Here’s how this founder sought to overcome Shark Tank’s apparent aversion to tech startups that had already raised capital

  • Ming Zhao, CEO of PROVEN, an AI-powered skin care startup, explained how she tried to overcome Shark Tank’s apparent aversion to supporting tech startups that had already raised. 
  • “The sharks are not the most coddling of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs,” based largely on the view that tech startup founders or entrepreneurs who are known to have more access to venture capital and other investors, and shouldn’t be looking for funding on Shark Tank, she told Business Insider. 
  • She also prepared to be called nasty names, including “gold-digger,” which was what Mark Cuban called one entrepreneur in a 2017 episode. Another “shark,” Kevin O’Leary, called the African-American founders of Lib Bar “colorful cockroaches.”
  • “I was definitely preparing for that having seen those episodes,” Zhao told Business Insider. “I was afraid of being called a cockroach or a gold digger or any of those names.”
  • While the show’s judges ultimately chose not to invest, Zhao says that being on the show was good exposure and led to customers and partners taking PROVEN 
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Entrepreneur Ming Zhao, CEO of PROVEN, an AI-powered skin care startup, was excited to make an appearance on Shark Tank, though she knew she had to brace herself to be called nasty names — including “gold-digger” and cockroach.

“Gold-digger” was how Mark Cuban, one of the show’s judges, or “sharks,” referred to entrepreneur Yunha Kim for seeking to raise more capital for her mediation app company in a 2017 episode. “Colorful cockroaches” was Kevin O’Leary’s label during a 2018 episode for a group of African-American entrepreneurs who launched Lip Bar, a lipstick company. 

“I was definitely preparing for that having seen those episodes,” Zhao told Business Insider. “I was afraid of being called a ‘cockroach’ or a ‘gold-digger’ or any of those names.”

Zhao’s startup uses AI and a proprietary database to formulate skin care products based on an individual’s skin type and needs. The startup calls its product “the world’s most personalized skin care” based on the Skin Genome Project, an award-winning skincare database.

Zhao joined an open casting session for Shark Tank and was chosen to appear in an episode recently. She said she knew it was a big break for her startup, but she knew she wouldn’t have to just explain her company’s technology and business model. She would have to prepare for a grilling by the sharks, who are known for sometimes being mean-spirited and intense towards the entreprenuers on the show.

The sharks did not invest in her startup, but she said being on the program gave them more visibility. In fact, her episode was recently re-broadcast “which means our show got pretty good accolades,” she said.

Preparing for a grilling

The experience of Kim, a serial entrepreneur, in a 2017 Shark Tank episode, which can be viewed on YouTube, stood out for Zhao.

During Kim’s appearance, Cuban led the grilling, saying, “From an investment perspective, you don’t need the cash.” To his fellow host, Richard Branson, the Virgin Group founder, Cuban added, “She’s a gold-digger.”

“No, she’s not a gold-digger,” Branson disagreed.

“Did you just call me a gold-digger?” Kim asked smiling.

“Yes,” Cuban answered.

Businessman Daymond John endorsed Cuban’s argument as he pointed to where Kim was standing before the sharks, saying: “There are so many people around the country that stand on that carpet and they’ve busted their butt and they’ve mortgaged everything they have to hopefully get $200,000 to $300,000 to run their business. Every time somebody steps on this carpet with a couple of million dollars in the bank you take away the opportunity from somebody who may have lost their home or sold their kids college fund.”

Branson chimed in again to defend Kim, saying, “That’s so unfair.” Branson later recalled in a blog post how that comment led to a misunderstanding with Cuban, and said that they reconciled later.

Zhao said studied that episode closely as she prepared for her own appearance: “They called the woman a ‘gold-digger’ because they were like, ‘Oh, you know you don’t you’re not desperate for money, and there are all these other entrepreneurs who you know if they didn’t have this money then they would go bankrupt’ or something like that.”

Zhao knew she was in a similar situation since PROVEN had “already raised a healthy amount of seed money.” That’s shy decided to come up with “a few comebacks that I prepared beforehand.”

She said that had the sharks called her a “gold -igger” for seeking more startup capital, she would have responded: “This show is not a charity show. This is a show where great companies go to meet great investors, so that we can both grow and you know really bring these wonderful products to all of America. That’s why I’m here.”

‘The sharks are not the most coddling of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs’

As she expected, there was “a lot of commotion” among the sharks when she disclosed that the company had raised a few million dollars in capital. Ultimately, no one called Zhao a “gold digger” or any other name, but she said her experience underscored what she said Silicon Valley or tech entrepreneurs should understand about Shark Tank.

“The sharks are not the most coddling of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs,” based largely on the view that tech startup founders or entrepreneurs who are known to have more access to venture capital and other investors, and shouldn’t be looking for funding on Shark Tank, she said. 

Ultimately, she says, while the sharks chose not to invest, her appearance has had a “raw impact” on the startup’s traffic, and reaffirms to their partners “that this is a legitimate business.”

“There’s a lot of cascading benefits from that,” she said. “Even our suppliers now take us more seriously because they all watch Shark Tank.”

Got a tip about PROVEN or another tech company? Contact this reporter via email at bpimentel@businessinsider.com, message him on Twitter @benpimentel or send him a secure message through Signal at (510) 731-8429. You can also contact Business Insider securely via SecureDrop.

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