“You can’t offend me.”
Aaron Powell smiled politely at Barbara Corcoran.
“Oh, yes she can,” Daymond John shot back. That wasn’t a comment – it was a warning. Aaron blinked, and shifted his weight as he let out a nervous laugh. With his eyes darting behind his square-rimmed glasses, the tall entrepreneur had no idea what was coming next.
Powell, a former high-school band teacher, rode a three-wheel electric bicycle onto the set of Shark Tank. He rode off with a deal that has never been done before in the 12-season history of the show. So how did a little bike company from Denton, Texas, “pedal” their wares to the Sharks – and win? And what can we learn about persuasion and deal-making, from Aaron’s experience?
After the other Sharks bowed out, Aaron negotiated a deal with Barbara Corcoran, doing something rare (but not unheard of) when he countered her ownership offer. He suggested a fairly complex combination of a loan and an equity position in the business. Typically, counter-offers are rejected outright. Would his fate be the same?
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He had just shared a personal story about how a shipment of bicycles was basically ruined by a massive storm. Thanks to the typhoon, he got a shipment that “smelled like humidity”: the bikes inside were soaked and unusable. He took the worthless shipment, because he had already paid for it. But without bikes to sell, he had no revenues to counter his payment. So, he assumed a bunch of debt in the process. Because of that debt, which he was paying off, he couldn’t accept Barbara’s original offer – would that make him seem ungrateful? Egotistical? Un-investable? Most investors run from debt like a cat from a burning building – and Aaron had a lot of it. But Barbara didn’t run away. Some back-and-forth negotiating resulted in a new partnership for Aaron and his company.
The history-making deal came later, when Robert Herjavec decided to become part of the plan. Herjavec wasn’t on set in Las Vegas for Aaron’s episode – so he didn’t see the pitch. But he still wanted in, since he knew (first hand) what Bunch Bikes had to offer. Because Robert Herjavec is a proud owner of a Bunch Bike.
He and his wife, Kym, cruise around with their twins Haven and Hudson (born in April 2018), and they love the vibe and the experience of the front-carrier electric bike.
As Aaron’s pitch coach for the show, I saw several key elements that created the power in his message. Remember these elements, so you can persuade someone that your idea is worth the ride:
- Be Authentic: When we first worked together, Aaron was trying to find his voice, and a natural way to share his story. Television is, after all, a visual medium – and the producers look for a certain amount of energy and enthusiasm. But how much was too much – and how to find the “right” approach? Powell stayed focused on his numbers, his story and ultimately, the real needs of his business. The coaching helped him to be himself, and his authenticity created an atmosphere of trust. Powell wasn’t trying to be anyone other than who he is. As the saying goes, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”
- Create an Experience: The moment that Barbara asked to get on the bike was a turning point. “When someone can experience the product,” Powell says via Zoom, “there’s a greater understanding of what’s really available.” Moving from concepts to experience is a vital part of creating a compelling pitch. Because, concepts inform – but experiences compel. We explored the difference between the language of information and the language of creation. Because being more informed is great, but being moved to create a deal is the real objective of every pitch. After all, as I tell my pitch coaching clients: if your investors get smarter but you’re not richer, you’re doing it wrong. Striking a balance between info and outcomes is key. Take ideas out of people’s minds, and put them in their hands, and you’re moving in the right direction. Demonstrate, don’t pontificate, and your message will hit home.
- Don’t Back Down: Are you really clear on what you need, for yourself, your career and your business? Powell was. He knew the inner-workings of his business, so he knew that Barbara’s initial offer wasn’t a fit. His counter-offer was set inside of a context, so that everyone understood why he couldn’t accept the ownership position she originally wanted. The conversation was all business – and no ego. When it comes to a persuasive pitch, context conquers content. Details, numbers and financials are all parts of the story – but not the whole story. By providing some clarity around his financial position, Powell created a path to a new solution. How are you providing context for your next proposal or pitch?
- Do the Do-Able: Being on the show during the pandemic required Powell to rent a cargo van, place two bicycles in the back, and drive from north Texas to the taping in Las Vegas. “Air travel wasn’t an option for me,” he says, simply. So, while it wasn’t very glamorous to drive a cargo van across the desert, it was do-able. The mental game – of isolation, three days of driving, and eating room service food for one week straight – was draining. But do-able. “It wasn’t pleasant, but it wasn’t impossible,” Powell says. Saying ‘yes’ to possibilities, and understanding that discomfort doesn’t have to stop you, is key to finding new opportunities. (And maybe the way to make it through this crazy pandemic!)
Aaron knew that he needed some guidance on his journey. Don’t we all? I’m grateful we got to work together. At the same time, I’m grateful for the coaches in my life who are helping me in my journey. While I’m working with entrepreneurs in the SXSW pitch competition, MassChallenge, Y Combinator and other investor opportunities, I always make sure that I have a coach in my corner, too. Because I want to make sure that I am bringing my best self to every meeting, every conversation and yes, even every Forbes post. Coaching is an important part of my business model – how about you?
The great takeaway from Aaron’s experience is: you don’t have to go it alone. In our work together, we created a rehearsal space – an online meeting where we reviewed various scenarios, so that he didn’t have to go into the Tank unprepared. In my experience, understanding is what breeds confidence, clarity and results. When it’s time to move forward in your business and your career, remember: you don’t have to wing it. Confidence is nice, but there’s something more important than just feeling good about yourself and your pitch. When you understand what you might be facing, before you get into your version of the Shark Tank, you’re investing in your success.