Motown biz owners pitch to get on 'Shark Tank' TV show

Brian J. O'Connor
Detroit News Finance Editor

Detroit — Hopeful entrepreneurs of every stripe turned out at Wayne State University's Tech Town business incubator on Wednesday to pitch their ideas for the reality television show "Shark Tank."

The weekly ABC show features four entrepreneurs pitching their businesses as investments to four "sharks" — veteran business owners such as technology mogul and NBA Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, and Daymond John, who launched the successful FUBU clothing line. If they're lucky, the business owners can walk away with thousands in new capital and a partner who can set the business up for success.

About 300 entrepreneurs applied and 120 were invited to pitch Wednesday before "Shark Tank" casting agents, including Garnet Gullett, who runs Terri's Cake Detroit but wants to launch a new kind of commercial kitchen service called Epicurean Boutique to work with food entrepreneurs.

"I'm excited to pitch it," Gullett said, adding that most people who work in the food industry or business understand and support the concept.

Another pitcher was Judy Gatlin, a Canton resident who designed Material Cat, a line of designer litter boxes for cats. Starting her business has taken her to China, where some of her materials come from, and she's sold a limited quantity at craft shows and pet boutiques, including one model that glows in the dark.

"I found out about it last night," Gatlin said of the casting call. "It's too much for me to do all by myself. It needs to be in retail and I can't take it to retail right now. I could see Mark Cuban putting sports logos on it. I read Daymond John's book and he says, 'Do something no one else is doing.' If this is on the shelf at Target next to the plain litter boxes, I think a cat owner will pick this one."

The Detroit call is sponsored by Values Partnerships and Brand Camp University, and is part of an effort to broaden the businesses featured on the show, said Brandon Andrews of MWW Group, a public relations firm working with Shark Tank producer Mark Burnett, who is also behind the shows "Survivor," "The Apprentice" and "The Voice."

"He asked us to bring home some more diverse ideas for 'Shark Tank,'" says Andrews, who's already visited New York, Washington, Atlanta and Oakland, California, and will hit four more cities.

The business owners got a minute to a minute-and-a-half with casting agents for the show, with follow-up questions. Those that are selected will be called in two to three weeks, said Mindy Zemrak, casting manager, but those who are passed over won't be contacted. "We only call with good news," Zemrak said.

Also pitching Wednesday was Veda Latreace, who is marketing a line of inspirational clothing, including a tie she sent to shark Daymond John a year ago when he was in town for another event. Lewis Matthews, also of Detroit, was pitching his "InfiniMat," a reusable grease-absorbing pad for cooking sauteed or fried foods that need to train and replaces plates of paper towels. Matthews has even patented the product.

One business that seems tailor-made for "Shark Tank" is Ellis Island Tropical Tea. Founder Nailah Ellis-Brown dropped out of college to start her business, and was selling her elegantly packaged drink out of her truck. In seven years, she's invested $250,000 opened a 4,000-square-foot production facility and says it has become the top-selling local product in the Detroit Whole Foods. She doubled her sales to $25,000 last year and says she has a wider distribution deal waiting with Whole Foods once she can raise more capital.

She doesn't have a specific shark in mind to work with, but said that just the exposure of appearing on the show can be a big boost for her business, even if she doesn't ultimately get a deal.

"I just found out about this yesterday," Ellis-Brown said after pitching to the casting agents. "I feel like I did good but I'll know if I get a callback."

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Want to swim with the sharks?

Mindy Zemrak, casting manager for the "Shark Tank" reality television show, gave these tips for entrepreneurs hoping to jump into the tank:

1. Be excited.

2. Know your numbers. That includes sales, costs, revenue projections and more.

3. Know your industry. Understand your market and where you fit, as well as your cost of customer acquisition.

4. Personality goes a long way. Be prepared to share your backstory, struggles and inspiration for starting your business.

5. Don't worry about how to dress. "I've had people come in their underwear or costumes or dressed for a presentation," Zemrak said. "We take them across the board."

Brian J. O'Connor