The seventh season of Shark Tank premiers tonight, and though it’s been six years since I appeared on the show’s fifth episode, I can’t help but to reflect on what the experience taught me about succeeding in big business.
When my brother and I presented the Sharks with my second startup, MyTherapyJournal — an online journaling platform based on cognitive behavior therapy — we were one of just 14 teams to land a deal. This fact alone taught me how tough selling a fresh idea to big-time investors can be. It’s why I love the idea behind the show. It teaches some important lessons about entrepreneurship, how the real world operates and how investors think.
Here are the biggest lessons I took away:
Know your history
The entire Shark Tank experience was a crash course on preparing a business plan, perfecting a pitch, coping with high levels of stress, dealing with investors and getting to know your co-founders. We had to distill our entire vision into a short presentation that would immediately capture attention, all while in front of a tough panel of judges on live TV.
Nothing can beat acquired experience, and building a company from scratch, in my mind, is the equivalent to getting a couple PhDs in business and life. I have studied Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger for a decade now, and they are the first to tell you that you can accelerate your learning by studying history and people’s biographies. This has proved very true in my own life. For instance, when we closed a venture round last year in the millions, I bought 10 books and read eight of them in two weeks. My favorite in that batch was The Hard Thing about Hard Things by the impressive Ben Horowitz. I devoured his book, and feel I learned the lessons in a week that allowed me to go from a team of only three people to the team of 37 brilliant minds my company AdMobilize has today.
Shark Tank also taught me the importance of finding a couple of mentors you trust. I got lucky earlier in my career to meet Mok Oh, former chief scientist at PayPal (PYPL) and an incredibly successful serial entrepreneur who launched EveryScape and Moju Labs. In January 2014, we spent five full days together in Miami. I cannot begin to describe how much my emotional intelligence catapulted during that time. Find a mentor who has lived what you aspire your path to be.
Entrepreneurship is challenging enough, so it’s key to be surrounded by good energy. I followed a similar strategy during the Shark Tank filming days. I learned as much as I could about each investor, the companies they built, their personalities and their essences. You have nice billionaires and you also have highly egotistical maniacs. Be selective with your investors and only surround yourself and your team with people who can not only constructively push your thinking and comfort zone, but who actually care.
Shark Tank also strengthened our understanding of our numbers and go-to market strategies. We got to know the kinds of questions that investors will ask and got more comfortable performing under pressure. The Shark Tank investors, and all investors for that matter, are trying to understand you, your business, the market you are in, what problem you are solving and what your solution is. I suggest you read a timely Andreessen Horowitz blog on the “16 Startup Metrics,” as well as the follow-up, “16 More Startup Metrics,” published a couple of days ago. These are great posts for understanding what consumes investors’ thinking lenses. Learn, study and reverse engineer these concepts into your team’s thinking and your company’s fabric. Remember that there are no manuals. Every successful individual got to the promised land on a different path, and no one has the crystal ball.
Another one of my dear mentors is the chairman of The Breakers in Palm Beach. He often used to tell me, “Beware of the experts.” This is a powerful lesson indeed. Just think of the billions of dollars left behind by venture capitalists who passed making an investment. The truth is that nobody really knows what will succeed and what won’t. You, the entrepreneur, and your team need to follow your inner voice, as well as respond to external factors, like timing. For instance, right now, AdMobilize is announcing to the world in November a product that will define the Internet of Things industry. We have been working on this invention for 10 months in stealth mode. I cannot even begin to describe the passion, 80-plus hour weeks and brilliance of my amazing team in creating a product that we believe will revolutionize the Internet of Things world.
Why are we crazy passionate like this? It is a force within us — our belief that we can launch something great and have the opportunity to make a positive dent in the world. You have naysayers, believers, supporters and doubters — it’s human nature — so choose who you surround yourself with carefully.
My suggestion is to surround yourself with people who are talented, smart, humble, hungry and have an internal curiosity to challenge the status quo. Seek out people who push the boundaries of their imaginations and will help you launch products that will resonate and inspire others. I believe that entrepreneurs are artists — trying to define a fabric where their invention can connect with others in a powerful way. Similarly, those artists need to be gladiators and persevere the path toward creating a great company. It may take years.
Have regenerative skin
People always say that you need thick skin to survive as a startup founder, but I believe you need regenerative skin. Thick skin makes you immune to emotions and eventually gets tired. But when you shed your skin every night, it is fresh, full of life and vibrant the next morning. You wake up ready to tackle the world.
The fact is that entrepreneurship is one of the most challenging life choices you will make. It is rewarding, gut-wrenching and exhilarating. Developing regenerative skin enables you to hedge your bets from the beginning and have faith that you will make it through no matter what.
Every entrepreneur needs to find his or her own inner and outer mechanisms to refresh, reset and restart. The journey of creating a great company is a marathon engulfed with core-testing sprints, and you need to be running at optimal endurance to persevere. I release pressure by exercising five days a week at 6:30 a.m. Boxing is my favorite when pressure is at full force, and shooting hoops to motivational songs helps me clear my mind and visualize the future. I try to meditate as often as I can by listening to guided meditation tracks, but I’m still trying to master calming the mind.
As an entrepreneur, you need to find yourself. This path will transform you into a different person, and ideally, you want to be proud of who you are becoming. Who do you want to be to yourself, your family, friends, your team, the community and your loved ones?
Believe in yourself
My father always said to my brother and I, “Be yourself, be yourself, be yourself.” The pressure of building a business is a lot to handle. Without a strong sense of self, the way investors respond to your business could have a crushing effect.
While my brother and I recognized that the Sharks were there because they had been successful in business, there are no exact manuals for building one, or even for winning on Shark Tank. The biggest lesson we learned was to follow our own voices.
To summarize, believe in yourself. Surround yourself with amazing people you are looking forward to seeing everyday. Find amazing mentors. Select investors you respect — and who respect you — so you can take your dreams and companies to new heights together.
Now, I’m onto my third startup with AdMobilize. We have raised $4.5 million in venture capital, have a global team of 37 superstars and are one of the companies defining the future of the Internet of Things. We will be closing our Series A $15 million round within the next couple of months. Believe in your dreams, work hard, be humble and follow your heart. Good luck, my fellow modern-day gladiators.