How I prepared my startup’s website for Shark Tank

I run JSO Digital, a boutique digital agency dedicated to kicking ass for a small roster of long term clients, and love what I do. But, as a serial entrepreneur, JSO is not my only project. I’m always looking for ways to apply what we do for our clients to projects of my own.

One of those projects is called ‘brellaBox, and we recently appeared on Shark Tank. I’m writing this post as a guide for future Shark Tank contestants, as well as for any business getting their website ready for a large audience.

SHARK TANK - "Episode 724" - A developer from San Francisco, California, incites a battle between two of the billionaire Sharks, as they fight to invest in his early education software platform. A fashion blogger from Los Angeles, California, hopes to win over the Sharks with her fashion networking mobile app; a pair of entrepreneurs from New York introduces a convenient way for people to access umbrellas on a rainy day; and two business partners from Altadena, California, have designed a way for kids to enjoy eating healthier. Also, an update on Ryan Fant and Nayeem Hussain from New York and Keen Home, their line of home enhancement products that Robert Herjavec invested in during season six, on "Shark Tank," FRIDAY, APRIL 29 (9:00-10:01 p.m. EDT) on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/Michael Desmond) ANUSHA KAMBHAMPATY, JOHN O'CONNOR ('BRELLABOX)

When my partner and I got word we’d been chosen for season 7 of Shark Tank, we were excited, but also overwhelmed. People who have never appeared on the show sometimes don’t understand that preparing for Shark Tank requires a lot of work. You don’t just show up one day and walk into the Tank, there is paperwork, there are scripts, rehearsals, travel plans, and getting your website in shape for a national and international audience.

Preparing a website for Shark Tank is perhaps the most important thing you’ll do getting ready for the show. We taped our segment in September, but it didn’t air until late April. We were lucky in that we received almost 4 weeks of notice prior to the actual air date. I’ve heard of some startups only getting a couple weeks notice prior to their air date.

You have to be prepared to move fast.

Let’s dive in.

What kind of business do you have? The type of business determines the level of traffic

‘brellaBox is a B2B innovation, so you can’t just hop on our website and order machines. We set up umbrella sharing eco-systems for colleges, shopping districts, corporations, etc. B2B businesses like ours are less likely to be flooded with traffic because people at home can’t try out our product. Even though ratings for our episode were high, and even though our guest Shark, Chris Sacca tweeted some love to his 1.7 million Twitter followers, we didn’t get crazy traffic to our site. Having said that, we saw a major spike that would have challenged a crappy hosting plan. I think this is likely to be true for businesses similar to ours. If you don’t have a direct to consumer product, you will have more leeway preparing your site for spikes in traffic, although you will still want to put your best foot forward from a design and branding perspective.

By contrast, any business that sells a product to consumers should be ready for enormous traffic. To prepare for the show, I spoke with my rep at the hosting provider we use, WP Engine. WP Engine specializes in top notch hosting for WordPress websites, and has worked with a number of startups getting ready for Shark Tank. My guy said Shark Tank traffic can fluctuate wildly, with some e-commerce sites getting millions of visits as a result of exposure from the show.

Hosting – your current shared environment likely won’t work

Step one, especially for consumer product businesses, is to understand where your site is hosted, and how much bandwith your servers can allocate to your site. Most websites are hosted on shared servers, meaning your site will be competing for resources with tons of other sites that use those server’s resources. In a normal traffic situation, this isn’t an issue, but a Shark Tank appearance has the potential to crash your site by using more bandwith than is available. If the idea is to use your existing Blue Host or Godaddy hosting account to handle your Shark Tank audience, time for a change of plan. And be aware, hosted website solutions such as Shopify and SquareSpace also feature shared hosting environments. For example, if you’re on Shopify, at a minimum you’re going to need to migrate to Shopify Plus.

In preparation for Shark Tank, I moved the ‘brellaBox site to its own dedicated server with WP Engine. The resources on that server are designed to handle millions of visits a month. We host all our client’s sites on the same server, but having great hosting is just the beginning. You will also want to look into other technical issues such as page caching and content delivery networks, mobile, cross browser testing, and an assortment of speed optimizations, such as compressing images and java script.

Page caching and content delivery networks

Sounds pretty far out there, right?

I hear you, but I’m beginning this blog with the technical issues you’ll want to address to ensure your site doesn’t crash. That’s priority one. We’ll get to more straightforward conversion optimization and branding issues later in this post. One of the things I like about WP Engine is that they have built in page caching and content delivery networks.

What am I talking about, and why is this important?

It comes back to server resources. Remember, we want to avoid the scenario where your site crashes because your shared server can’t keep pace with the influx of traffic.

Page caching conserves server resources by keeping a saved, “cached,” version of a webpage in an archive so it doesn’t have to be loaded again fresh for every new visitor.

A content delivery network (“CDN”) uses a network of servers to route traffic based on where your traffic comes from. If your only server is in California, and you get a bunch of visits from New York, there is quite a distance for your content to travel as it loads. With a CDN, you can utilize a network of servers around the country and the world, which speeds up your site and reduces the load on your primary server.

From Wikipedia:

“A content delivery network or content distribution network (CDN) is a large distributed system of servers deployed in multiple data centers across the internet.”

Bottom line for our purposes is that a CDN reduces the time it takes for your server to load your website, and that is a good thing when appearing on Shark Tank.

Use high quality compressed images

The larger an image is, the longer it takes to load. This can be a big issue for a site that trying to process as many orders as possible. Internet users are spoiled and impatient. There are a million things competing for their attention at all times. If your product photos take 45 seconds to load, potential customers will bounce before they can buy. Try to keep your images smaller than 1 MB, and use a tool like this one to get them as small as possible before going live on your site.

More speed optimizations

At JSO Digital, we have “speed packages” we routinely implement on client’s sites. We rolled out some of the same services for the ‘brellaBox site in anticipation of Shark Tank. Here are some additional steps we took:

  1. Minified HTML and JavaScript with the Autoptimize plugin for WordPress
  2. Manually minified 3 JavaScript files according Google requirements
  3. 6 images optimized/compressed
  4. User experience optimized according Google requirements

All the work we did paid off. Here is a screen shot of our page speed score prior to our air date.

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 5.04.33 PM

Mobile, mobile, mobile!

This is something I shouldn’t have to write about any longer, because it should be obvious. If you have a startup, a small business, or just own a smart phone, you know that everyone is on their phone, all the time. Therefore, it’s a must that your site is mobile friendly. This will mean you have a good responsive design in place. Your site should ready to handle the inevitable iPhone and tablet traffic from people checking out your site while your episode is on, and in the days after it airs. If you have an e-commerce store, visitors should be able to make purchases from their phones.

Not sure if your site is mobile friendly?

Google offers a simple tool to check your site for issues. If for some reason you have problems, call me. I will help you get things fixed on a short turn around.

Cross browser testing

Your website will not load the same way in every web browser, and on every device. Prior to going on Shark Tank, it’s a good idea to run some cross browser tests to see whether your site has issues, with say Safari, or an old version of Internet Explorer. This site offers a free trial so you’ll be able to spot any glaring issues with a particular browser. When you try software like this, it will give you a screen shot style read out of how your site loads across browsers and devices, all in one visual.

Google analytics also breaks out load times by browser, and just as importantly, tells you the percentage of your visits that come from each browser, so you’ll know what to prioritize.

Conversion rate optimization

This section applies to the businesses that have a consumer product to sell.

If you’re selling from your website, and you should be, it’s important to make sure your sales funnel is ready to convert on the night of the show. This means thinking of each visitor to your website as a potential customer, and making their experience as pleasant as possible. Remember, you may get a deal from a Shark, and they may take over the digital side of your business, but that won’t happen until months after the show, and lots of due diligence. Lots of deals made in the Tank fall apart after the cameras turn off.

Much of what we’ve already discussed applies directly to converting sales. For example, site speed, mobile, and making sure your site doesn’t crash, are all crucial. However, even assuming your site handles all the traffic, you might miss out on sales if you haven’t done everything possible to make purchasing your product as easy as possible. This is where conversion rate optimization comes in.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Does your site support every payment option a buyer would want to utilize?
  • Do you have the ability to chat with visitors who come to your site? If not, install a live chat option like Olark.
  • Is there a section of your site where buyers typically abandon the sales funnel? If so, fix it. This data can be found in analytics…
  • Is your marketing copy clear, concise, and compelling?
  • Does your site feature reviews from happy customers?
  • Do you have beautiful, professional, and informative photos of your products for a buyer to browse through? Looking for inspiration? Check out the level of detail on this e-commerce product page.
  • Are you handling all the inbound orders yourself? Would you be better off using a fulfillment center who can handle the volume?

For a crazy comprehensive checklist, take a look at this post: The Holy Grail of E-Commerce Conversion Optimization.

Conclusion

Yes, this post is a monster, but keep this in mind: you will be 90% there if you focus on the “blocking and tackling” of the web. For Shark Tank, this means:

  • Build your site on a responsive WordPress theme
  • Use a dedicated server
  • Test for mobile issues, browser issues, and conversion issues
  • Make sure you’re using good e-commerce software to power your store
  • Treat “traffic” as people, and do everything you can to make their experience the best it can be while they’re on your site

If you follow these basic rules, your site will be more than capable of handling the surge in traffic from Shark Tank.

Good luck!

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John O'Connor
John O'Connor is the President of JSO Digital, an internet marketing company focused on the legal industry.