Teaching Business Associations by Swimming with the Sharks

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been posting about gamification and prediction markets.  But I wanted to shift my focus this week to teaching and pedagogy because I’m busy reviewing some materials that I think will make my fall courses more timely and interesting.  Teaching the introductory Business Associations class is enjoyable – as students spend the semester gaining a better understanding of many financial and legal concepts, it is a very rewarding enterprise.  While I enjoy it, some of the doctrines in business law are technical, require glosses on a statute, or are otherwise difficult for students to grasp because of the finance concepts involved, so making the doctrines relevant, timely, and engaging can be a challenge.  When there’s an opportunity to tie in some of the more technical details with popular culture or media, I like to jump on it.

 For those of you not familiar with the television show, “Shark Tank” features various entrepreneurs pitching their business ideas to a panel of “sharks” – well-known and successful venture capitalists who are looking to invest their own money into a business.  (There is a disclaimer that says that the sharks are investing their own money, presumably to avoid running afoul of the securities rules on public solicitations).  The sharks rotate, but they have a variety of expertise and also a variety of colorful personalities.  Sometimes the sharks pass on the investment and the entrepreneur leaves the stage sheepishly; other times they jump on an investment and compete for the opportunity to partner with the entrepreneur, with high fives ensuing.  With most of the pitches, the entrepreneur is asked about revenue stream and opportunities for future growth.  The sharks also inquire about what the business is worth and what equity share the entrepreneur is willing to part with. 

I have the feeling that showing a few clips from “Shark Tank” makes the cases that we are reading more accessible to students.  Since the businesses presented on the show are usually small and have business plans that can be understood by the viewing public, the investments are ones that the students can get their heads around easily.  They understand the transactions presented on the show, and understand intuitively why one might not want to sell a large share of their company.  I’m planning to show a couple clips from the show at the start of the fall semester, along with a “role play” where some students play entrepreneurs, others play attorneys and a third group plays venture capitalists.

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7 Responses

  1. Howard Wasserman says:

    Huge “Shark Tank” fan here. I have been thinking that the show also could be used in Contracts, because it shows bargain/offer/acceptance and conditions in action, as well as how a contracting structure affects whether a contract has been created (“I’m out”). I have one episode in particular in mind where the shark did not formally make an offer, causing the entrepeneur to lose out.

  2. Miriam A. Cherry says:

    You’re right, Howard! What episode was that? Some of them are up on Hulu, so I can look for it.

  3. Howard Wasserman says:

    I can’t remember what the episode or product was. But what happened was this: Cuban said “If I offered you ____ right now, what would you say?”. The guy responded that he would hear what the other remaining person had to say. Cuban responded something like “wrong answer, I’m out. You had me on the line, then you started to talking with someone else. You failed to close.”

    This seemed strange, because there are lots of times where a person gets an offer from one shark, then looks to see what other offers he gets. On a second listen, I realized that Cuban chose his words very carefully and had not actually made an offer. The guy got hosed, but it is the precision of when an offer has been made.

  4. Joan Heminway says:

    Interesting idea, Miriam. You may be right about accessibility. But I constantly struggle with my course because it is only four credit hours and the amount of material that I think the students need already far surpasses that. Also, the students’ statutory reading/interpretive skills often need a lot more practice after a principally common-law-based first-year curriculum. (I get a lot of first-semester second-year students in my class.) So, I always feel that I need to spend a lot of time on the statutory part, especially early in the semester. Also, with 72 students, it’s a mixed group–some engaged and truly interested in by business law and some just taking it mostly for the bar exam and general practice skills. And I like to give them writing assignments for practice and given an oral midterm to catch the lost folks along the way (and give the students a chance to practice some oral advisory skills). Add to all that the fact that the law is expanding . . . . Well, it’s a nightmare for me–not enjoyable! So, I always ponder over the summer how to fit it all in . . . . Ideas? There’s no way our resources would support splitting the course in two–choice of entity followed by depth issues–which clearly would work best. [sigh]

  5. A.J. Sutter says:

    As it happens, I’ve been on the business side as a corporate VC (Sony), and also represented VC funds, angels and investees on the legal services side in Silicon Valley and in Japan. I watched a few episodes of this show on YouTube. In real life, to reject a pitch can take 10 minutes or less, but I’ve never seen a decision to make an investment done so quickly. (Even when it’s their own money, rich folk do plenty of diligence, too.) And bidding wars like the ones on the show are rare — most companies struggle to get even one VC firm interested.

    The last thing young lawyers need is an image of investment as a hyped-up, adrenalinized snap decision culminating in hugs or high-fives. Older lawyers who were in practice in the Valley or a couple of other centers during the dotcom era, and who had to deal with junior associates lecturing them about how a company’s stock price was a measure of its quality as a business, will probably recognize easily young lawyers can be bedazzled and led atsray. And since I’ve also been a Big Law client, I know that from that perspective I wouldn’t want to work with young lawyers who have such a shallow understanding of business. Not only will feeding young lawyers such hype not position them to help their business clients be more socially responsible, or more ethical — it won’t even help them to help their clients do better deals.

    As it also happens, I’m currently teaching a (comparative) business organizations class. I decided to forego some of the customary financial emphasis, and to present instead a comparative overview of alternatives to customary partnerships, LLCs and corporations: not-for-profits, associations, foundations and cooperatives. Even if you don’t want to go that route, you’d do better to invite in-house lawyers and experienced business as speakers than to use a show that appears to have as much relation to real business as “Judge Judy” does to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, if that.

  6. A.J. Sutter says:

    (experienced businesspeople, of course.)

  7. Miriam A. Cherry says:

    @Joan: Yes, it’s a struggle. And so what I’ve done is go into more depth on certain topics, with the others as more as a “here are the issues, you may want to be aware of them” but more surface level discussion. Because I’ve mostly been teaching BA in the evening, that last thirty minutes is usually “zone out” time for the class. I’ve found that turning that into either discussion, role play or drafting is actually the best use of the time, since students aren’t going to be absorbing lecture that late at night.
    @AJ: The typical BA course (and text) does not touch not-for profits or co-ops, which I think is a major oversight. But of course this gets back to the problem Joan was talking about – not enough time for coverage. As to your point about how realistic the show is, yeah, point well taken. It’s reality TV, and of course they are not going to show the part that happens presumably before the show where all the tough questions are asked. Watching an accountant go over financials isn’t exactly high drama or entertainment. Yes, the entrepreneurs are selected because they’re colorful personalities. But that said, if – for argument’s sake – you don’t know ANYTHING about business and are feeling way over your head – for example, wondering, what is the struggle for control all about? How are companies valued? The show does provide an explanation that even the person who is completely ignorant of business will grasp. And, like Joan said, we get all kinds in the introductory class. In that sense, I don’t think it is like “Judge Judy” (gosh, I hate that show) because there is something to be learned from Shark Tank. Even if what is being learned is not realistic for most deals.