Review: Shark Tank : Pop Culture Happy Hour On Shark Tank, a group of wealthy investors like Mark Cuban and "Queen of QVC" Lori Greiner listen to pitches from people who have invented something. Might be an app, might be a toy, might be a belt that can hold a beer can. Then the investors decide whether to invest in the business, and they negotiate with the entrepreneur — sometimes competing with each other to get the deal. In this encore episode, we revisit our conversation about the hit ABC show.
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Diving Into 'Shark Tank'

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Diving Into 'Shark Tank'

Diving Into 'Shark Tank'

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LINDA HOLMES, HOST:

Stephen, you know what we didn't get when we started this show? We didn't get investors.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:

That is true. We did not. We could have made it an online startup where we put foosball tables and water cannons in our office.

HOLMES: It might be clear by now, but today we're going to revisit our episode about the ABC hit show - and it is a hit show - "Shark Tank." For those of you who don't know what "Shark Tank" is, you get a group of wealthy investors who listen to pitches from people who have invented something.

THOMPSON: It might be an app. It might be a toy. It might be a belt that can hold a beer can. Then the investors decide whether to invest in the business, and they negotiate with the entrepreneur, sometimes competing with each other to get the deal. I'm Stephen Thompson.

HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. And today on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR, we're bringing you an encore of our episode about "Shark Tank," so don't go away.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HOLMES: You know Glen Weldon, who writes for npr.org. Hi, Glen.

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Hey, Linda.

HOLMES: And with us this week, fresh blood for "Shark Tank."

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: (Laughter).

HOLMES: The fresh blood that we have with us - we have a brand-new fourth chair, but not a new voice to those of you who listen to, among other things, the NPR Politics Podcast. We are welcoming NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Hi.

KEITH: Hello.

HOLMES: So I have heard that you are a "Shark Tank" person. I have been hearing this for a while...

KEITH: This is true.

HOLMES: ...That you watch "Shark Tank."

KEITH: I'm not a consumer of a lot of popular culture, but I am a big consumer, for reasons I don't fully understand, of "Shark Tank."

HOLMES: I'm not sure anyone understands why they watch "Shark Tank."

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: I love "Shark Tank," but I'm not sure I could explain what it is I like about it. Can you think of anything that you like about it that's easy to put your finger on?

KEITH: Yes. I think that it is relatively uplifting. It is low on sort of personal drama.

HOLMES: Right.

KEITH: It does require you to think. You might even have to do a tiny bit of math while watching the show.

HOLMES: It's true.

THOMPSON: Yeah.

KEITH: 'Cause they'll say, you know, I'm offering you 10% of my company for $200,000, and then you kind of have to be in your head like, OK, so they're saying the company is worth somewhere around $2 million - oh, OK. And they do royalty deals with percentages.

THOMPSON: Loans.

HOLMES: It is a TV show that has more math than most.

KEITH: Yeah. And it's not that I'm good at math. I mean, I'm a political reporter, not a science reporter.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Right. Right.

KEITH: But I enjoy, like, sort of thinking through the deals. What would I do in this case? You know, I like shouting at the television and saying, why did you go with that deal? That's the worse deal. Why would you do that?

HOLMES: Right, absolutely. 'Cause sometimes the one shark - so the sharks include some people who are sort of already well-known, right? Mark Cuban is on this show most of the time. Daymond John, who created FUBU, the clothing line, is often on. There are a couple of other people who are not quite as well-known but are - you know, became well-known through this show.

THOMPSON: Including, like, Lori Greiner, who is known as the queen of QVC.

HOLMES: Right. So she has kind of her own specialty in QVC, and she's always looking for the product that's going to sell well on QVC. One of the great hits of "Shark Tank" - and you'll see this if you ever go to, like, Bed Bath & Beyond. And I think you will also see them at...

THOMPSON: Oh, they do a lot of them.

HOLMES: But also, like, at Target you'll see them. She did this deal with this guy who - these people who made little scrubby pads, but they have a happy face. And it's something like it's a firm scrubby pad if it's in hot water, and it's a soft scrubby pad if it's in cold water or the other way around. And they're - like, you see them in every Target now. And I always think, boy, Lori Greiner does some weird stuff, but, boy, she made that Mr. Scrubby happy pad work. I don't remember what it's called exactly.

She makes a lot of deals for those little houseware things, whereas some of the other ones - Mark Cuban and some of the other ones like to make more glamorous - like, they seem more excited about, like, glamorous projects, like Mark Cuban loves tech.

KEITH: Yes, because, as he will tell you, he made his money in tech.

HOLMES: Yeah.

KEITH: That's the other thing is, like, they are constantly, like, reasserting why they are famous incredible business people.

HOLMES: Exactly, exactly. And Barbara Corcoran, who's one of the two women, in addition to Lori Greiner, who is the most commonly on, was a real estate person. So she talks a lot about real estate, although she also now talks a lot about the leggings company that she made famous.

Glen, I am so curious...

THOMPSON: Yeah. I am, too. I am, too.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: I'm so curious what you took away from us making you watch "Shark Tank."

WELDON: Yeah, I had never seen the show because I suspected it wasn't for me 'cause I don't have an entrepreneurial mindset or spirit. I've never had an original idea in my life. I'm a critic. That's all I can do.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Don't be that (ph)...

WELDON: And if you want to make my eyes glaze over, if you want to dispel me like I'm a demon, if you want to dispatch me to my home dimension, you just have to say words like valuation, growth, distribution and scalable. Or you have to say, as they said at one point in one introduction, innovation in the camping space. Like, nope.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: So I suspected I'd be indifferent. That's OK - right? - 'cause this show is a diversion. This is a show to fold laundry to.

HOLMES: Yeah.

THOMPSON: Yeah.

WELDON: And there have to be many shows like that.

HOLMES: That's true.

WELDON: I also thought since I'm such a process nerd - I like to figure out how things work, what the logistics of everything is - maybe that would hit those receptors in my brain. So I was prepared to be kind of indifferent. I was not prepared to hate it as much as I did.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

WELDON: This show - and I'm taking this far too seriously. I get that. But this show is built on the proposition that selling somebody crap they don't need is somehow noble or romantic or brave.

HOLMES: Or I'll tell you what they do treat it as, and that is American.

THOMPSON: Yeah.

WELDON: Exactly, exactly. This is late-stage capitalism, the show.

HOLMES: Yeah.

WELDON: And that's fine. But just these fawning profiles of members of the investor class, like, which I gather is new this year, right? Like, all that stuff about...

HOLMES: New in the last year or two...

WELDON: Right.

THOMPSON: (Unintelligible).

HOLMES: ...That they do, like, ta-da, famous person who invests money.

WELDON: Yeah.

HOLMES: And that's how they became more famous and rich.

WELDON: Yeah. And so this shares some of the conceptual DNA of "The Apprentice," which is why I had the same kind of...

HOLMES: Sure. It does

WELDON: ...Hate relationship with "The Apprentice." These stilted pitches that the show is built on...

HOLMES: Yeah.

WELDON: ...They just - they do not entertain me.

HOLMES: Yeah.

WELDON: They're just cringeworthy. And we'll talk about the sharks. I guess we have to call them the sharks. You know that rubs me the wrong way because - if this show was called "Dragons' Den," like it is in the U.K., I think I'd like it more 'cause dragons are cooler than sharks.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: That's just science.

HOLMES: All right.

WELDON: They all evince to a man, to a woman this kind of suit bro sensibility I just find repellent. And if you are pitching a show to me and you say, well, it gets really exciting when they start haggling over percentages...

HOLMES: Yeah.

WELDON: ...I'll tell you I am checked out.

HOLMES: True.

WELDON: I have lots of questions about this show.

HOLMES: Right.

THOMPSON: Right.

WELDON: I have a lot of questions about why - the very question you asked earlier, why do people like this?

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: But I've talked enough. So let's hear from folks.

HOLMES: Tell me what you're thinking, Tam.

KEITH: It is different than "The Apprentice" in a lot of ways, in that the climax of "The Apprentice" is someone failing.

HOLMES: Right.

KEITH: And, you know, every show, it's about firing somebody, and there's a certain negativity to that, whereas this is intended to uplift. Like, for the most part, the goal is for people to get deals and to, like, have their crazy little dream to make a wibble-wobble cup or whatever it is - to have that realized.

THOMPSON: This show has Mark Burnett all over it. Mark Burnett is the producer who brought us "The Apprentice" and brought us my least favorite television show maybe ever, "Undercover Boss."

WELDON: "Undercover Boss."

KEITH: Oh, yeah.

HOLMES: But also "Survivor."

THOMPSON: But also "Survivor," which I love. But looking at his business shows, you have "The Apprentice," which, as you said, Tam, has a negativity to it, but also a capriciousness to the outcome that ruined a lot of episodes of that show. "Undercover Boss" has this deification of executives, often at the expense of working people in a way that I find really objectionable. This kind of gets around that by making it a little bit more of a puzzle. I walked into this show with that skepticism about Mark Burnett on business.

HOLMES: Right, right.

THOMPSON: And by, like, 20 minutes in, I was, like, yelling at the TV, like, oh, that valuation is just way too high.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: You know? Or...

HOLMES: Which you have no idea whether that's true or not.

KEITH: Right.

THOMPSON: Or like, how will that scale?

KEITH: Yeah.

THOMPSON: It took me probably two episodes to get to, how will that scale?

HOLMES: How will that scale?

KEITH: Is there anything proprietary about it?

THOMPSON: Yeah. Those margins are terrible.

KEITH: Yeah.

THOMPSON: I think to answer the question of why people like it, I found myself really enjoying the act of predicting where the problems and complications will arise with these pitches 'cause very few people are coming in there with a perfect pitch. Very few people are coming in there with, like, a product everybody wants where they've made the right valuation and the right math and where everything adds up and everybody's just clamoring. There's usually some problem that has to be identified and possibly either solved or not solved. And I think that is fun and interesting.

And every once in a while, you'll get people called on their crap in ways that I find really fun. There's a guy I think early in Season 8, this very voluble pitch master guy - (imitating babbling). And Mark Cuban, who I am very ambivalent about Mark Cuban.

KEITH: Yeah. Me, too.

THOMPSON: But Mark Cuban calls him (ph) and says, I don't think I can do business with anyone who says, (grunting).

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Yeah. And another...

THOMPSON: And I loved that.

HOLMES: Yeah. Another thing about Cuban is Cuban is very specifically offended by pitches that he thinks are like snake oil...

THOMPSON: Yeah.

KEITH: Oh, yeah

HOLMES: ...That he thinks are like health claims. He - there was somebody who had one of these - like, you put this bracelet on, and it aligns your inner energy forces or whatever. And basically, Mark Cuban was like, you're a scam artist and the equivalent of, like, a person who is like a snake oil salesman, and I would never do business with you 'cause I'm offended by the entire existence of what you're trying to make.

WELDON: Good for him.

HOLMES: And that does happen sometimes. And it surprised me the first time or two that it happened. But now I kind of know it's his thing.

WELDON: But here's my question in re the sharks. As you get to know them - I don't know these people.

HOLMES: Yeah.

WELDON: They're all interchangeable to me right now. As you get to know them over the course of multiple seasons, do they become less odious...

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: ...And less bloated on their own self-regard? I saw...

THOMPSON: No.

KEITH: No.

WELDON: I saw an episode where - I think it was Cuban. It was one of them who was, how dare you come in here? Even though you're - already made money, you don't need us. You don't need our expertise.

HOLMES: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah.

WELDON: Where does that come from?

HOLMES: It comes from having a lot of money...

THOMPSON: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...And also being on television, and the power of those two things to make you feel like people shouldn't bother you with their normal lives, I feel like.

WELDON: Yeah.

HOLMES: But I do think the sharks, in a very subtle way, over time - and I - in no way am I defending this as some kind of great show. I'm engaging it on the level that you're asking about it, right?

WELDON: Sure.

HOLMES: I do think that they reveal themselves over time to have different strengths and weaknesses, right?

THOMPSON: Yeah.

HOLMES: There was an episode recently where a woman came in with a thing that was basically a stuffed animal attached to a hairbrush.

WELDON: I saw it.

HOLMES: And she said, my daughters complain all the time about me brushing their hair. I basically put together a little stuffed animal with a hairbrush, and now they much more welcome having their hair brushed - right? - because it's a cute, little animal. That is the kind of thing where I may think it's dumb, but you can find stuff like that in stores all over the place. And if that exact thing doesn't already exist, that's a good idea, right? And only Lori of QVC valued that idea at all because she thinks like a person who watches QVC, whereas Mark Cuban tries to think like a tech investor. And, like, sometimes they've had as a guest Chris Sacca, who will come in and start talking about how he was an early investor in Uber and all this other stuff. And he...

KEITH: Like, every five seconds, he says...

THOMPSON: Right.

HOLMES: He's got to remind you.

KEITH: ...Back when I was investing in Uber early on.

HOLMES: Exactly. Whereas Lori does have this - she's slightly more interested in kind of mass-produced consumer - on the one hand, you could say junk, and on the other hand, you could say things people wish to buy. You'll see her pop up sometimes in TV commercials for things. There's one with, like, a fitness board that you twist on.

THOMPSON: Yeah. Seen that one, yeah.

HOLMES: And you can see her on there because she went for the plastic twisty board.

THOMPSON: Yup.

HOLMES: And there is a difference between the ones who are going for the thing that's like, this is a super exciting product, and Lori, who's like, I'm going to sell this on QVC, I'm going to put those in Walmart and I'm going to sell an absolute squillion of them. And I would not be surprised if on a, like, how many people actually buy the thing, if she's, like, the massively...

THOMPSON: Blowing people away.

HOLMES: ...Most successful one - not necessarily in terms of volume of money, but number of purchasers of the things.

THOMPSON: I do like the way you can kind of predict the motivations of each person with each product. And I enjoy kind of doing the equations in my head of, like, Mark Cuban's going to go for that because Mark Cuban is a billionaire who wants to be loved.

HOLMES: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: And this product feels noble. Or, like you said about Lori, like, she will be able to sell that on QVC, or Daymond John will be interested because it has something to do with fishing. Robert Herjavec is kind of, I think, the most game for weird, silly, like, let's throw $50,000 at that and see what happens.

HOLMES: He's the one who invested in Tipsy Elves, the ugly sweater - the ugly Christmas sweater company that apparently has made, like, a gazillion dollars.

KEITH: And yet he loses out on a lot of deals.

THOMPSON: Right.

KEITH: Like, he's like people's backup shark.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: The phone call they make at 2 a.m.

KEITH: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: Here's my other question. I think we've already touched on it. But, I mean, if you had kids, I can see watching this show with kids because there is information that gets passed along about a topic I find very boring but I think maybe American kids would find interesting, right?

HOLMES: And...

KEITH: What?

HOLMES: I'm going to say...

WELDON: It's, like, educational about business.

KEITH: Capitalism?

WELDON: Yeah.

HOLMES: I'm going to say maybe not just for kids, but maybe also for me. I knew very, very little about this kind of deal-making when I started watching "Shark Tank." I still know very little, right? But I feel like maybe I've been to the first week of undergrad Business 101 - right? - because I did learn just the simple - like, the way you get an investor is they take a certain amount of equity in return for X amount of money, and that's based on what you think the value of your whole company is, the way that you'll have, like, a round of investors who invest when you value your company at X, and then when you come in later, if you say, well, now the value of my company is much greater, they're paying the same money for a smaller amount of the company.

WELDON: (Imitating snoring).

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: Sorry.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Well, my point is, like, those are things that to me, like, it's a new thing to know, presented via people coming in and being like, all right, so - and I have to credit Andy Dehnart of reality blurred for this observation, but a lot of people who come in who are like, basically it's a towel with a hole in it.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: It's a poncho, or it's a thing for when you cut hair or whatever (laughter). And that's how I've learned all those things that make Glen snore.

KEITH: My husband is an entrepreneur, and so we watch it in part, like, thinking about, well, what's the next step for your business? And would you someday want to get an investor? Or, like, you - he sometimes has these meetings with people, and it becomes like sport around real life, except more fun.

HOLMES: Yeah.

KEITH: And my husband does not invent towels with holes in them.

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: Or - he does, like, apps and testing and training online, like totally not "Shark Tank"-worthy kind of stuff. Part of me wishes there were fewer, like, hey, I've got this goofy gadget, and more, like, interesting business concepts.

THOMPSON: Right.

KEITH: But the, hey, I've got a goofy gadget does really well on the show...

HOLMES: Yeah.

KEITH: ...Because then, the second somebody goes on that show, people immediately rush to their website and buy it.

WELDON: Right.

HOLMES: Yeah.

KEITH: My understanding is that "Shark Tank" actually takes a cut...

THOMPSON: They used to.

KEITH: ...Just for - oh, they used to - just for appearing, though, because there is a "Shark Tank" bump.

HOLMES: Yeah.

THOMPSON: Yeah.

HOLMES: And the funny thing is I'm the opposite. I want the goofy gadgets because, to me, it's only when it's a real business idea that I find it boring. Like...

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: That would be the opposite of me.

HOLMES: Well, so the thing that was so funny is I remember I watched the show for a really long time. And you can kind of see them be like - they throw around a certain amount of money and blah, blah, blah. And you can always see when, all of a sudden, they become extremely serious. And it's not always around fun products. Like, there was an episode one time where a guy who was a firefighter came in, and he had developed a different way of attaching hoses - fire hoses - that was supposed to be faster than the way that they screwed - unscrewed the cap and then screwed the thing back on. And it would save, like, X amount of time, and it just went snap. And the idea was you could sell them to all the fire departments who needed them to attach it to a fire hydrant.

And he was like, oh, yeah, this is my thing. And they were psyched about it 'cause if it's good, then you get to sell it to all the fire companies if they decide that it's something you need for safety. But then, all of a sudden, they were like, yeah, but the thing of fire departments is not, like, that big of a market. And they said, well, would it be possible to extend it to garden hoses? And he was like, oh, yeah, I have that one in my pocket. And he pulls it out, and it's a little prototype for one that would work on garden hoses, meaning for your garden hose, you wouldn't have to screw it on to the thing and then unscrew the thing. It just goes snap, and it attaches to the hose.

WELDON: So you can save time to make sure you can water the raspberries. Why is that a thing?

HOLMES: Do you know how lazy people are?

WELDON: OK.

HOLMES: Have you ever seen an individually wrapped hot dog?

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: People don't even want to unwrap a hot dog and put the rest in a baggie. They want an individually wrapped hot dog. They sell cereal in individual containers with milk.

WELDON: Sure.

HOLMES: And it's because people are - if you think people aren't too lazy to buy a thing that would make attaching your garden hose into a one-snap thing, you underestimate what is truly American about "Shark Tank."

WELDON: There you go.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: And that is it addresses the laziness of the populace.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Anyway, they became very serious about that, even though it wasn't that whimsical.

THOMPSON: Speaking of whimsical, one thing that I have come to appreciate about the show - one of my fears with this show was that it was going to be a parade of stupid, humiliating pitches from wacky idiots.

HOLMES: Oh, yeah.

KEITH: Yeah.

THOMPSON: That it was going to be - that there was going to be this kind of "American Idol" style. And every once in a while...

WELDON: There's an element of that.

HOLMES: It happens occasionally.

KEITH: But it's rare.

THOMPSON: But it's not necessarily, like, a completely idiotic thing. There's usually some...

HOLMES: Sometimes it is, but yeah.

THOMPSON: There were these two guys who came in dressed in potato costumes whose business was, like, they would mail somebody a potato...

HOLMES: Yeah.

THOMPSON: ...With a message scrawled on it, and one of them bought it.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Well, that's because Robert bought the funny ugly sweater company, and it did very, very well for him.

I do want to ask, Tam, I heard that you had some thoughts about kind of gender dynamics with this show, and I was curious about what those were.

KEITH: It's a couple of things. One, it does feel like if there's a rotating visiting character, usually it's a dude who replaces one of the two women.

HOLMES: Yeah.

KEITH: And for a while there, there was only one woman at a time.

HOLMES: Right.

KEITH: And often they - you know, there was a recent episode. I don't even remember what - oh, it was they were trying to sell rings. And so they - it's complicated. But anyway, they brought in these very muscular men.

HOLMES: Oh, yes.

WELDON: I saw that one.

KEITH: And they'd be like, Barbara...

THOMPSON: Yeah.

KEITH: ...We've got some muscular men for you. And it's just like, ew. Can't they...

WELDON: (Laughter).

KEITH: Can't the women on this show just be fellow sharks and not get completely stepped on by the dudes, like not get into these weird yelling fights with Mr. Wonderful? Can we just let the women be equals?

HOLMES: Yeah, I agree. And I think it is true, especially with Lori, that because she does QVC, there is some interesting gender dynamics around the fact that, like, she's the one who does QVC and retail at, like, places like Bed Bath & Beyond. She is thinking about women. She's thinking about selling to women most of the time, and not necessarily wealthy women. She's thinking about selling to women who do a lot of the purchasing in the United States. So I think sometimes when guys like Cuban and Chris Sacca - they like to cultivate an idea that their investment stuff is more sexy.

THOMPSON: Yeah.

HOLMES: And I think she's much more like, I'm going to put this in an endcap at Bed Bath & Beyond and make more money than you, you know, even though your thing might be cooler.

KEITH: Did she do the Squatty Potty?

HOLMES: I can't remember who did the Squatty Potty.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: But, yes, the Squatty Potty was on "Shark Tank." And again, people laughed. But a lot of people have a Squatty Potty now.

WELDON: Yup. And you know...

KEITH: Have you ever been in a house in, like, the guest bathroom and been like, oh, Squatty Potty?

HOLMES: I have not.

KEITH: Me neither.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: But I know of people who have.

WELDON: RuPaul herself was talking them on "Drag Race."

HOLMES: Really?

KEITH: Really?

HOLMES: Nice. Well, "Shark Tank," you know, does go out into the world and intersect with your life in unexpected ways.

THOMPSON: More than most reality shows do, including ones that try to intersect with actual life.

HOLMES: Yeah. I know. It's true.

Well, we want to know what you think about "Shark Tank." Come and find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter - @pchh. Thanks for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We are always happy that you invest in us, and we will see you all right back here tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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