By now, most of us know better than to take “reality” TV at face value. But Alan Kaufman, a Newton entrepreneur who pitched his hands-free “Nubrella” on ABC’s “Shark Tank” back in 2010, claims in a lawsuit that the show’s producers didn’t just fudge a few inconsequential details for the sake of drama — they lied about nearly everything.
A verbal agreement made on air that would have seen two of the “sharks,” or judges, invest $200,000 in Nubrella? Kaufman said he never got a penny. And a follow-up episode in which Nubrella appears to sign a distribution deal with The Sharper Image? Completely fabricated, he claimed.
Kaufman claims these distortions — along with reruns of the show that depict an outdated version of his product — have brought him to the brink of ruin. So last week, he filed a pro-se lawsuit in Suffolk Superior Court against the media and production companies behind “Shark Tank,” seeking compensation for lost investment opportunities, a cut of the revenue earned each time an episode featuring Nubrella airs, and a clear label indicating when the episodes originally ran.
“For the first six months it was great exposure,” Kaufman said. “But I never knew they’d be running reruns for six years, after Nubrella has gone through a massive transformation.”
Nubrella is currently out of cash, Kaufman said, and potential new investors won’t bite.
Would-be customers, meanwhile, don’t realize the Nubrella episodes were taped years ago, and accuse Kaufman of pulling a bait-and-switch when they learn his improved wearable umbrella costs $59.99, not $29.99.
Sony Pictures Television Inc., which produces the show, declined to comment.
After his initial appearance on TV, Kaufman said, he and the two judges who expressed interest were supposed to consummate their deal in a formal contract. Instead, he alleged in his lawsuit, both simply walked away.
“They didn’t even bother doing diligence,” Kaufman said. “They just blew the whole thing off.”
Before long, though, Kaufman heard from the show’s producers again. According to his lawsuit, they wanted to film a follow-up segment showing how the sharks’ (allegedly nonexistent) investment in Nubrella was helping the company thrive. Kaufman scoffed at the idea, but said he was heavily pressured to play along.
In the resulting episode, Kaufman is seen striking a deal to sell Nubrellas to Sharper Image, the former gift and gadget chain that went bankrupt in 2008 but was reborn in 2010 under new ownership as an online retailer. On the way out, he high-fives “shark” Daymond John.
In reality, Kaufman claimed in the lawsuit, there was never any agreement.
“Sharper Image is the last company in the whole country I would have allowed him to even speak with,” Kaufman said. “We all know their reputation. They went bankrupt.”
Kaufman sued the show’s producers at the time, but said he was desperate for money and accepted a $20,000 settlement from Sony. His new suit focuses on the damages allegedly caused by frequent reruns of the episodes since then.
Kaufman is not the first to take issue with “Shark Tank.” Former contestant Megan Cummins has said a shark who agreed to invest in her soap company while the cameras were rolling later pulled out of the deal. Another entrepreneur, Scott Jordan, said “Shark Tank” tried to trick him into saying the name of his high-tech clothing company on air in order to grab a slice of its revenues under the contract contestants sign (he was trying to sell the sharks instead on a licensing deal). The show later removed the clause from its agreement.
Kaufman, a former cellphone store executive, has been tinkering with his invention for more than a decade. Kaufman said Nubrella 2.0 especially appeals to people who work outside: photographers, construction workers, and so on.
The company’s inventory is running low, Kaufman acknowledged, but he’s hoping a new sale will let him resume production. A major fast food chain is considering a large order, he said; its workers, who use tablet computers outside to take orders from cars stuck in long drive-through lines, will wear Nubrellas when it’s raining, to protect the devices.
Despite his contentious relationship with Shark Tank, Kaufman is hoping to appear on the show one more time and set the record straight.
“Just be fair. Tell the truth,” Kaufman pleaded. “Put me on the air and let’s tell the audience, ‘this is the new design, and I never did a deal with Sharper Image.’ ”