Eight years ago, ABC unveiled a new kind of reality show--one where punchy entrepreneurs pitched a room of celebrity investors for a chance to find funding, mentorship, and success.
Now, Shark Tank has grown to have a cult-like following and the show's veteran investors like Mark Cuban, Kevin O'Leary and Barbara Corcoran are household names. On Sunday evening, the show's ninth season premiered with a new batch of guest judges and hopeful business owners.
But the show wasn't always so popular. Shark Tank's fanbase was smaller during the first season and the contestants didn't have the subsequent eight seasons to learn from
other entrepreneurs' mistakes. These early Shark Tank entrepreneurs often call themselves the pioneers of the show, and say they laid the groundwork for others who wade into the tank's choppy waters.
Here, several first season contestants describe the pros and cons of their experiences and what they've learned from their trailblazing season of Shark Tank.
1. It's OK to negotiate with the sharks.
"I feel like we were the guinea pigs," said Lori Lite, founder of Stress Free Kids, a startup that sells books and CDs designed to help children manage their stress. She landed a deal with Barbara Corcoran, but it didn't come to fruition.
Lite said first season contestants didn't know they could push back on the sharks
and the investors didn't negotiate as much as they do now. "It was almost like you were afraid to come back because they might take the deal off the table," she said. "Now, I think they realize audiences like the negotiating."
2. It was easier to get on the show back then.
While the unknown was difficult for Lite, it helped Element Bars founder Jonathan Miller. He says the opportunity was more feasible because Shark Tank was relatively obscure at the time.
Miller pitched his custom energy snacks business and made a deal with Kevin Harrington--though it never closed. Still, today, he says "I don't know if I would make the cut at this point."
3. First season contestants can be more memorable.
In Shark Tank's first episode, Tiffany Krumins pitched her children's medicine dispenser company Ava the Elephant.
"Its been nine years since my episode, but with every person I meet, it's as if it happened yesterday because the show re-airs so often in different countries," she said, adding that between 200 and 300 teachers have reached out to her since the episode aired to tell her they've used her segment as a teaching tool.
Heath Hall, who landed a deal with Barbara Corcoran for his Pork Barrel BBQ business, also believed that the first batch of entrepreneurs were special the show's history.
"Not only were we the trailblazers, but I think people remember us perhaps a little
more than some of the newer ones," Hall said. "I feel like we have a personal connection with those folks."
4. New or old, being a contestant has more pros than cons.
Even today, many first season entrepreneurs continue to reap a major benefit of the show: Exposure.
Miller said his company received more orders in the 24-hour period after Shark Tank aired than it had in the first six months of business that year. In addition to the sales boost, founders can also learn a great deal from the celebrity investors.
"The Sharks are smart, and the interaction with them will open your mind to how the investment world operates," said Rodolfo Saccoman, a season one contestant who pitched his online journaling company, My Therapy Journal. "Pay attention, take mental notes during the exchange. I did that, and never had any trouble raising the $7.5M required for my current company."