One cold, windy day last week, a neat snake of people dressed in muted business casual shuffled in double-file outside ABC’s studios at 66th and Columbus, waiting to receive a color-coded wristband that would permit them to audition for Shark Tank. 500 of them will make it through the doors today, a small fraction of the roughly 45,000 people who audition for the best show on TV each year. (Of these thousands, only 160 actually get in front of the all-star panel of “self-made millionaire and billionaire entrepreneurs,” who hear their business pitches and either invest with their own money or roundly reject them on the spot.)
The sky was pewter and the hopeful capitalists sipped coffee with chapped hands, clutching briefcases and props and folders full of dumb, beautiful American dreams.
Skirting detached police officers and clipboard staff, I find my entry point into the line when a man spontaneously offers me an apple fritter from a white paper bag. His name is Richard Dominique, and he’s from Queens. He’s got an aggregate production operation, turning rocks into gravel. “Have gravel, will travel,” he says jovially. He’s unfazed when I ask if there aren’t already hundreds of companies that do this.
“Not in Haiti,” he says, where his family’s lived for a hundred years. We ahh together. His company’s called Renaissance Group, which I tell him doesn’t sound like a good name for the gravel biz. But Richard says a renaissance is what he wants for his country—a rebuilding, a middle class. “Haiti has 20 million metric tons of debris,” he points out. His favorite shark is Mark Cuban. “If Mark Cuban adopted me,” he says, “my name would be Rich Cuban.”
Richard’s line buddy is named Walter. He lives on Long Island; he’s got a frank face, a Queens accent, salt-and-pepper stubble. His business is called Measure Mate. To demonstrate, he pulls a yellow tape measure out of its silver snail shell and takes the length of some air. He writes down a number on a white disc affixed to the side of the tape measure, then wipes the slate clean with his finger. “It’s so you always have your measurements with you,” he says. The white disc is a proprietary surface, he says, a portable white-board that any pencil can write on; he went through hundreds before finding the one.
Walter and Richard ask me who I work for; they’ve never heard of Gawker. The guy behind them—younger, owlishly alert—is named Shaan Patel. “What vertical do you work for? Gizmodo? Valleywag?” he asks. He’s a Yale MBA, a Las Vegas resident. His business is 2400 Expert, an SAT prep course. “It’s the only one in the U.S. developed by a person who got a perfect score in high school,” he says.
“That can’t be true,” I say. “Not even the ones here that charge a million dollars an hour?”
“Perfect scores are very rare,” Shaan says.
I tell him: bro, I got one. He looks impressed. “Congratulations,” he says sincerely. “There are very few of us. Only 3,000 people have gotten perfect scores in the last 10 years, since the test was switched to 2400 instead of 1600.”
Now I look impressed—with myself, mostly. “Should I mention that, do you think?” he asks. “In my pitch. That there are only 3,000 perfect scores?”
Nodding, I’m turned around by a man in a yellow raincoat who’s handing out paper slips about second chances. Shaan and I both take one. PLAN “B,” INVENTORS ONLY, they say.
As you know most of us will NOT make the show. So why not work together and support each other. Inventors helping Inventors would be an excellent way for all of us to get the chance we deserve. To get the ball rolling, interested inventors should email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. GOOD LUCK TODAY.
The slips are from “Paris.” “She’s my friend,” the man in the yellow raincoat says. I say he’s a good friend to be helping her out. He tells me he’s got his own business. He’s in plumbing: Maldonado & Sons.
A blonde woman in a black fur-trimmed coat is ahead of me now, with her assistant in tow. Her name is Sue Phillips, and she’s got a custom fragrance company called Scenterprises; she’s a “scentrepreneur,” she says, speaking with a crisp South African accent. The brick-and-mortar location is in Tribeca, and it’s called the Scentarium (fragrances by appointment only, please).
Sue’s developed fragrances for Tiffany and Burberry, but corporate work moves so slowly, she says, and commercial fragrances give people headaches anyway; she moved towards customization six years ago. Now she’s made fragrances for Katie Holmes, Jamie Foxx. I ask what the latter’s blend was like. “I can’t really say,” she says, “but it reflects him. Sexy.” Sue prefers floral and oriental scents herself: rose, amber, woodsy notes. She auditioned for Shark Tank four years ago, but it wasn’t the right time.
Sue can’t decide who her favorite shark is. She likes both of the women, of course, Lori and Barbara—they clearly know what they’re doing. But maybe Robert, blue-eyed and deceptively genial, is her favorite.
“You know he’s getting divorced,” I say.
“I know,” she says. “He’s on Dancing with the Stars!”
“He’s dating his dance partner!” I say.
She shakes her head, appreciative and rueful. “That’s what happens with fame.”
The line’s moving faster now. Sue and I get purple wristbands; we’re in the block of people who are supposed to come back at 8 p.m. for their audition. I say goodbye to her, and pause by a pretzel cart, watching four wristbanded suit-people talk to each other, chattering hope.
The group disbands, and I stop one of them: Andre Junior Mekinda Mekinda, in a black suit and purple tie. He wants to pitch a guidebook for recent immigrants, an idea he’s had since he moved to America from Cameroon two years ago. He went to Iowa on a scholarship and at first couldn’t even figure out how to call his mom.
“And there was no guidebook,” I said, “and you thought: There’s gotta be a better way!”
“The funniest story,” Andre says, “is when a group of exchange students rented a car and police car sirens went off behind us, because they were trying to pull us over. But we didn’t know that’s what they wanted.”
“Oh no,” I say.
“And then,” he says, “they called for backup, because we just kept going, and whoosh, they all came at us at once!”
Was he arrested, I squeak. “Just fined,” he says, smiling.
But what do police do in Cameroon, if not flash their lights and sirens?
“Stand by the side of the road, blow a whistle,” says Andre.
Andre lives in the Bronx now, and is involved with the African community in New York. He pulls out a prototype of his guidebook, Ready For America. I ask him if he’s going to make multiple versions: for people from different regions of the world, or for different regions of the US. “New York first,” he says. “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere else in America.”
He, too, likes Robert Herjavec best. “All the other ones are impulsive,” he says. “But Robert doesn’t mix emotions and business.” We note Robert’s practice of giving the hopefuls exactly the deal they asked for, which often makes them hesitate, holding out for even more. Robert usually just waits patiently, his generosity denied.
We put our hands over our hearts, thinking about it.
Shark Tank is the only show Andre watches, he tells me. “Coming from where I’m from, I was so impressed by the idea of billionaires standing together—to help, and to make money,” he says, and then blows on his numb hands. I wish him luck.
Image via Andre Mekinda/me