The startup is the first skincare brand to be featured on Shark Tank in five years

By Kaitlyn Frey
May 07, 2020 09:00 AM
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Credit: ABC

You know the drill: the lights dim, the famed mahogany double-doors swing open and in walks an entrepreneur, entering the Shark Tank ready to make the pitch of a lifetime. And if you've ever seen an episode of the hit ABC series, you know it's anything but easy. From battling out negotiations with the Sharks to making sure not to mess up any numbers, entrepreneurs spend months preparing for their brief face time in front of their prospective investors.

Proven Beauty CEO and co-founder Ming S. Zhao especially felt like she had a lot to prove when producers told her she would be the first skincare brand featured on Shark Tank in five years. "They said they usually don’t feature skincare brands even though many apply. But they felt we were doing something really innovative and disruptive in the industry so they were willing to make an exception," Zhao tells PEOPLE.

"I had never really been on TV prior to this so I definitely felt pressure," she adds. "Being in front of millions of American viewers was a daunting and I definitely wanted to tell the story well."

After Zhao pitched Proven, which creates completely customized and clean skincare based on your skin type, needs, lifestyle and location, to Mark Cuban, Daymond John, Lori Greiner, Kevin O'Leary and Anne Wojcicki in the Shark Tank, she looked back on what the experience was like in an interview with PEOPLE. Read on to find out what it's really like to inside the Tank.

How did you get selected to be on Shark Tank?

Our path was actually a long arc. We were first approached by one of the show’s producers who noticed us while we were in Y-Combinator [an early stage startup accelerator] for having a very innovative approach to skincare. But I didn’t feel we were ready because we were in the midst of working with our dermatologists and skin scientists to formulate our products. I had a nice conversation with the producer but didn’t move forward.

Fast forward a year, Proven had successfully served thousands of beta customers to raving reviews. We had completed formulations of our personalized skincare products with our Stanford scientists and we conducted clinical trials that confirmed the efficacy of our products. So we thought, “This is the time to be on Shark Tank!” When I reached back out to the producer who initially approached us, he was no longer there, so I decided to go to an open casting call and earn our way in.

Credit: PROVEN Skincare

The initial pitch is key when you walk into the Tank. What went into yours?

Some people had advised us to create a "schtick" because that’s what makes for good TV. But for us, it was really important to share our authentic story and true mission.

For the first portion of the pitch, I wanted to talk about the problem we were solving. Satisfaction in this industry is so low, that one out of two people who buy skincare products are dissatisfied. That was why we chose to start Proven, because we want to create clinically effective skincare products that are personalized to individuals, their unique skin and their specific needs.

Then we actually created personalized products for each Shark and handed them out so that they could experience it for themselves. For Daymond [John], since he travels a lot for his various speaking engagements his formulas were made to protect his skin from the dry airplane air. Lori [Greiner]'s on various TV shows and puts on makeup daily, so we added extra emollients like fermented sea kelp and beta glucan to soothe her skin barrier. Since Kevin [O’Leary], lives in Ontario where the water is hard (high degrees of calcium and magnesium), we put in extra fermented probiotics and citrus extracts to cut down on mineral deposits. That demonstration really brought to life what Proven is to the Sharks.

The third piece of my pitch was sharing my personal story. I am a first-generation immigrant — I was born in China and moved to the U.S. at the age of 12 without speaking a word of English. Through hard work and determination, I became fluent in English in three years and scored a perfect score on my SAT verbal test. I wanted to convey that I have what it takes to be a successful founder and that I am willing to work hard to reach my goals. I also shared with them how I am a mother; my company and my daughter are actually the same age since I was pregnant when first starting Proven. There is nothing that’s stopping me from raising my two babies.

Proven CEO and co-founder Ming S. Zhao
| Credit: Ming S. Zhao

What was the atmosphere like the moment you walked into the Shark Tank?

It was surreal! It takes many months of preparations and paperwork to get on the show and once you're there, the energy among all the nervous and excited contestants is really exhilarating and deafening. Before filming, you build your own set, so that's when it starts to feel real.

Credit: ABC

On the day of filming, when those famed double-doors open, and all the lights and cameras are pointed at you, and you come face-to-face with the Sharks, I almost felt like a deer in headlights. The filming lasted about 30 minutes from start-to-finish. It was an unreal experience.

Negotiations with the Sharks can get vicious. What were yours like?

Kevin immediately started asking about our terms, our valuation and how much money we raised. We already had some top investors like Y-Combinator and Stanford University, so I knew that our valuation and the amount that we already raised was going to be high for them.

I tried to first answer a question from Lori about who I am and my background, telling Kevin that I’ll get back to him. He then immediately said, "Ooooh, this is no good. You know the valuation is going to be too high if she’s putting me on hold." When I shared our investment figures, Kevin made a few exasperated sounds and Daymond said he was out. There aren’t as many awkward pauses as I feel like they make it seem on TV.

The negotiations were one on top of one another and the Sharks were all trying to ask questions over each other. You have to answer one Shark, but then another Shark will visibly try to look peeved. It was very intense!

Which Shark were you most intimidated by before going into the Tank and which one ended up being the most intimidating in person?

Going into this, Daymond was definitely the most intimidating. He can be pretty tough on startup founders who raised venture capital or came from Silicon Valley. But once he heard my immigrant story and that I am a mother and am a third-generation entrepreneur, he was quite friendly and warm. I think sharing my personal story made them soften towards me.

On the day of taping, when I was in the middle of trying to do some negotiations, Kevin actually said to me, “You’d better be glad that I have been taking anger management classes.” That’s when I knew to exit stage left (which technically, is to the right).

Was there one Shark you really wanted to make a deal with before going in to the Tank?

I really wanted to make a deal with Anne [Wojcicki, CEO and co-founder of 23andMe] before going in. However, she felt that skincare didn’t need this level of personalization, which I strongly disagree with.

Credit: PROVEN Skincare

What lessons did you take away from the experience that helped you grow Proven since being on Shark Tank?

Even though we didn’t get an investment, I still appreciate telling the Sharks and America more about Proven. Being on the show further confirmed to me that hard work, optimism and tenacity do pay off — even if it may not be in the way that you initially expected.

What advice you would give an entrepreneur looking to go on Shark Tank?

Just go for it and apply! Why wouldn’t you? You never know what could come out of it and you may get to spar with the Sharks. Prepare to tell your story, tell it authentically and know what it is that you want out of the experience.