The public square's abuzz of late about the plight of political correctness and, to a large degree, its detractors are not wrong: Thought policing threatens democratic society. But, in the ceaseless stream of social media comments, most shrouded in anonymity, and the ruthless, cutting Donald Trump stump speeches that have struck a disturbing chord with a very vocal portion of our populace, few seem to have considered the long-term effects of "solitary, poor, nasty [and] brutish" behavior. Intentionally or not, Michael "Rooster" McConaughey and Wayne "Butch" Gilliam, the investors of CNBC's new West Texas Investors Club set a rare example on last night's second episode. They showed that being a straight-talker and business gunslinger doesn't mean losing your humanity. In fact, sometimes showing a little kindness takes guts.
This was presented two-fold last night as both of the episodes' hopeful entrepreneurs were brought to tears under the pressure of deal-making with the investors. The first, Jack Scalfani, presented them with his family's world-famous barbecue sauce, a product he claims -- and has trademarked -- is "the best BBQ sauce you'll ever taste." He requested $300K for 20 percent of the company so that he can hire help to continue promoting the product -- which he's already done, and done well -- via YouTube.
Of the numbers he recalls, Scalfani's sauce has been successful. He says he thinks he pulled in $106K last year with about $35K profit, and he's in 150 Wal-Mart stores on the West Coast, which stated they would never discount his product due to its quality, he says. But, the investors find themselves tripped up on a couple of red flags. Scalfani's shaky on his answers, and they note that there's an estimated 5-6,000 Wal-Mart stores nationwide. 150 pales in comparison.
"How can he not know his numbers?" Gilliam asks in a candid interview. "That's about the most basic business question there is." Further, Gilliam doesn't think making a great tasting barbecue sauce is all that difficult.
What's more impressive than the sauce, however, is Scalfani's YouTube cooking show, a fact not initially presented to the investors. When pressed, he admits it reaches 1.5-2M views and rakes in about $3-4,000 each month. He has fans in 95 countries around the world, including Midland, Tex. (more on that later). The investors' interest is piqued, but Scalfani takes a hard line: The cooking show is not up for investment. The sauce is all that's on the table, so that means time for a tasting.
Staying true to the premiere episode's hands-on approach, the investors take Scalfani to KD's Bar-B-Q in Midland to square off against pitmaster Dustin Freeman. Freeman plays into the show's fun, refusing to shake Scalfani's hand in a "you ain't from around here, are ya boy" moment, and as the two take to the pits, an embarrassing fact surfaces: Jack of Cooking With Jack and "the best BBQ sauce you'll ever taste" cannot cook barbecue.
In his defense, that means he's only ever used a gas stove, rather than cooking on open flames, but the investors, like the viewers, feel both amused and dumbfounded by the revelation. They take over and cook the meat while Scalfani woos those in the crowd who will soon be taste testing and judging his product against the local flavor. A few in attendance even recognize him from the YouTube show.
Scalfani may be a celebrity in Midland, but it's here the investors' hypeman Gil Prather steals the show. We learn that the mysterious "Man from Rio Grande" is not only an American Hall of Fame Singer Songwriter, but allegedly a member of MENSA. One thing's certain: Prather's a showman, and his flourish as the barbecue tasting competition's emcee added many of the night's biggest, heartiest laughs.
Once cooked, the investors offer up the products picnic-style to the community. They engage in a four person blind taste-test panel, and wind up with a 2-2 tie. So, those in the crowd are asked to vote and, in the end, choose Freeman's cue with a 34 to 19 vote.
Returning to the clubhouse, the investors confer privately. The agree they find Scalfani's sauce "so-so," but as a personality, they see a potential star.
"It's not the best sauce I, or anyone, has ever tasted, but if he can market it through that YouTube thing he has, that can make us some money," Gilliam says. He notes that Scalfani spent the time the investors were cooking his meat working the crowd. "Matter-fact," he drawls, teasing McConaughey, "I saw him get your wife's telephone number."
"At least the guy's got good taste," Prather cracks.
Prather, who's role on the show is the "tenderizer" based on his natural ability to get to know the entrepreneurs' true intentions, adds his own assessment, "He's got the magic; he's a social media star."
Coupled with his crusty appearance, Prather's drawl is such that the words "social media star" sound bizarre, but that's part of the show's continued success: WTIC stars may seem hayseed, but as entrepreneurs learn, it's unwise to judge books by their covers.
"He's a very quality person, but you can't go into a partnership with any bad feelings," Prather adds sagely.
The investors decide to present a counter to Scalfani. They question his valuation -- "Is it based on some kind of projection that all the big companies are suddenly going to go out of business?" McConaughey asks. Straightforwardly, they say the product isn't what they want. They'd like to invest in the YouTube program.
It here that things go a little haywire. "Be straight with me, man," McConaughey says. "Did you come down here just to be on TV? To help your YouTube show way more than the sauce?"
Scalfani seems to take great offense, and he believes the investors are calling him a liar. Further, he considers it part of his very identity. To sell a portion of it would mean selling a portion of himself. In a candid interview, McConaughey sums up the tension perfectly. "It's gettin' weird," he says, "We gotta wrap this bleep up."
But, the awkwardness presents one of the show's very best lines. Gilliam, who'd taken a harder line against the product's quality than McConaughey, looks Scalfani straight in the eye and says, "I didn't mean to offend you, and I apologize."
It's a class-act moment. Sure, portions of the show are scripted. And, of course, much of its fun runs on the investors' rough-and-rowdy personas. But, the statement -- whether simply good television or cynical business acumen -- seemed entirely authentic.
Just two episodes in, the show continues its delicate balance of straight-talkin' roughneck attitude and genuine concern for the humans it represents. This was echoed again through the night's second entrepreneur, Desiree Shank, founder of Future College Fund, an app designed to streamline saving for parents. It was the first time Shank had presented the product, and she came in clearly unnerved not only by the show's "out-there" theme, but simply because she has a lot riding on the product. She falters during her initial presentation and tears up; the investors diffuse the situation by asking her to have a seat on a milk jug and crack a beer.
"You're shaking like a leaf, sit down and calm the hell down," McConaughey says, kind in tone, if not entirely in statement.
As proven in previous deals, the investors may have a lot of heart, but that doesn't mean they're entirely comfortable with vulnerability or sensitivity. And, if the show has any foreseeable problem on the horizon, it's that it hasn't yet quite figured out how to deal with women entrepreneurs. Its quasi-analogue Shark Tank has over the years made a number of entrepreneurs cry; its sharks are at times downright blunt or even mean. But, WTIC doesn't have a tough-as-nails Barbara Corcoran or sassy Lori Greiner on its panel. Yet in its infancy, it has struggled to present a strong female voice, sans tears. We need at least one entrepreneur who can back up Ronda-Rousey-swagger with Corcoran-savvy before season one closes.
"I hate to see anyone cry; hate to see a woman and especially a man cry," McConaughey says in an interview. He adds, "We're softer than ever. Hell, I cry on Ol' Yeller just thinking about it."
Shank seems palpably relieved to step away from the spotlight, and when she does, she sips her beer and offers a compelling product.
A single mother of two -- ages 5 and 6, who she is raising without a nearby support system -- she created it based on what she calls the "frustration of wanting to give your children everything in the world on a budget."
After having thrown a birthday party for one of her children, she realized they had received 25 gifts from 25 guests, and that money could have been spent more productively for her children. So, the next year she set up a simple website requesting donations for her child's college fund in lieu of gifts, and she raised $433.
Shank parlayed this into a fundraising app, which she coded herself, and the investors are immediately interesting. It's a great story, and it's a smart product. But, there are problems.
First, are fees. Shank receives 2 percent for the app's use, almost half as much as the 2.9 percent transaction fee PayPal requires. "Are you trying to send your kids to college or the kids of PayPal employees?" Gilliam asks. "If I'm going to donate, I want it all to go to the kid."
Secondly, the investors are turned off by the fact that, like any savings account, parents can tap into or use the money at their discretion. They want the money secured for the use explicitly stated. They tell Shank they respect her product, but they're just not the right investors for it.
Shank steps off the set and begins an exit interview with a producer where she says, through tears, that she's happy she took the chance because she did it for her children and she's confident it sets a valuable example for them. It's then, we realized the investors may be having a change of heart.
"It's a noble thought," Gilliam says, "And, she's right: We waste a ton on our kids buying bleep, but the way she's going about it is wrong."
"Are you having second thoughts? You want to get her back in here?" McConaughey asks, excitement building.
"It's a good idea but a bad plan," Gilliam says.
"Maybe we can help her with that plan," McConaughey says before shouting, "Desiree! Get on back in here!"
The investors offer her $20K for 50 percent of the company, a far cry from the initial $80 for 10 percent she requested. She negotiates with them to get the percentage of equity down, but the investors remain firm.
"The most important thing [we can offer] is belief," Gilliam tells her. "I don't think anyone has done that thus far for you in your career, and we're going to make that commitment to you going forward."
"I'll believe in you,too," Shank says, "You've got a deal."
It's a happy moment, saved from too much sentimentality by the investors joking over which is the bigger softy. It's the very line the WTIC has walked so expertly through two episodes and four entrepreneurs, and it's a good precedent set for the future.