Lowcountry entrepreneurs learn from an ABC reality competition 

Shark Bait

Leslie Haywood came up with the idea for Grill Charms after a dinner party.

Jonathan Boncek

Leslie Haywood came up with the idea for Grill Charms after a dinner party.

Jonah Jeter's DVR is permanently set to record Shark Tank. The PR man and co-owner of the Beckett Agency never wants to miss an episode. In fact, Jeter has been watching the ABC reality competition since it premiered in August 2009, and he's just one of the millions of budding businessmen and -women who frequently opt to spend 9 p.m. on a Friday at home, on their couch. Recently, when Jeter was in Las Vegas, an episode came on his hotel TV. Even though he'd already seen that particular show, he didn't leave until it was over.

"I live tweet during the episodes if I catch them live, so I can talk with other people watching Shark Tank, and connect with other business owners," Jeter says.

And he's not alone. On a Friday night in November, the show's ratings were No. 1 in the precious 18-49 demographic, besides drawing in almost 7 million viewers. And it's a critical success too, garnering its first Emmy nomination this year.

On any given Shark Tank episode, an entrepreneur pitches their product to a group of veterans looking to invest in a good idea. The current season features a grab-bag of business whizzes: Kevin O'Leary (SoftKey, The Learning Company), real estate maven Barbara Corcoran, Daymond John (FUBU), Robert Herjavec (BRAK Systems), Dallas Mavericks owner and dot-commer Mark Cuban, and inventor and QVC star Lori Greiner. Past Sharks include comedian Jeff Foxworthy and Kevin Harrington, the former CEO and president of HSN Direct International Inc.

The businesses featured on Shark Tank may be new or already successful ventures valued at millions. The contestant gives a pitch and tells the Sharks how much money they're hoping to get and what they're willing to offer the investor in return, usually a stake in their infant company. If the idea is good enough, the Sharks will haggle, and a contestant will find themselves in a bidding war between billionaires. Or else the budding entrepreneur gets put in their place if their idea isn't strong enough just yet.

If you watch the show, you know there's nothing scarier than a skeptical Kevin O'Leary. Mr. Wonderful is the bluntest of the bunch.

 Charleston is home to one of the earliest Shark Tank contestants, entrepreneur Leslie Haywood. The Grill Charms creator and owner of Charmed Life Products LLC didn't even have to apply for her first season slot. Out of the blue, she received an e-mail from one of the show's producers, who learned about Haywood and her business from a 2008 "One Minute to Millions" segment on CNBC's Big Idea with Donny Deutsch. "I feel fortunate that I was one of the guinea pigs, because I wasn't competing against tens of thousands of other businesses just to get a chance to go in front of the Sharks," she says.

Grill Charms are little metal tabs decorated with icons that you push into a piece of meat prior to grilling to let you know which rib-eye is which. Haywood sells a steak collection (with "M" for medium, etc.) and a spicy collection (which uses peppers to signify heat), and even a charmed life collection that features icons like crowns and sailboats.

A stay-at-home mom with almost a decade of experience in Charleston's shipping industry, Haywood came up with the idea at a 2006 dinner party after her husband accidentally served her a spicy piece of chicken when she had requested mild. To prevent something like that from happening again — both to herself and to others — she started sketching out what would become Grill Charms. "I know that as supportive as my friends and family appeared to be to me, I'm sure they were like, 'Yes dear. That's nice. You go invent that product,'" she says with a laugh.

But before the business could really get going, Haywood had to overcome breast cancer. After that, she made her Big Idea appearance and received the fortuitous e-mail. At first, she didn't take the message very seriously. "When you have a business ... you get crazy phone calls and crazy e-mails all the time," she explains. But when she learned that Mark Burnett, the godfather of American reality television, was behind the show, she was in.

The producer told Haywood to go on YouTube and check out Dragon's Den, the UK version of Shark Tank (which itself is based on a Japanese program). Haywood found the footage to be a bit intimidating — venture capitalists can be brutal when they tear apart a poorly thought-out plan — but Haywood figured there was no such thing as bad publicity.

But before she could even make it onto the set, Haywood's father passed away and she had to return home immediately. Fortunately, the producers were supportive and contacted her again a few weeks later for another shot. "As I walked through the doors, I guess it took a little bit of the pressure off as far as being nervous in front of them, because all I was thinking about as those doors open was I've got to make my father proud," she says. And it was also about proving to herself that her business was worthy of the support. "I literally thought I was going to puke all over that nice oriental rug," she adds. "But once you get out there, like any other entrepreneur that lives and breathes their company and their business, the pitch comes naturally because it's what you know." When four of the five Sharks started making satisfying offers, the pressure disappeared, and she started to feel the sweet sense of validation. Then it was up to her to make good use of the opportunity.

"I think it's important for businesses to realize that one great media hit in and of itself is not going to change your business to the point where you're on easy street and you never have to worry about working again," Haywood says. "What the media does is it lends your business the credibility to go out and get sales." Haywood has been able to parlay her airtime into a deal with a major kitchen product manufacturer, Fox Run Brands.

 Haywood is still a huge fan of Shark Tank. If she isn't watching the program live on a Friday night, she makes sure to DVR it like Jonah Jeter, and sometimes she trades tweets with the sharks (hashtag: #sharktank).

David Desplaces is another regular viewer. As the director of the College of Charleston's Center for Entrepreneurship and an assistant professor in the School of Business, he encourages both his students and business professionals to watch it. Not only does Desplaces find the show to be entertaining and educational, but he believes it proves to entrepreneurs that opportunities are out there, as long as they work for them.

"I think it does give people that understanding that money doesn't come easy. It teaches them that it needs to be valued," Desplaces explains. "If you're not prepared, if you don't know about your numbers and your potential and with whom you're getting yourself into, then maybe you have no reason to play." An entrepreneur may know the ins and outs of their business and what their needs are, but sometimes they may underestimate their projected sales or overestimate their projected profits. The Sharks are ready and willing to call a contestant out on those errors, even if they eventually agree to back them with tens of thousands of dollars.

More importantly, Desplaces points out that the Sharks can provide contestants with their expertise as well as their industry connections. "They bring in the mentorship, the network, something that those small entrepreneurs basically don't have," Desplaces says. But the partnership comes at a cost. As Haywood learned when she went on the show, the Sharks want to own a big chunk of a contestant's business. Haywood turned down a proposal from informercial wiz Kevin Harrington, her ideal investor, because he wanted a 50 percent share in Grill Charms. Instead, she went with Robert Herjavec, who only wanted a 25 percent stake in her company, because she prefers to run her own show.

Desplaces disagrees with that approach. He predicts that most of the contestants miscalculate how much of a business successful entrepreneurs actually own — even Mark Zuckerberg's current stake in Facebook is well under a controlling percentage. If an entrepreneur wants to take their business to the next level, then they have to give up some control.

Desplaces also thinks that entrepreneurs can learn from the contestant mistakes, especially the more arrogant ones. The Sharks may have a pompous attitude, but they are wildly successful moguls who have earned their money and their egos. The contestants, on the other hand, shouldn't come to the show with the same perspective. "That's a natural, normal characteristic of entrepreneurs," Desplaces explains, "but the very reality is that at one point, you're going to have to move from being the artisan to moving eventually to being the professional, and not every entrepreneur can necessarily have both halves."

 Inevitably, Shark Tank is not without its faults. After all, it's a television show, and the suspenseful music and bickering drama are part of what makes it so entertaining. According to Haywood, even if a potential contestant has a great idea, if they can't offer producers some sort of entertainment value, they might not get much further than the application. "The first thing you've got to do is get past the producers whose job is not to find the next business that is going to make money, it's to find the next person that will make the show get the best ratings," Haywood says.

Desplaces also wishes the show included more follow-ups about the success (or lack thereof) of the entrepreneurs. "I would love to see how many of those deals have been wrong, the wrong people, the wrong combination, the wrong projection," he says.

Haywood's business increased by 5,000 percent after her Shark Tank episode, but hers is one of the success stories. Not everyone can get a bite.


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