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From the Editor: Shark tank is circling, but this entrepreneur may not be ready to bite

March 1, 2017 GMT

Representatives of Shark Tank, the venture capital-oriented TV show, have called. But Lizbeth Pratt isn’t quite sure if she’s ready to go on national television to be grilled by a panel of millionaires and billionaires.

Pratt, formerly of Billings, is the founder of Givling, an online game with a different twist. Players pay to participate in a trivia game, and those who answer the most questions correctly can win money. But here’s how the game is different. Givling sets aside a portion of its proceeds to pay off student loans for former students who have registered on the website.

Pratt was in Billings in early February to surprise Alyssa Foster and inform her that Givling will pay off her $17,500 student loan. Foster, who works as a certified public accountant, was overwhelmed and overjoyed to be out from under the yoke of student debt. (See the story on Page 15)

Pratt relished being the designated check presenter, a role made famous decades ago by the late Ed McMahon.

She said the game is starting to hit critical mass, meaning that enough gamers have been playing so that Givling can generate sufficient money to both reward the winners and pay off student loans.

The U.S. Department of Education estimates that Americans are burdened under the weight of $1.3 trillion in student debt, and millions have fallen behind or defaulted on their loans.

Here’s one measure of how pervasive the student debt crisis has become: More than 100,000 people have signed up to have their loans paid off by Givling. But making a significant dent in that lineup could take many years, even if the game’s popularity grows. You don’t have to play the game in order to sign up for loan repayment.

Pratt has pursued a variety of ways to raise additional money. Initially her business model didn’t include advertising, but she has started to pursue that strategy. She’s also interested in talking to investors

In case you haven’t heard about it, Shark Tank is the popular TV program in which Mark Cuban, Daymond John, Lori Greiner and other successful business owners listen to pitches from up-and-coming entrepreneurs who are seeking investment capital to take the next step.

One of the biggest struggles that Shark Tank participants must wrestle with is whether they’re willing to give up a chunk of their business, and possibly lose control, in return for an equity investment. Kevin O’Leary, the Shark Tank panelists who’s fondly known as “Mr. Wonderful,” is famous for pitching debt financing, with terms that are frequently too steep for the contestants.

Pratt said she plans to stay in contact with Shark Tank’s representatives, but she’s not ready to bite.

Postscript: Here’s wishing good luck to Lisa Harmon, the tireless executive director of the Downtown Billings Alliance, who plans to step down by the end of June. She has been involved in many improvements to downtown, even though progress sometimes happens in baby steps. She leaves big shoes to fill.