Shark Tank: Why Georgians risk humiliation for TV money

There are plenty of ways to have your dreams tested and then crushed in front of a national TV audience. Reality shows offer the chance to be eviscerated while trying really hard to dance, sing, cook, swap a spouse, seek a spouse or hang with millennials in a fake house.

The only one I try to catch now and again, ABC’s Shark Tank, involves entrepreneurs seeking help from the show’s wealthy investors (the “sharks”) and the tank’s ability to generate free publicity.

You never know what’s going to happen when dreams are on the line, which is part of what was going through the minds of two Athens, Ga., brothers, Alex and Jonathan Torrey, when they learned they had made it on the show.

These days, if you want to get your entrepreneurial groove on, you probably have more options than ever to try to raise money, said Andrea Hershatter, who teaches entrepreneurship at Emory University and is a senior associate dean at its Goizueta Business School.

“If you are a dreamer, this feels like a moment for you to exercise that dream,” Hershatter said.

On one end there are crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo (essentially public ways of asking strangers for money). At the other end is Shark Tank, also a public way of asking strangers for money, usually in return for giving up a share of the company. Except that Shark Tank is juiced with cameras, TV egos, the potential for unflattering editing cuts, and a mandate to keep its 7.8 million weekly viewers entertained.

That’s why I ended up in a bar in Athens one recent Friday night. I was there to watch what might be one of the most pivotal moments in the lives of the Torrey brothers, who that night were being featured on Shark Tank.

Alex, 28, and Jonathan, 31, are University of Georgia business school grads. Four years ago they launched a clothing company called umano. They really had no business doing it.

Neither had fashion or textile expertise. But what the heck: This is an era in which anyone can try to do anything. “Try” being the operative word.

$42 t-shirts

The brothers, along with three full-time employees plus interns and part-timers, sell $42 t-shirts emblazoned with the simple artwork of local school kids. The brothers give backpacks full of supplies to the schools, including ones in Athens, Harlem, Peru, Mexico City and Los Angeles. The Torreys describe it as a social entrepreneurship venture, the idea being that you can do good while also making a profit (which I guess implies normal businesses are take-it-or-leave-it on the doing good thing).

The brothers have an oddly global operation. They contract to have the fabric made in Turkey. It’s made into shirts in Haiti. Finally the clothes land in Athens. The brothers’ dad, Richard Torrey, a high school Spanish teacher and former corporate sales executive for Mattel, spends every evening screen-printing children’s artwork on the shirts.

He learned how by watching YouTube videos.

See what I mean about anybody can try anything?

(Did I mention that 57 percent of Americans said they’d rather start their own business than work for someone else, according to a 2005 Gallup survey?)

Which brings me to that Athens bar. The Torrey brothers invited friends and family to join them there to watch their taped Shark Tank segment. The guests would learn whether the brothers might really be on to something or if their business would continue to struggle. (Four years in, they have made it into more than a dozen Bloomingdale’s, but they still don’t pay themselves a salary.)

The segment had been filmed four months in advance. But the brothers, who were contractually barred from spilling the beans early, seemed a little anxious. TV is not a gentle medium.

‘You are being dissected’

“It’s a very scary situation for the entrepreneur,” Alex Torrey told me. “You are being dissected… It’s a high-risk gamble.”

“Minutes in the tank can ruin four years of your life, what you’ve worked so hard for,” he said.

The brothers rehearsed for the show. But they weren’t fully prepared for the intensity of being surrounded by more than a dozen cameras, one seemingly just a couple feet from their faces as they walked out.

“Your lines, your lines, your lines. Don’t forget,” Jonathan Torrey reminded himself.

It was so stressful that, other than the outcome, he told me he couldn’t remember much of their hour-and-a-half session with the sharks.

So they weren’t sure what they would see on TV. Among the parts that aired was a shark bluntly stating that they relied on “child labor” for the clothing artwork. The Torreys were cautioned that the fashion business is notoriously fickle. A shark called their venture “embryonic.”

Three sharks bite

But they got off easy. Three sharks offered investments. The brothers’ mother, who managed to stay in her seat while watching the show, clasped her hands as if in prayer. Dozens of friends at the bar cheered. When a shark asked the brothers what they were going to do about the offers, supporters in the Athens bar parroted the question.

The Torreys bit back, accepting a $150,000 offer for 20 percent of their company from billionaire Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, and Lori Greiner, an inventor and QVC-TV personality. Months later, the deal is still being negotiated by lawyers, Jonathan Torrey told me.

But as the brothers’ episode aired, traffic on umano’s site soared, growing more than 10,000 percent over its usual sales in the weekend that followed.

Richard Torrey is amazed by all of it: the show, the ability of his sons to launch a business with such international underpinnings.

Years ago, after a long career in the corporate world, he made his own run at launching a business. He and a partner contracted to have handcrafted goods shipped from his native Mexico to the United States. But the partner got cold feet gambling more as the venture grew, and the operation fizzled.

“I grew up in a different world,” he told me of his sons. “It’s their turn at bat.”

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Matt Kempner’s email: Follow him on Twitter: @MattKempner and Facebook: AJC Unofficial Business columnist Matt Kempner ( )