGM films such as Babes in Arms (1939), and has been lovingly caricatured  in the Coen Brother’s Hudsucker Proxy (1994).  The brashness of American hype is a fantasy about ourselves that we still celebrate.

What makes a good pitch for a new product or service?  Circumstances require different approaches, but as a general rule the presenter can usually rely on a few elemental guidelines.

1. Be brief and to the point. Explain the concept quickly. Then move on to the comparative advantages that make the new idea superior to competing products or services.

2. Explain the unmet need that is satisfied with the new product.

3. Put the audience in the picture. How might they or a family member use the service?

4. Sell your experience and know-how as part of the deal. It's true of investors that they want the expertise of the pitch-maker as much as they want the product or service.

No business school today could be without courses that require sales and marketing students to storm their classes with a blizzard of hypothetical opportunities too good to pass up. That is one of many possible reminders of why a cultural milestone like Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949) remains not just a sad family saga, but a quintessential American tragedy.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.eduPerfect Response logo


Is Mentoring Out of Fashion?

Mentor definitionTelevision’s Shark Tank is less like being in the presence of really smart people than being the new kid at a tough junior high.

I’m struck with the apparent popularity of CNBC’s hit reality show, Shark Tank.  The series features four or five investors who listen to proposals from mostly novice entrepreneurs asking for cash investments in exchange for a share of their new businesses. The product may be some odd form of ice cream, or a redesigned coffee mug that won’t leave a mark on a wood table.  In truth, the new ideas that are pitched are less important than the reactions to them from the mostly male “sharks.”  Their responses range from respectful doubt to over-the-top scorn.  And, of course, its the bullies in shows like these that we tend to remember.

What’s troubling about our fascination for the show is that some of the “sharks” pride themselves on a kind testosterone-driven frankness that borders on cruelty. A few of the investors seem to cherish a style of drill-sergeant tactlessness over more supportive mentoring. And that may not be fair to drill-sergeants.  Helping these novices seems less the point than humiliating them.

We can make too much of this as a trend.  After all, heightened conflict is the familiar and mostly toxic formula of reality television. But coming from otherwise unremarkable people who’ve made some money by having money, the argot of growing businesses suggests nothing so much as an adult variation on the kind of school-yard bluster that sometimes came from classmates who were both aggressive and scared. Shark Tank is less like being in the presence of really smart people than being the new kid at a tough junior high.  I hope it doesn’t represent a cultural trend.

This aggressive style applied to students is illustrated well in Damien Chazelle’s superb Whiplash (2014).  Actor J. K. Simmon’s Oscar-winning performance as a faux-perfectionist jazz instructor is a perfect case study of how ruthlessness can turn a mentor into a crippled tyrant.  Mentorship withers if it requires abuse of the learner. As the film suggests, the effects are likely to be more destructive than transformative.

Rhetorically, verbal taunts are often spoken to throw a listener off the scent of a phony.  This is the use of language as “mystification;” It dares the listener to respond as an equal. Instead of help there is condescension.  Instead of questions there are demands. Representative responses to individuals who want to franchise an idea often ring hollow as ostensible signs of true expertise:  We know the language:  “You’re nothing but dead meat to me,” “You’re not as smart as I thought you were.”  “Grow up; you’re playing in the big leagues now.”  One of the sharks in particular favors wearing the persona of a brilliant “money man.” He mistakes crassness for wisdom, and he prefers certainty over a true mentor’s acceptance of degrees of interpretation.  Worst yet, the information-poor responses from these supposed wise men give off an unmistakable impression of some unjustified self-regard. “I have to tell you, my friend, that this is the worst idea I’ve ever heard.  You don’t have a clue about how to set up a business or market a product.”  After an evening of statements like this, it’s a surprise the money man’s suits still fit.

Another show on the same network features to restaurateurs who likewise spout clichés that were stale 50 years ago. “You’re an old dog and I’m here to tell you that you can’t learn new tricks.”  This, after some predictable snafus in trying to build and open a  restaurant in just two days. This can’t really be how we teach business acumen.  What is lacking in all of these shows is the kind of compassion any person should expect when seeking help in reorganizing a small business.

All of this bullying is reminiscent of the stale harangues of men who have sublimated their dreams into a single soul-destroying passion to make money.  Watching these shows is like sitting through David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross far too many times.  On first viewing there is something bracing about seeing a kind of feral Lord of the Flies survivalism transferred to a modern sales office. But there is finally something disheartening about observing supplicants ridiculed rather than mentored.  Perhaps a current trend needs to be reversed.  It might be helpful to see fewer business people who have miscast themselves as teachers.  They could be replaced by qualified teachers who could humanize the process of helping new entrepreneurs.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu