09 February 2015

‘Shark Tank’ Debuts Down-Under

Shark Tank LogoShark Tank is a ‘reality’ TV show in which people with innovative ideas pitch to a panel of wealthy business people – the eponymous ‘sharks’ – in the hope that one or more of them will bite and invest a chunk of their own cash in exchange for a hunk of the business.  It has been a huge success in the United States, where it premiered in August 2009, and screens on Friday evenings.  I know this because when the US Shark Tank is on-air (Saturday morning, local time), my Twitter feed is alive with comments as many of the people I follow on Twitter watch and Tweet in real-time.

The Australian version of the show debuted on Channel 10 at 8pm last night (i.e. Sunday, 8 February 2015).  I have my fingers crossed that it will catch on here, and based on tonight’s opening episode it is certainly in with a chance.  But I would have to say it is no sure thing.  Australians, broadly speaking, are different from Americans.  While Australian people are clever and creative, this country lacks the ingrained entrepreneurial culture that can be found in the US.  This was on display in tonight’s opening episode, in the attitudes and behaviour not only of the Australian would-be investees, but also of the Australian sharks.

The thing is that we have been here before.  The Shark Tank format was not new when it launched in the US in 2009.  It was derived from the UK version, Dragon’s Den, which has been running since 2005, and which continues to spawn international franchises under various names.  The format originated in Japan, in 2001, where it was called ‘マネーの虎 (Manê no Tora)’, or ‘Money Tigers’.  Australia already had our own version of Dragon’s Den on Channel 7 in 2005, which ran for only one season before being cancelled due to poor ratings.

The US Benchmark

I have not had the pleasure of watching any episodes of the US program.  (No doubt it is possible to download it illegally, or to watch it online by circumventing some geoblock, but that would be wrong!)  By all accounts (and the evidence of my Twitter feed) it can get pretty exciting, and pretty heated.  But then, the US sharks are real heavyweights.  The current panel includes Mark Cuban (net worth US$2.7 billion), Barbara Corcoran (net worth US$45 million), Lori Greiner (net worth US$75 million), Robert Herjavec (net worth US$125 million), Daymond John (net worth US$250 million) and Kevin O’Leary (net worth US$300 million)

Last December, in the biggest ever Shark Tank deal, O’Leary invested US$2.5 million in Zipz, a company that makes a wine-by-the-glass product with a protective covering that preserves the shelf life of the wine until the package is opened.

The Australian Line-Up

There is little chance that we will see that kind of deal happening on the Australian version of the show.  With no disrespect to the Aussie sharks, they may well be big fish but they are swimming, by comparison to the US, in a relatively small pond.  Our sharks are: founder of Boost Juice, Janine Allis; co-founder of recruitment business Morgan & Banks, Andrew Banks; internet service pioneer Steve Baxter; real estate specialist John McGrath; and RedBalloon founder, Naomi Simson.  These people are all great achievers, but the reality is that Mark Cuban could buy the lot of them, a number of times over.

My Verdict: Fun, But Will It Have Broad Appeal?

Personally, I had a great time watching the show, and joining in the live conversation on Twitter.  But then, I am a bit of an innovation and start-up nerd, and can easily get caught up in critiquing the rookie mistakes the innovators are making in their pitches.  It is educational, too – some of the hopeful ‘contestants’ were given a hefty dose of reality by the sharks, and that is something that any budding entrepreneur can learn from.

But I fear that viewers who are not fascinated by the details of the dynamic between shark and ‘prey’ may not be sufficiently engaged by the Aussie incarnation of Shark Tank.  Anybody tuning in with the hope of seeing a deal of life-changing magnitude is likely to be sorely disappointed.  In the first episode, innovators with reasonably good ideas struggled to convince anyone on the panel that they were worth even a few tens of thousands of dollars, and even then the sharks were looking to take a big bite out of the business. 

As for the bad ideas, the part of the program I (rather unkindly, I suppose) enjoyed the most was watching the sharks maul the poor deluded man who came in search of A$2.5 million in exchange for a 40% stake in a non-existent US-based business with no value proposition, and no unique or protectable intellectual property position.  Now, I am not sure how large a proportion of the potential Sunday night audience would appreciate just how entertainingly absurd that is, although I do not want to underestimate the Australian viewing public.

The big problem Shark Tank faces, however, is the general risk aversion of Australian ‘investors’ and ‘entrepreneurs’ alike.  The sharks were right to criticise two business partners who were reluctant to make the sacrifice of giving up their day jobs to focus on their business full-time (unless they could secure a large enough investment to draw down a A$150k salary while doing so).  But when faced with the developer of a A$1000 foldable electric skateboard seeking just A$20k to try to break into the US market, the sharks seemed delighted that his plan was to grow the business organically with cash flow.

The same goes for the audience.  In Australia, we just do not have a large enough population of aspiring entrepreneurs to sustain a free-to-air series based on this niche market alone.

To have a chance of capturing the imagination of the broader public, I think Shark Tank is going to need to show us people on both sides of the floor with more vision and ambition, and who are willing to take some bigger risks in the pursuit of greater rewards.  So far it is fun, as far as it goes, but it is not going to have people on the edge of their seats, and it is not going to become ‘appointment television’, unless somebody raises the stakes.

I hope I am wrong.  I hope that Australia is full of people like me who will find Shark Tank entertaining and interesting, and that it can make a contribution to building a stronger culture of innovation and entrepreneurialism in this country.  But my first impression is that there is just not enough blood in the water – or skin in the game – for this show to capture an audience over the longer term.


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