Saturday, April 30, 2016

Shark Bait

I was 10 years old when Dad finally broke down and bought the
family its first TV set.

We wheeled it into the living room, hooked up the rabbit ears,
plugged it in and proceeded to gaze, slack jawed and wide eyed, at
anything and everything that appeared on its 12-inch screen.

That included wrestling and roller derby, Ina Ray Hutton and Her All-Girl Orchestra, live broadcasts of A-bomb tests in Nevada, even test patterns.

It was a miracle.  It also was, in the words of Newton Minnow, the FCC chairman, a “vast wasteland.”

No matter. We watched it all.

Whether or not that wasteland has blossomed into a garden of delights is a matter of conjecture.

I’m probably the wrong guy to ask. Nowadays, my viewing habits pretty much focus on sports, news shows and movies.

I’m not an entertainment snob. But sit-coms make me grimace. Cop dramas are just soap operas accompanied by gunfire. Shows like “The Voice” and “Dancing With the Stars” are like being stuck in eternal audition hell. Reality shows are about as authentic as a $3 bill.

Yet, there is one recurring show that has held my attention. That would be “Shark Tank,” a long-running series in which amateur inventors emerge from their garages and kitchens to pitch their products to a panel of assorted millionaires and billionaires. 

I think what intrigues me most about the show is that there are still lots of people out there, would-be Edisons and Bells and Carvers and Goodyears, who are inventing Stuff.

That’s Stuff as opposed to bureaucracies, subprime mortgages, exchange-traded funds, Twitter accounts and anything with the word “virtual” in its title.

We’re talking manufactured goods, something that has been in decline in the U.S. for years. While the United States has added 520,000 manufacturing jobs since 2010 that figure pales beside the 6 million factory jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics says vanished between 2000 and 2009.

It gives you hope that manufacturing, and the thousands of middle-class jobs that go with it, might make a comeback in this country.

Unfortunately, in too many cases, when Joe Inventor appears before the sharks with his better mousetrap, the first thing they ask him to do is to ship his product to China where it can be manufactured cheaply, thereby increasing the profit margins. 

Most contestants agree. After all, they’re dancing for their dinner.

At the very least, you learn a lot about how these captains of industry think. Contestants are grilled about manufacturing, inventory, distribution, sales forecasts and future products and their answers could determine if they extract some cash from the sharks.

A fair amount of them get offers.  But, according to a story in the New York Post, many of the deals made on the show are never enacted, due to the investors' vetting process following the deal, which includes product testing and the examination of the contestants' personal and business financials.

 In some cases, the entrepreneurs themselves have backed out of the deal after admitting that they only wanted to appear on the show for the publicity.

Those who make the cut can achieve considerable success.

Aaron Krause had invented buffing pads to use in his car-polishing business. To scrub his greasy hands, he used a piece of polyurethane he put inside the pads. It worked like a charm.  Thus, Scrub Daddy, a kind of super sponge, was born. He convinced Shark Lori Greiner to invest $200,000 for a 20 per cent equity stake. His revenue last year was north of $20 million.

Robert Edwards’ mother Judy was constipated. He’d read that raising knees above the hips could ease the problem so he designed a horseshoe-shaped footstool that fit around the front of a toilet. It worked and he dubbed it the Squatty Potty. Greiner also bankrolled this product ($350,000 for 10% equity stake) and sales this year are project to exceed $25 million.

Charles Yim says he was out drinking with colleagues when he was inspired to invent a $50 breathalyzer that plugs into a smartphone. The Sharks bought into the idea for a $1 million investment and 30% equity stake. Shortly after the show aired, two Silicon Valley venture capital firms invested an additional $700,000. Estimated revenue:  $10 million.

Not everyone hits a home run.  One contestant pitched an interactive bird feeder operated by remote control that was designed to keep pesky squirrels away by zapping them with a static shock.  The sharks didn’t feel the buzz.

One guy wanted a candle that could freshen his house but keep it smelling like a man. And so, the Man Candle was born. It comes in scents like pot roast, draft beer, and BBQ not to mention football, golf course, and flatulence.  It didn’t pass the smell test with the sharks.

Another inventor asked for $40,000 to fund his invention, an alarm clock that wakes you with the alluring aroma of cooking bacon. The Sharks decided that not only would it make your bedroom smell like bacon all the time, it was a fire hazard.

“Shark Tank” has joy, sorrow, genius and stupidity.  Sort of like television itself.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector1.

No comments: