I don’t want to say that I’m personally responsible for getting Shaan Patel of SAT prep company 2400 Expert his Shark Tank deal with Mark Cuban, clinched on air at ABC this past Friday night. Test prep is an ever-expanding industry, and Patel is sharply impressive in person, even more so on paper; he’s getting his MD at USC and MBA at Yale simultaneously. However, I will say that when I met Patel at an open casting call in midtown Manhattan last April, I did totally nudge him towards the best hook in his pitch: that only 3,000 people have gotten perfect SAT scores in the last decade, and, as one of them, he’ll show you how.
When we talked on the phone last week in advance of his appearance, Patel couldn’t tell me whether or not he’d gotten the deal. But of course, the fact that he’d contacted me at all was an obvious signal that he had, and—particularly as 2400 Expert was the first business in the test prep category to ever appear on Shark Tank—I wasn’t surprised when Cubes, after stating a desire to get in on Patel’s future businesses, gave him $250K for 20 percent. (The other sharks had jumped out of the equation by that point, questioning 2400's scalability and citing Patel’s split ambitions. “Do you want to be a doctor?” Lori asked, a question that turned into somewhat of a gotcha when, after Patel answered in the affirmative, she added, “...or an entrepreneur?”)
Patel wavered on that point: one of the most oddly riveting aspects of Shark Tank is the opportunity it provides to watch an ambitious person lose their footing while simultaneously experiencing one of the best financial opportunities of their life. “I’m so used to preparing for everything,” Patel said. “But the Sharks always ask questions you’re not ready for, and it was one of the hardest parts, getting thrown off by that.”
He recovered smoothly, though, promising, as many in the Tank tend to, that you’ll never meet anyone who works so hard in your life. For credibility on this particular point as well as on the thrust of his business, Patel has his insane double degree situation, as well as a persuasive life story: the preroll for his segment showed him talking about his immigrant parents, who ran and raised him in a budget motel; it was his perfect SAT score that lifted him into new strata, he said.
It was a neatly honed pitch, as it had been when I met him in April—which was just half a year after Patel started watching Shark Tank “religiously,” and only a week after his roommates suggested that he go to the open call.
“My company, when you first look at it, doesn’t seem like it’d be a good Shark Tank idea,” he said. “They sell actual products, mostly. But you’ve probably noticed that they’re trying to expand the range, into apps and things like that. The producers told us that Shark Tank attracts copycats—the year after they had a cupcake in a jar on the show, they got 50 applications for cupcakes in jars. So they’re always looking for new categories, and they’d never had test prep on the show before. I thought I had a good shot.”
The audition at the open call was just a minute long, in front of producers, after 9 hours of waiting (during which Patel went and bought a new blazer at Zara, partly because the overcast day was so cold). “I probably worked on that 60-second pitch for about 12 hours,” Patel said. After that, he got a call; they wanted a 10-minute video, which Patel worked on for 40 hours. “I needed to make it entertaining,” he said. “I’m an introverted perfect-score SAT student, and even the best business fails if the pitch isn’t entertaining.”
Patel kept passing the producers’ benchmarks, and 76 days after the opening casting, he was on the Shark Tank sound stage in Los Angeles. “They fly you out,” he said, “and you get settled in a hotel with other entrepreneurs. You spend a day pitching the executive producers, which is very nerve-wracking—you’re so close, and what if you don’t actually get in front of the sharks? And then on the actual day, there are morning and afternoon pitches. They film from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. all day.”
What’s the good slot, I wondered. “I wanted after lunch,” said Patel. “There are studies that say judges let criminals go more often if the trial is after lunch.” He got an after-lunch slot, and he put on his Zara blazer (“Shoutout to Zara,” he said, when I asked him if he’d stressed about his TV outfit), and, pitching solo, he walked out in front of the Sharks.
“They were what I expected,” said Patel. “What’s strange is how real it is. It’s a conversation between the sharks and you. And I’m involved in the entrepreneurship community at Yale; we pitch our ideas, pitch all the time. But with a bunch of cameras and a row of millionaires and billionaires, that goes out the window. You have to use your adrenaline.”
How long was he in the Tank? “An hour and a half,” he said, “but it felt like 20 minutes. I was really impressed by how amazingly astute they were, how fast they were able to understand the business, the core competencies, the revenue model. They are there for a reason. They’re rich for a reason.”
But I’ve always thought that the Sharks, who are able to spout very specific things about industries as specific as home alarm systems, must be supplied with some sort of prep document before each show. Patel said, “I don’t think so. I really don’t. Maybe they do, but they wanted to find out all the things that would’ve been in that docket; they asked all the right questions. And so to our knowledge, they hadn’t been briefed in any way.”
Patel left, knowing that he had a deal, but forbidden to tell anyone but his family and employees. “Part of the reason they don’t want you to tell anyone is that there’s no guarantee it’ll air,” he said. (They tape 150 segments and air 100.) His business school friends asked him about it when he returned, and when Patel said he couldn’t talk about it, they likely figured what was up: “The only reason you’d have something to keep secret is if you weren’t rejected.”
The Shark Tank producers tell you that your episode is scheduled only two weeks before it airs. Patel scrambled to get a promotional deal on his website and to organize a viewing party in Las Vegas, at his old high school. In the interim period, he’d been working to actually close the deal. “The due diligence process is a long one,” he told me, when I emailed him after the show aired. “Ours only closed recently. Working with Mark is awesome; he responds to all my requests, and we have some cool things lined up.”
I asked him whether Cubes had changed the direction of the company, online courses versus not. “I’m a believer in the importance of in-person courses,” wrote Patel, “especially since so many educational companies focus on online education (Kahn Academy, Coursera, etc.). I actually think in-person education is a big opportunity for us given that it’s against the trend in education. However, we can’t be in every city. So Mark has advised us to make sure to have the right online content (prepackaged On Demand form and live online virtual classroom style) available so that anyone, anywhere can take our courses.”
My final questions to Patel, newly minted Shark Tank success story, was whether or not he was spooked by Cubes’s catchall provision that he wanted a piece of whatever Patel did after 2400 Expert—and whether or not he’d been talked out of his medical ambitions. “[Cuban] did mention that my medical practice would be my own gig,” he wrote. “So I’m glad he sees me as being able to do both! And I know some people freaked out that Mark Cuban wanted to be part of any of my future ventures, but umm—that’s the greatest thing ever! I think of it in terms of total value. Is a company more valuable if I do 100% of it on my own or is it more valuable if I split it 80/20 with Mark Cuban? You don’t need to be a perfect score SAT student (like you and me) to know the answer to that question.”
Aw, I thought; Patel remembered! “Also,” he wrote, “the founder of Dropbox, Drew Houston, got a perfect 1600 on the SAT, started a test preparation company, then eventually went onto start Dropbox, which is now valued at $10 billion. I think Mark was smart in protecting his investment just in case I start the next Dropbox, haha.”
You can watch Patel—the last pitch in the episode—here.
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Image via ABC/Shark Tank