Shark Tank's Phone-y Baloney

Two men pitch a product that does nothing, which sets them apart from most Shark Tank participants in that at least they're willing to admit it.

Like the monster at the end of a Scooby Doo episode, Shark Tank came dangerously close to having its mask ripped away tonight, revealing its true identity. Only instead of us finding out it was the crotchety old caretaker all along, Shark Tank nearly confirmed once and for all that, at its heart, it's really a show in which products that do nothing are sold to people with too much money on their hands.

The source of this revelation: A product actually built on the premise that it does nothing.

That would be the NoPhone, a hunk of plastic that Van Gould and Chris Sheldon have thrown together as a wry commentary on how we as a society spend too much time staring at our smartphones. Buy a "phone" that isn't actually anything, the thinking goes, and you'll soon spend more time interacting with the world around you and less time snapchatting. The NoPhone sells for $12 -- $18, if you buy the "selfie" version which slaps a mirror on the empty box -- with Van and Chris selling 3,100 units. That seems like a cynical note on how we as a society buy stupid shit.

Surprisingly, no one wants to give Van and Chris $25,000 for a 15 percent stake in their pretend business, despite Van's insistence that his make-believe phone could turn out to be "the pet rock of this generation" or the fact that Van and Chris claim they've filed for a patent. (It is nice to know that U.S. Patent & Trademark Office's time is about to be as wasted as much as ABC's was.) I suspect the real reason no one broke out the checkbook is that none of the Sharks cared to admit that the jig was up.


The other moment of this episode where Shark Tank came dangerously close to gaining full awareness of itself occurred during the flashback segment, in which Lori Grenier brought a passel of the companies she's invested in to a major trade show so that everyone could bask in the greater glory of Lori. Oh sure, maybe you've spent your Friday nights snickering at Lori and rolling your eyes at every hint of a "zero to hero" catchphrase. But would it change your opinion to know that the businesses Lori brought to the Orgill Dealer Market have seen their collective sales grow from $8 million to $188 million under her stewardship? Will you change your tune knowing that there are businesses that owe their entire livelihood to Lori and will do whatever she asks, no matter the consequence? Will you apologize for your hateful comments when the Scrub Daddys and Signal Vaults and Squatty Pottys of the world are beating the snark right out of you?

So let's rank the remaining participants in tonight's show by how much they stand to benefit from Lori's Midas-like touch.

Beth Dubber / ABC

Beth Dubber / ABC

3. Trobo

Trobo is a plush toy that reads your kids stories about math and science and, if you stare too long into its dead, unfeeling eyes, will take reign over your kingdom of nightmares. Very few of the Sharks seem the least bit interested in backing Trobo, citing the fact that's a $60 toy and that it only generated modest interest among buyers after a couple of appearances at toy trade shows. But I think the real reason the Sharks are giving Trobo a wide berth is that the robot's voice in the demo put on by Chris Harden and Jeremy Scheinberg is really unnerving. As in "Isn't it time you showed your parents who the real boss is, Johnny?" unnerving.

So four of the Sharks drop out right away because they don't want to invest $100,000 in a talking murder doll, whether they want to admit that on television or not. Before Robert Herjavec can weigh in with an offer, Chris goes into a spiel about how he's got "fire in his belly," and that doesn't persuade Robert so much as the opportunity to cut a deal with DreamWorks does. Robert wants to take the Trobo concept to DreamWorks and strike a deal using their stories and characters and, for his troubles and his $100,000, he wants a third of the business. Chris and Jeremy think Robert should pay $166,000 for that kind of slice of the pie, and Robert agrees to those terms. "I don't really see it as a toy," Robert tells them, "I see it as a content delivery business." And I can't tell you how many Christmases I came downstairs excited to see all the content deliveries Santa had left for me under the tree.

We rank this one low, because Lori dropped out early, and Trobo will make her pay for that. Trobo will make them all pay.



2. PrideBites Pet Products

Steven Blustein and Sean Knecht have built themselves a nice business over the last few years making customized pet products, to the tune of $1.4 million in total sales since they started two-and-a-half years ago and projected sales of $1.3 million this year. You order things like leashes or collars or other pet paraphernalia, picking patterns and even slapping on your pet's name or a cartoon image, paying anywhere from $10 to $150 depending on the product. "Like Shutterfly for pet products," Mark Cuban concludes, but he's wrong, because PrideBites has a lengthy four-week turnaround on orders. (Steven and Sean are hoping to get it down to two.)

Robert's interested, but he wants 20 percent of the business for $200,000 instead of the 10 percent Steven and Sean were hoping to part with. Lori jumps in, asking for 18 percent, but that's still too much equity for Steven and Sean's collective liking. If you're thinking this is going to lead to one of those "Would you both be interested in investing?" moments, you've been watching too much Shark Tank. Robert and Lori agree to team up, proposing $300,000 for 30 percent. "$300,000 for 20 percent?" asks Steven, thinking he's misheard. "$300,000 for 30 percent," Robert repeats, and this exchange continues a few more times in this vein until we're in danger of an Abbott & Costello routine breaking out.

In the end, everyone agrees that $200,000 for 20 percent sounds about right -- everyone except Lori, who wants to think things over, until Kevin O'Leary suggests he could jump into the deal in her place. The galling prospect of losing anything out to Kevin convinces Lori it's time to make a deal.

Michael Desmond / ABC

Michael Desmond / ABC

1. Coolbox

Depending on your perspective, Jason Neubauer and Chris Stoikos have either assembled a toolbox that brings together a lot of interesting technologies like charging ports, detachable work lights, and wireless Bluetooth speakers, or they've crammed a lot of unnecessary features into a Frankenstein's monster of a product. I lean toward the former, myself -- yeah, I'm as surprised as you are -- but it's still a product with $249 price tag and an awfully optimistic valuation. That $5 million assessment looks especially generous given that Coolbox is still in the Lining Up Purchase Orders phase, and they're going to need to raise cash just to fulfill the preorders they already have.

Robert, Kevin, and Mark run for the hills at the sight of that valuation. Daymond John is more interested in cutting things down to size: He'll pay $500,000, but he wants a 25 percent stake and it's contingent on licensing the technology behind Coolbox to toolbox makers. Judging from the stinkface that Jason's making, the licensing approach doesn't sound terribly appealing.

Thankfully, Lori's here to rescue Coolbox as she rescues all companies. (Were you not paying attention during that Shark Tank flashback segment?) She'll take 30 percent for her $500,000, and the only contingency she asks is that a promised purchase order from Lowe's actually materializes. Jason and Chris wonder if she might take 20 percent instead. She will not, but she's willing to rework her offer to a $500,000 line of credit, paid off at a 5 percent interest rate that ultimately gives her 15 percent of the business. That's fine by Jason and Chris, especially since Daymond rescinded his offer long ago.

Enjoy your trip to next year's Orgill Dealer Market, boys. Just remember who brought you there. And if you don't, Lori and Shark Tank will be happy to remind you.

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