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HBX Business Blog

What You Should Learn from Shark Tank

Posted by Professor Mike Wheeler on June 15, 2017 at 3:12 PM

Sharks swimming in the ocean

Each year almost 50,000 people apply to pitch their start-up businesses on Shark Tank. Only a few hundred of them are invited to Sony Studios for taping. And barely half of them actually appear on television.

Two of the lucky ones were my former Harvard Business School student Nate Barbera and his classmate Des Stolar. How they beat those odds offer great lessons for anyone pitching an idea, seeking investors, or courting potential business partners. Nate and Des’s was promoting their novel product—Unshrinkit—a potion that restores improperly washed wool garments to their original size.

Unshrinkit Founder's Nate and Des during an HBX Negotiation Mastery course interview

They had developed it as part of an HBS requirement that MBA students launch a company and secure real customers. At the outset Nate and Des were mixing the stuff in their dorm room sinks. Even after finding an outfit to produce and distribute their product, sales online and in stores were small compared to the potential market. To build a real business they needed publicity—and what better way to get it than an appearance on Shark Tank.

Nate and Des did three things right to get on the show.

First, they understood that they had to pitch themselves rather than their product. After all, the show’s producers are in the entertainment business. They need entrepreneurs with distinctive personalities who will spark reactions from the panel of sharks. In reviewing applications, perhaps the producers expected Nate and Des to be stereotypical know-it-all MBA students, though that’s not how they come across at all. He is an earnest engineer and she is warm, confident, and ultra-smart. The sharks clearly would be intrigued by their personal story.

Second, Nate and Des prepared obsessively, reviewing all the prior episodes to see what makes a winning pitch and—even more important—how the sharks interact themselves. Nate and Des also dissected the pros and cons of various offers they might receive. They even drew elaborate decision trees mapping out different ways the process might unfold. Naturally they focused on Lori Greiner, the “queen of QTV,” a great platform for their household product.

Shark Tank tapings are grueling. What we viewers see is radically edited down. Nate and Des were on stage for two hours and three minutes without a break. When you’re in front of the camera, of course, things happen very fast.

Bottle of Unshrinkit next to a stack of clothing - Photo courtesy of Unshrinkit

Des recalls being peppered with demanding questions from the sharks and the futility of trying to answer them all. Midst it all, she told herself, “If I pretend that I’ve only heard the question that I like and I answer that, maybe just maybe, it will lead to a follow-up question I like even more.”

Once she did that, there was a “domino effect where every single question aligned with the story that Nate and I wanted to present, and they all thought we were doing well.” But then there was a crisis. Des describes it as “the most nerve wracking portion of the entire session.” Lori withdrew, saying, “I love you guys. I like the product. I don’t think the market size is there.”

In the heat of the moment, under the glare of the TV lights, Nate and Des let go of their plan and deftly pivoted. Lori’s statement was crushing, not only because she had been their top choice, but because her knowledge of home goods could sway the opinions of the other four sharks.

Des kept her composure and asked Lori to explain her thinking. Lori admitted that had been a long time since she had last done her own laundry, but she didn’t think many people would make the mistake of mishandling their woolen garments.

The other sharks—sensing that Lori had misjudged the market—started arguing with Lori, confessing that they make mistakes like that all the time. That allowed Nate and Des to step back and let the other sharks convince themselves of the product’s potential value.

In the end, three of them made offers, with Mark Cuban jumping in at the last moment with the best one. Having watched Cuban in all the prior episodes of the show, Nate and Des knew that he doesn’t like to haggle, so after quickly nodding to each other, they happily said yes.

They were glad to get his endorsement, of course, but even more important making that deal ensured that their segment would air—and not just once, but in reruns, too. Since it first appeared, sales of Unshrinkit are way up and it’s now available in Canada and Europe. (Nate and Des's whole story is also a cornerstone case in my HBX Negotiation Mastery course.)

Few of us will make it to national television, of course, but whenever we’re pitching a new idea, we’d be smart to remember that first and foremost we must win people’s confidence and generate excitement. Though we can’t anticipate everything, diligent preparation actually enhances our ability to improvise when things take an unexpected turn.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse.

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About the Author

Professor Mike Wheeler

Professor Mike Wheeler's current research focuses on negotiation dynamics, dispute resolution, ethics, and distance learning. He is the author or co-author of eleven books, and his self-assessment app—Negotiation360—was released early in 2015. Additionally, Professor Wheeler's new HBX course, Negotiation Mastery: Unlocking Value in the Real World, is now accepting applications.

Topics: HBX Insights, Negotiation

I'll have what's she's having: How what you eat can foster trust and agreement

Posted by Professor Mike Wheeler on April 12, 2017 at 12:25 PM

Two people sit across from each other in a coffee shop with drinks, pastry and a notepad between them

Two University of Chicago psychologists, Kaitlin Woolley and Ayelet Fishbach, recently ran a set of experiments to see whether what people eat impacts trust and cooperation.

What the researchers discovered surprised me. And it should be food for thought for you next time you go to the bargaining table.

Woolley and Fishbach paired up 124 subjects—all strangers—to do a labor relations exercise that I assign in my MBA Negotiation course at Harvard Business School. Under the rules parties have to go through successive rounds of concessions to narrow the gap between management’s offer and the union’s demands. (Their article is forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.)

The researchers added what might seem like an innocuous twist. With one group, they gave each negotiator sweets (Tootsie Rolls or a cookie). For another group, each negotiator got salty food (potato chips or pretzels).

Don’t jump to conclusions. You might have guessed that the candy sweetened up the first group, so that they reached agreement faster than the group that got the salty snacks. Nope. There was virtually no difference in how those two grounds negotiated.

But the experimenters had also a created a third group, where one negotiator in each pair was given sweet food and the other got something salty. These mismatched pairs took twice as long to reach agreement than the pairs in the first two groups who ate the same thing. It wasn’t merely that the pairs who ate different food wasted time. Under the rules of the game, the subjects lost real money! Everyone had been told in advance that the longer they took to resolve the dispute, the less they’d be paid for doing the experiment.

Remember, nobody in any group got to choose what they ate. It was entirely random. So this wasn’t a case of people with similar tastes somehow bonding together. The similarity (or difference) in the food people were given to eat was entirely subliminal. Nevertheless the impact on the negotiation process was significant.

What’s going on here? And what does it mean for us next time we negotiate in the real world?

Woolley and Fishbach relate their experiments to a broader body of research on social mimicry. Studies have shown, for example, that mirroring other people’s gestures and expressions can foster trust and bolster persuasion (though it must be done subtly). Parallel work on verbal mimicry likewise suggests that trust can be enhanced by speaking at the same rate as your counterparts and repeating some of the words that they use.

These effect are real, but don’t go overboard. At a business lunch, you’re not guaranteed to win over a prospective client merely by ordering the same drink or meal that she does. She has to perceive value what you propose and be convinced that you can deliver on your promises.

But in the back of your head you should be monitoring how well you two are connecting. Whether or not you’re in sync is a function of your particular personalities, emotions, and behavior. It’s what each of you do and say—and how each of you reads the other.

Woolley and Fishbach add to the evidence that interpersonal connection is more than that. External factors come into play, as well. Cooperation is also influenced by whether the sun shining or what music is playing in the background. Those kind of atmospherics are beyond our control, of course. If anything, though, that’s an argument for giving greater attention to those things that we can do to improve trust and cooperation.

So, after the server has taken your prospect’s order (and it’s something palatable), it wouldn't hurt to say, “You know, that sounds good. I’ll have that, too.”

This article was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse.

Professor Mike Wheeler

About the Author

Professor Mike Wheeler's current research focuses on negotiation dynamics, dispute resolution, ethics, and distance learning. He is the author or co-author of eleven books, and his self-assessment app—Negotiation360—was released early in 2015. Additionally, Professor Wheeler's new HBX course, Negotiation Mastery: Unlocking Value in the Real World, is now accepting applications.

Topics: HBX Insights, Negotiation

How to Pump Up Your Negotiation Skills in 2017

Posted by Professor Mike Wheeler on January 31, 2017 at 10:14 AM

Looking across a wooden chess set

This article was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse.

Improvement in any realm requires tracking and evaluating your performance. That's true in the gym. And it’s true for negotiation, as well.

I pushed this advice in a post three years ago. I recommended that if you’re serious about enhancing your effectiveness, keep a journal of all your negotiations, large and small. Write down your plans beforehand. Critique them afterwards. Make this a habit, you’re guaranteed to sharpen your strategic skills and enhance your agility.

Learning the right lessons from your negotiation experience is now the cornerstone of all my teaching, in my MBA classroom and in Negotiation Mastery, the new online course I’ve created for HBX, Harvard Business School’s digital learning platform. For both environments, I’ve developed a battery of exercises to instill the habit of clear-eyed, focused self-reflection.

All the performance-related content we cover in a 40-hour course can’t be distilled in the limited space here. But I’m glad to share—for your personal use—a particular tool that many students find helpful. It has three functions. First, is identifying areas where improvement will give you the biggest payoff. Second, is illustrating how problem-solving and interpersonal skills must be aligned to constitute coherent strategy. (The third pedagogical function I’ll mention toward the end.)

Here’s the survey: Rate your relative strengths in respect to four essential negotiation skills. You can gave as many as 7 points to a particular skill or as few as 1. You have a total of 16 points to allocate overall and you must use them all. (Giving more points to one item necessarily means you’ll have to reduce points for something else.) There are no right or wrong answers, of course.

  1.   Capitalizing on opportunities to create value.
  2.   Asserting your interests.
  3.   Understanding the motivations and feelings of other parties.
  4.   Getting the maximum possible in the agreement.
Take a moment to jot down your responses, before reading further.

As you probably noted, two of the skills are outcome related: expanding the pie (#1) and securing your share of it (#4). Classic negotiation theory posits that there is a fundamental tension between these two skills. Parties who conceal their interests and priorities miss opportunities to make value-creating trades; on the other hand, negotiators who reveal their preferences unilaterally risk exploitation if counterparts bluff or stone-wall.

In turn, the other two skills—asserting your interests (#2) and understanding others (#3)—describe the relational dimension of negotiation. Many people feel that these are in tension, as well. Making bold demands may stress a relationship, for example, while being overly empathetic might compromise one’s own interests.

I’ve analyzed thousands of responses to this survey. Individual results vary widely. Some people believe that they're very good at one particular skill, but much worse at others. Others are more balanced (though very few give themselves 4 points on each one).

Yet in spite of this variation, results tend to cluster into five different categories. You can think of these as bargaining styles, if you like. That shouldn’t be surprising. It’s logical that means and ends would be connected: how you engage your counterpart should influence the outcome.

If you graph your own responses, a pattern will emerge. Here’s an example of someone who gave the most points to items 1 and 3. It’s the most common profile (though it only represents 30 percent of respondents).

nego 2017 1.png

These are people who believe that they are good at understanding their counterparts’ thoughts and feelings. That may explain both their confidence that they are relatively good at creating value, but also their doubts about claiming it.

Contrast that pattern with the profile of someone else who give the most points to items 2 and 4. (Ten percent of respondents fall into this cluster.)

nego 2017 2.png

If there’s interest, I’ll put up a supplementary post showing three other kinds of self-portraits, but I want to emphasize several larger points here. First, however you happen to see yourself as a negotiator, most people you deal with likely have a different style, at least to some degree. To succeed, therefore, you must be agile. That means flexing yourself so that you deploy different skills depending on the situation and whom you’re dealing with.

Second, consider how you want to be seen and understood by your counterpart. Their impressions will be influenced by what you do and say. It’s not always easy, but you can appear strong without seeming intimidating—and open without being vulnerable.

Finally, your self-image may not match how other people perceive you. In my teaching, the third function of this test serves as a template for peer feedback. After each simulation, students rate each other using this same model. One person may discover that she is better as self-advocacy than she thought, for example. Someone else may find that he’s not as good at engaging with others as he thought that he was. Both of them can recalibrate their profile and tweak their learning agenda, accordingly.

A post like this simply doesn’t support that kind of peer-to-peer coaching that you’d get in a course, be it in-person or online. (Nor does a book, for that matter). But if in your work you ever negotiate as part of a team, you surely should pair up with a colleague to exchange candid and constructive advice. Build on what you do well naturally and focus on areas where there is greater room for improvement.

Professor Mike Wheeler

About the Author

Professor Mike Wheeler's current research focuses on negotiation dynamics, dispute resolution, ethics, and distance learning. He is the author or co-author of eleven books, and his self-assessment app—Negotiation360—was released early in 2015. Additionally, Professor Wheeler's new HBX course, Negotiation Mastery: Unlocking Value in the Real World, is now accepting applications.

Topics: HBX Insights, Negotiation

Staff Spotlight: Cody Signore

Posted by HBX on January 6, 2017 at 11:22 AM


We sat down with Cody Signore, one of our Senior Multimedia Producers, to talk about his experience filming and producing our newest HBX course, Negotiation Mastery: Unlocking Value in the Real World.

Who were the most interesting people you met while filming Negotiation Mastery?

All of them were fantastic. Betsy Broun, the Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, was great to talk to and her perspective on dealing with business and art was really interesting – how do you put a price on someone’s creativity? Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator and CEO of The Black Swan Group Ltd., told some fantastic stories. Many people we filmed talked about the importance of compromises, and then you have Chris who says that you can’t compromise. After all, you can’t say, "give me two hostages, and you keep the rest." Everyone we spoke to had interesting perspectives and we really experienced the differences in cultures and opinions from around the world.

How is it trying to negotiate with Professor Wheeler?

Ha, it was good! You know you're going to lose any negotiation with him, but he's a fantastic person, so I didn't have to worry. We learned a lot from him and those lessons informed how we presented information. He teaches the importance of empathy and knowing what the other side wants. We learned from that, anticipated what questions he would ask, and prepared answers to them ahead of time. It really raised the bar for us in terms of both production and creativity.


What was your favorite location you traveled to for Negotiation Mastery?

London and Dorset in the United Kingdom. Dorset is a small town with incredibly friendly people, and it's so peaceful. After the first three days we were there, we realized we hadn’t even seen a police officer! We did see a lot of sheep though.

Tell us about what it's like filming course content.

We try to get symbolic city shots from everywhere we go in order to give students the feeling that they are traveling the world with us. When we went to DC, we only had one day, so everything was really compressed. In a four-hour span we saw everything on the National Mall, circled the White House, and then went back to the airport. That’s pretty much how it went in every city we were in! There is so much that goes in to planning for these trips, as well as carrying and keeping track of seven bags of gear as you're moving around different cities.

How long it takes to edit a 30 second clip of content?

About an hour, give or take.

What do you like most about seeing these courses come together?

From the multimedia perspective, it’s an interesting task and difficult in some ways. Our videos are like a five hour documentary - one that you’re trying to launch, monitor, and plan for in a quick amount of time. It’s only been nine months since I was brought onto this project as a producer, and the course is launching next month! It has been satisfying to see all the pieces come together, from planning with different teams, to seeing concepts come together in animations, to seeing the videos, music, and all other aspects of the course work together to give the student an incredible learning experience.


What's the best advice someone has ever given you?

A teacher of mine when we were in film school told us, “The only reality is through the view finder.” No one else sees everything that is outside of the frame of your shot. They only see what you’re showing them. I thought this was fantastic because a single frame can say so much, and I think about that a lot as we pursue creative things here.

The other one is to always carry a Sharpie and a pen!

What’s your favorite part of your job?

Collaborating with everybody and trying to take that small idea and make it into something big, interesting, and accessible.


Finish this sentence: When I’m not at work, you can find me...

With my family and/or doing something creative.

What was your first job?

I worked at Party City as a seasonal employee for Halloween. I was there with some of my friends from high school, so it was quite an experience!

If you could travel anywhere in the world (that you haven’t yet been) where would you go?

I would love to go to Iceland.

Best book you’ve ever read?

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.

Favorite subject in school?


Topics: HBX Staff Spotlight, Negotiation