by Elizabeth Zielinski, CMM | April 28, 2014

One of my favorite television shows is the reality program, Shark Tank. On it, hopeful entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas to a panel of wealthy investors (aka “sharks”), hoping to convince one or more of them to provide funding for the implementation or growth of their business idea. (Side note: Shark Tank is the American version of the global franchise called Dragon’s Den.) Unlike much of reality TV, there are real-world lessons to be learned here about how we convince others to buy into our ideas, either literally or figuratively. And, I have found many lessons that are applicable to how we as event professionals must sell our concepts and plans to stakeholders.
What I have noticed is that the questions used to determine the viability of an idea are always similar. That suggests that the fundamental elements of business success correlate from product to product, just as they do between events of all types and sizes. Here are just a few of those typical questions, and how they frame important issues we need to understand about our programs:
Shark question: “What are your sales?” The lesson: Always support your ideas with data. The sharks always want to know that there is a proven marketplace for an idea before they offer up their money. It’s not enough to have a good idea, there has to be objective proof that there is a demonstrated market for the product or service. Similarly, event professionals often have wonderfully creative ideas that look and sound fabulous, but they don’t necessarily support a stated objective. We're sometimes reluctant to throw away our perceived good ideas in these cases, but the reality is that they just aren’t good ideas if we can’t understand how they support the strategy.
Shark question: Why do you need our money? The lesson: Costs are not the same as value. The sharks always want to know how the money will be spent, which will help weed out whether there are problems with distribution, branding or other aspects of the proposed business. The case where an enterprise needs more money doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t working, but the answers offered might show that the business just isn’t viable. For event professionals, the lesson is about understanding that it’s not always about the dollar figure assigned to the pitch. We often confuse revenue and costs with other measurable values, and make assumptions about cost savings or revenue generation being the same thing as value added.
Shark question: What is unique about your product? The lesson: Know your marketplace. Because the pitches on Shark Tank are often for retail products, there are a lot of questions about direct competitors and patent protection. But the lesson is universal, which is that you need to understand what your product — i.e., event, meeting, convention — brings to its stakeholders that is uniquely yours, and because of that, why your customers will be driven to your product over any other. With events, it might happen that others then copy your ideas. So it’s an ongoing process to keep that edge, and knowing exactly what your market wants now and into the future is your best way to deliver.
I admit that the bits of wisdom I have gained from this TV show are not exactly on the level of my real-life experiences or my formal education. On the other hand, sometimes it’s enlightening to boil a topic down to a brief, audience-ready presentation, thereby forcing the focus to be on just the most fundamental pillars of the decision at hand.
What business lessons have you learned from nontraditional sources? I’d like to know. You can post here, email me at, or tweet @E_Zielinski.