A New Dragon in the Den

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Hard as it is to believe, the hit CBC-TVs show The Dragons’ Den is embarking on its seventh season on the air, albeit with one very noticeable difference. Gone from one of the five chairs on the familiar rustic set is Robert Herjavec who made the decision to exit the show after six seasons in order to spend more time working on other business projects. Herjavec’s departure leaves Boston Pizza founder Jim Treliving and the bombastic Kevin O’Leary as the only two original personalities who’ve been with the programme since Day One.

Joining Treliving, O’Leary, Arlene Dickinson and Bruce Croxon starting this month will be none other than the author of The Wealthy Barber – David Chilton. For those unfamiliar with Chilton’s well-known book from 1989, it’s all about personal finance and is structured around the lives of three people in their late 20s visiting Roy, the title character. To date, more than two million copies have been sold in North America. In 2011, some 22 years after the book hit the shelves, Chilton provided a follow-up called The Wealthy Barber Returns.

The Canadian Business Journal was invited onto the set at CBC during a day of filming with Chilton and the other four Dragons and we had a chance to discuss the show with each of the well-known stars.

“What caught me off-guard was the passion level of the average viewer,” Chilton says. “I’ve had people from six to 90 tell me it’s their favourite show. In fact, a lot of people say it’s their favourite show ever.”

When Chilton is out taking part in one of his many public-speaking engagements, he finds himself answering as many questions about Kevin O’Leary as he does about Canadian finances, and that’s okay with him. It brings home just how popular the television show is with viewers.

On the Set

“The thing that’s impressed me the most coming from the outside is how real it is,” Chilton reveals. “There’s no rehearsing, there’s no scripting; we do not see the pictures at all ahead of time. They (the producers) want it to be real.”

So when you see those heated debates between one or more of the Dragons and the would-be entrepreneurs, or even Dragon versus Dragon, rest assured the emotion of the moment is 100 per cent real.

“It’s pretty highly charged,” Chilton confirms. “You’re competing for the deals and you’re tired, working long days. I think that helps the show because you’re a little bit more on edge and of course Kevin is always stirring the pot every chance he gets. It’s a very interesting dynamic and I’ve enjoyed it.”

Chilton wasn’t a complete stranger to everyone on the set of The Dragons’ Den when he first landed the gig. He and Treliving met many moons ago.

“I met David just shortly after he did his book – I think he was 25 years old – I didn’t recognize him when he walked into the room here because he’d changed a bit,” Treliving recalls. “I was back in Toronto for a restaurant deal and he was the guest speaker with the book so The Wealthy Barber really stuck in my mind.”

“He’s got a brand as The Wealthy Barber and he’s done that exceptionally well across the country and is very well known,” Treliving continues. “The greatest thing with David is that he’s got a personality that’s in-tune with understanding what people are talking about. He listens to the whole thing before making a decision.”

Arlene Dickinson, CEO of Venture Communications, first met Chilton during auditions to replace Herjavec. She says the producers always wanted at least one of the Dragons to be on the set during those auditions to get a feel for whether a prospective candidate would fit in with the chemistry of the show. Dickinson has been a Dragon since replacing Jennifer Wood for the start of the second season and has enjoyed every moment of it.

“What makes this show great is two things,” she says. “It’s the spirit and the strength of the entrepreneurs that come and the innovation we’re seeing; and secondly it’s the diversity of opinion that’s amongst the five of us. They found the right team and knew who to put on that set,” Dickinson continues. “We all are very different and very strong individually and collectively there is just something that clicks with us. Robert was a big part of the show and we wanted to make sure whoever came in was going to be able to offer a new opinion and a new view, and David is doing that.

Covering all Bases

Dickinson has expertise in marketing, while Treliving is well-known for franchising with the success of Boston Pizza and Mr. Lube. Beyond the blustering, O’Leary is primarily about finance at the core and Bruce Croxon, founder of the popular dating site Lavalife, is an expert with online media and communications. So what is it that Chilton brings to the table?

“I think David’s handle on business fundamentals, as it relates to the way he looks at deals and the type of growth he expects from an investment, is much more conservative than what somebody like Kevin might want,” Dickinson offers. “I think he’ll come at it from more of a conservative perspective but he could prove me very wrong.”

The dynamic is that each of the five panelists, while all extremely successful, all have vastly different personalities which adds that much more flair to the mix.

“If you had a typical venture capital or angel investor environment and there was just one angel up there, it wouldn’t have near the dynamic flow that this show does,” Chilton declares. “It’s the going back and forth between the Dragons, and it’s not just the arguing, and there’s some good humour, but I think more than anything it’s just how different everybody thinks.”

It’s that difference in thinking that can have one of the panelists making an offer on a business partnership while the other four think that any type of offer is sheer lunacy. Of course, there are also times when two or more Dragons will see the upside to an entrepreneur’s invention and will proceed to try and cut one another out of a possible deal. It’s all business as they say.

Chilton is also quick to point out the importance of those working behind the scenes who take pride in the show and how well it’s done for such a long period of time and showing no signs of abating. There is a strong attention to detail among the crewmembers.

“I’ve never really worked on a team,” Chilton confesses. “I’ve kind of been by myself my whole career except when I was with the Cookbook Sisters so to all of a sudden be thrust into a group of 100, I’ve really enjoyed it and have been really impressed by the whole thing.”

Taking a step back even further, we asked Chilton how the opportunity of replacing a popular Dragon like Robert Herjavec came about.

“They (CBC) emailed me on a Monday morning and said we think we’re going to have an opportunity; would you be interested?” Chilton reveals. “Obviously it catches you a little bit off guard and I was mixed because I’m very low-key and always try to live a life of obscurity to tell you the truth and The Dragons’ Den doesn’t match up to that too well.”

For the next few days Chilton and the producers kept in contact going back and forth asking and answering questions. He ended up visiting the CBC building in downtown Toronto from his home in the Waterloo region to do a rehearsal/audition to determine if there were in fact the proper synergies necessary to be a Dragon, including the chemistry with the other four established members.

“They have to see you to make sure you don’t stink,” as Chilton so aptly and directly puts it.

The result of the rehearsal/audition was that Chilton immediately loved it and felt right in his element. He was instantly hooked and fascinated by it all. A deal was signed within two days.

“You’re not thinking about anything but the pitch,” he says. “It’s your own money and you’re into that whether or not you’re going to part with the dollars.”

Entertainment and Money

Knowing that it’s your own money on the line, the stakes – and tempers – can get extremely volatile. It’s that raw emotion that makes the show much more engaging. So how do The Dragons manage to balance being cutthroat one moment and then have the poise and calmness to walk off the set together and have a sandwich or coffee during a break?

“They are all tremendous at compartmentalizing,” Chilton says in paying a compliment to his co-stars and their professionalism. “There will be a legitimate heated debate and even on the next pitch everybody’s back on a fairly even keel. Some of them are good at adjusting because they’ve had so much experience. The first time it caught me a little bit off guard. I got into a fairly heated debate with Arlene on the second pitch and she was a little annoyed with me. When the pitch ended she was fine and moved on, but I was still a little bit mad,” Chilton laughs.

There’s no doubt it would be hard to just cut off human emotion and get ready for the next pitch, but that’s what needs to happen. Chilton claims Kevin O’Leary is unbelievable at that – and is incredible at how he manages to compartmentalize. He also doesn’t take things as personally as others do, which is why he’s shocked when other people do. The need to forget about the previous pitch and move on is absolutely essential, or the ability to think straight and concentrate on the next deal won’t be possible. Dickinson agrees that being able to get past something and move on with a clear mind is crucial.

“One of the things that has made me successful in my career is that I’ve been able to compartmentalize my whole life so it wasn’t unique to me when I did it on the show,” she states. “I deal with it, get past it and move on. He (Chilton) might have to grow some thicker skin (laughing).”

Another thing Chilton had to train himself to get away from was thinking about the previous pitch. He would get so fascinated by something that was said.

“In fairness to the whole thing you’ve got to make sure you live in the moment,” he notes. “I’ve worked on that and gotten better at it.”

Chilton believes that his interest in low-tech business opportunities was one of the things that attracted CBC to his persona, especially in a day and age when everything is hi-tech.

“Everybody is going digital now and wants the big idea that could make bajillions,” he tells us. “I tend to be attracted to the guy who brings a new mat in. I have a little bit of a quirky look at these different ideas and I think that’s part of what drew them in.”

Chilton’s association with Cookbook Sisters also likely worked in his favour due to the branding aspect and they all brought their own big companies.

Valuations

Many angel investor deals quite simply fall by the wayside. It’s not easy to launch a successful enterprise and keep it running for an appreciable amount of time with countless obstacles in the way. Many things need to go right.

“You almost need to go for home runs so that when one or two work out they can carry the losses,” Chilton says on his business philosophy. “My approach from a logical perspective might have some flaws from a business perspective but I’m trying to choose some gems and be more proactively involved.”

Whether a Dragon gives an “aye” or a “nay” has much more to do with valuation of the business being pitched as opposed to a personal affinity for the product or service. It may be something near and dear to ones heart, but if the individual doing the pitching comes in with a ridiculous valuation on their company, then they won’t be making any deals. Conversely, Chilton says it’s not uncommon to become part of a venture that holds little or no personal interest, but based on the low valuation and potential for a strong return, the money could easily be put up. After all, the bottom line is to make money.

Chilton has two grown children, 22 and 20 who are both in university. He loves the Waterloo area west of Toronto and says he’ll never leave. The commute is not a problem as far as he’s concerned and he likes to drive.

“My daughter is a fanatic about The Dragons’ Den,” Chilton smiles. “She’s been here and was thrilled. My son couldn’t care less.”

Strategic Partnerships

Many viewers have often wondered why is it that on some occasions two or three Dragons will team up together and be part of a venture together and then other times they’ll be like snarling pitbulls looking to cut one another out of a deal. What it boils down to is whether or not there’s a belief strategic partners are needed in order to make the business succeed. If so, they place nice – if not, the gloves are off and it’s a free-for-all which adds to the entertainment value of the show.

The taping of the shows for the entire season involves an intense three blocks, largely because it’s so difficult to get all five Dragons together at one time.

Taping for a season is done in May and the next few months following that are used to edit the episodes down into one-hour segments in time for the new season to air in September. It means getting up at 5:45 am and spending the better part of the day at the studio. There are days when Kevin O’Leary literally sprints from the studio to make it in time to do the Lang and O’Leary alongside Amanda Lang.

Inspiration for The Dragons’ Den was originally taken from a concept used by a Japanese television programme featuring current or would-be entrepreneurs pitching their business plans in an effort to land investment from any one of the five panelists who are venture capitalists. But similar themed shows in other countries have not been nearly as successful as Dragons’ Den here in Canada.

“I will give full credit for our version of the show’s success to the team that is producing it at CBC,” Dickinson exclaims. “The editors, the production crew that find the deals – the energy is just as strong off the set as it is on the set. I think Canadians appreciate the reality of the show. I often tell people it is the most genuine reality show that I can think of because it is not a fabrication of a story, it is exactly what you see compressed into these time frames that allow you to understand what really happened.”

Treliving echoes Dickinson’s comments about the staff working behind the scenes. “Our producers on CBC are the best in the business,” he says. “I can’t believe how good they make me look and everybody else on the show. It’s fun and entertaining and you’re learning about business.”

Being with the programme since Day One, Treliving says he has noticed subtle changes and improvements in the show as it’s evolved into a popular hit with Canadians from coast to coast. But there are the humanistic factors that can sometimes be forgotten when watching on television. For many people, this is their chance to improve their lot in life, but in some instances, it just doesn’t pan out.

“I remember the first day I was on the set in season one and there were really crazy pitches back then – stuff that you’d never invest in,” Treliving says. “We were having fun and then all of a sudden one of the lady was in tears. I thought to myself she is into this whole thing more than we are. After she left I said to the guys we’ve got to get serious too. Their whole life is on the line in some cases putting their home on the line for some goofy idea. That’s what you’ve got to get through to them. Stop. Don’t spend all this money. I think that’s when David found out why we get so passionate about it.”

It’s hard to pinpoint how The Dragons’ Den has managed to do it, but the show is immensely popular with people from eight to 80. As with Treliving, it’s a source of pride for Dickinson as well.

“I’m thrilled that adults love it but when those young kids come up to me in the street and say ‘I’m going to be an entrepreneur’ or ‘I knew you shouldn’t do that deal’ it takes my breath away in a good way because I think we’re doing something that I believe is truly meaningful by encouraging and supporting entrepreneurs.”

The Dragons’ Den has remained much the same at its core throughout the entire seven-year run, but with each season the bar seems to get raised just that little bit higher for prospective entrepreneurs looking for venture capital infusion and because the intensified competition has been ratcheted up, it makes for highly informative and competitive battles that we see play out on our television screens. Because Dickinson and others have found some great business deals while being part of the show, it’s necessitated them to branch out their own entrepreneurial side in order to fit everything into their already packed business schedules.

“I’ve created a new company called Arlene Dickinson Enterprises to deal with and nurture these entrepreneurs,” she tells us. “It takes a big amount of time. I have a partner and a team in that business and I take it very seriously. If we’re involved we want to make sure it’s done right.”

What is the biggest challenge for Jim, Kevin, Arlene, Bruce and David? Scheduling. Getting all five of them together at one time is a difficult task. In fact, it has to be done a full year ahead of time. The day CBJ was on set, scheduling for taping Season Eight was already well under way and will likely take place in April and May, 2013.

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