Hunting dragons sounds like the stuff of fairy tales. For the producers of CBC-TV’s hit show Dragons’ Den it became a reality after Robert Herjavec, a long-time star of the show, announced in mid-March he wouldn’t return for another season. And while the network unveiled his replacement this week—David Chilton, author of the wildly successful personal finance book The Wealthy Barber—the switch-up shone a spotlight on one of the gruelling realities of the show: finding rich people in Canada who are willing to go on TV and dish out their money to strangers is no easy business.
While there’s no shortage of people eager to be on TV, dragons must fit a narrow profile, so the producers of the show constantly scour the country in search of names. First and foremost, dragons have to have money, and be capable of investing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on a whim in a company or idea presented in the studio. Being a successful, self-made businessperson is also important in a show that celebrates entrepreneurs. Jim Treliving, for example, founded Boston Pizza. Herjavec, who immigrated from the former Yugoslavia with his parents, made his fortune buying and selling security software companies. In the case of Chilton, he is undoubtedly wealthy, having sold more than two million copies of his book, not to mention his many sold-out speaking engagements. However, Chilton is also famously frugal—something of an anti-Kevin O’Leary, the show’s most belligerent dragon, whose catchphrase is “I love money,” and who also professes love for his Porsche, fine wine and designer suits. Chilton, on the other hand, told Maclean’s last fall he lives in a tiny house and doesn’t even know what granite countertops look like.
Time is another key factor for any new dragon. If you’re the CEO of a large corporation, time is a very scarce resource in your life, and being a dragon eats up a good amount of it. “There aren’t that many people out there who are active in business and are wealthy enough to be in this show and who can take that amount of time away from their businesses,” says Ian Portsmouth, the editor and publisher of Profit magazine, a sister publication to Maclean’s. Portsmouth has been consulted by producers of the show on more than one occasion in their search.
Maybe the biggest challenge facing the show is finding entrepreneurs who aren’t just wealthy, but are willing and able to go on national television and face becoming a celebrity. Still, that can also be a motivating factor for some, says Tracie Tighe, the executive producer of Dragons’ Den. “I think successful entrepreneurs are comfortable with showing people how successful they are. They realize it also opens other doors.”
Just ask former dragon Brett Wilson. “I get paid more now to do a talk than I got paid to do a whole season of Dragons’ Den. And I’m one phone call away from most businessmen in North America,” says Wilson. “That’s a pretty powerful tool as an entrepreneur and a phenomenal advantage as a philanthropist.”
Sean Wise, author of Hot or Not, a book for entrepreneurs based on his experience working as an industry consultant on five seasons of the show, says that one trait all the dragons he’s worked with share is an awareness of “the intrinsic value of stimulating entrepreneurship.” Wilson believes Canadian business as a whole ultimately benefits from the show.
Tighe says about four or five people actually knock at her door every year asking to be on the show. And Wise believes Canada has plenty of people who would be a perfect fit. “Just look at some of our best and brightest: Michael Lee Chin, Leonard Broady, Christine Magee, John Sleeman . . . Canada is the home of entrepreneurship. People just don’t give us enough credit,” he says.
Good chemistry with the other dragons will be key as Chilton joins the show. Like all the dragons, he would have gone through the show’s rigorous audition program—each year the producers test at least 20 potentials. The auditions take place along with the pre-screening of entrepreneurs seeking money. Tighe says that for these sessions the producers choose a blend of entrepreneurs pitching good ideas with those that are off the wall. Ultimately, when the show resumes taping, it will be up to Chilton to show he can spot the difference—after all, it’s his money on the line.