As one of the original investors on ABC's Shark TankKevin Harrington knows a good thing when he sees it. As a pioneer in the "As Seen on TV" movement, he has launched more than 500 products over the years. Most of them have been gadgets or stuff you might find on infomercials. What could get him to step outside of that well-trodden path and into the world of mobile tech?

Savvy investors will tell you they back people, not ideas. That's what occurred with Harrington's latest investment Sweeble. It's a social interaction app that let's you see how much someone "liked" your latest video or image post by how long they held down the "like" button. That metric opens up a range of possibilities in the areas of data and advertising. 

Harrington just announced that he will lead the company's seed round this Summer and plans to help raise roughly a million dollars. I recently spoke to Harrington about why he's going mobile and what he brings to the startup table.

Practice Makes Perfect

While there are some exciting products from first-time entrepreneurs, Harrington says he's found there's no substitute for experience. He specifically looks for founders who have previously led startups, especially if they're younger in age.

That's the case with Sweeble, which is run by co-founders Jason Zuccari and Avi Jay Dixit out of the Los Angeles area. They pitched Harrington on their old company, but Harrington passed. The guys retooled and created a new app. This time, Harrington jumped on board. He says great success often requires more experience.

"The fact that the guys had this background with their old company shows that they'd been down before," Harrington says. "They hadn't been to the top of the mountain, but they'd been halfway up. They had the smell of what it could be--and they now realized what it took."

Often if it's a founder's first deal, Harrington will automatically pass, especially if the person is "set on valuation." In this case, because the founders had that tough experience under their belt, Harrington says they're more ready to tackle problems as they arise.

The team projects a million users by the end of summer, which is what its developers are currently focusing on achieving.

"Kevin is spearheading our fundraising and connecting us with strategic partners," says Dixit. "It's an exciting time for us and we are glad to have him on-board."

 An Experienced Investor

Harrington fits his own requirements when it comes to learning from failure. His hundreds of investments include a mix of successes and failures, which has helped him hone his funding strategy over time. Currently he estimates that he has heard more than 50,000 pitches over the past couple of decades.

"I bat one out of four, so that means I'm failing two to three out of four times," Harrington says. "It's a lot riskier in tech, taking companies like Sweeble. You've gotta get that massive traction because there's no cash flow in the beginning. The model that I like is, put money up, produce a show, and then put it on the air onto the shopping channels. Then in a 6-12 month period of time I see a return on investment. When you get into tech it's a lot more difficult in terms of when does the money come back?"

The Sticky Factor

When Harrington considers a pitch, he looks at several factors, including the customer acquisition cost. Added to that is the estimated "lifetime customer spend," which estimates the amount of profit any business will make on a typical customer over the course of that customer's engagement. When Harrington can combine those metrics and get a satisfying estimate, he sees it as a good sign.

"Sweeble looked like it's got a 'wow' factor to it," Harrington says. "In my space--and, by the way, I'm not an expert in the mobile and app space but I do go with my gut on things--I look at management and the investors. Does this look like something they got that I like? Does it have a fair amount of users?"

Zuccari has his own bit of advice for trying to hook a shark. "The best advice I can give on bringing on powerful partners is that each entrepreneur's situation is different, which makes giving and receiving guidance difficult," he says. "It boils down to persistence and building a solid foundation. We've known Kevin for almost three years now, so we know him well and he knows us."

With decades of experience in investing, Harrington's insight can be invaluable to entrepreneurs seeking venture capital funding. New entrepreneurs should consider that many founders will see previous startup failures as necessary experience rather than a bad sign. By focusing on proving customer acquisition cost and long-term growth potential, startup founders can increase their chances of success.

Published on: Apr 27, 2016