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Four Lessons Consultants Can Learn from Shark Tank

The reality-TV show Shark Tank plays out the American dream: anyone can make it big if they have a great idea and a great story.**

Each episode, aspiring business moguls pitch their ideas to a panel of five, self-made zillionaire investors. If the pitch goes well, one or more of the wealthy panelists will pony up a chunk of cash in exchange for some equity or royalties. If you’re a consultant and want to grow your practice, there’s more than one lesson swimming around the Shark Tank.

Most entrepreneurs showcase a new product. Things like a Hanukkah menorah designed to top a Christmas tree, an energy bar made from crickets, and a Bluetooth device that would be surgically implanted in your head. (The first two got funding.)

Regardless of whether a product or service is featured, however, four distinctions quickly separate those who walk home with extra cash from those who leave empty handed. Those same four lessons apply to you (and me, and other consultants):

Businessperson vs. Inventor

Inventors have great ideas; businesspeople make money. I watched an episode with a fireman who had devised a couple of cool contraptions that would protect assets and save money. Did he get a “shark” to bite? No, because he had absolutely no clue how to bring his product to market and make money. You may have developed wildly creative models and approaches that would help clients, but if you don’t know how to reach prospects, win projects and pocket a hefty profit, you’re just an inventor.

Need-Seeking vs. Market-Seeking

Market-seekers look for the right target to buy their offering; need-seekers look for a target’s need, then craft an offering to match. A husband-and-wife team developed a stuffed elephant-in-a-box which, they contended, would enable couples to address the “elephant in the room.”**

On the surface, it might appear that the entrepreneurs started with a need or problem (relationship issues) and developed a nifty solution, but that’s not really the case. Instead, they recognized a problem that randomly popped up in their lives, developed what they thought was a nifty solution, then went on a hunt for buyers. Most small consultancies I talk with fall into this trap.

They think they’ve developed a customer-driven solution, but in reality the core of their business is an offering they like and are now scrambling for clients who fit. The most successful consultants start with a target they can reach, study that group, then develop solutions to the most pervasive, urgent, costly problems.

Story vs. Facts

Your facts describe a value proposition; your story closes business. One contestant drew in the investors by relating how he developed his product to help neophyte guitar players like his 10 year-old daughter avoid frustration while learning the instrument. Extolling the virtues of business storytelling is hackneyed advice. You already know that people respond to stories and act based on emotion. Yet a steady stream of wannabe-tycoons present a mind-numbing recitation of facts to the investors. These jerky narratives convey no plot, no tension, no hero-moment. They are often murky, difficult to follow and unconvincing. What about you? Are you armed with coherent tales that will draw prospects in and help them experience the benefits of working with you? Are stories deeply embedded in your new-business approach? Are those stories tight, concise, and compelling? Most of us will benefit from dialing up our story-telling skills.

Passion vs. Belief

You may believe in your value, but are you passionate? The potential investors on Shark Tank have a keen nose for zeal. They reward entrepreneurs whose exuberance and enthusiasm for their ideas is almost palpable. Belief is important; if you don’t believe in the value of your offerings no one else is going to either. However, passion is doubly important, because passion sells. Sheer enthusiasm for your idea will entice others to listen. Is it enough? Of course not. Passion for a bad idea is a losing proposition; nevertheless, unless you’re seriously jazzed by your own offerings, you’re dead in the water.

Important Note. There’s one critical point to keep in mind as a consultant: the contestants on the show pitch, and we’re not in the pitching business. Quite the opposite. Pitching for money sounds like, “I’d like you to help me” whereas winning consulting business is all about, “I’d like to help you.”

Aside from that key caveat, there’s plenty to be learned from Shark Tank in addition to the four lessons I’ve outlined. Pay attention and you’ll have more clients biting.

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