Why ‘Shark Tank’ gives entrepreneurs the wrong idea

All professionals have one show or movie about their career that drives them up the wall with inaccuracies. I’m sure designers get just as offended watching Project Runway as I do watching Shark Tank or Dragons’ Den.

TV is created for entertainment. Entertainment is about sharing stories, and the most sensational stories dominate the screen. Even when the ideas on Shark Tank or Dragons’ Den are good, there’s little to be learned about building a business from them. The focus is on how well the entrepreneur made a pitch, which is a very different skill than running a successful venture.

These shows give people the false impression that they know what life is like as an entrepreneur. And considering two-thirds of the deals made on Shark Tank fall apart, its lessons in entrepreneurship are embarrassing.

Businesses exist at different scales, and not everyone’s scaling to the moon. Many of us are in the game for deeper reasons than financial gain. For instance, we built a successful business without begging others for money. So these titans of business doling out advice almost comes off as condescending to business owners.

TV’s narrow view of entrepreneurship makes it seem like there’s only one way to succeed. Here are three lessons these shows fail to teach:

  1. Identity matters.Your business is your vision and your chance to be unique. Dragons’ Den presents a homogenous view of what success looks like, making everyone the same. This may create a uniform business, but success often comes from separating yourself from the pack and doing things your own way.
  1. It’s fine to stay small.Both TV shows exist with the premise that you’re always trying to raise money—which brings investors into play. They want to mitigate their risks and get a large return. If you want to start a $500 million company, then you’re on the right track. But it’s OK to have a small company that serves your local community as your end game. That doesn’t make you any less of an entrepreneur.
  1. It’s not (always) about the money.Not all businesses are born from large investments, either. Plenty of successful companies have started with Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaigns, bootstrapping, grants, or small bank loans.

Don’t ever believe that a narrow vision of entrepreneurs represents all of the real struggles we go through. For many of the businesses on Shark Tank and Dragons’ Den, the appearance represents nothing more than publicity. Introducing the business and brand to a wide television audience renders an actual investment from the sharks moot.

Being an entrepreneur isn’t just about investments and publicity. There’s real grit involved in starting your own business, and any win is worth celebrating. As entrepreneurs, we should share more about all the ways we’ve found success, so the world can see how much more vibrant and unique the community is than what people see on TV.

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