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7 Things I Learned By Studying the Worst Shark Tank Pitch Ever Made

Back in 2009, in the very first episode, an entrepreneur stood up and pitched something called the Ionic Ear. Here’s what happened.

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BY Bill Murphy Jr. - 05 Oct 2018

7 Things I Learned By Studying the Worst Shark Tank Pitch Ever Made

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Over nine seasons of Shark Tank, nearly 800 different founding teams have pitched.

There are some big success stories. But, there's also a pretty strong consensus as to what might have been the single worst pitch, ever.

My colleague Emily Canal has been exploring Shark Tank in advance of the 10th season Sunday, including a calculation of how much an appearance is worth to a startup, a comparison of each "shark's" record, and some of the best stories of entrepreneurs who got chilly reactions on the show, but went on to build successful businesses anyway.

But it's worth remembering--and even studying--Darren Johnson, whose doomed appearance came in the very first episode, when he pitched his idea for a product called the Ionic Ear.

The pitch

The Ionic Ear was a really bad idea. It was supposed to be a surgically implanted Bluetooth earpiece. Johnson got absolutely nowhere on the show.

"This is surgery. You would be under anesthesia," Johnson says early in the pitch, prompting laughter.

The whole thing lasts barely four minutes, as edited.  

We don't even learn much about Johnson, or what progress he claims to have made, in order to possibly justify asking for a $1 million investment for 15 percent equity (a $6.67 million post-money valuation).

His idea is crazy, his delivery is dry, and he really has no chance from the get-go. Some of Sharks later said Johnson's pitch was the worst they'd seen. And their reactions in the very short segment--remember, this was the first episode--are amusing:

  • Daymond John: "It's pretty disturbing, and it freaks me out. I'm already out."
  • Kevin Harrington says only three words in the entire segment: "Darren, I'm out."
  • Barbara Corcoran: "I am out. This is the weirdest damn thing I ever heard."
  • Kevin O'Leary: "Don't call me. I'll call you. I'm out."
  • Robert Herjavec extends his arms: "Darren, here's insanity. Here's genius. You're somewhere [between the two extremes]. Nevertheless, I'm out."

7 key takeaways

Back in 2014, I analyzed all 400 of the pitches that had aired as of that time. I studied them, and found 10 big takeaways.

Johnson's pitch, crazy as it seems even now, is no different. There are things to learn from it. (This is why I'm semi-addicted to the show and enjoy writing about it.) So here are seven short lessons that this pitch drives home:

  1. Take smart risks. Lots of ultimately successful business ideas seem crazy at first. But you have to be willing to risk ridicule and have a thick skin, and put your ideas out there. (Maybe not for the first time on a national television show, though.
  2. Have smart numbers. We don't find out much about Johnson or what he'd done prior to Shark Tank to even remotely justify such a big valuation.
  3. Own the room. In short, he doesn't do a very good job with the presentation itself. He does keep everyone's attention, but mainly because they start openly mocking him.
  4. Watch your timing. Implantable technology is a little less far-fetched now than it was even in 2009. I still don't see the Iconic Ear as remotely viable, but you'd be forgiven for asking if something like this might pass muster in another 10 or 15 years.
  5. Know the problem. Johnson proposes a truly radical and invasive solution to a problem that's not very profound. That's not going to fly, period.
  6. Know the audience. I don't know what in any of the sharks' backgrounds would make them good strategic partners for this kind of venture. But more than that, you'd have to suspect Johnson got on the show because it was the first episode, and the producers thought his idea was so wacky that it could make good television. It doesn't seem like he's aware of that in the segment as cut.
  7. Learn and move forward. I tried to track Johnson down to ask him to comment for this article; no such luck. And the Ionic Ear doesn't seem to have survived either. Honestly, that's probably a good thing. I'd feel a lot worse writing about this now, if it looked like Johnson was still out there nearly a decade later, still trying to make this idea work.placeholder
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