“Houston was an entrepreneurial place from the moment of its founding,” begins an essay on the city’s official visitor’s site, and it’s true that our town has been an enduring magnet for dreamers and their would-be enablers since the beginning.
Houston’s 19th-century founders put a railroad on the city’s seal more than a decade before civic leaders made the first trains a reality, while Jesse Jones financed many a poor student’s and architect’s dreams in the 20th. And what of the dreamers of our own day? Well, they have ABC’s Shark Tank.
Take Lydia Evans, for instance. After years spent trying to get her skincare line off the ground, she was almost ready to give up hope and go back to working full-time as an aesthetician. But then, last year, her assistant suggested she drop everything and drive to Austin’s South by Southwest festival, which happened to be hosting auditions for Shark Tank.
“We fought about it,” recalls Evans, the creator of the S.W.A.G. bar, a men’s grooming product designed to relieve irritation caused by shaving and other skin issues. “I was like, ‘I told you I’m done with that!’”
The assistant eventually won out, and Evans spent the ride to Austin rehearsing a pitch that never quite came together. In the end, she simply walked in and told Shark Tank producers the straightforward story of her business and her product. Her no-frills presentation made an impact: out of the 40,000 people who auditioned for Shark Tank last year, Evans was one of 126 chosen for the hit ABC show’s sixth season.
Over the years, Shark Tank has steadily grown in popularity, and its ratings this season are double what they were when the show debuted in 2009. (It averages around eight million viewers a week, making it Friday’s highest-rated program for adults under 50.) The premise is simple. Entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas to a panel of millionaire (or billionaire, in the case of Mark Cuban) venture capitalists. A show centered on elevator pitches delivered to a group of investors may sound painful, but led by big shot producer Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Apprentice), it’s anything but. Offering an endless cavalcade of entertaining, if stagey, Horatio Alger tales, Shark Tank is that rare reality show with real-world impact. Winners of The Voice don’t usually become pop stars, and few contestants on The Bachelor actually end up walking down the aisle with their on-screen paramours, but Shark Tank has a decent track record of minting millionaires.
Evans isn’t one of them—yet—but she’s on her way, even without having landed a deal with the sharks. Within 30 minutes of her episode airing last December, she had 5,000 orders for S.W.A.G. bars. By the end of the month, Evans had a lease to move her business out of her 900-square-foot home into a streamlined space in a Stafford office park. By February she was on a plane to Los Angeles to schmooze with A-listers in the gifting suites at the Oscars, whose organizers had requested her product.
“They thought we could add S.W.A.G. to the swag bag,” Evans says with a laugh.
She isn’t the only Houston-based Shark Tank survivor. Steve Christian, the third-generation owner of bar and burger joint Christian’s Tailgate, appeared on the show in October with the Table Jack, a product he invented to keep restaurant tables from wobbling.
“I went in there to get a deal, because those guys can open doors that nobody else can. They could get me past the gatekeepers,” says Christian. “For example, Table Jacks have been at Johnny Carrabba’s here for about eight months and everything’s working well, the waiters like them. But I couldn’t get into the other 500 Carrabba’s because they’re owned by Bloomin’ [Brands].”
Both Evans and Christian knew their businesses had issues that could be sticking points for the sharks. In Christian’s case it was that the Table Jack was designed to be marketed to businesses rather than consumers, as the sharks prefer. For Evans, it was her relatively weak sales numbers and the fact that she was still producing and selling S.W.A.G. bars out of her house.
Those weren’t concerns for Houstonian Gayla Bentley, who appeared on the show during the first season with her line of high-end plus-size clothing. Bentley had the experience and the sales figures—$500,000 in revenue during each of the previous six years—to ink a deal with sharks Daymond John and Barbara Corcoran. The partnership was not a fruitful one, however. Bentley’s social media profile now lists her as a “former designer/CEO,” and John has been quoted as saying the deal was one of his biggest investment failures.
“Gayla was a sweetheart, but her husband could have run the business a little better,” John told the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle in advance of his appearance at the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2013. (Bentley declined to comment for this article, citing a contractual obligation with the show.)
For Christian, a natural entertainer, a big part of Shark Tank’s appeal was the opportunity to be on television, but even he was intimidated at first.
“I don’t know if it was adrenaline or what, but I remember walking in, I remember showing it, I don’t remember if I got through the skit exactly right, and I turned around and I think I blacked out,” says Christian of his dress rehearsal in front of a panel of empty chairs on the show’s Hollywood set. “Even if you’re used to being on stage, being on the Sony set, it’s a shock, it really is.”
Evans says the countdown to her entrance was so nerve-wracking that she almost got sick. You’d never know it from her segment, though. She started with a charm offensive that barely faded even while sparring with Cuban over her sales numbers. When John started to get a little flirty, Evans delivered one of the greatest lines in Shark Tank history: “I like long, romantic walks to the bank.” The Internet was impressed, even if the sharks weren’t: you can find her quip inscribed on tees, mugs, phone cases, and stationery.
Christian, like Evans, walked away from the tank without an investor, but he too has seen a new level of success with his product since the show. The day after the episode aired his website got 30,000 hits, and in the subsequent four months he matched the sales of the previous eight. The Table Jack is now found nationwide in Landry’s restaurant empire, Pizza Huts, and McAllister’s Delis, among others, and Christian’s booth at trade shows is frequently mobbed with Shark Tank fans, he says. After turning down subsequent offers for a piece of his business from other potential investors, he’s currently in talks to merge his company with MSW, a major restaurant furnishings supplier.
Evans too has met with potential investors with an eye to taking her S.W.A.G. bar to the next level. “What I walked away from the show with is that I had four multi-millionaires and one billionaire giving me kudos on this product,” she says. “The only thing I was thinking when I was standing on that set was, say what you want—I made it!”