I was unreasonably excited when I first heard Dragon’s Den was about to be a thing.
“ZOMG YOU GUYS THIS IS GONNA BE BANANAS” — me, in a calm moment.
For the six of you who have never heard of the show, let me explain. Wannabe entrepreneurs enter the Dragon’s Den looking for an investment in their business. They have just a few minutes to convince the wealthy Dragons to invest their own cash in the idea.
Business ideas range from the outrageously wacky to the surprisingly profitable, which each company having some sort of unique selling point. Common business ideas over the show’s eleven seasons include tech, food, and various household gadgets. If somebody invented a better mouse trap, it got some airtime. A plumber looking to buy another truck and expand his business wouldn’t.
The show started off rough. I once compared the first season’s set to an abandoned warehouse in Scarborough. Once CBC execs figured out the show had promise, the network threw its whole budget (tens! of dollars) towards making the show a hit.
The show has seen close to a dozen Dragons over the years, each with their own unique way of looking at deals. Kevin O’Leary was a value investor, while Brett Wilson threw money at practically anything. Bruce Croxton didn’t really do much of anything. David Chilton added some chuckles to the show. Arlene Dickenson constantly told people she’d add marketing expertise to any deal, which once included putting her own damn face on the side of the box. Nice work, marketing maven.
Anyhoo, I’m sure you’re familiar with the show. Let’s move on to why it now sucks.
What’s wrong with Dragon’s Den
The concept of the show is simple. Entrepreneurs show up and ask for cash for part of their company. The cash can have all sorts of uses, but is usually slated to be spent expanding operations.
But that’s just not happening.
Dragon’s Den is increasingly attracting companies that are already profitable, have plenty of capital, and can easily fund their own expansion efforts. They don’t need Dragon cash.
Yet they’re there anyway, knowing that the kind of boost given from an appearance on the show just can’t be replicated. There are dozens of examples of companies who didn’t take a dime from the Dragons even though there was one (or more willing to invest).
Remember Holy Crap, the cereal Jim Treliving lost his mind over in 2010? The company refused Treliving’s cash after they shook hands on a deal, mostly because they really didn’t need the money. The company then came back to the show in 2016, where Treliving tried to give them money again. The deal fell apart, again. This time Treliving willingly stepped aside and let new Dragon Manjit Minhas invest instead. She’s now Holy Crap’s co-CEO.
That story didn’t end how you thought it was going to, did it?
More recently, Canadian finance site Ratehub stepped into the Den, looking for $1 million for a 10% valuation. The company ended up agreeing to a deal with Joe Mirmam and Jim Trevling that valued the company at $14 million. Ratehub never saw a nickel of the cash, deciding to decline the deal in the due diligence stage of the negotiations.
And so on. There are a million other stories just like those.
According to the Globe and Mail, 79 deals have been sealed on Dragon’s Den over the years, out of 361 different handshake agreements. That’s a success rate of just over 20%. Or, to put it another way, just 79 out of 1,076 pitches resulted in a deal before the beginning of the show’s 10th season, a success rate of just 7.3%.
It’s obvious the vast majority of businesses that enter the den are there just for publicity. I’m sick of it. If these folks want commercials, go ahead and pay for them like every other business.
It’s pretty obvious this free promotion is a big draw for both the presenters and the Dragons. The Dragons like knowing their new investment will get a big boost when the episode airs, and business owners know you can’t buy publicity better than showing up on the Den.
In other words, it’s not going away anytime soon.
Shark Tank knew this would be a problem, so it asks for 5% equity in any company that presents on the show. This not only ensures companies don’t show up only for the sweet, sweet, publicity, but it also minimizes the joke pitches.
When Dragon Brett Wilson quit the show after season four, he pointed out many of the same criticisms. He felt the show was misleading viewers by only showing the handshake, and very little of the stuff afterwards. He bemoaned the lack of follow-up episodes that showed the next stage for these businesses.
Venture capital is exciting. You can make compelling television out of the whole process, not just the shaking hands part of the Den. And while we’re at it, stop letting companies go on the show just to get some free publicity. Either force them to give up equity or pay you. It might not be very Canadian, but at least it’ll help the rest of us at least pretend a company is serious about doing a deal.