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Students learn how to pitch products in a “Shark Tank” format

By Keith Morelli

Student pitching her idea

TAMPA (Nov. 28, 2016) -- How to sell products is the stuff of Carol Osborne's marketing class and she uses a "Shark Tank" team of student inquisitors posing as investors to poke holes in the pitches and rattle the pitchers.

Marketing classes in just about every business college teach students how to pitch products, but this one goes beyond reading textbooks and regurgitating proven methods. Osborne takes a page right out of popular culture to get her lesson objectives across.

The exercise is set up like the popular television reality show in which budding entrepreneurs with unique ideas for products present their plans to a panel of students posing as moneyed investors. The pitches sometimes are polished, sometimes not. Investors can plunk down money to back the products or simply berate the ideas until the person asking for backing slinks off the stage. 

Osborne's students are assigned a product – a brief – to sell two or three days before their presentations and have to bone up on what its worth, how to market it, what the drawbacks and benefits are. 

The products she picks for her students are real and are just out on the market, or about to be introduced into the market. And at a recent class, mostly were newfangled tech devices and gadgets. 

Students prepare a PowerPoint presentation outlining why they need backing and how much and how their idea will make money for investors. They then get grilled pretty well by a panel of faux investors. 

The course lives up to its name: Professional Selling. 

Student promoters are graded on their presentations and the student investors are graded on the toughness of their questions and insights. 

Softball questions are discouraged as are questions and comments that are personal attacks or may be perceived as unfair. 

"So far," Osborne said, "we haven't had anyone run over in the parking lot after class." 

Students pitched a small gizmo named Jeeves, marketed as "your own digital butler," virtual goggles that take you to places you physically can't make and a hospital sensory system that keeps track of wandering dementia patients. Students hawked smart sunglasses that are somewhat stylish and compatible with smart phones and smart packaging that tells consumers when contaminates are in the food, or if the food has gone bad. One team pushed driverless monster dump trucks used in mining operations. 

"These can run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year," said David Silverstone in making his pitch on the trucks, as a slide of a massive earth mover was projected on the wall behind him. 

The monitoring system targeting hospitals and geriatric centers that house elderly patients with dementia was pitched by Isabella Lord and Lauren Danker. The system includes video monitors in hospital rooms and sensors worn by patients. If they disappear from their room, they can be tracked before going too far. 

"Wandering patients present a huge cost to hospitals," Lord said. "This will save money in the long run." 

A little smaller, Jeeves could be a favorite of millennials, said promoter Brian Earnest. 

"We live in a digital age and Jeeves is largely for those who have a lot of digital services because that is the way we have grown up," Earnest said. "Jeeves is very personal. He knows all your needs." 

Specs 1.0 is a pair of sunglasses that may be smarter than the brain they're wrapped around. They take pictures, record video, contain a GPS, are voice activated and are compatible with the smart phone clutched in your hand, said Danielle Weisman and Jordan Rizza. 

"We can make these for $200," Rizza said. 

Unlike "Shark Tank," the investors/students didn't say immediately if they were impressed or if they would put their money down, but they handed notes and assessments to Osborne who will use them in formulating the grades she dishes out. 

"This is about as real as it can get in the classroom," said the marketing professor who has more than 30 years' experience in the professional marketing sector, including more than a decade at Cox Media Group where she was the vice president of marketing. "Being prepared, knowing your product from top to bottom, good to bad, is a fundamental key to success in the business world. 

"Hopefully," she said, "these students will take what they have learned during this exercise and make use of it in their careers and in their lives."