In 2009, when ABC premiered Shark Tank—a show featuring five very rich investors hearing pitches from hopeful entrepreneurs—it was interesting but it lacked a certain panache. It lacked a star. Which isn’t surprising, because when’s the last time you heard a Koch brother or a member of the Walton family say something of interest or something with entertainment value? Or say anything at all?
That’s when producer Mark Burnett called on an old friend, perhaps the most entertaining member of the billionaires’ club this side of Richard Branson, for help. Mark Cuban—the “outspoken owner of the Dallas Mavericks,” as the Shark Tank credits like to say—joined in season two and hasn’t left since.
Over 40,000 hopefuls apply for Shark Tank every year and that number is whittled down to mere dozens who get to be on the show, where they either strike a deal or are struck down for how silly their idea might be. The A.V. Club went down to the set of Shark Tank in Culver City, California to speak to Cuban in between pitches and ask him what it was like to be a Shark, how people could best prepare for the show, and if the tension between the rich investors is as real as it seems.
The A.V. Club: How did you get involved with Shark Tank?
Mark Cuban: Mark Burnett just asked me. They gave me a little audition where they asked questions, I came on as a guest Shark, and then I was like, “If you want me full-time, I’ll come,” and they were like, “Yes!” and then that was it.
AVC: What was the most appealing thing for you to come on full-time? You and Kevin O’Leary are the only ones who never rotate out.
MC: I’m committed to this. I just like it because it sends the right message. So many kids watch this with their families and it really sends the message that the American dream is alive and well. That’s what’s special about it.
AVC: Why do you think people connect with Shark Tank and love to watch it?
MC: It’s aspirational. That can be them. I used to drive around looking at the big houses, wondering how they got there. I used to love biographies about successful business people, wondering how they got there. You start to realize that if they can do it, I can do it.
AVC: So what would you say to someone who is young and wants to be a billionaire, even if they have no ideas?
MC: Go to school, learn as much as you can about business, find something you love to do and be great at it. It takes a lot of things to work together in order to be that wealthy but with a little luck, a lot of luck… You’ve got to be good at something. For a 20-year-old, you don’t have to know exactly what you want to do, you’ve just got to go find something you can be great at, and then go be great at it.
AVC: Do you think you could ever see the next Google on Shark Tank?
MC: I hope so. There’s a lot of really cool companies, you never know.
AVC: You make a lot of deals on the show, but do you invest more in products or people?
MC: It depends. Depends on what the product is and it depends on how smart the people are. You know, when the person is a Ph.D. or has some outstanding talent, you invest the person thinking that they’ll figure it out. In a lot of cases it’s cheaper to put money into their company than to hire ’em. To get access to him. If it’s not that type of person, invest in the company.
AVC: What sort of qualities do you look for with the people you invest with?
MC: Smart, work hard, aware, self-aware, not delusional, understand the market, understand what it takes to be successful in the market, understand their competition, and have a desire to continuously improve.
AVC: There’s that old saying that “a woman knows within five minutes if she’s going to sleep with a guy.” Is that what it’s like when someone walks into the Tank? Do you know right away?
MC: It’s not like that at all. There’s some that walk in where I’m like, “There’s no way…” and then they might say something that catches my attention. Because you want a company that’s differentiated, somebody that has some uniqueness to them, and you might not see it initially.
AVC: How many pitches have you bought at Shark Tank?
MC: Coming into this season I had 46 deals closed.
AVC: That sounds like a lot.
MC: It is. It’s more than all the other Sharks combined. You just saw me do, what, $2 million in deals in 10 minutes?
AVC: Do you have many regrets from those 46?
MC: No. Not all of them work the way you want them to, but that’s part of business. Nobody hits 100 percent.
AVC: We see people come in, maybe make a deal, and then walk away. How does the next part of the process work between Shark Tank and Beyond The Tank?
MC: We do due diligence. So we have people talk to them and then we have a due diligence process where we make sure what they say is what is actually going on. When they say, “It cost us ‘X’,” we want to make sure it does cost them “X” amount. That they have accounting, they don’t have legal problems, those types of things.
AVC: What do you think is the most interesting part of this whole process, then?
MC: It’s just helping companies grow. I love helping entrepreneurs. It’s something I really have fun doing. It’s like planting a little seed and watching it grow. Any time I can help somebody… You know, people put their lives, their hopes, and their dreams into these companies, and if I can help somebody get closer, that’s a good thing. It’s fun. If I get to make some money at it, it’s even better.
AVC: How is Beyond The Tank going?
MC: That takes more work than anything else because you’ve got to show up and do stuff. But Beyond The Tank is cool because people get to see what happens.
AVC: There are connotations to being a Shark, so do you think you possess those qualities?
MC: No, I don’t. Kevin [O’Leary] tries to. I’m the exact opposite. I mean, when people have their lives on the line and this is their dream, I try to be very supportive because I’ve been on both sides. I’ve had businesses fail, I’ve sat in front of people trying to raise money, there’s just so many different things that go on. There’s times when I’ll be a “Shark” Shark, because someone’s arrogant or somebody is full of shit, so when someone’s like that I’ll just beat the shit out of them. But if they’re there and they’re authentic and honest and really working at it then I’ll try to be supportive.
AVC: A lot of shows like Shark Tank seem manufactured to heighten drama, but this seems to be completely unscripted and legit.
MC: That’s what makes it work. It wouldn’t work otherwise. We all have different approaches to business and that’s what makes it interesting for us too. If it was canned or scripted it wouldn’t work.
AVC: This environment is interesting because no matter how smart or prepared these people are that come onto Shark Tank, nothing could prepare them for this experience. Pitching their life’s work to five people, on national television, asking them to help them survive another day.
MC: It’s hard. It’s hard. So yeah, they freak out. Wouldn’t you?
AVC: What makes a good pitch?
MC: Know your stuff. Have an angle. Know how to grow business, how to develop products, have patents and an undeveloped market that could be huge.
There’s something different, something unique, whether it’s a T-shirt guy—the cause and effect. So you look where they’re at and say, “How big can they be?” If I think they can be big, then okay, I’m excited. Then I look at the entrepreneur and ask, “Can they do it?” Or if they’re a flier, like they’re super super smart, then I ask myself, “Okay, is it cheaper to buy ’em or to hire ’em?” The other day there were two Ph.D.s and you can take a flier on them because they’re super smart. In the stock market you might buy options: “I’ll spend $250,000.” Well, if you spend $100,000 on two Ph.D.s that have an idea, and they think enough of it to invest their time and their money, then okay. And if I’m convinced that it’s real potential, I’m all in.
AVC: And what’s the biggest mistake people make in the pitch?
MC: They think they’re smarter than five people. They think they’re gonna outsmart us, out-think us. They might out-think one or two of us, you’re not going to out-think all five of us.
AVC: What’s the hardest part about being a Shark?
MC: The hardest part about doing this is coming up with a clever way to say you’re out. It’s the hardest part of the job. I want to add value. People always come up to me and say, “And for that reason, I’m out!” So I try to be supportive, have an idea, or have something clever. I don’t want to say, “You’re product is stupid and you have no chance.”
AVC: You’re also the Shark that has the most active “bullshit meter.”
MC: We haven’t had too many of those recently. I expected more. We had one yesterday but other than that there haven’t been too many this season.
AVC: It seems pretty genuine when the Sharks go after each other.
MC: We’re competitive. How long of a day has it been? Twelve hours? You get annoyed with it. You wanna beat their ass.
They knew I could hold my ground, right? They know me, I know them. And they know if I like it enough, I’ll pay up. Because what’s the difference? If you think it’s gonna be $30 million in sales, you’re gonna argue over $100,000? Or 1 percent or 5 percent?”
AVC: You feel the same adrenaline rush as when you win a basketball game?
MC: Oh fuck no. Basketball is a lot more.