Swimming with Sharks

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Shane Hughes
  • 180th Fighter Wing, Ohio Air National Guard
Tech. Sgt. Tom Burden, a weapons mechanic assigned to the Ohio Air National Guard’s 180th Fighter Wing, swapped his military uniform for a dark blue jumpsuit emblazoned with the Grypmat logo across the shoulders as he mingled with more than a hundred friends, relatives, entrepreneurs and investors at Rev1 Ventures in Columbus, Ohio. They stood together in small groups, discussing his invention while waiting for the newest episode of Shark Tank to air. Some speculated on the upcoming show. Would Burden get a deal? If he did get a deal, would it be what he wanted? Which shark would show an interest in his business? Would he even accept a deal if one was offered? Others speculated on the potential of his promising future; private jets, mansions, yachts and other various trappings of success. Some talked about their own inventions and Burden’s example of entrepreneurial spirit, dogged determination, and dauntless courage. Others spoke hopefully about investment opportunities with Burden’s self-built company.

“The show’s about to start,” an event organizer called out, beckoning the guests into a large room filled with chairs and a large projection screen where commercials played, interspersed with previews of the upcoming show. Burden stood near the front as representatives from Rev1 Ventures, Bunker Labs, and Congressman Steve Stivers’ office spoke about the importance of entrepreneurship for the economy and shared personal stories of working with Burden over the years. After the speakers finished, Burden took questions from the crowd as the minutes ticked down. As Burden answered a question about what kept him going through all the hard times, the Shark Tank theme music played and the crowd erupted into applause, cheers and whistles.

As the opening credits faded, the show’s announcer began introducing the Grypmat while the audience watched as Burden walked on stage and stood next to the cockpit of an airplane, ready to make his pitch to billionaire investors. “First into the tank is a product created to solve a problem the entrepreneur had as a fighter-jet mechanic.” This was the moment Burden had been preparing for since 2012, when he began watching Shark Tank with his neighbor, Mollie Giha, every Sunday night.

“When I first moved to Toledo, my first friend was Mollie,” Burden said. “She’s 86 years old, and we would eat supper at her house and watch Shark Tank together. One day when we were watching Shark Tank, I looked at her and said, ‘I’m going to get on this show, and you’re going to come with me.’” He made her promise him that she would go to the studio if he ever made it onto the show.

“I had a son who died,” Mollie said, tears welling in her eyes as she recalled the memories. “He was very talented and Tom reminds me of him. I just took to Tom right away. He’s just so wonderful, and I love him so much.”

After years of hard work, determination and creative problem-solving, Burden received a phone call from a scout for Shark Tank. He had just finished raising more than $100,000 through a successful Kickstarter campaign for the Grypmat, and they had seen the video he’d produced to help raise awareness about his product. They wanted him to apply right away.

“There was a ton of paperwork,” Burden said. “The only time I’ve ever done anywhere near as much paperwork was when I enlisted.”

He submitted his application to compete on the show in February, and continued working on the day-to-day challenges of building his business, capturing market share, and selling to retailers. Eventually, he got an email informing him that the field of competitors had been narrowed down to 10 thousand. A few more weeks passed and he got a phone call from one of the show’s producers, Kate, telling Burden he was in the top 1,000 potential competitors.

“I didn’t believe it was going to happen,” Burden said. “When I applied, I gave it everything I had, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up.”

Burden spoke with Kate every week as the selection process continued and more candidates were eliminated. When he found out he was selected to be in the exclusive group of 150 candidates for a slot on Shark Tank, his first thought was of Mollie. He had made a promise and planned to keep it, but there were still several weeks to go before filming.

Burden spent those weeks practicing what he would say when he got his chance to make a pitch to the Shark Tank investors. One week prior to filming, he travelled to Florida, where he spent the week rehearsing his presentation with Ray Ferreira, a former ESPN producer and one of Burden’s business partners.

“We were at a hotel that was being renovated, and there were a lot of empty shipping containers, so we set up some shipping containers like the set and we practiced his pitch and his energy,” Ferreira said. “We practiced it over and over and over, until he had just right.”

“Ray helped fine tune my pitch to the sharks,” Burden said. “Ray used to work with fishermen and he told me, ‘If I can make them exciting on TV, you’re going to be just fine.’”

“Tom is just the hardest working guy you’ll ever meet,” Ferreira said. “I had him doing so many rehearsals he was losing his voice.”

Ferreira helped him be more energetic and animated in his presentation. That energy would be critical if he was going to be successful on the show.

“If you’re not excited about your product, then they’re not going to be excited about your product, and you have to show that to them,” Burden said.

During that week, Kate called to let Burden know that there was going to be a guest shark. That guest was none other than Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group, which controls more than 400 companies, including Virgin Atlantic, an international airline.

“When that happened, everything changed,” Burden stated.

Burden’s original pitch had been about the versatility of his product. Although he had developed his product while working as a jet mechanic at the 180th Fighter Wing, it could be used for more than just aircraft maintenance. The news about Branson inspired a shift in tactics. His new pitch would focus on the product’s origin in aviation and about how it has thrived in that field.

The time for him to film was approaching fast when disappointment struck; Mollie was in poor health and she wouldn’t be able to make it out to the studio in California, where Burden was getting ready for his practice pitch in front of one of the show’s directors. If the practice pitch wasn’t good enough, it could prevent him from pitching to the investors. Everything he had done up to this point hinged on this moment, and the pressure to perform well was intense.

Burden froze during his practice pitch and forgot his lines.

“It was so bad that Kate had to shout out the next line of my presentation,” Burden said.

Dejected, he asked the director for another chance to make his pitch. Without a second thought, the director refused to give him another chance. He asked Kate if she thought his poor performance meant he wouldn’t get a chance to pitch to the sharks, but as he talked to her about his chances, people who had been watching started to gather around the jet he’d brought, posing for photos with it. She told him not to worry.

“We wanted a very impressive prop,” Ferreira said. “It cost us some money, but sure enough, during the rehearsal, the whole crew was mugging around this jet. They were hanging off it and taking pictures. That’s worth a second look because it’s not something people see every day.”

Two days later, Burden got his chance. He filmed his pitch and was forbidden from revealing the results until after the show aired on Sunday, Nov. 12.

“The tough part was keeping it secret,” Burden said. “I would have to keep my laptop shut, so people wouldn’t see emails from Shark Tank. If anyone asked, I would tell them I had applied, but the selection process takes a really long time.”

When the opening credits ended and Burden’s segment was announced, everyone at Rev 1 Ventures went silent as they sat on the edge of their seats, studying Burden’s face for any hints about the show to come, including Mollie.

“Hello sharks,” he began, “my name is Tom Burden and I’m from the small, farm town of Celina, Ohio, and I’m seeking $200,000 in exchange for 10 percent of my company.”

Burden introduced the problem mechanics face as they try to keep their tools nearby while working on the slick, curved surface of aircraft, then introduced the Grypmat, a flexible non-slip tool tray. He explained the benefits of his product and how it could solve problems in the areas of expertise for each investor. Branson spoke up immediately about how much the engineering teams at Virgin Atlantic would love a product like the Grypmat.

“If you know anyone who owns an airline, let me know,” Burden said to Branson with a sly smile. Roars of laughter erupted from everyone watching at the Rev 1.

“We would definitely buy this,” Branson replied. “The only question is whether or not you can make any money as a business.”

Without a moment’s hesitation at the challenge, Burden launched into action, recounting his business’ success in sales. His pitch was greeted by looks of surprise and amazement. Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks franchise, even began clapping after Burden explained how he was reinvesting his profits back into his product and business. Burden laid out his goals for the business and explained future possibilities for expansion. He explained his plans for the $200,000 he asked for at the start of his pitch and got his first offer from an investor moments later. Daymond John, the founder of FUBU, offered him $200,000 for a 25 percent stake in Grypmat, 15% more than Burden had offered in exchange for the investment.

Burden hesitated.

“Isn’t that a great offer?” John asked.

“I think I asked for 10, but we’ll see,” Burden replied. The crowd in Columbus cheered at the brazen audacity of Burden’s reply. He had refused his only offer, so far, and might not get another one.

The investors bantered back and forth as they asked Burden more questions about his invention. None of the other investors offered a deal, but Burden wasn’t backing down and wouldn’t accept the offer from John. John revised his offer: $200,000 for a 20% stake.

Burden shifted uneasily, wringing his hands as he said, “We’re getting closer.” More cheers erupted from the watch party as Burden refused to budge from his original offer. Lori Greiner, one of the most prolific inventors of retail products, reacted with shock. Burden had just refused his second offer from the only investor showing an interest in his business.

“My mission here today is to get as many sharks to take a bite out of Grypmat as possible,” Burden said.

That spurred interest from the other investors, who told Burden he’s need to revise his offer. He needed to offer a bigger stake in his company if he wanted to get multiple investors.

“What would you offer for two or three sharks?” asked Robert Herjavec, a millionaire entrepreneur who has built and sold several IT companies.

With another sly smile, Burden replied, “That depends on the sharks.”

More cheers and laughter erupted from the crowd watching from Columbus, but up on the screen, the cameras focused in on the investors looking at one another with skepticism before cutting to a commercial break. The crowd at Rev 1 groaned at the suspense and gossiped among themselves about the offer from John and speculated on what would happen next.

The commercials ended and the show returned. Herjavic asked Burden what sharks he wanted, and Burden suggested Branson. On the screen a long silence played out, mirrored by the silence in Columbus. This was a make or break moment, and the mood was tense. The confident, self-assured smile Burden held up to this point vanished as Branson sat silent.

“I think you’re fantastic,” Branson told Burden, in a tone reminiscent of someone preparing to reject a romantic suitor. “I think you should concentrate on what you’re good at, which is developing products.”

Herjavec jumped in with an offer: $400,000 for a 40 percent stake split between him and Branson. Burden considered the offer, saying nothing. Another long silence followed, before Branson offered $200,000 for 15 percent, an offer much closer to what Burden had wanted. Herjavic made the same offer and then John made the same offer. Burden now had three investors offering the exact same deal. As Burden considered his options, John tried to apply pressure to him, criticizing the amount of time Burden was taking to consider his options.

Cuban and Greiner whispered among themselves, before Cuban made another offer: $200,000 for a 20 percent stake, split between them, but they would take over all aspects of the business so Burden could focus on innovation. The investors began discussing the advantages each of them could bring to the Grypmat team. The momentum was starting to build in Burden’s favor.

Burden seized his opportunity, interrupting the investors. “Would you do 30 percent at $360,000?” he asked, pointing to Branson, Cuban and Greiner.

Greiner considered the offer and Burden repeated it, causing the investors to look back and forth at one another. Branson accepted the offer first, followed by Greiner, and finally Cuban. The three investors stood up and hugged Burden. The entire crowd at Rev 1 stood up and applauded Burden, whistling and cheering. Mollie wiped tears from her eyes.

Now that the segment was over, people began talking excitedly again about the hard bargain Burden had worked out with the investors.

“I watch a lot of Shark Tank,” said Janie Asberry, a friend of Tom’s from 2011 when they attended military technical training together. “I always feel like it’s the sharks who manipulate the inventors, but in this case I feel like he had full control of the situation. He out-sharked the sharks.”

“Tom was on the offensive,” Ferreir said. “He was savvy enough to understand the situation and hold out for the best deal.”

Even though Burden had struck a deal with the investors while filming, it wasn’t official until much later.

“It’s honestly pretty stressful,” Burden said. “What a lot of people don’t know is that once you make a deal on the show, that just starts the due diligence phase. There’s still a lot left to go through. They have to verify that everything you said on-stage is true, because people go on-stage and lie all the time. Only about 10 percent of the deals that happen on the show actually go through. When you think about the numbers, it’s pretty crazy. More than 60,000 people apply and only 150 will film. If even half of those get a deal, only a tenth of them will actually happen.”

Now that Burden has three, billionaire investors, he is working with their teams to build his business, increase manufacturing output, capture more market share by getting the Grypmat into big-box stores and expand the line of products into more niche markets.

“The momentum this gives to the company will change everything,” Ferreira said.

Since the show aired, Burden spoke on entrepreneurship during the National Guard Association of the United States’ 21st Annual Industry Day in Washington D.C. on Dec. 12, presenting alongside generals and national directors. But one weekend a month, he can be found serving his country part-time as a Citizen-Airman.

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