Swimming with the sharks: How Shark Tank captured spirit of entrepreneurial India, dominated dinner table discussion
In 2020, when Sony Entertainment Television announced that it is bringing the popular American reality show Shark Tank to India, the response was largely tepid. One season and the show has changed people’s minds, not only becoming a conversation-starter but also driving TRPs.
The ‘sharks’, or the seven business leaders — Anupam Mittal (Shaadi.com), Aman Gupta (BoAt), Ashneer Grover (BharatPe), Namita Thapar (Emcure), Vineeta Singh (Sugar), Ghazal Alagh (MamaEarth) and Peyush Bansal (Lenskart) — who are both judges and mentors, are now household names. The show is causing a meme-storm, and many are wondering how Sony, with its dedicated saas-bahu audience, decided to get into the world of start-ups with discussions about ‘equity’ and ‘pitches’. Was it the rising trend of entrepreneurship in India or the aim to start a revolution? Here’s decoding the creation of Shark Tank India.
How it started
Producer Indranil Chakraborty, head, StudioNEXT, said that the idea to get Shark Tank to India had been in discussion for close to three years. The team realised that the ‘time is right’ given the conversation around start-ups in India. However, there was always the question of whether the TV audience will be able to absorb a show like this, and if the advertisers get their money. The final push came from the popularisation of Sony’s digital wing SonyLIV.
“Television reaches 200 million households in this country. And given the cultural and mindset shift in people, the talks around IPOs, we felt the mahaul was right. Also, Sony owns the international IP, which became a big factor, and helped us get going,” Chakraborty exclusively told indianexpress.com.
The hybrid model
Primetime is usually reserved for daily soaps, but Sony TV was always confident that it will put Shark Tank India at the 9 pm slot. Danish Khan, business head – Sony Entertainment Television, Digital Business & StudioNEXT, shared that the market is now evolving, and has multiple segments. “Because of the size of our country, we have a different set of audience who watch different content. While daily soaps are watched on TV, there is a section that’s open to watching new content that feels closer to their aspiration,” he says.
Adding that they are extremely happy with the numbers ‘on both mediums’, Khan tagged Shark Tank India an extremely profitable venture in its first season. As for the hybrid viewing of the show (TV plus digital), he mentioned how community viewing today has moved towards personal viewing. “What Walkman did to music, OTT has done the same to content. While families still watch TV together, a lot of people are moving towards watching shows at their convenience, at their time. But we always believe that a good show will find its own destination. Be it Kapil Sharma, Indian Idol and now Shark Tank India, these shows have been successful in both mediums for us,” shared Danish Khan.
The makers are also confident that after Shark Tank India goes off the air this week, the buzz will continue. “And that’s the beauty of the digital medium. The digital content library stays on, and people would be able to consume the show,” said Indranil Chakraborty.
A major challenge that the makers faced was crafting the ‘language’ of a show like Shark Tank India. With most viewers yet to understand business terminology, comprehension could become a roadblock. Khan confessed how they spent the maximum time on making the show relatable.
In the initial episodes, the ‘sharks’, breaking the fourth wall, would often explain terms such as ‘gross margin’, ‘bootstrap’, ‘customer acquisition cost’. However, the team soon realised that over-explanation can sometimes take the fun away. Chakraborty said that today’s audience is very smart and can simply Google their way out. “What we had to be sure of was that we get them connected to the show. The audience should feel invested rather than alienated by what was happening on screen. The format is just the hardware, the emotional skill acts as the software at the end of the day. We had to thus build its own local ethos than follow the international show blindly.”
Catching the big ‘sharks’
The next task for them was to get the ‘right’ sharks on board. The team debated on who these investors would be, as eventually, they were going to be the ‘face of the show’. Interestingly, they met more than 30 people, got them to audition, and had long meetings before they finalised on the seven. While energy and willingness were part of the screening process, the tough battle was on who would be able to give the most precious thing — time.
“More than successful entrepreneurs offering money, we wanted them to give time and mentor these young minds. They had handhold some of the businesses and that was an important requirement. And then came the biggest challenge of getting their time to shoot,” laughed Chakraborty. The ‘sharks’ had to commit more than 30 days over a period of two months for the show, which even became a deal-breaker for many eligible ‘sharks’. Also, given that most ‘sharks’ are co-founders of their respective businesses, they had to convince their partners to be on the show and be the brand’s face on national TV.
The ‘big step’ for these business leaders
You may be impressed with the camaraderie shared by the ‘sharks’, but it’s interesting to note that they had never met each other before the shoot. Today, these entrepreneurs claim they have found friends for life on Shark Tank India. But what was on their mind when they decided to say yes to the show?
“It was quite brave of us,” exclaimed Namita Thapar, executive director, Emcure Pharmaceuticals. The businesswoman says that though it was an easy decision, given that they were promoting and celebrating entrepreneurship, they knew that the process wasn’t going to be easy at all. “Also, all of us are very private people and put ourselves in the public domain, face repercussions at a personal level, it was indeed a brave choice. But now that we look back, all the hard work paid off. And it happened only because we were on the show with the right intent.”
Aman Gupta, co-founder & CMO, boAt, has mentioned on the show how he has grown up watching Shark Tank. He shared with us that he has been a ‘fanatic’ and almost jumped to the offer. “I felt very emotional and got on board instantly. I didn’t think twice before grabbing this opportunity to share my story and learnings with everyone,” he said, adding that he was amazed to see that remote places in India have also caught on to the culture of start-ups.
There have been times on the show that ‘sharks’ have rejected ideas, sometimes even in harsh tones. And today, there are managers in big corporates, who are suggesting that their employees watch Shark Tank India to ‘learn’ about pitches and even leadership. For Thapar too, the show is not just a platform for upcoming entrepreneurs but also a masterclass for many in the audience.
“The kind of education and feedback that we are giving in terms of gaps in business and how they can scale, people can learn so much from it. The best part is that it’s done in a fun manner — through storytelling with Indian tadka. By just watching the show, one can learn the basics of business,” said the pharma leader.
Buzzing on social media
Even if they missed Shark Tank India on television or SonyLIV, people discovered the show through hilarious memes or intense LinkedIn columns. While giving credit to his marketing team, Khan said that most of the chatter online was completely organic. He also said that ‘social media noise is present-day conversations’ only at a larger scale. “Given that so many people are giving time and writing about it, is of course, a big success for us.”
The ‘sharks’ too have become celebrities in their own right. As their follower counts increase, their brands are getting visibility that would have cost them huge sums otherwise. Agreeing that it can do wonders for a brand that’s B2C (aimed at direct customers), Namita Thapar said that fame was never the motive for signing on to the show. “I deal with a product that’s based on science and innovation. So nobody will prescribe more of Emcure medicines just because they liked me. Though for others, it does help a lot in branding.”
Wanting to make a difference
The channel and production house shared that they believe in ‘making shows with a purpose’. And as per data shared by them, the sharks invested close to Rs 42 crore in 67 local businesses in the first season. While for Danish Khan, the 62,000 entries, and 198 pitches on-air, has been the biggest success, “Seeing those dreams turning into reality was fantastic.”
The team is also joyful that through Shark Tank India, they contributed towards a cultural shift in society. The fact that entrepreneurs are understood better, and parents are encouraging kids to start a business rather than take up a mindless job, is an achievement. The producer claimed that ‘nothing succeeds more than success’ and with this show, the change has been immediate. During the roundup press meet, Shaadi.com founder Anupam Mittal had also shared how he received videos of kids playing Shark Tank among each other. “From role-playing doctors and house games, the young India is changing,” he said.
For Indranil Chakraborty, the joy has been in getting audiences to watch reality shows again. While he said that the data is still a little ‘fuzzy’, they are not worried as the sponsor reaction has been fabulous. “We are happy that our vision that India is ready for a show like this was right,” he added.
Namita Thapar said that she came with the cause of supporting women entrepreneurs. “I am glad I could do that in a balanced way.” She also said that as an investor, supporting causes more than spending on money-minting ideas was an achievement for her. “As leaders and influencers, we need to send that message. We need to champion good causes so that many others get inspired in return.”
Addressing the criticism around the show being ‘scripted’, Aman Gupta mentioned, “What viewers see is the real conversation that happens on the shoot. Shark Tank India is not directed towards a particular audience, it’s a family show that gives people a new perspective around entrepreneurship. Yes, we got a lot of criticism in the first week of the show but by the fourth week, we got some serious following.”
The next chapter
Sony TV has in the past turned reality shows into brands, and aired successful seasons of Indian Idol, Super Dancer and Kaun Banega Crorepati. Danish Khan stated that they will continue to focus on the theme of social mobility ahead. “We have seen youngsters turn into celebrities over a few weeks if they are good at singing and dancing. KBC has changed so many lives over a course of 16 questions. Similarly, we want to say that if your idea is good, you will get the best backing. There is humungous talent out there and we want to build on the aspiration,” he said.
Once the show wraps on February 4, the team will sit together to discuss what worked and what could be done better in the next season. As for the ‘sharks’, Namita Thapar confessed that the show took a lot out of her, and she doesn’t know yet if she’ll come back.