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Investment Jaws

January 18, 2013 BY danariely

I have recently gotten hooked on ABC’s Shark Tank (based on the original Dragon’s Den), a reality show in which rookie entrepreneurs seek investments from wealthy self-made investors. These investors are the titular “Sharks,” who receive investment proposals ranging from a folding guitar company to a business in cat toilet-training kits. Once a sales pitch is made, Sharks can offer to invest, and will sometimes compete with one another for the opportunity. At times, the entrepreneurs leave with nothing, and occasionally they are laughed off the stage.

One lure of Shark Tank is the way it puts the psychology of negotiation on display. When entrepreneurs enter the “shark tank,” they put forward an offer, asking a specific amount of money in exchange for a percentage of equity in their company. (Dividing the dollar amount by the percentage stake provides an estimated valuation of the company.) This offer serves as a powerful anchor for both parties, which can exert a dramatic influence on the subsequent negotiations.

In spite of their own appetites for money, when an entrepreneur presents an inflated valuation of their company, Sharks often pass up the investment opportunity. For instance, if an entrepreneur asks for $100,000 in exchange for a 10% stake in her company, but the Sharks estimate the company’s worth at far less than a million dollars, they may back out brashly rather than make a lower offer. Although an inflated valuation may indicate poor business sense on a contestant’s part, it often seems that the Sharks’ decisions to pull out in scenarios like this are based on emotion rather than business savvy.

On the other hand, sometimes a Shark’s initial offer appears to bias an entrepreneur against considering other options. An offer that demands double the equity for the same cash investment may appear unfavorable when, in fact, the initial valuation was off. When a Shark offers to buy a business outright and pay the founder royalties, entrepreneurs tend to reject the proposition, even if it makes financial sense. The entrepreneurs clearly have more invested in their ideas and products than dollars and cents.

The show exposes some interesting contradictions. The Sharks are personable, yet they attack at the first scent of weakness. Kevin O’Leary, the bombastic Shark known as “Mr. Wonderful,” claims that “it’s all about MONEY,” but at times even his emotions seem to cloud his judgment. In other situations, a compelling performance by a contestant is enough to sway the Sharks’ minds, even when the sales figures don’t.

Then again, perhaps letting emotions factor into negotiations is not such a bad idea. It would probably be unwise to go into business with someone with an established negative rapport. A waffling sales pitch may indeed predict wishy-washy behavior in future negotiations, which might seriously hinder business prospects. And perhaps an entrepreneur’s “gut” is actually guiding him in the right direction when he rejects a Shark’s offer. It is, of course, impossible to know for sure, but it is this fascinating blend of calculation and emotion that keeps me swimming after this show’s bait!

~Heather Mann~