The Carlson School of Management’s atrium echoed with chatter Saturday morning as inventors and entrepreneurial hopefuls lined its walls, exchanging business cards and smiles.
They stood, waiting to enter one of four audition rooms where their inventions would get 60 seconds of attention from the casting staff for ABC’s “Shark Tank.” By passing the audition, they moved one step closer to making an appearance on the show’s seventh season — and a chance at growing their business.
The University of Minnesota put a new emphasis on business partnerships in 2011 and has since pushed for more student startups. With the increased focus, the campus location is a hotspot for entrepreneur hopefuls who are aspiring to take their ideas to the professional level.
About 300 participants with more than 150 companies registered for the chance to appear on the show. Recent graduates and current students stood alongside people in their mid-40s and older, all with a diverse set of backgrounds.
The show allows contestants to ask for funding from wealthy investors, or “sharks,” including the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban. The show’s casting director, Mindy Zemrak, said the new season would start filming in the coming months and would begin airing next fall.
She said contestants should know the result of their auditions within the next two weeks.
But success on Saturday doesn’t necessarily secure a spot on the show. Contestants who pass the first round will still have to submit a video audition and undergo background and patent checks. And even after all of that trouble, they still may be turned down minutes before taking the stage, Zemrak said.
But a lucky few contestants will make it Los Angeles to film their segments.
Though he understood the small chance of making it on national television, Mike Hau, a finance senior at the Carlson School, optimistically joked with his teammates on Saturday. Their company, Swannies Footwear, was fresh off a win at the school’s “Biz Pitch” event on Thursday, where his line of soft-spiked golf sandals was awarded with a $1,000 prize from the University.
Hau said he started the company with his brother and two friends in November after noticing that existing golf sandals were ugly and often too expensive.
Before the auditions, Swannies sandal inventors sat in their T-shirts and shorts in a room with the camo-clad representatives of a tactical laser tag company, Elite 6 Ops, and Christian Gonzales, who donned a suit to pitch his new music-sharing app, Song15.
Some contestants brought working prototypes, like a bicycle powered by a rowing motion, while others carried simple posterboard displays.
To set themselves apart, the Swannies crew hoped to emphasize their humble beginning.
“We want to be a compelling story of four kids who grew up together, a couple of brothers and their buddies,” said Joe Hau, who co-founded the company. “We started a company basically out of our garage and built it into something that’s actually feasible.”
Melissa Kjolsing, assistant program director at the Carlson School and director of Minnesota Cup, a competition for in-state entrepreneurs, worked with “Shark Tank” staff to organize Saturday’s auditions. She said the University’s event had the biggest audition pool in the show’s history.
Mike Hau said the Swannies’ pitch went as planned. The interviewers kept them in the audition room for five minutes — which the four took as a good sign.
“It was exactly how we practiced it; we got all the points across that we wanted to,” Hau said. “We were glad we did as well as we possibly could have.”