You love watching Shark Tank. Maybe you even fantasize about appearing on the show. But if the thought of making a pitch on national television gives you the willies, or you're not photogenic enough to beat out 45,000 competitors for a slot on the ABC hit, never fear. The Shark Tank phenomenon has bred a new crop of Shark-Tank style pitch events across the country that use the same format but without the added hoopla of a glitzy TV production being watched by millions at home. 

From Denver to Detroit to Paducah, Kentucky, entrepreneurs are getting the chance to stand in front of a panel of investors and try to wow them with pitches while a live audience looks on. The Shark Tank format may be a knockoff, but the payoffs to winners are very real--totaling half a million dollars in one case. And your odds of actually getting to pitch are a lot higher than 45,000 to one.

How do you increase your chances of landing a spot--and taking home some investment dollars for your business? We asked Steve Conine, co-founder of the online home furnishings retailer Wayfair.  Wayfair recently held a Shark Tank-style pitch session of its own during its Heart Home conference in Boston, and Conine served on the judging panel. 

Here's his advice:

1. Talk about the future more than the past.

"It can be tempting to introduce your concept with a drawn-out personal recollection of how it was conceived," he says. "Resist! Captivating the judges and your audience will be crucial in the first few moments of your pitch. Be sure to tell the what, why, and how right up front."

2. Never say your new product or concept has no competition.

There's no such thing, Conine says. "Any judge will be skeptical of the claim that you single-handedly forged an entirely new market." 

Having competitors is no bad thing--it proves that people are willing to pay for a product like yours. "You have a novel idea, that's why you are stepping up to the plate," Conine says. "Acknowledge your competitors, no matter how directly they compete with your proposed product or service. It will not hurt your pitch, it will demonstrate that you have a thorough understanding of the market landscape, which is a key to success."

3. Know what the biggest threats are to your business, and be honest about them.

Are there market changes or economic events that could derail your company if they happen? Say so up front, and explain what you plan to do if the worst comes to pass. "Don't be afraid to share them," Conine says. "It will demonstrate you have thought through all possible outcomes, which will help build trust in your business and in you as an entrepreneur."

4. Expect to be caught off-guard.

It happens to everyone, Conine explains. "It is guaranteed you will get asked questions for which you did not prepare, that's the nature of the beast." Judges know this, so how you react is at least as important as what you actually say. "Getting flustered will most certainly lead to your pitch's ultimate demise," Conine says. "Take a deep breath and remember that honesty and thoughtfulness will go a long way."

5. You will be criticized. Don't take it personally.

"You have put your heart and soul into your business, a critique can not only hurt you, but also throw you off your game," Conine says. But it's part of the process, and a part you should expect whenever you pitch anything to anyone. "Learn and grow from criticism," he says. "There is only more to come." 

Published on: Oct 27, 2015