How I Survived the Shark Tank: An Ed-Tech Entrepreneur Speaks

Billionaire Investors Mark Cuban, Chris Sacca Team Up to Invest in Brightwheel

Associate Editor
Brightwheel app, early education software platform.
A developer from San Francisco, Calif. makes a pitch for his preschool technology, convincing two billionaires to each contribute to his ed-tech venture. The ABC network show originally aired on April 29.


With a powerful sales pitch, Dave Vasen, the founder of a preschool technology provider, wound up initiating a heated debate between two billionaires, Mark Cuban and Chris Sacca—both judges on the ABC show “Shark Tank”—about who should invest in his company, and how much.

In the end, Vasen brought them both on board.

Vasen—who only two years…

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With a powerful sales pitch, Dave Vasen, the founder of a preschool technology provider, wound up initiating a heated debate between two billionaires, Mark Cuban and Chris Sacca—both judges on the ABC show “Shark Tank”—about who should invest in his company, and how much.

In the end, Vasen brought them both on board.

Vasen—who only two years ago created brightwheel as an all-in-one app for early-education providers, day-care operators, and families—asked the “sharks” to consider teaming up for an investment.

In a TV show where many entrepreneurs with promising products walk away empty-handed, Vasen received offers from three of the five investors who listened to his pitch.

After Sacca’s original offer, Vasen said to him, “That’s an amazing offer. Do you have any desire to team up with other sharks?”

Ultimately, Vasen secured a $600,000 investment ($300,000 each) from Cuban and Sacca, in return for a combined 6.67 percent stake in his company.

“I was horribly nervous,” recalled Vasen. “People told me, ‘You looked calm, cool, and collected.’ I felt like I was putting my company out there. The show was a risk for us,” he told EdWeek Market Brief.  

“Then, when things were going positively, I didn’t want to lose the deal. I felt passionate and strong about wanting to do a deal and bringing Mark and Chris on board,” Vasen said.

Cuban is the owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, Landmark Theaters, and Magnolia Pictures. Sacca is a Silicon Valley-based angel investor whose investments in Uber and Twitter were called “ground-floor bonanzas” by Forbes magazine. During the show, the two argued about why they should, or might not, team up to support Vasen’s company.

They weren’t alone in their admiration for brightwheel. A third shark, Kevin O’Leary, called the company’s strategy “brilliant” and also offered to invest.

(You can watch the back-and-forth during the episode at this link. The brightwheel segment is the last, and begins three-quarters of the way through the show.)

Brightwheel helps families find out what their children are doing during the day at school, helps teachers and day-care providers manage their students’ activities and schedules, and helps administrators streamline their operations, using technology instead of paper.

We asked Vasen to tell us more about his company, what it was like to be on “Shark Tank,” and what advice he would have for other education company leaders who want to give it a try. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How difficult is it to be selected for “Shark Tank”?

Tens of thousands of companies apply to be on the show. You can apply or they can find you. They hold live auditions throughout the country at different points of the year.

What advice would you give other ed-tech providers interested in pursuing a “Shark Tank” appearance?

It’s not easy, and it’s a big investment. The things that are important: What is your product and what is the traction? On the traction side, it’s important to be doing well.

For us, the product was something very personal and meaningful that people could understand and connect with. Whether they’re a teacher or parent, or if they have a niece or nephew, it’s something they can relate to.

As for traction, had we gone in there with 10 schools—like we had when we originally launched—it would have gone pretty poorly.

What was the hardest thing about going on “Shark Tank”?

During the taping, it was over an hour of back-and-forth. For TV purposes, they trim it down. The hardest for me was not the back-and-forth. That was fun. I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to put myself in a bad situation. Early on, when I said we had money in the bank, they asked tough questions like, “Are you here for the right reasons?” I had to make the case that we’re building a global company, and we want to have the strongest brand in early education.

People often see “reality” shows and want to know whether they’re real or staged. How would you answer that?

The sharks didn’t know anything about me or the company. They’re sizing you up when you walk out there. Sharing our story and the impact we’ve had on teachers and parents was key in showing we’re here for the right reasons.

How did you wind up on “Shark Tank”?

We opened our doors in June 2015, and it just so happened they were auditioning for the show across the street from us two weeks later. Things were super-busy. I huddled with my team and said, “I’m going to do this.” My team said, “You’re crazy.” But I did it anyway. My daughter walked in with me. I kept it basic. They grilled me a couple of times, and the story was well received by the “Shark Tank” team. I have to credit my daughter, Serena, for that. [Serena is in the target audience for the product, and one of the inspirations for it: she’s a preschooler.]

What was the preparation for the show like?

It was months of work. There were applications and background checks. They do a thorough vetting to make sure you are who you say you are and that your company is, too. There are videos, videoconferences, applications. There were tens—if not hundreds—of hours of preparation. Seven or eight different rounds of cuts. Then, if the show’s results leak out, or it doesn’t go well, they may not air your segment. It was a big gamble.

Shark Tank’s sharks grilled the ed-tech CEO: ‘Are you in this business for the right reasons?’

How did you prepare for the taping itself?

I underwent a lot of grilling. My team helped out. After we put our daughter, Serena, down at night, my wife would throw a couple of questions at me.

What was the biggest risk of going on the show?

The biggest [buzz around] our product is the positivity. And you never know when you put yourself out there. There’s some risk of negativity.

Did you feel any negative vibe? These are “sharks,” after all. 

When they heard I was asking for $400,000 in return for 4 percent of the company, folks were asking if I really needed that and was I there for the right reasons. I told them I wasn’t just there for money or PR, but to scale to build a global brand. What was interesting for me is that the sharks quickly came around to see that this is a product that’s needed.

I think all five of them are parents and understood the parents’ side of the challenge in knowing what your child is doing at school all day. Chris Sacca has three kids, and Mark Cuban said he had once offered to build software for his preschool. Teachers are in a tough position. A lot of people don’t realize all that early educators are handling. It turned positive pretty quickly.

How do you feel your product fit into the mix?

We’re not a standard company. You don’t see a lot of educational products; you don’t see a lot of companies that have a free product. Usually, it’s a lot of retail businesses with impressive sales. What helped was our valuation, and the fact that we had funding. I did have to disclose on the show that we raised $2.2 million at $8.2 million valuation originally [a fact the sharks discovered during their questioning]. (See sidebar interview with Tim Young, founding general partner at Eniac Ventures, which made that investment.)

So what’s happened since the win?

It’s just been a lot of love. Our existing schools have gone on social media and been our champions. All these new schools have posted and said how excited they are, how passionate they are.

Are Cuban and Sacca actually involved now with you and your company?

Yes, definitely. Mark is often the first investor to respond to my emails. Chris spent a couple of hours with us. They’ve both been really actively involved, and they’re both passionate about what we’re building.

Photo: Courtesy of brightwheel and ABC/Michael Desmond

UPDATE: This post was updated to include the links below, detailing a 2017 investment in brightwheel and its 2016 acquisition of MyChild.

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