Saturday, June 27, 2015

Swim with the Sharks

I don’t mind admitting that Shark Tank is flat-out addictive.  Essentially, five “sharks” — billionaires or multimillionaires looking to invest money — listen to pitches from entrepreneurs seeking capital for their businesses.  Sometimes the entrepreneurs’ ideas are so bad that the sharks will ridicule these people to the point of making them cry.  Other times, the business ideas have such profit potential that the sharks will fight each other for an ownership stake in the entrepreneur’s company.  Yes, I love Shark Tank, but probably not for the reason I’m supposed to. 

Shark tank bills itself as proof that “the American dream” is still alive, i.e., anyone can come up with a great idea and get rich.  Some of the relatively successful entrepreneurs include a girl who makes decorative magnets out of bottle caps, a slew of jewelry and clothing designers, two college kids with a coffee-of-the-month club, some guys who made fish bobbers out of shotgun shells, a guy who made a pillow with a “hoodie” attached to it, a woman who made a toilet seat for cats, and a guy who made an “app” that can hide incoming phone numbers so you can cheat on your spouse without getting caught. 

True, this is all very entertaining.  But what I love about the show is it actually proves that, perhaps outside of the field of biotechnology, we really haven’t created anything of real value since the cell phone and the internet.  Sure, there are minor tweaks and improvements on existing products — e.g., I can now get the internet on my cell phone, I can talk to people over my computer, or I can get a pillow with a hoodie sewn on it — but these are all just marginal improvements.  Nothing is really “new.” 

And I also love the show because it proves that people will buy almost anything they see on television, regardless of whether they need it.  My favorite shark — a billionaire who calls himself Mr. Wonderful despite his surliness and mean-spiritedness toward his fellow sharks and the entrepreneur contestants — told one entrepreneur, “This stuff is crap, but you sell a lot of it, and that’s what matters.”  Better yet, he told another entrepreneur that their product was “so ludicrous, so frivolous, so mindless — it has merit.”  (And these are his rare moments of kindness.)

So with all of the good inventions taken, where does this leave “the American dream”?  To answer this question we must, ironically, turn to an Englishman who is not even affiliated with Shark Tank.  Five years ago, British actor Rob Brydon said “It’s 2010, everything’s been done before.  All you can do is do . . . it better or differently.”

On the other hand, the Brits aren’t the ones who brought us toilet seats for cats.   

1 comment:

  1. Posted on behalf of Josh A.:

    If you like Shark Tank, you may also like one of its predecessors, the UK version called “Dragon’s Den.” BBC America used to broadcast it before the US version started. I’m not sure where you’d find it now, but I’m sure it’s out there.

    Your post was interesting, but you didn’t mention the fact that Shark Tank only represents a very small fraction of new products, and then only a curated sampling and only in the US. Truly ground-breaking developments aren't going to slog through a twelve month approval process to pitch to the Shark Tank investors. They don't need to.

    Weren’t the cell phone and internet that you used as examples both "minor tweaks and improvements on existing products", and those again of earlier products, etc? If the metric that we are looking at is "anything of real value” versus technological break-through, then the bar is much lower and I think we could apply the same level of relative value that untethered phones and globally networked computers represented to all manner of implementation on top of them.

    Ironically, Rob Brydon’s point was correct but even it was only a minor tweak on Ecclesiastes 1:9: Nothing new under the sun indeed.

    Interestingly, Shark Tank is just the US version of a show that originated in Japan in 2001 and has versions in most developed countries, including Afghanistan ('_Den). Mark Cuban frequently comments that he loves that it shows that the American Dream is alive and well, but clearly within the larger picture that dream and opportunity is not unique to the USA.

    Bringing the discussion full circle, Mark Cuban’s rise to success is due to putting the radio on the internet, which was epically parodied with a character on this season of Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley:, and

    Josh A.