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4 Lessons Every Freelancer Can Learn from ‘Shark Tank’

by Rachel Perkins
freelancing, money & life

4 Lessons Every Freelancer Can Learn from Shark Tank

© ABC Television Network

Whenever I confess publicly my love of acclaimed ABC reality hit, ‘Shark Tank,’ I am often met with skepticism and surprise.

The people who know me often seem quite shocked to find that I—the creative weirdo who has spurned “traditional” career paths more than once in favor of following my dreams, passions, and sometimes whims—would be such a fan of a show devoted to investing, business, and bottom lines.

‘Shark Tank’ prides itself on entrepreneurial spirit. The five “sharks” often boast passionately of the important role creative types, go-getters, and self-starters play in this entrepreneurial world.

To watch our series of free, hour-long interviews with the world’s top entrepreneurs, including ‘Shark Tank’ judges Mark Cuban and Daymond John, join us for 30 Days of Genius today.

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However, at it’s core, ‘Shark Tank’ is surely still a capitalist fantasy.

No shark invests in a contestant’s business, product or dream until said shark can be adequately sure there is profit to be made. As someone who has more than once (foolishly) shrugged off the necessity of financial gain in artistic fields, it surprises me too that I’d be so obsessed with the show.

But as a creative professional (a writer, for the most part), I’ve found there are bountiful lessons to be had by all from watching ‘Shark Tank.’

I might not have any big dreams involving the letters C, E, and O after my name, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to be a success within my field. No matter which creative field you freelance in, ‘Shark Tank’ can teach you a thing or two as well.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. Marketing Doesn’t Mean Anything if Your Product Isn’t Great.

When contestants come on the show, they have to present a business plan involving how much money they’d like the sharks to invest, and in return for what sort of share in the company. Often, the sharks will inquire as to where these initial investments will go. For example, will this $20,000 go towards inventory? Will it go towards securing a patent? These are important questions.

Often, contestants will reply with “marketing.” This is rarely met with a positive attitude from the sharks.

As someone who has actually worked in marketing, I know its importance. Marketing is how you bring people to your product, and how you turn a profit. But often, contestants seem to think the only thing holding their product back is their lack of marketing expertise, when in fact, it’s usually the product itself.

As a freelancer, this is an important lesson. In competitive fields like writing, design, and development, you can get distracted while looking at all the ways your peers are running their businesses. It’s easy to feel discouraged because so-and-so has a better portfolio website, or so-and-so has more Twitter followers.

While building a personal brand and a social following as a creative professional is obviously important in this day and age, it’s still secondary to providing quality work for your clients. You can have 10 million Instagram followers, but if you routinely provide your clients with sub-par work, your career will suffer.

Sometimes, it’s important to focus less on marketing yourself and focus more on improving the quality of your work. Invest in yourself by both building your hard skills and through personal development, then you’ll watch your return on those investments climb over time.

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2. Know Your Worth.

Like I mentioned before, at the onset of each pitch, all contestants on ‘Shark Tank’ must present an evaluation of what they think their company is worth.

Contestants base these evaluations on a variety of factors, from sales they have made so far, to the performance of existing competition.

Freelancers do this all the time. When pitching to a new potential client, often it’s smart to know what rate you’d like to be offered. While many sites offer a flat, non-negotiable rate to all writers (*sigh*), you should know going into any new venture what rate you absolutely will not go below.

After you’ve been working for a while, you will be able to do a pretty basic calculation to figure out how much time any piece of new work will take you. Figure out an hourly rate, multiply it by how many hours this project will take, and there’s your rate. If you feel your work is worth more than minimum wage, then don’t work for minimum wage!

This class from Ilise Benum on how to Command the Fees You Deserve is incredibly helpful in this regard.

That said, you need to know your worth as a freelancer. If you’re relatively inexperienced and unrecognizable within your industry, don’t make unfounded demands. You still have to work to earn higher rates.

Freelance Lessons from Shark Tank

I’m not saying you should work for free (you shouldn’t), but if you try to give an editor a choice of paying you a rate higher than you’ve earned, or letting you go…. Well, chances are, she’s going to just let you go.

Learn some lessons in hubris from a few failed Shark Tank pitches! When contestants have astronomically high evaluations, and no sales or data to back them up, they are consistently laughed right off of the stage.

Look no further than Cougar Energy. While the energy drink industry is surely worth multi-millions, Cougar Energy (a beverage designed specifically for older, single women looking to pick up younger men) was a very niche product with almost no sales.

That didn’t stop Cougar Energy founder Ryan Custer from asking the sharks for $150,000 in exchange for a 30% stake in his company. Custer couldn’t prove he had any grasp on the market, or that his niche market was profitable at all, and ultimately all the sharks were out very quickly.

Tim Berry over at B. Plans points out that often, when a contestant’s evaluation for their product is crazy high, the sharks will provide their own, much lower evaluation.

Contestants will often scoff at these lower (more realistic) evaluations and walk away without a deal, ignoring the fact that the sharks are self-made billionaires who probably know what they’re talking about. In your working life, don’t be so quick to scoff at a counter-offer.

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3. Get to the Point.

Despite his reputation as the “Bad Guy” in the tank, Kevin O’Leary is definitely one of my favorite sharks. I respect and like him for lots of reasons, not the least of which is his signature catch phrase, “Stop the madness!”

O’Leary’s been known to exclaim this protest when a contestant is making particularly lofty claims or going on about a wildly unbelievable product. “Stop the madness!” is funny and catchy, but it’s actually good advice to consider when pitching your work to new clients.

It’s easy to get caught up in the conversational nature of email and let your messages to editors or managers grow too rambling or wordy.

When sending pitches, remember—get to the point.

I would hope your potential clients aren’t sharkish by nature, but it’s important to remember we are all very busy. Stop the madness and say what you need to say. This class from Peter Corbett is an awesome master class on crafting effective pitches for your dream clients.

If you need proof, look no further than the guys behind RoloDoc. Drs. Albert Amini and Richard Almini had big plans for their website and social app, RoloDoc, which promised to connect doctors and patients in a very 21st century kind of way. While they had great credentials (they’re both practicing physicians), their pitch was filled to the brim with unnecessary buzzwords and phony sounding jargon.

The two kept mentioning “social media” and “optimization” with no way to prove RoloDoc could provide any service not already on the market. Their pretentious and wordy nature led Mark Cuban to call it the worst pitch he’d ever seen. Ouch.

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4. It’s Worth it to Be Nice.

Lessons from Shark Tank Freelancers

The show is called the Shark Tank for a reason.

The sharks aren’t there to be your friend or hand out hugs. They’re there to make money, which isn’t always warm and fuzzy.

In life and in business, it’s important to take your work seriously if you want others to do the same.

In the high-powered worlds the sharks operate in, sometimes you have to be very cunning just to keep moving and stay afloat.

The sharks are looking for contestants who are ruthless and quick, with a keen eye for profit. That said, being a jerk will not get you far on the tank. Contestants with bad attitudes who argue with the sharks or refuse to listen are almost always shown the door quite quickly.

Being likable is half the battle. However, being just likable and nice won’t get you a deal either. But if you can prove you have profit potential and you’re easy to work with, well there’s a winner.

Look at Johnny Georges from Season Five. Johnny was selling his patented water-conservation device. It was clearly a quality product, but Johnny was just a small-town farmer from Florida with very little business acumen. He stumbled and stammered during his pitch, but throughout, he was polite, kind, and straight-up likable. His sweet nature along with his story of inventing the product with his late father warmed the sharks’ hearts and he was offered a deal.

Being nice pays off! Even Mark Cuban, who can certainly be a bit pushy at times, wrote in his book, as featured on Business Insider, that one of the key things all entrepreneurs must be able to do is “[know] that you are getting to your goals and [treat] people right along the way, because as good as you can be, you are so focused that you need regular people around you to balance and help you.”

When freelancing and working with different clients, managers, and editors, it can be frustrating, but it’s important to stay polite and be as nice as you can be.

You never know when your cheerful demeanor is going to pay off. You could end up with the deal of a lifetime.

Whether you’re you’re about to start a freelance business or you’re looking to grow your existing client base, download our free eBook, The Freelancer’s Roadmap and make an impact in your business today.

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Rachel Perkins

Rachel Perkins is a writer, editor, event planner, photographer, social media-er and all around creative-ish person. @rachie_claire