Passion fuels fire in the belly of the Dragons

Producers of popular business reality show Dragons' Den looking for good TV as much as they are good investments

Dragon’s Den producers Richard Maerov and Jane Chupick inspect the FireBozz

You wouldn’t say Randy Brouwer looks nervous as he sits in the lobby outside the Nanaimo Conference Centre’s Shaw Auditorium Friday.

But a reservoir of pent-up energy is obvious in the way he speaks, the way he moves, the way he springs from his chair when someone calls.

A middle-aged man from Merville, a tiny community north of Comox, Brouwer is not unique in this small, quiet crowd, well-lit by the colourless, mid-morning February sky.

He comes equipped with a practiced speech on his tongue and his dreams tucked under his arm.

He is hunting Dragons.

***

Few Canadians are unfamiliar with the Dragons’ Den.

The CBC program — which gives regular Canadians a chance to pitch their business ideas to prospective investors — has been around since 2006. It is the country’s top-rated nationally produced reality entertainment show and may be the best-known homegrown show on TV.

Associate producers Richard Maerov and Jane Chupick have been with the program since seasons three and six respectively.

They are part of a team making 35 stops across the country this winter, searching for the approximately 200 prospects who will get to enter next season’s Den.

Nanaimo and Victoria have been tour stops since season one. Vancouver Island has sent many prospects to the show, including real estate website development entrepreneur Morgan Carey, who, two years ago, received a $2 million offer after making the highest “ask” in the show’s history.

Maerov said about 3,000 people from across the country audition each year, with five applicants typically chosen from the Nanaimo auditions and 10 more from Victoria.

He said despite the show’s longevity, the well of interesting applicants has yet to dry up.

“You’d think that after a couple of seasons that they would have run out of ideas,” he said. “I think the show still inspires a lot of people.”

He’s talking about business ideas, but he could also be talking about the audition process. For a fledgling business, an appearance on the Dragons’ Den can be a huge deal.

Averaging about one million viewers per episode, the program can provide a considerable profile boost even to those prospects who get on but don’t get an investment.

Chupick said a few have seen their websites crash in the show’s immediate aftermath due to a sudden influx of people logging on.

***

The people who gathered in Nanaimo Friday, in Victoria Saturday, and in halls across the country all month long come from almost as many backgrounds as there are Canadians.

But they are bound by something universal: ideas and a passion for making them reality.

Inside, each may be hoping for an opportunity to strike it rich, but that is not the main message coming from their mouths if you take the time to listen. It’s all about the idea itself.

And make no mistake about it, they all want to talk. Ideas seek an audience like a vine seeks the sun.

Alicia Vanin exits the auditorium, handing the floor to fellow Nanaimoite Rod Szasz.

She spots a reporter and presses a card into his hand. It’s a link to her website for Handsome Stitchery, a business where she turns baby blankets, favourite sweaters and other emotionally significant clothing items into Memory Bears. Call me, she says.

Szasz hefts what looks like a modern, lightweight Gatling gun into the audition hall, inviting the reporter to follow. Basically a giant mobile sprinkler, the FireBozz is used to increase efficiency while fighting forest fires.

Outside the hall, Nanaimo sushi cook Michael Kim passes out samples of his salmon-nut jerky, designed as quick snack for hikers, kayakers and other outdoor recreation lovers, while Parksville’s Gord Byers showcases Hoodle, a handmade two-player board game he wants to re-invent as an app.

Amidst this rush of ideas, Janet Wyllie and Marjorie Driscoll direct traffic.

Big fans of the Den, the pair has been volunteering at the Nanaimo auditions for a number of years.

Applicants are down in Nanaimo this year — in the teens, when typically about 40 applicants show up from across Vancouver Island.

But if there is disappointment in that, it doesn’t show.

Watching their neighbours succeed on the small screen still gives these volunteers a level of community pride and they acknowledge a certain buzz that comes from being able to peek behind the curtain of a favourite show.

But mostly they keep coming back to see the ideas and meet the people who come up with them.

“I love to see the enthusiasm from them all,” Wyllie said.

“Really, it’s about the business,” Driscoll added. “ But in the long run, I want to be entertained as well.”

***

Entertainment is what the producers are seeking too.

People auditioning for the show need to make a good business case for their product, but they also have to be able to sell themselves as well.

“First and foremost, this is a TV show,” Maerov said. “We are looking for entertainment, number one.

“Low energy, low charisma, low passion — even if they were making millions, it’s not for us.”

You have to be knowledgeable about your product, and articulate about your business plan, but most of all you have to be passionate. You have to make the producers believe you can get the audience engaged.

The ultimate pitch to the Dragons is your own, but if you show the raw material to make for good TV, then the producers will take the time to help you massage your presentation.

“A lot of the time it’s talking them out of something too big,” Chupick said.

That said, there is no pre-game skate when it comes to convincing the Dragons that yours is a good investment.  What you see on TV is the Dragons being exposed to a pitch for the first time.

“They (the Dragons) are not prepared at all,” Chupick said.

“The Dragons are really bad actors,” Maerov added. “We really want to capture the authentic moment.”

According to the producers, the biggest mistake applicants make is going into the process with a dream and expecting the Dragons to be a magic ticket for making it come true.

“Don’t look to the Dragons to do everything for you. That’s not what they’re there for,” Maerov said. “They want to invest in your business and get a return on that.”

Instead, the proper approach is to come in with a well-developed product and marketing plan that just needs an injection of capital to put it over the top.

“The thing to remember is, this is a show about making money,” he said. “If you aren’t making any, how do you expect the Dragons to step in?”

***

The call comes mid-interview and Brouwer is up in a flash.

His versatile multi-use roasting stick — the Fireside Fork — is quickly disassembled and stashed away in its compact carrying kit, and in an instant he is gone.

He came up with the idea about two years ago while brainstorming Christmas presents. An early run of 200 products sold out and inspired him to think bigger.

Today, the Fireside Fork is made of light, heat-conducting aluminum with adjustable lengths and movable safety handles, multiple prongs designed to better grip your food, and special attachments for vegetable baskets. It can also become a rotisserie in a matter of seconds with the help of a cordless drill. The product is now being distributed in Canadian Tire stores on a trial run.

As he strides toward the door, his companion reveals that this is his fourth audition. He remains a believer in his product and in how the improvements he has made to his pitch will finally be enough to punch his ticket to Toronto for a date with the Dragons.

Now, he just has to convince Chupick, Maerov and their co-producers that he is right.

The answer will come in two to six weeks.

 

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