Don’t get defensive: I find this to be true in general. Yes, the Sharks will criticize parts of your business — but don’t take it personally. That’s their job. Remember, they don’t know your businesses history, why you made the choices you made, etc. Be confident. Respectfully disagree where you think the Sharks have incorrect information or graciously acknowledge good, constructive criticism. It shows maturity and savvy. Too many pitches go off the rails when people get defensive, and everybody ends up losing.
As a part of my series about the ‘5 Important Business Lessons I Learned While Being On The Shark Tank’ I had the pleasure of interviewing Patrick Ambron. Patrick is a leading expert in online reputation management, online privacy, search engine optimization and startups. More than anything else, he’s passionate about helping consumers control their own information and own lives online.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit of the backstory about how you grew up?
I grew up in a small town in Dutchess County (Upstate NY), called Fishkill. Unfortunately it’s place better known for opioid addiction than for entrepreneurship. Everyone in the town worked for the local IBM plant. When they moved all the job overseas, everyone in the town, including my Dad was laid off. The town has never completely recovered. However, my Dad was able to land on his feet. He saw the writing on the wall when I was a kid and went to school at night and got his teaching degree. When the layoffs started, he was able to find a job teaching at the local high school, which ended up being a great job.
The experience was really impactful, and I think planted the seed to be an entrepreneur early. It taught me that there is no such thing as “job security”. A corporation doesn’t care about you and can cut you at a moment’s notice. It’s up to you to build the skills needed to be valuable and to take care of yourself. I realized then that I never wanted to be at the mercy of a giant institution that didn’t care about me. That meant I could never be stagnant and always had to be learning and working.
Growing up, I loved competing. I played a lot of team sports, but by the time I got to high school I had fallen in love with distance running. I loved the mental aspect of it and how pure the competition was. If you were willing to put in the work, endure the pain, you would be very hard to beat.
While I had never heard the term “entrepreneur”, I also found myself starting businesses in my youth. In elementary school it was riding my bike to sams club, buying candy at bulk and reselling it on the bus. As I got older, I’d do similar things, like coming up with a system to buy concert tickets before they sold out and upselling them (before things like stub hub). My first real business was in college, building websites and doing local SEO for businesses. I realized there was a market for these types of skills, and it was exciting learning them and making money selling it to businesses. However, I also realized that as an “agency” I could never really scale. It wasn’t until BrandYourself, that I had a business that could scale beyond my own work.
Can you share with us the story of the “aha moment” that gave you the idea to start your company?
The company started when my Cofounder was having trouble getting a job because he was being mistaken for a criminal with the same name. “Online Reputation Management” was a growing industry, but my Cofounder couldn’t get a quote for under $25K. The industry catered to corporations and enterprises, but we realized that individuals needed to manage their own brands online. We decided we wanted to bring that power to everyone, not just the wealthy. We live our entire lives online, and we get screened at every phase of our career: applying to college, applying for jobs, going for promotions, etc. People deserve to have a say in how they’re being portrayed online, without spending tens of thousands of dollars.
Since then, we’ve developed more and more tools to protect people online, including ways to protect privacy and security. Popular tools include social media clean up, the ability to find and delete old/unwanted accounts, dark web scans, and the identification/removal of personal information from data brokers. We want to protect consumers online whether that’s protecting them from a bad job interview to identity theft.
We’ve grown to over 100 employees and nearly 1m customers. However, we never lost sight of our core mission: to protect people online.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
SharkTank is certainly up there. Outside of that, I think the fact that we’ve ended up working with celebrities I grew up watching, especially sports stars. It’s sometimes surreal to be interacting with an individual that was larger than life from your childhood.
Can you share a story about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
It’s only humorous in retrospect, but in the beginning, we constantly bit off more than we could chew. We were approaching the market and trying to build massive products as if we were Apple or Microsoft. That lack of focus slowed our progress.
For the first three years of the company, we had virtually zero revenue to show for it, despite working around the clock. We would try to build every feature, chase every opportunity, and land every partnership. We became pretty good at a dozen things. Instead, we needed to focus on doing one thing really well, and letting things fall from there.
After a 3rd failed product launch in 3 years, we spent 10 months simplifying the product and trying to become the best at one or two things. We ignored everything else. On the 4th launch, with a simplified but more robust feature set, we ended up with more customers and revenue that first week than the previous three years.
I think the main lesson was this: You’re better off getting exceptionally good at one thing than moderately good at 100 things.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re continuing to double down on tools that help protect people online. In addition to our current features like — improve Google results, clean up social media, protect personal information — we are working on tools that will help protect people against hacks, data breaches and more.
Ok, thank you for all that. Let’s now move to the main part of our interview. Many of us have no idea about the backend process of how to apply and get accepted to be on the Shark Tank. Can you tell us the story about how you applied and got accepted. What “hoops” did you have to go through to get there? How did it feel to be accepted?
I’m sure the actual presentation was pretty nerve wracking. What did you do to calm and steel yourself to do such a great job on the show?
It was pretty stressful. The night before I tried to exercise, get a good night’s sleep and go over all of my notes in preparation. The morning of, I made sure I ate some breakfast even though I had no appetite from the anticipation.
The most important thing for me was to keep going through all of my notes I made for the pitch and Q&A. The more I knew them inside and out, the more confident I felt. All of that said, when it was time to get Mic’d up and wait for the doors to open, it felt like my heart was going to explode. For a split second I considered walking off because I didn’t think I could go through with it. Thankfully I was able to give myself an internal pep talk, remind myself I knew my stuff, and walk through the corridor.
Once the pitch started, I started to relax. The worst part was all that anticipation.
So what was the outcome of your Shark Tank pitch. Were you pleased with the outcome?
The good news is, all the Sharks liked me, and the business and we were portrayed well! We received an offer for $2M for 25% from Robert Herjavec. I had originally asked for $2m in exchange for 13.5%. I was in the process of raising money from other investors and it didn’t seem fair to offer Robert twice as good a deal as everyone else. We weren’t able to meet anywhere in the middle, so I ultimately walked away. It was an extremely difficult decision. At the end of the day I did what I thought was right for the business. Thankfully we’ve been able to grow a lot since then so it isn’t a major regret. That said, I often wonder what impact the influence of a Shark could have on the business.
What are your “5 Important Business Lessons I Learned While Being On The Shark Tank”? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Know your business inside and out: If the Sharks are going to invest money, you need to know your stuff. They need to understand how the business works before making a decision, plus they want to make sure you know what you’re doing. The show edits the segment down to the highlights. For example, even though my clip was 7 minutes long, I was in there for almost 2 hours. In that time they were digging into the metrics, finances, risks, etc. The worst thing you can do is be unprepared. Holding yourself to this standard, even outside of the SharkTank, is a good benchmark to set.
- Be your own worst critic: The Sharks won’t hold back. They will try to pick holes in your business to understand if it’s a good opportunity. Don’t get blind-sided. Nobody knows your business better than you, including its weaknesses. Pinpoint everything that’s wrong with your business and have an answer for it. Not only does this prepare you for difficult questions with the sharks, it’s a great way to identify future opportunities and roadmaps. This holds true even outside of the tank.
- Stick to your guns: It’s an overwhelming experience and it’s easy to get swept up. For example, I knew going in the absolute most I’d be willing to give away of my company. That said, when the moment hit, I was so close to accepting an offer that fell below that threshold. The Sharks are larger than life in the moment, and with the cameras rolling, it’s important you hold firm and stick to your guns. There are many moments in business that will feel overwhelming, so sticking to your guns is an important skill to hone.
- Don’t get defensive: I find this to be true in general. Yes, the Sharks will criticize parts of your business — but don’t take it personally. That’s their job. Remember, they don’t know your businesses history, why you made the choices you made, etc. Be confident. Respectfully disagree where you think the Sharks have incorrect information or graciously acknowledge good, constructive criticism. It shows maturity and savvy. Too many pitches go off the rails when people get defensive, and everybody ends up losing.
- Remember to breath: At the end of the day, try to enjoy it. Running a business is challenging but it’s also really rewarding or you wouldn’t be doing it. Take a step back, relax and try to have some fun. If you’re in that type of mindset the other lessons are easier to internalize.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
- You’re better off getting exceptionally good at one thing than moderately good at 100 things. For the first three years of the company, we had virtually zero revenue to show for it, despite working around the clock. While we were working hard, we had a lack of focus. We would try to build every feature, chase every opportunity, and land every partnership. We became pretty good at a dozen things. Instead, we needed to focus on doing one thing really well, and letting things fall from there. After a 3rd failed product launch in 3 years, we spent 10 months simplifying the product and trying to become the best at one or two things. We ignored everything else. On the 4th launch, with a simplified but more robust feature set, we ended up with more customers and revenue that first week than the previous three years.
- Pay attention to the market and build tools the consumer needs: Our biggest key to growth was tracking the market and building tools to follow it. While we were early on in the idea of helping consumers online, consumers began caring more and more. We were the first ones to build tools to help consumers improve their Google results. Rather than stick our laurels we were always tracking the types of protection consumers needed online. When social media screening began becoming an issue, we built the most sophisticated social media scrubbing technology on the market. When consumers began worrying about their privacy, we spent over a year building a suite that would help protect them from spam, stalkers, identity thieves, hackers and more. The key was/is to focus on the biggest problems facing our customers and to provide solutions that help them.
- Show value/be patient: We’ve been able to do over $35M in sales without every spending significant money on acquisition (<$50K/yr). We did this by creating a ton of free tools, guides and content that have been viewed millions of times. Rather than go with the hard sell, we decided to build a brand around helpful content/tools we created and let customers come to us. It’s a much longer approach — we’ve been doing this for 10 years — but in the long run, it scales much better.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I think we could all do with a daily reminder to treat others how we want to be treated. It’s simple but so many of the issues I see on a daily basis — both big and small — stem from people forgetting that simple principle and acting in good faith towards others.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Even God can’t steer a parked car”. I’m a textbook over-thinker. I can mull over decisions for hours, days, or even months. When it comes to business, sometimes you just need to take a step forward. Even if it’s the wrong one, moving is key. In our most difficult moments, where we’ve felt paralyzed, just taking action is the first step to moving forward.