Insight Dragon's Den

Excerpt from Cool Companies  Content by Claudia Sammer

Read PDF version that appeared in the Cool Companies industry guide [PDF]

Is Dragon’s Den serious in offering real value to Canada’s entrepreneur community or is it taking advantage of want-to-be entrepreneurs for TV entertainment? The TV show Dragon’s Den features Canadian entrepreneur hopefuls pitching business ideas to angel investors called the Dragons. The source of the show’s controversy has been the sometimes scary interaction between entrepreneurs and Dragons, as well as the sometimes poor quality business ideas that appear to be for TV entertainment purposes only. The question Cool Companies magazine wanted to know was:  Is the Dragon’s Den serious in offering real value to Canada’s entrepreneur community or is it taking advantage of want-to-be entrepreneurs for TV entertainment?  To investigate, we asked 3 groups with different perspectives: entrepreneurs that appeared on the show this season, a Dragon, and Canada’s experienced and successful Canadian entrepreneurs who read Cool Companies magazine.

Photo: The Dragons from left to right in photo: (1) Jim Treliving purchased and runs Boston Pizza;  (2) Arlene Dickinson, Founder, President and CEO of Venture Communications, one of Canada’s largest independent marketing firms; (3) Kevin O’Leary, host of ROB TV’s SqueezePlay, founded a company that repackaged high-end business software for the consumer market with  a $10,000 investment and grew it into an educational software company he sold to Mattel for $3.2 billion; (4) Laurence Lewin, Co-Founder and President of La Senza lingerie shops; and (5) Robert Herjavec, founded and sold his computer security services company for $30 million.


Dragon’s Den (Footnote 1) is a TV show on CBC. It’s a reality show where promising entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas on national television to a panel of 5 successful Canadian business leaders known as the Dragons. Good business ideas and pitches from the entrepreneurs can launch the Dragons into a bidding war against each other to invest with their own money in exchange for an equity percentage. Contestants must decide in the moment whether to accept or not, and often make bigger equity concessions than they planned.

Dragon’s Den has made some effort in increasing the awareness and challenges of entrepreneurship in Canada, and provided Canadians with further insight into criteria used to judge a potentially market-viable new business idea. With Canada’s success rate for new company launches at less than 20% after 5 years in business, it would seem that anything that helps would be good. Or…maybe not?

The first season of Dragon’s Den in Canada had some controversy—even though the Dragons are angel investors, this ain’t the Angel’s Den. Controversy remains in Season II: some of the quality of product ideas pitched were obviously included for entertainment value. And, some of the Dragons have sometimes had harsh things to say to the entrepreneurs on the show. Another eye-raising issue is that of the handful of “deals” that were made in Season I, ONLY ONE entrepreneur survived the Dragon’s due diligence process and successfully received funding: Jennifer MacDonald of London, Ontario, who made a deal for her organic Omega 3 salad oil company, Cenabal Gourmet Organics (
As an advocate of Canadian entrepreneurs, Cool Companies magazine investigated whether or not Dragon’s Den is really helping Canadian entrepreneurs or is it just providing pure TV entertainment. We did this by interviewing 3 sets of people for 3 different perspectives: entrepreneurs on the show, a Dragon and experienced entrepreneurs.

Footnote 1 : Season II of Dragon’s Den runs at 8 pm (8:30 pm NT) on CBC TV on Monday nights. For more information visit The format for Dragon’s Den was invented in the U.K. and local versions have been developed for Japan, Australia and now Canada.


Jessica Bohrson and her brother, Russell Bohrson, are the co-founders of *atomic (, a Calgary-based tea shop specializing in tea-infused beverages and toasted sub sandwiches. They appeared on Season II of Dragon’s Den and accepted an offer from the Dragons.

Cool: Why did you go on Dragon’s Den?
Jessica Bohrson: We have just one store right now and were looking to expand. We thought Dragon’s Den might really help us do that. It’s one thing to run one shop but it’s a whole different ballgame when you got more.

Cool: Did you talk to other angel investors before?
Bohrson: We never approached any before going on Dragon’s Den. It was something we honestly never really thought about. It is just me and my brother, so it’s a case of not having the resources to expand with just the two of us. So we needed help. Both of us work in the store everyday. If we could have more employees here to help out, then basically we could work on the expansion ourselves.

Cool: What did the Dragons offer you?
Bohrson: 50.1% {equity in *atomic} at $120,000.

Cool: But that’s giving away control of your business. Why would you do that?
Bohrson: It was a tough call. We went in and, honestly in our minds before going into the Den, no more than 40%. We went in offering 25% for $120,000, knowing that we would have to negotiate. We really were not prepared for it {50.1%} and we did not want to do that. But, at the same time, we thought, We would rather have a smaller piece of something that’s really big than the whole piece of something that may never become big. And, I honestly think that with their systems and their know-how, *atomic will become much, much bigger than we could probably have done with it on our own.

Cool: Why did you take this particular deal?
Bohrson: It was pretty exciting. It was a bidding war between them. And at one point 3 of the Dragons offered us $225,000 for 51% interest. However, we took the third offer with all 5 Dragons for 50.1% because Arlene [Dickinson] and Kevin [O’Leary] were also involved. For me it was critical that Arlene be involved. I had never met her before this, but I know of her brilliant mind and I honestly wanted her to be a part of *atomic. I know Jim has the experience with restaurants, Laurence with retail and Robert with technology. And the thought of having someone like Kevin there too—he doesn’t usually want to be part of them…So then at that point we said, “How about we do the 50.1% with all 5 of you but we also do the $250,000”. And that was when they all started saying, “Don’t get greedy. That offer is not on the table anymore. That offer’s gone.”

Cool: What do you think of their response?
Bohrson:  When I watch it for other people I think, Don’t be crazy. Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it. But when it was us, we realized we were going to do it.  The Dragons are millionaires and billionaires. When I hear them say, “Don’t be greedy,” I’m thinking, You can afford anything you want. And at the same time I look at this and think, That’s how they become billionaires. It is the way they do things. And honestly, if they can help us in that way, then I’m fine with it.
I know that it’s hard to understand because I know that we would have never taken this deal if you would have told me about it outside. But when you’re in there, it’s the excitement of it. You’re standing in front of 5 of them and you’re expecting them to shoot you down, and then when one of them starts going for it and they’re bidding back and forth with each other, it’s exciting. You’re so caught up in the moment. You’re saying, “Let’s do it. Let’s go for it.” But, it is a loss of control {giving up 50.1%} and we worry about them ganging up on us and making us do something we didn’t want to do with the business. But, we’re fairly trusting of people and we have to just go with our guts and assume that they’re going to be good people.
Cool: Do you have any regrets?
Bohrson: No. No. No. We are really happy with how it went.Obviously, it’s not the money. I believe that these guys are good for their word and they will help us in any way they can.


Banana Guard ( is a device to protect bananas from being bruised and squashed in a lunch bag. Its co-founders are 3 emergency room doctors of Vancouver, B.C., David Agulnik, Amin Sajan and Sunil Mangal. They appeared on season II of Dragon’s Den and turned down an offer.

Cool: Why did you need an investor?
David Agulnik: We really debated that point. For us, getting capital was not really the issue. Yes, publicity was a factor.
Compared to some of the other products, we have a relatively established brand and product out there that’s in stores and certainly this was going to be good exposure for our product.
We knew that the Dragons have, you know, a tremendous amount of experience and certainly if we could bring them onboard to our company that was a big motivation for us as well. We really felt that we were having trouble getting into the U.S. market and really thought that having them, as part of the company, would get us to the next step.

Cool: Why are you having trouble getting into the U.S. market?
Agulnik: We don’t quite know. We are making small strides and we have a plan. We have done some publicity in the U.S., it’s going to be in some big catalogs across the U.S. I’m not sure if it’s because if it’s such a unique looking product that some people are a little timid.

Cool: How many units have you sold elsewhere?
Agulnik:Oh we’ve sold 700,000, mostly in Europe, mostly in Sweden and the U.K. They love the design. People will look at it, laugh at it but then realize that it’s actually quite functional. And, once they start using it, word of mouth just spreads it. We spent zero money on advertising in Europe, and they’re our main customer. It’s been sort of a viral type of advertising.

Cool: How did you sell 700,000 units?
Agulnik: We wrote to The Toronto Star, then other papers picked it up. Oh yeah, blogs helped too. My wife’s brother-in-law is in the Netherlands and wrote it in his blog, and he’s a well known blogger and sent it to his friends who are also well-known bloggers, and within a few days our web traffic went through the roof. We had 100,000 hits. Then we heard from distributors and catalog stores in Europe. 80% of our product is sold this way now.

Cool: What have you learnt about being an entrepreneur in business already?
Agulnik:We have learnt to trust ourselves. At times it’s important to get outside advice, but you really got to know your product inside and out. Don’t listen to what other people are saying. It sounds hokey, but you know I don’t think we would have made it this far if we would have listened to half the people that didn’t get what this was about.
But then the other one is, don’t be shy about getting the proper advice, as well. I think if we would have sought the advice of our lawyer earlier on, it would—patents, contracts, personnel, I think that would have saved us a lot of money.

Cool: Why did you turn down the Dragon’s offer?
Agulnik: What happened was they wanted too much [equity]. It wasn’t a deal we wanted to take. But, that’s their job. That’s how they make money. They want control. And, I think that may be a flaw with the show. That’s the most expensive money you will ever borrow.

Cool: If you could do it again, is there anything you would change?
Agulnik: I would try not to be so nervous. I have a new appreciation for reality TV. It was stressful. You were put on the spot and grilled. I don’t think we would change very much.

Cool: What is the magic the Dragons offer?
Agulnik:These are multi-millionaires with companies all over the world and contacts all over the world. It’s who you know. I think with the show if they have stake in your company, they would use the best of their ability to make money.

Cool: What benefit did you get from being on Dragon’s Den?
Agulnik:There was a small increase in orders [from consumers] and a few new retailers who bought the product for their stores. We also had several offers of assistance in trying to get the product into the U.S.


Like all the Dragons in Dragon’s Den, Arlene Dickinson is a successful self-made business person. She is the Founder, President and CEO of Venture Communications ( which she has grown over the last 20 years into one of Canada’s largest independent marketing firms.

Funding her own company

Cool Companies: When you started your company, would you have gone on the Dragon’s Den to try to get money?
Arlene Dickinson: Probably not, no. Just because it’s a service industry and it’s a little more difficult.
Cool:  Have you had investors in your own company?
Arlene: No.
Cool: How did you grow your company without investors?
Dickinson: We worked the first 2 years without taking salaries.

Cool: When is finding an investor right for a company?
Dickinson:  It depends on how quickly you grow the company. I think that there are lots of times when investment will make a significant difference in a company. You need to know, as the entrepreneur of the company, whether you require those other resources whether they be financial or business advice resources.

The Dragons’ magic

Cool: The 2 entrepreneurs interviewed for this article that appeared on the show put a lot of value in the magic of the Dragons [the business savvy] even though they’re not quite sure what it is. So, what is the magic the Dragons offer?
Dickinson: The magic of Dragon’s Den is really a starting point for entrepreneurs lucky enough to get their product or idea in front of 5 experienced business minds. I think it’s really hard for entrepreneurs that are just starting out to get their idea in front of the right type of people. Any time as an entrepreneur, you can get in a room with experienced investors or entrepreneurs who have been very successful, I think that that’s an opportunity to test your own acumen and the validity of your idea, and you should take that opportunity.

Cool: That’s the reason for being on the show. But after the show there’s another magic that the Dragons offer and that’s the magic that these entrepreneurs are really buying.
Dickinson:What happens after the show is a lot of due diligence, and a lot of making sure that what is said is real, and making sure that there’s value in what’s going on. So the magic in terms of having our advisors and ourselves engaged and invested in the company is probably just our experience, and being able to leap-frog people ahead faster than they would have on their own.

Investment expectations

Cool: Why did you start investing in other companies?
Dickinson: You know, a lot of the investments {before Dragon’s Den} I’ve made have been in people I have known and had confidence in personally. Being in the business I’m in, in marketing, we get exposed to lots of new ideas and companies that are looking for marketing advice and expertise so I run across a lot of them by virtue of my own business, not simply as an investor. And, the people that I’ve helped and the few investments I’ve done to-date have been with people that I trusted and knew that they were going to do what they said they were going to do.
Somebody at some point has to take that leap of faith with you. You need to believe in yourself, but you really need somebody else to believe, to convince somebody else to believe with you or you’re not a good entrepreneur. A vision on its own is never enough. You need to have a vision that’s executed and the only way you can execute a vision is by having others help you and believe. You have to be visionary and practical. You have to be able to champion people to your point of view. 

Cool: What can entrepreneuers expect to happen after the show once they get a deal on the Dragon’s Den?
Dickinson: The deals that are done on the show are different than the deals that will actually end up carrying through simply because of the reality of the business world. As with any entrepreneurial venture, there are no guarantees that they {the deals} will go through. But it’s an early, “Yes, I’m interested in investing.”
If the investment is made, we are likely sitting on their board in some respect or as an advisor. We make sure that they have business plans and we sign off on their plans. We are making sure that we understand what their growth strategies are, but we are not running their company.  The last thing an entrepreneur needs is somebody running the company that’s not full-time involved in the company. So, we just help them understand what we think they might need for success and guiding them, but we’re not running the ship.

Cool:  Once you do invest in a company, are you expecting to get out in a few years or are you in for the long term?
Dickinson: I don’t want to be in it for the long term. I would expect to be out of my investment and putting the company back in the entrepreneur’s hands or into some sort of an event whether it’s a sale or a growth opportunity outside of my investment. But, I would like to be able to help them where they are now, make my return on my investment and get out in 3 to 5 years. The idea isn’t to be a partner for the long term; the idea is to be a partner while they need it most and then to get out and let them carry on.

Cool: What are your expectations for success of the companies you invest in?
Dickinson:You know, I would hope that we’re pretty smart, savvy investors and that there would be a fairly good chance of success, but there are so many factors. As I said, we are not running the business. We’re involved and engaged in terms of assisting with it. But I would hope that it would have a higher than normal success rate simply because of the successes we have all experienced. However, we can’t control a company’s success. If it was a guaranteed success we would all be gazillionaires.

Cool: Why do the Dragons sometimes want 51% (controlling equity) and sometimes they don’t?
Dickinson:Generally, almost always, there’ll be a need to want to have control simply because the investment never stops; it’s an ongoing commitment. In order to say you’re going to be committed to continuing to help grow that company with probably additional funds down the road, you want to make sure that you have the majority position so that you can manage, if you have to, what needs to happen to make the company successful. It’s just a vulnerability question. Controlling interest comes in a variety of ways whether it’s shares or votes. So you might say, I don’t need 51% of the shares but I do need control of any vote decision as it relates to expenditures.

Behaviour on the show

Cool: Is Dragon’s Den serious about really helping entrepreneurs or is it just entertainment?
Dickinson: “I think Dragon’s Den reflects the real world facing entrepreneurs today. It doesn’t provide a guarantee for success; it’s a starting point. We are in there, we’re interested and open to investing in new ventures. We are in there for a reason. We are all entrepreneurs.”

Cool: Why do the Dragons sometimes sound harsh and even nasty toward the show’s entrepreneurs and their ideas?
Dickinson:There’s a kindness in the straightness of what’s said. It may seem a little harsh, but I think that really what’s going on is it is the real world. It is what they’re going to be exposed to as entrepreneurs in the real world. So the directness of the response is actually something that people should embrace as opposed to feel slighted by. A lot of what is said by all of us on the show is to ensure that people are hearing the truth, as we understand it at that moment and we are trying to give our best most direct advice.

Cool: How do you explain the sometimes similar behaviour from the show’s entrepreneurs?
Dickinson: How you deal with direct feedback is a sign of how you’re going to respond in the real world. So I think it is hard when it’s your own individual idea and when it’s what you believe in and are passionate about to hear a critique of it. But how you manage that is equally as important. I think it is a “tell” for me as an investor how people respond to that pressure. We saw a variety of that response on the show: we saw people who managed it well and who stayed calm underneath that pressure and were still able to maintain their professionalism to people that felt they needed to lash out.