Spotting a Winner on Shark Tank - Barbara Corcoran

I have a framed color photo hanging on my office wall of each entrepreneur I’ve invested in on ABC’s Shark Tank. I hang the photo with pride the day I close on each deal and start thinking about my new partner and how help them build their business. But the moment I realize one of my entrepreneurs is not going to make it, I flip their photo upside down to remind me not to waste another minute’s time on that venture. Half the entrepreneurs on my wall are turned upside down and half right side up. Over the course of Shark Tank I’ve gotten smarter about choosing my new partners, and season five has been my most successful.

The best pitch I heard this season was from Grace & Lace, designers of a trendy line of lacey boot socks and leg warmers. When Melissa and Rick Hinnant burst onto the Shark Tank set, they exuded both the passion and street smarts that I know get all good entrepreneurs to the finish line. When they announced that they had $800,000 in sales in their first year of business, they got the attention of the sharks. But what got my attention was Melissa and Rick’s backstory – a story of extreme resilience in the face of personal failure. The story they told proved they were great entrepreneurs who knew how to take a hit and keep on ticking.

When Grace & Lace aired on Shark Tank they sold more than one million dollars in merchandise within the first week, and three months into my new partnership I received a $137,000 check on my initial $87,000 investment. Grace & Lace will exceed $10 million in sales by year end despite the obstacles their business constantly overcomes. And for me, the checks keep rolling in.

Sometimes on the set of Shark Tank success isn’t so obvious. The absolute worst pitch I heard this season was from Cerebral Success, an all-natural brain supplement company started by a young college kid. On first blush I didn’t like the business name and I wasn’t sure if I liked the product, but as I watched the young entrepreneur Trevor Hiltbrand survive the meanest shark attack of the season, I knew for sure I liked him a lot.

Trevor’s tactical error was dressing up as a college professor with fake spectacles and a blackboard pointer in hand, ready to teach the sharks all about his business. The sharks viewed him as a criminal peddling drugs and went on the attack. But I saw young Trevor for who he was – a kid who knew the prevalence and danger of college kids popping un-prescribed Adderall pills to get them through their exams. And he had a solution. As the attack went on each shark opted out, which left the playing field wide open for me. I was able to buy into Cerebral Success at a cheap price, and even before the episode aired or the deal was closed Cerebral’s sales had quadrupled! Trevor is a natural-born fighter and Cerebral Success is one of the best investments I’ve made on Shark Tank.

Here’s what I’ve learned in my five years on Shark Tank. I’ve learned to choose the right entrepreneur over the right business every time, and that all entrepreneurs are an odd lot but all wired the same way. The good ones have great passion and the ability to get past their failures, and the entrepreneurs who don’t make it lack either the resilience, ambition or street smarts needed to build a business in today’s tough world. My partners Melissa, Rick and Trevor have all the best traits of a great entrepreneur, and that’s what I continue to look for on Shark Tank.

Barbara Corcoran is an entrepreneur, a Shark on ABC's hit TV show, Shark Tank, author of "Shark Tales: How I Turned $1,000 into a Billion Dollar Business," and co-founder of Barbara Corcoran Venture Partners, an angel investing syndicate accessible through AngelList.

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