Surviving the Shark Tank Effect: Solving for High Traffic Events

Shark Tank

Veterans of IT — especially ecommerce sites — are familiar with the “Oprah Effect.”

When the Queen of Media spoke, people listened. She turned Dr. Phil into a media star, obscure novelists suddenly became best sellers and her mention of a product available online could send a wave of traffic that crashed the servers.

After the Oprah Winfrey Show stopped production in 2011, Shark Tank became the new national phenomenon. After six seasons, the public is still enthralled. Appearing before the “Sharks” can drive mindboggling traffic to a company’s website.

Welcome to the Age of the “Shark Tank Effect”

With downtime resulting in lost sales, how does one solve for the Shark Tank Effect and keep their website online? Michael Johnstone, director of web technologies for the Mark Cuban Companies, spoke to this at a recent Rackspace::Solve event with his talk, Solving for the Surge. Johnstone knows a thing or two about surviving an onslaught of traffic — his boss is Mark Cuban, NBA Franchise owner, entrepreneur and one of the more famous Sharks on the show.

“The Shark Tank companies are typically product focused. Each of those companies has a founder and maybe a couple of people on the team with almost no technical background. They don’t have an IT staff — they normally outsource that — and they’re not building a software platform,” Johnstone said. “They’re building a widget — they’re going to sell bicycles, they’re going to sell a breathometer. So they look to us for a lot of support, because the night the show airs, they’re going to have a huge flash sale. It’s a giant commercial for them.”

An appearance on Shark Tank is make-or-break for many of these companies. A sleepy website that handles only a hundred or so visitors a day can quickly spike to 70,000 concurrent connections. “The night the show airs they have a chance to go from anonymity to overnight success,” Johnstone said. “They have a chance to make a lot of money and to launch their business.”

Handling the Surge

Typically speaking, teams have only about two-weeks to plan before their Shark Tank episode airs. Without technical expertise, the founders too often don’t know how to prepare. That is where Johnstone comes in. He advises entrepreneurs who are part of the Mark Cuban Companies portfolio how to handle the surge.

“The way we [can handle the traffic] is with the cloud. There is no other way we can build out that infrastructure,” Johnstone said. “We couldn’t spin up 50 dedicated servers two weeks before the show airs and shut them off a week later.”

Yet despite the benefits of the cloud, Johnstone says many of the small businesses he advises still have a gap. On one hand, the Shark Tank company has a developer who has created the code or website for the online store. On the other hand, there is the hosting company providing servers for that site.

But rarely is there a person who asks the important questions, like: Do we have the right number of servers online? Who is responsible for caching? What configuration details could be tweaked to optimize performance?

Johnstone has enlisted the Rackspace Managed Cloud to fill that gap. Rather than a do-it-yourself cloud, Rackspace teams have the specialized expertise to ensure that a company can survive the Shark Tank Effect. They’re able to look at the company’s current configuration, understand the potential bottlenecks and provide recommendations to survive the traffic.

After enabling 32 Shark Tank companies to survive crushing traffic, Johnstone — with the help of Rackspace — developed a playbook on how to survive a high traffic event. Tips  include:

  • Moving off shared hosting
  • Enabling a CDN (content delivery network) for media
  • Developing a caching system for HTML and database queries

These are typically the highest priority items Johnstone has his companies tackle before appearing on the show. He then tests the site and different tasks (such as ordering a product) with tools like to ensure that the website can perform under heavy load. Those test results can create new priority items that need to be fixed on the ecommerce website. The process is continued until everyone is happy with the results.

“In a high traffic event, the details matter,” Johnstone said. “If you’re driving five miles-per-hour, it doesn’t matter how aerodynamic your car is. It doesn’t matter whether you have an antenna ball — you can have that and look cool. If you’re driving 200 miles-per-hour, it absolutely matters. Not only do you not want an antenna ball, you don’t want an antenna.”

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