Hi. My name is Griff. I’m a co-founder and the CEO of Combat Flip Flops. I wrote a previous Starter Story interview and Pat said you dug it. He said many of you wanted to know more about our Shark Tank experience and asked me to tell you about it.
Before I get into the story, this is going to be written in the first person. Between you and I. Because I know one of you out there is going to take this path and I’d love you to make the most of it--live the American Dream. Take your small business to the big show, land a shark, and build a company that employs friends and supports families.
I’m a former Army guy. Did a couple tours with the 75th Ranger Regiment in Afghanistan and Iraq. After the Army, I worked as a home builder, did medical sales, consulting, and eventually started a business making flip flops in war zones with a fellow Ranger, Donald Lee, and my brother-in-law, Andy Sewrey. Yes. Flip Flops in war zones.
The Shark Tank Experience
The Shark Tank experience was a multitude of highs and lows. Everybody hears about the "Shark Tank Effect" and dreams of being the next household name for whatever concept, service, or widget born out of their entrepreneurial dreams.
Chasing that dream is all-consuming. From the moment you get the first call until you air, it’s an ever present escalation in stress.
Skipping to the end--I cried. A lot. In a bar. On all of my business partners.
We spent roughly one hour and forty five minutes in the tank. At the end, we had three sharks in the company. Mark Cuban, Daymond John, and Lori Greiner for $300,000 at 30% of the company. My shirt was pitted. Lee and I were hungry. And we didn’t know who to call first--our wives or business partners.
Getting on the show
Completely candid--we were the exception.
In February 2015, Lee and I met a reporter named Wes Siler. Great guy. DapperAF. Seriously. 6’1. Chiseled features. Odd English/American Accent. Leather jacket. Hipster motorcycle. Apparently he wrote for this publication called Gizmodo. I’m not a big media guy, so we didn’t fully understand the magnitude of this meeting.
He sat his phone down on the bar, asked if he could record the conversation, and ordered a few beers. After about an hour of discussion, he finishes his beer, looks at us and says, "Ok guys. Great story. I have to go catch a plane to Las Vegas to go party with Billy Idol for the weekend. Later." And he was off.
The following Tuesday, our website started crashing uncontrollably. Wes wrote the best article anybody’s ever written on our company (link) and nearly 175K people read it in less than 48 hours. Yeah. It was rad.
Getting the phone call
Two months later, I was working in my kitchen after the family went to bed and my phone rings. It was from Culver City, California. I thought it was a spam caller, so I let it ring to voicemail. And it left a voicemail. Odd. What spammer leaves a voicemail at 1130pm? So I checked it.
"Hi. My name is Max Swedlow. I’m a producer from ABC’s Shark Tank and read your article on Gizmodo. Can you give me a call back? I think you’d be great for the show."
WTF. I called him back immediately and he picked up. After a few minutes of discussion, I let him know that I thought Shark Tank was the business version of American Idol. They destroy young talent on TV just for ratings. Max was kindly persistent and said, "Hey man. I’ll send you the application. Sleep on it and get back to me in the morning."
The written application
During our morning meeting the next day, I let my business partners know about he call and my initial response. Lee responded, "Are you fucking high?! Do you know how big Shark Tank is? You’re a fucking idiot. Fill out the form and submit immediately."
After work that day, I walked down to the gas station, bought a 12’r of Rainier, and started formulating the application. On the questions, there’s roughly six or seven lines for responses. We may have made it to the end of the second line on one or two questions. It was direct.
After a few hours and a stack of empty cans, I attached the Word doc to the email and hit send. May or may not have been the best decision made in company history.
Max called the next morning. "Dude, the responses are awesome. I need you to put together a video edit. Scratch that. There’s enough stuff of you guys on Youtube. Give me a few days." The 12’r method may have worked.
A few days later, we started receiving emails from the ABC crew. We were in the downselect process.
For those not aware, 55-60,000 small businesses apply every year. They downselect to roughly 300 companies from applications and whittle you down through the pre-production process. Eventually they select 170-180 companies to film. After filming 150ish of those companies make it to air.
At this point, we were beating odds. Might as well run this one to ground.
The filming process
This happened a few years ago and Shark Tank has an uber-aggressive NDA about details, so I’ll answer this as best as possible without getting ourselves in trouble with the ABC lawyers ;)
We were notified mid-April that we were in the downselect process for the June filming dates. When you’re dealing with companies and opportunities this big, get used to the paperwork and lack of commitment in all communications. Just because they’re talking to you doesn’t mean you’ll get filmed, on air, or a deal. Just be prepared for it.
Get ready to wait
They organize weekly calls with associate producers to go over your pitch, the process, stage setup, etc.. They are interviewing you the entire way. Are you going to be a good company? Are you going to be entertaining? Are you worth ABC’s time? You need to be positive, engaging, and professional in all of these interactions. After about a month, the pre-production calls end and you wait for the call to fly to meet the Sharks. And you wait. And wait.
If you want to be involved with Shark Tank, then you want to be waiting. You wait. A lot. The military prepared us for this. It drives others crazy.
Then we got the call.
Filming / Day 1
I’m going to skip a few details due to the NDA, but I’m sure you can dig around the internet to find the filming location and other details. It’s fast and furious.
You land on day 1 and get shuttled to a hotel. At the hotel, you’re met by a producer to talk to you about the schedule. You’re either waiting at the hotel or filming. And you’re crammed into a hotel with a few other companies going into the tank. The vibe at the bar, restaurant, and pool is extremely nervous. The hotel wreaked of nervousness. It was weird.
On Day 2, you go to the filming location. You’re finally get to meet your associate producers in person, take time to prepare your display, and get "The Brief." Basically, they sit all of the companies down and scare the shit out of you with the NDA. First rule of Shark Tank--You don’t talk about Shark Tank. Until your episode release date is announced, you can’t say anything about your experience. And until your episode airs, you can’t communicate the results. If you do--the Sharks are the least of your worries.
After the butt puckering legal brief, you do pre-pitches to the producers. Basically, they want to know you’re not going to get in front of the Sharks and stutter your way through the filming. That would be bad for the production team and sharks. You’d be surprised how many companies get cut at this point. After your pre-pitch, the producers give you feedback and you return to your hotel to prepare.
Early the next morning, you pack your bags, check out of the hotel, and jump into a van back to the filming location. They put you in a small green room where you continue to wait. You’ll get a call out for makeup and a microphones, then back to the room to wait. Eventually you get the call.
You stand on a carpet in front of the big brown doors, the makeup tech does final touches, and a camera guy is hovering around you in one of those weird, floating, chest-rig cameras. Max met us at the carpet.
Max: "Hey guys, I really think you should up your valuation."
Me: "Nah man. I think we’re good."
Max: "$300k for 10% is good. Do that."
Me (in my head) " He’s just trying to get us to put up a stupid valuation to get sharked on film. Not gonna happen. I run with it though."
Me: "Ok Max. I’ll paper, rock, scissors you for it."
Makeup Tech (Stares in Amazement)
Me: "Yeah man. One shot. Let’s do this."
I lost. Max chose paper. I chose Rock. He smiled and literally bee-bopped away. His step was ridiculously peppy.
Decisions. Decisions. There’s a lot on the line here. If we fuck this up, people in factories in Afghanistan and Colombia don’t go to work. Mission first.
Lee: "Bro. What are we going to do?"
Me: "Fuck it. Stick to the plan. Let’s get this."
Somebody called from behind us, "Five Seconds!" The doors opened and there we were… Heading into the tank.
Pitches are pitches. Nobody really pays attention. Get your point across in a format that ensures the company knows what product you make, why, and the value proposition.
In the Rangers, you mockup targets before hitting them. Sometimes it’s simply white string outlines of buildings and rooms on bare terrain. Sometimes it's full builds of buildings. When you hit a target, you hit it at speed down to the footstep. We carried that mentality forward.
Practice makes perfect
Lee, Andy, and I developed the pitch and rehearsed it no less than 1,000 times. Perfect practice makes perfect. We watched reruns, counted steps for the hallway and entrance, set up a mock tank and stepped it out. When we stepped into the tank, everything was the same down the amount of steps.
Just practice being slow and clear. Practice until you can’t anymore, then double it.
There’s no signature Shark Tank music!
What’s different than what you see on TV? Well, there’s no music.
Whenever you watch shark tank, you hear that dramatic beat. "Da Da da da. DA DA. DA. DA."
It’s dead silent. In all our preparation, it never occurred the music was added afterward. It’s kind of like prepping for a big workout, having your favorite mixtape in the headset, and your battery dies as you hit your first rep. A real buzz kill.
After the taping
After you’re done, they do the post interview in the height of emotion. Lee and I were both still reeling from the experience. All we remember was a golf cart, some cameras, and then getting back to our original green room.
Since we closed a deal, representatives from the Sharks come to meet you. This was our first real experience with a Shark. It was enlightening to see the quality of people that represented their first touch with a new business partner. After 20 minutes or so, they returned back to the filming location. Lee and I left with our bags
Seven months later we got the call. With two weeks to prepare, the team slayed it on airing, grew the company nearly 450% that year, put over 200 Afghan girls in school, and employed a few hundred people.
In the end, I’d do it all over again. This time, I’d have more inventory available to account for the wave of site visitors.
Want to start your own business?
Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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