Secrets of Shark Tank: Stanford students share their stories on the show

Jan. 10, 2023, 10:05 p.m.

Even if you’ve never watched an episode of the wildly popular TV show Shark Tank, you’ve probably heard of it and know what the show is about. For the unfamiliar, Shark Tank is a reality TV show where contestants pitch their products and businesses to a panel of investors in the hopes of securing a deal. With almost 40,000 applicants per season, the likelihood of making it to the final rounds and actually pitching to the Sharks is slim. And yet, a fair number of Stanford students and alums have made good on their dreams of appearing on the show.

Among them, Bryan Perla ‘22, Yunha Kim and Sophia Edelstein ‘17 not only made the cut to pitch to the Sharks but have also had pitch sessions worthy of being aired on TV, as not all final pitches end up being aired. The Daily sat down with these three intrepid entrepreneurs to hear about their experiences on the show.

Bryan Perla ’22, a product design major and a two-time NCAA team champion, is the Founder and CEO of Little ELF Products Inc. He pitched the Little ELF wrapping paper cutter on the 11th season of Shark Tank. “It was never a given that it was going to get on, but I thought that it had a good chance, given that I was a young student at Stanford,” Perla said. “Luckily, I was accepted on the first round because they were putting together a Christmas special.”

Yunha Kim, a serial entrepreneur and the Founder and CEO of Simple Habit and Sleep Reset, was invited to appear on the ninth season of Shark Tank while in her first year at Stanford GSB. She showcased her meditation app — Simple Habit. “The producer at Shark Tank saw me on Forbes 30 Under 30, and they reached out to me saying, ‘hey, do you want to be on Shark Tank?’” Kim recalled.

Sophia Edelstein ’17, a Human Biology major, is the Co-Founder and Co-CEO at Pair Eyewear. With her co-founder Nathan Kondamuri ‘17 (also a Stanford Alum), the duo pitched their Pair Eyewear brand of glasses and accessories on the show’s 11th season. Although Edelstein was accepted to medical school in the summer between her Sophomore and Junior years, her exposure to product design changed the trajectory of her career. “I started discovering my interest in product design and entrepreneurship towards the latter half of my Stanford years. I took the product design core, and I think I was the only non-PD student. I just kept showing up until they wouldn’t kick me out,” Edelstein said with a smile.

As viewers, we watch the participants walk out confidently, go through their rehearsed and scripted preambles, pitch their products or businesses and assume that the events before and after their segments were as short as the pitches themselves. However, that’s not true — there is a lot more that we don’t see. The segments are heavily edited down to the 10 to 15 minutes of airtime. In reality, the pitches last anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours.

Perla’s segment was about 15 minutes long, but he remembers pitching for about an hour. “There are a lot of different questions coming at you at once. It’s not just having a conversation with one person; it’s having conversations with five of the sharks. You have to be able to remember three questions at once and then be able to address them all,” Perla revealed.  “I remember there’s one point where Mark [Cuban]’s question was ignored for five minutes or so. And he was kind of getting anxious that I was focusing on Lori and on Kevin. I had to back away from that conversation and say, ‘Hey Mark, I understand that you asked this question; I want to address it’.”

Kim had a similar experience with the way the question-and-answer segment went. “You have to pick and choose which question you want to answer,” Kim remembered. The show’s producers didn’t want her to merely present facts but to tell a compelling story. And she had to readjust her pitch, hoping that her appearance would be aired. In what ultimately became a viral moment, Kim was accused by Mark Cuban of appearing on the show to gain attention for her business with no intention of striking a deal. “Basically, Mark Cuban called me a gold digger. And Richard Branson poured water on Mark’s face. So, it was a very high drama scene,” Kim said with good spirit and a smile.

While Edelstein’s pitch concluded sans drama, the leadup to the segment was nerve-wracking nonetheless. She revealed the extensive preparation her team did for the show: “We actually watched every episode ever of Shark Tank and created a database of every question that had been asked, and then we used that to prepare. I remember we had brought on two little children with us as well, who were part of our pitch. And I remember turning to one of them. And these were trained actors. And I was like, ‘Are you nervous’? And she was like, ‘No, not at all.’ And I had to pretend like I wasn’t nervous [either].” But ultimately, their pitch went well, and they signed a deal with Lori Greiner and Stitchfix’s CEO Katrina Lake.

Shark Tank contestants sign Non-Disclosure Agreements that prevent them from discussing certain details of their Shark Tank experiences. They cannot discuss the specifics of their deals, for example, beyond what we see on TV. And the shroud of secrecy was lowered even before their appearance on the show was aired. “I had to keep it a secret from all my teammates and all my class friends at Stanford,” Perla said. “It was hard to keep that kind of a secret, especially knowing that I had gotten a deal and it was a successful airing.”

What we see on the show isn’t necessarily the real experience of the contestants. In Kim’s case, an edit switched around the order of events, making it look like she had succumbed to the pressure of being questioned by the judges. “I remember crying on TV because my grandma was diagnosed with cancer that week. I was talking about how my product helps people who are going through depression and cancer. I started crying because I got really emotional. But [the moment] was edited as if I was crying because I got so sad that they called me a gold digger,” Kim recalled. “So, if I were to do it again, I would probably try not to cry on TV.”

As for Mark Cuban’s remark, the attention it brought to Simple Habit worked out for the best as it brought in many views for Kim’s episode. “It would have been more fun if I had a better comeback at Mark Cuban when he called me a gold digger,” Kim said, laughing.

Overall, all three Stanford contestants felt that they had benefited from their experiences on Shark Tank. The Shark Tank effect, which typically brings in many eyeballs and dollars to featured companies, did not wane for these three contestants in the coming months and years. While Perla and Edelstein had struck deals on the show, Kim had walked away, ultimately deciding that her company would not benefit from a partnership at the terms offered.

When asked how much their experiences at Stanford shaped their thinking and entrepreneurial spirits, these CEOs fully credit the University with inspiring and encouraging them to succeed. “Just seeing the amount of innovation that happens at Stanford alone sparks your own ideas,” Perla said.

Perla suggested tapping into the various resources Stanford has to offer. “Whether that’s the Business School, or whether that’s the Design School, the CS [Computer Science] department, or the Engineering team, just go sit with them during office hours, or go have a conversation about what your ideas are.” In one of the better quotes I’ve seen about perseverance, Perla urged: “If you fail, well you’re not alone. For every one successful company there are nine failures. So, if you truly want to give yourself a chance, you need to try at least ten times for that one success.”

Kim recalls one particular exercise at GSB that opened her mind up to the benefits and power of diversification. She was teamed up with students who looked like her and was tasked to solve a problem. In the second round, she was teamed up with people who were visibly different from her. They found that the second team did significantly better than the first. “That’s when it hit me: Diversity matters for a team’s performance. The things that I learned at Stanford were helpful in thinking about how to build a company and my team,” she observed.

Like Perla and Kim, Edelstein credits her time at Stanford for helping her hone her entrepreneurial skills. “I joined a club called Design for America, which I believe is still at Stanford today, which puts diverse groups of students together to start thinking through solutions to problems in different areas,” Edelstein said. “Stanford prepared me to take an interdisciplinary approach to problems, like putting together different strategies and philosophies that typically reside in their own verticals.”

Perla’s and Kim’s Shark Tank episodes can be found on YouTube. Edelstein’s episode no longer appears on YouTube, but she has a professionally made Watch Party here.

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