What It's Like to Audition for 'Shark Tank' for Weed

"We really are more like dolphins" than sharks, says co-creator of 'The Marijuana Show'

'The Marijuana Show' riffs on the format of the ABC reality show 'Shark Tank' — a natural fit for the marijuana world, since many legal weed companies can't access bank accounts, let alone business loans.

Cameras rolling, Richard Haines pitches his business: MDHerb, a website for medical marijuana patients to share their experiences with various products. He's looking for $150,000 in exchange for about 12 percent of the company. He says MDHerb is "a collaborative community" that lets patients "keep journal entries of what they're consuming and how cannabis is affecting their conditions."

Haines is auditioning for the third season of the online series The Marijuana Show. The setup is similar to the ABC reality show Shark Tank, which milks the face-off between hopeful entrepreneurs and calculating investors into compelling television. But The Marijuana Show only considers companies involved in the legal cannabis industry.

Haines, a clean-cut 31-year-old with a neat beard, is a colon cancer survivor and a Crohn's disease patient. He says he's spent a third of his life in the hospital. During his pitch, he pulls up his black "I'm a patient" t-shirt to show off the surgical scars on his "frankenbelly." Projected on the wall behind him is The Marijuana Show's logo: George Washington enjoying a joint.

As he pitches, Wendy Robbins and Karen Paull, who created, produce and host The Marijuana Show, cheer him on. "Speak from your heart, not from your head," Robbins says. She wants Haines to adopt a Twitter-ready pitch for MDHerb and suggests he sell it as the "Wikipedia for cannabis," though the analogy is inexact.

Haines, by his own admission, is not a seasoned performer. To loosen up, Robbins urges him to perform an impromptu rap. He resists and instead accepts a challenge more in line with his abilities, from Paull: double the number of patients using MDHerb, to about 2,500, in two weeks. To get on the show he'll have to send in a video that shows him completing the challenge. Before contestants appear on the show, their companies also go through a financial vetting process.

On Shark Tank, entrepreneurs appear before a panel of star investors — the "sharks" — and try to convince them to buy in. When more than one shark wants a piece, they form alliances or try to outbid each other. The addictive show relies on a simple formula: an entrepreneur brings an idea — sometimes clever, sometimes goofy — to investors, and they determine whether it's worth their money. Each entrepreneur leaves with a sense of closure; they got money or they didn't, but they're going to continue following their dream.

The format is a natural fit for the marijuana world, since many legal weed companies can't access bank accounts, let alone business loans. But The Marijuana Show tones down Shark Tank's combative spirit. Long segments are given over to coaching and pep talks with the hosts and features on the show's sponsors. When the entrepreneurs finally square off against the investors, the confrontations are less snappish than their counterparts on ABC.

Robbins and Paull are a bantering married couple who live in the artsy town of Taos, New Mexico. With their boho-chic clothes and untamed hair, they don't look much like the slick, business-attired investors on Shark Tank, but their accomplishments are impressive. Paull was an executive at Snapfish, the online photo service that Hewlett-Packard acquired for $300 million in 2005. (HP has since divested it.) Robbins is an author and Emmy-winning filmmaker who invented "The Tingler," a head-massager that's sold more than a million units — "an orgasm for the head," she calls it. She also appeared on the reality show Homemade Millionaire with Kelly Ripa.

"We're a very conservative lesbian couple," Paull jokes. "We really are more like dolphins" than sharks. Indeed, both women are warm and cheerful, impossible to dislike. For an industry eager to reach the largely untapped seniors market, Paull and Robbins could be perfect ambassadors.

Last week, in a nondescript Denver building, Paull and Robbins held auditions for The Marijuana Show's new season. In addition to Haines, the hopefuls included a hemp burger company and a cash-management system for dispensaries. Dave Hargett, a slim entrepreneur with blonde surfer-dude hair pitched a bouquet of businesses including one that makes products using cannabidiol, or CBD, a non-psychoactive chemical found in marijuana and hemp that's associated with many of the plant's medical uses.

Last year Americans bought $5.4 billion in legal marijuana, almost all of it in a handful of states. All told, 25 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized medical use. With California and a perhaps four other states expected to vote on legalization in November, predictions of explosive growth are reasonable.

Like the rest of the industry, Paull and Robbins are eager to go big with The Marijuana Show. Celebrity entrepreneur Russell Simmons will feature in the upcoming season, and $20 million in investment capital will be available to entrepreneurs. In season 1, available on the show's website, the graphics and sets lack the polish of Shark Tank and other reality shows but the production values improve in season 2, which the hosts hope will get picked up by Netflix or another streaming service. (It isn't currently available online.)

More than most TV shows about the Green Rush, which tend to focus on the most successful entrepreneurs, The Marijuana Show captures the moment's primordial capitalism. The market is big enough, and most companies small enough, that grudges and rivalries are a waste of energy. Everyone an entrepreneur meets is a potential partner, investor or employee. Plus, almost all companies share the unifying goal of advancing legalization.

The Marijuana Show's business model reflects how in the tight-knit and relatively isolated community of legal weed entrepreneurs, companies often sprout additional businesses, and the line between competitors and partners can be hard to distinguish. In addition to promoting the businesses featured on the show, Robbins and Paull take an equity stake in the companies. Since taking a stake based on how much money a company raises would run afoul of securities regulations, The Marijuana Show considers itself a business accelerator: Paull and Robbins take equity in exchange for mentoring, introductions and similar services. The show then functions as a marketing vehicle for those companies. In a natural progression, Paull and Robbins plan to raise a fund to invest directly in cannabis companies.

Very few mainstream companies are willing to work with cannabis, which has led to a flourishing of specialized companies. Contestants on The Marijuana Show have included everything from a pesticide for marijuana growers to cannabis-infused bitters. Anyone thinking of trying out — tryouts are ongoing — should know that Paull and Robbins aren't especially interested in edibles, which they consider an oversaturated market.

Inadvertently, the show also captures why some investors and outsiders are skeptical of the industry: It can lack rigor. That marijuana has medical uses is widely accepted, but not everyone who uses it is a patient. The plant is not a cure-all, but on the show it gets the benefit of every doubt. I once heard nurse and legal-marijuana activist Heather Manus say, "Every use of cannabis is good for you, whether you know it or not"; The Marijuana Show is very much in that spirit. Medical claims beyond what's backed up by science go unquestioned.

The least likely entrepreneur to appear on The Marijuana Show is Christopher Martin, a tow-haired 10-year-old who pitched CBD-infused dog treats during season 2. "They're not the best; they don't taste like cookies," he says. The company name, which he struggles to pronounce, is Paw Putty Pet Products. When he presented to the panel of investors, two of them who own dispensaries bought $5,000 worth of bones to sell in their stores. (Martin's mother also pitched a company on the show.)

Michael Ring, 26, first appeared on The Marijuana Show in Season 1. His company, Cleantec, failed to attract an investor for its solar-powered mobile grow units, but it's already been decided that he'll return for season 3. When Ring first appeared on the show, he was out of work and down on his luck, but he says he's pulled his life back together. Ring, a systems engineer, is self-taught. "Conventional education is far too restrictive and expensive for what I wanted to do," he says.

Ring's units, which cost about $100,000, enable a customer to grow the same product in Alaska, Florida or, Ring says, on the moon. Assuming you'd sell several crops a year, "it's the best investment that's ever been designed," he says. His units can also grow other crops, like gourmet mushrooms that sell in the supermarket for $10 or more a pound, showing that technology designed for marijuana could have applications in the straight economy as well.

He's not the only entrepreneur who's known hard times. Unemployment and debilitating illness are recurring themes during the auditions and on the show. Young Christopher Martin's father is in prison for a marijuana offense. Guests on The Marijuana Show reflect the industry's overwhelmingly white racial makeup.

Though even many pro-legalization politicians avoid talking about it, the Green Rush presents an economic opportunity for the white working class — coveted voters in this year's election. Most factories that have departed for Mexico aren't coming back, but green jobs are on the way. For the time being, the industry values hustle and smarts more than credentials. Though cannabis people tend not to support Donald Trump, it is an industry well suited to the disaffected voters he has come to represent.

Like many cannabis companies, The Marijuana Show is eager to shed the image of the lazy pothead that continues to stymie future growth. One entrepreneur who appeared on the show was a former longtime NASA employee, and Paull and Robbins say they've turned down opportunities from production companies that have wanted a greater emphasis on getting high. Still, the hosts are open to all comers. "I wouldn't rule out the stoner guy with the great idea," Paull says. "Steve Jobs smoked."