Senior helps start business to be featured on TV

September 11, 2017 — by Alexandra Li

Senior Lillian Zheng gets featured on "Shark Tank."

Sitting in front of the directors of the  ABC TV show “Shark Tank” this past summer, senior Lillian Zeng and the three other members of her team, high school seniors from all over the world, casually responded to questions about their business, proud of how far they had brought their business in just a few weeks.

Their startup business began at MIT Launch, a four-week program that brings together high schoolers from all over the world and provides them with basic resources and a mock board of advisers. In this short period of time, the teams are expected to start a company from scratch.

Zeng’s team founded a company called Spare. Inspired by college friends struggling to find cheap storage after their term ends, they created a peer-to-peer platform for self-storage. They market themselves as the Uber for storage space, connecting providers who have extra space in their homes with users who are looking for cheap and convenient storage options.

MIT Launch was not just a program that ended with them writing a business plan. Instead, the goal was for each team to actually set up a user base and be able to perform transactions.

“Every time we went out, we would talk to our Uber drivers about this,” Zeng said. “We would also go on AirBNB and message people to add them as users since they were already in the peer-to-peer space.”

About three-fourths of the way through the program, Zeng and her team realized that there would be no harm in reaching out to TV shows. After emailing “Shark Tank” about their product, representatives of the show responded that they were interested.

The team was invited to a live casting call in Boston, a part of the preliminary audition before actually being featured on “Shark Tank.”

Zeng described the interview as a “really casual process.” Rather than focusing on their actual company, the producers were more interested in how well team members would come across on TV.

“The live casting call was more detailing on who we are as people, our backgrounds and why we want to pursue this company,” Zeng said. “They don’t have you detail a lot about your numbers. At that stage, it’s just your product and you and your personality.”

As part of MIT Launch, the students had pitched their product continuously, attending weekly mock board meetings where they could receive feedback from a group of advisers, who were mostly business owners and venture capitalists. Zeng said this practice emphasized the importance of being able to draw others into their product, helping the team significantly later on with the interviews.

“We got really used to talking about our company and answering questions about it, so once we did go to a live casting call, it felt okay,” Zeng said. “We didn’t feel nervous or anything and they were super friendly.”

Following the live casting call, the team sent another email to “Shark Tank” representatives with a more detailed description of their company, including the transactions they’ve completed, the amount of money they’ve made and how much they would be asking for from the investors on the show.

Currently, the team is unsure of whether they will have the chance to appear on the “Shark Tank.” If they succeed throughout the entire process, they could be featured in Season 9. Zeng would not have been the first Saratoga High student to be featured on “Shark Tank.” Alumnus Jason Li appeared on the show in 2014 with his company, iReTron, that buys old electronics, refurbishes them, and donates or resells them to the general public.

Zeng isn’t sure about her actual chances to appear on the popular show because its producers are looking for businesses with great human interest stories behind them.

Even if “Shark Tank” doesn’t pan out, they did manage to attract the attention of a smaller TV show called “Boston Startup TV.” During their final pitch day of MIT Launch, many people were there to witness all the different companies, and the manager who runs the show said he enjoyed their product and later reached out to them.

On Sept. 9, Zeng flew back to Boston to be interviewed on the show. The episode, which will be aired multiple times, allowed the team to land one investor that they now hold a contract with. Zeng thinks the interview itself went well, although she was nearly late, with three meetings prior to the interview that were lined up back to back.

“I guess you can never be prepared enough,” Zeng said. “I thought I had my schedule worked perfectly, but when one thing went wrong, it was a domino effect.”

In the future, Zeng and her team plan to focus on the security aspect of their company, working with different insurance providers to offer optional insurance for users. As a small company, the funding from venture capitalists provides the marketing push that is crucial to the early stages.

Zeng thoroughly enjoyed the program and the opportunities it offered. Aside from improving her confidence and speaking skills, Zeng also learned a lot about business, a subject she plans to pursue as an undergraduate in combination with design.

“I learned to be resilient and deal with rejections, because there were lots of times when we had so many issues with everything, and we would fix an issue only to find another issue,” Zeng said. “It was just nonstop work and a really crazy four weeks.”

She has also found her team’s cohesive strength to be especially valuable throughout this entire process. Despite having one member in Hong Kong, one in Shanghai, and one in Toronto, they are still working together on the company.

“All of us had different things to bring to the table, so we worked together really well,” Zeng said. “We kind of have to keep working on the company, but all of us are really into the idea and really into working on it.”