The secret to getting on TV's 'Shark Tank'

Sonam Sheth, special to CNBC.com
Tomer Alpert, CEO and co-founder of Felt, will pitch to the "Shark Tank" investors on May 20, 2016.
Source: Tomer Alpert

The creators of Felt, a mobile app that allows a user to design and send handwritten cards to friends and loved ones using their own finger or a stylus on an iPhone or iPad, has accomplished what legions of entrepreneurs have failed to do: land an audition on "Shark Tank." But it wasn't easy: Felt had been rejected twice by Shark Tank, for two consecutive years.

So what finally made the "Shark Tank" producers take notice? The app's CEO and co-founder, Tomer Alpert, credited a key change in its pitch: shifting from a focus centered purely on the business model to one centered more on Felt's human aspect — the app's founders and its customer reactions to the Felt concept. (Felt will appear on "Shark Tank" Friday night.)

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"The first two auditions we did were very much product-focused," Alpert said. "We were basically talking about how we built the app, the novelty of a digitally designed handwritten card and other things like that, which were mostly about the app itself."

The first two auditions took place in 2013 and 2014 before the winning audition last year, which lead to the appearance on the May 20, 2016 episode.

Alpert said that this time around, they ditched any talk of growth models and marketing outreach for a more lighthearted approach.

"We saw that talking about the app wasn't hitting the mark, so we went away from that and threw in more of our own personalities," Alpert said. "Not only that, we also leaned into the story of our customers and how the users felt, how Felt helped them, and we brought that to life in a comedic way."

The Felt CEO said for products that are not inherently entertaining, the people who present them have to emphasize the entertainment value. "Products like the Squatty Potty are fun to hear and talk about," Alpert said. "But Felt wasn't like that. Most products aren't, which is why the burden of making the pitch fun lies on the entrepreneur. … You have to humanize it."

Still, Alpert said his new approach — and having pitched two times previously — didn't make the actual "Shark Tank" audition process any easier. The co-founder said he was all nerves before going in front of the investors and didn't sleep the entire night before.

"There was so much anticipation. I felt overwhelmed just staring at the doors and knowing I was about to go through them, and the reality of the situation finally hit me. … You're basically representing your company for nine minutes on national television in front of millions of viewers. … What can prepare a person for that?" Alpert said.

He also said pitching to the sharks isn't like pitching to any other investor, because the sharks aren't just investors; they're playing the role of entertainers to a national audience as well. "They really hammer you with questions, not only because they're looking at your product as investors but because they're also in front of the cameras and are tasked with driving the show. I wasn't ready for that," Alpert said.

Products like the Squatty Potty are fun to hear and talk about. But Felt wasn't like that. Most products aren't, which is why the burden of making the pitch fun lies on the entrepreneur.
Tomer Alpert
CEO and co-founder of Felt

Alpert previously founded a software company for automotive retailers, Sister Technologies, with his father. "I started a company out of high school with my dad which is where I learned how to be a scrappy entrepreneur, from him," he said.

After being in product-development mode for the last three years, Alpert and his team at Felt are ramping up marketing and, like most other millennial-driven start-up campaigns, capitalizing on social media shares and likes. "Basically, our marketing strategy now is to create fun, hilarious, intelligent and thought-provoking card collections and then blast them out over social media," he said.

Felt's initial campaign involved a quirky and entertaining spin on Mother's Day cards geared toward mothers-in-law, which were advertised on Facebook and Instagram. More than 600,000 people viewed the cards. The campaign received an average of at least 5,000 shares from websites on which it advertised. One card on Instagram received more than 30,000 likes.

While Alpert can't reveal the outcome of Friday night's "Shark Tank" episode, the marketing campaign has paid off. Downloads in the last four months have eclipsed the total downloads Felt had in the past three years, and a Valentine's Day featured placement in the Apple app store, along with another eight features since then, also helped.

By Sonam Sheth, special to CNBC.com

Add more bite to your week Monday through Thursday starting at 8 p.m. ET with "Shark Tank" on CNBC.