This is a plea to all of you, to the world: if you see me about to do something enormously stupid, say something. Stop me. I am not without flaws and am perfectly capable of doing something catastrophically stupid. I am a celestial juggernaut of burning stupid hydrogen, liable at any moment to erupt into a solar storm and send tails of my idiot shit whipping out into the dark of the cosmos. I am your brother. You are my keeper. It is your responsibility to save my from my dumb stupid-ass self.
Stop me if I try to pitch a business idea, literally any business idea, on national television. Stop me especially if this idea is, "I want to sell little stuffed elephants for $60."
Very briefly: Shark Tank is a reality show in which entrepreneurs approach a regular cast of business moguls and ask them to invest in their idea. I, a person who understands virtually nothing about business, find it to be great television for pretty ordinary reasons: it's busted up into digestible ten-minute segments, the personalities are interesting, and when the folks involved fall, they fall hard.
If your idea is bad, the "sharks" -- in this case, Mark Cuban, Daymond John, Lori Greiner, Kevin O'Leary, and Robert Herjavec -- will not hesitate to let you have it and hurt your feelings. Below that is an even worse indignity: if your idea is really, really terrible, they won't even bother. They'll sort of coddle you, protect your feelings, and gently explain to you that, oh no no no, it's not that you're stupid, it's just that the idea you formed was formed by a stupid person. Charity can be its own insidious sort of cruelty.
This is one of those situations. The company is called Elephant Chat, and is run by a very nice-seeming husband-and-wife couple. It, as you might gather from Cuban's stinkface, is a staggeringly piss-poor business idea:
1. This is sort of a do-it-yourself marriage counseling tool. It's a little stuffed elephant, called "the elephant in the room," that sits inside a little transparent box. That box, in turn, sits inside an opaque box.
b. You and your partner place this somewhere prominently in your home.
7. If you have something you need to talk about with your partner, you remove the opaque box, rendering the elephant visible. This is meant to signal to your partner that a discussion needs to be had.
f. These people, by their own admission, are not professional counselors or therapists.
3. THEY WANT TO SELL THIS PRODUCT FOR $59.
Fifty-nine dollars. For a little stuffed animal and two little plastic boxes. That's it. There's no circuitry or electronics or licensed branding or any other excuse to justify a $59 price tag.
Naturally they are asked, point-blank, whether they realize that a stuffed elephant can be bought for three bucks and why in the sam hell anyone would dump 60 bucks on this thing.
In fairness to him, ignoring the question entirely is just about his most dignified option at this point. "Well, yeah, it's true that $400 billion is a lot to pay for a doorknob. But what you have to remember is, you can put it on your door so that you can open your door and go outside! And outside there's all kinds of folks, like Meryl Streep and Dante Bichette! And that's not all, I haven't even named all the folks!"
The sharks eventually nail him down. They always do. There is a very special joy I want to share with you now. It's the proud, earnest tenor of a very bad bullshitter who can't sell anyone his bullshit except for, tragically, himself.
Backing up for a moment: y'all would probably agree that communicating in a relationship is not always super-easy. It seems easy, in principle and from a distance. But sometimes the big things seem too big to talk about. Sometimes the little things ball up like a tumbleweed and become a big thing. Our best selves would try to resolve these things with our partners, but we are not our best selves every minute or day of our lives.
Sometimes it's difficult to find the moment, and sometimes it's not fun, but we gotta do it. We just have to sit our grown asses down and talk like the tall people we are. Lord knows it's difficult sometimes. But if you and I are ever in a relationship, and I find myself so wholly incapable of communication that I have to passive-aggressively chuck a stuffed animal on the coffee table instead of using my words ... you know what, break up with me. Don't actually tell me you're breaking up with me. Just pack up your clothes and your half of our painstakingly-assembled collection of Dunston Checks In pogs we shared and move out one day while I'm at my job in the shitty idiot factory.
And if I'm like these people, and I require my little plush monument to non-communicative pouting to cost $60, and not $10, in order to represent meaning, return me to the Kohl's you took me from and pledge to the store's management that you will never steal a mannequin again. They may elect to call the police, and I need you to be ready for that.
Anyway, now we're at the part where they tell us that the first run of these things cost them $22 each to produce. A stuffed elephant and two plastic boxes. Twenty-two bucks.
I would now like to speak directly to Mr. and Mrs. couple I am not naming because it isn't really necessary.
I make things too, but I recognize we're in different leagues. I make virtual abstract Internet stuff. No matter how little I might think of the thing you made, one of our products will prop up a wobbly table leg, and one of them won't. I recognize that. You're out there in the real business world, trying to make real things.
But I think we share a common element of thing-making: sometimes the roadblocks are pretty tough to navigate. There are setbacks at this turn and that, there are snags that undo your hard work, et cetera. Sometimes that can embolden you. The experience of overcoming long odds, in and of itself, can actually make your product better than it would have been had you not encountered those odds.
Sometimes, these problems are so frequent and unnavigable that it feels like some sentient hand is laying down traps for you. Like the entire universe is telling you in its wordless yet unmistakable language, "don't do this. Don't do it. Bad. No. Do not." One such example might be ... I don't know, say you're half a century into humanity's space age and you find that the task of making a plastic box that fits into another, slightly larger plastic box at non-ludicrous expense is beyond the grasp of humankind. The universe is trying to do y'all a solid, and I would recommend you be grateful for that.
If you don't listen, you might end up in a situation in which you somehow end up taking $100,000 of your friends' money. That would be terrible!
That is terrible!
Shark Tank is a substantial degree crueler than other shows of its ilk. It's easy for me to conclude, right or wrong, that American Idol's William Hung was in on the joke. The ringer -- the person a show's producers find time for even though that person has absolutely no shot in Hell -- is among the most noble and beloved institutions of 21st-century television.
The ringers of Shark Tank are not in on the joke. They didn't march in here with a funny suit and a bad voice. These people have actually, in real life, invested massive amounts of time and money into ventures they genuinely believe in. You can go look their websites and read about them in business journalism. This is for real.
The show runners, without doubt, knew they were sending this couple to their certain doom.
It's okay that these folks are horrible at business. You get to be horrible at something. Everyone does. These two are probably great at a number of other things, and if this brief glimpse into their lives is any indication, remaining happily married -- no small feat -- is one of them.
But, again, business, not one. I just looked up their website, elephantchat.com. It spreads across several pages and even has its own video hub. It exists solely for the purpose of selling the Elephant Chat Cube, the only product they sell.
Right on! Let's click it!