In conversation: Brett Wilson

On dragons who can’t make deals, Kevin O’Leary and what he thinks of ‘The Bachelorette’

On dragons who can't make deals, Kevin O'Leary and what he thinks of The Bachelorette

Photographs By Chris Bolin

Brett Wilson, the Calgary-based investment banker and philanthropist who came to national prominence as the “dragon with a heart” on the highly rated CBC reality television show Dragon’s Den, is now no dragon at all. He and the CBC parted ways following difficult contract negotiations in which he says the broadcaster insisted he never mention his association with the CBC or the show during public appearances or in promoting his own work. Wilson had been the most active investor on the show, which sees entrepreneurs seeking capital pitch their ideas before a panel of “dragons.”

Q: Your departure from the show has garnered a good deal of attention—why do you think people care so much?

A: First of all I was surprised that CBC issued a press release saying I was leaving. I thought I would just sort of fade into obscurity. I happened to be getting on a plane when they issued that release, so I didn’t have a chance to see it for four or five hours. In the meantime there were an awful lot of phone calls to my office asking why, how come? I think there’s an irony in the eyes of some viewers—or some media—that a dragon couldn’t get a deal negotiated for his own purposes, or his own contract, if you will. And I suspect there is.

Q: You’ve challenged the CBC to dole out what you’ve called “constructive criticism as opposed to abuse” on the show. What prompted you to make that challenge?

A: I want it to respect the intelligence of the viewing community—you know, there isn’t a business school in the country that isn’t paying attention to this show. I was the lead deal-making dragon. I don’t know how many deals the other dragons have actually done or closed, but I managed to get 60 done on the show, and we’ve papered 30, and 31 should be done in the next couple weeks. That’s where my own fan base says, “Thank you for showing us how to do deals.” It’s easy to say, “No,” it takes no courage, no brains and no wallet to criticize. Criticism comes free. Action comes at some cost, and I’ve been pretty active. Will the 30 investments I’ve made all work out? Absolutely not. I suspect I’ll write off four or five in the next year because they’re stumbling. But there’s four or five that could become iconic brands in Canada because of the power of the entrepreneur. Any one of those top-five investments will pay for all 30. So I take a portfolio approach.

Q: Listening to you outline your approach—that a handful of your investments will likely pay for those that fail—is “dragon with a heart”
less about generosity or emotion than it is a sound approach to investing?

A: I invest in people. I get value from helping people, and I get value on my money. So both of those make sense. I choose partners based on the people I want to do business with because business plans evolve—we stumble, we trip, we jump, we leap, we go to different plateaus—but the people in whom we’ve invested are still the people. My partners are a core of my success. That’s been my success over the years. In the investing world I do get value for helping people, but I don’t give up financial return to get that.

Q: Some argue you’ve been Kevin O’Leary’s foil, that the CBC built the show on a Kevin-versus-Brett narrative. Were you ever coached into participating in that kind of dynamic?

A: Just the opposite. When I first tried out for the show, the commentary from CBC was that I wasn’t mean enough. I said, “Look, if it means being a prick, I’m not interested. If it means being tough when you need to be tough, check my credentials, my success, my partners, and my life, and just know I can get there.” I think in the eyes of some of the people who were putting the show together, they thought the Kevin-esque approach was typical—that he was your normal, tough-as-nails, chew-’em-up, spit-’em-out businessman. I would suggest just the opposite. I run into a lot of people who take a very hands-on, people-centric approach to investing. It’s not that Kevin’s wrong and Brett’s right. It’s that the range exists.

Q: What’s called reality television, or “factual entertainment,” as the CBC prefers to call it, are masterpieces of editing.

A: I call it “contrived reality,” because it is orchestrated. Now, when I say “orchestrated,” the dragons were never coached, we were never told what to say. To put credit where it’s due, CBC’s done a fabulous job with this format. I’m told both inside and outside CBC that CBC’s version of Dragon’s Den is used as the gold standard globally against the other 16 or 18 or 20 that exist around the world. I’m talking about how to put the icing on the cake, here, not saying throw away the cake.

Q: But it must be an odd sensation to watch how your exchanges are shaped in the cutting room. What’s that experience been like?

A: In the early seasons it was frustrating. One of my favourite questions I ask every entrepreneur I invest in is, “How much time and how much money have you got invested in this idea?” There’s no wrong answer, but I do need to know. Have you been working on it for 10 years and you’re beating a dead horse? Or did this just come to you a week ago and you’ve got daddy’s money behind you? Or is this your heart and soul? I don’t think that question has ever made it to air. CBC is looking for that quick repartee, what you would call the juicy moment. I know that’s what they’re chasing in the editing room, and I’m completely okay with that. They own the mouse that does the cutting.

Q: But do they make the exchanges sharper than they really are?

A: I would suggest to you that they edit out some of the heated exchanges. It doesn’t get nasty but sometimes it might be a little bit too snippy, a little bit too rude.

Q: What’s the best advice you’ve given?

A: People who come on the show overestimate the share of market they can achieve. First they guesstimate the market—let’s say $1 billion in widgets can be sold next year and they say, “Well, jeez, I can get one per cent of that market, therefore I can make $10 million.” My response is, it might cost you $50 million to pursue that slice of the market, and you don’t have that money. I don’t care if you can make it—if you can’t sell it, there’s no point. Understanding your market—who will buy it and who will buy it at a profitable price—is key.

Q: You’ve done 60 deals on the show and about 30 have led to cheques being written. What happens to those 30 that don’t work?

A: Of those 30, I would say 10 were people who didn’t ultimately want to do a deal—they weren’t ready. There were another 10 where due diligence didn’t hold up. In one case someone on the show said, “I have a signed memorandum of understanding,” which turned out was an email expressing interest in a deal. There’s a big gap. I would say the other 10 would be ones where, when we did the homework, we just weren’t comfortable. In one case—again, names don’t matter—I just became uncomfortable with the entrepreneur. I didn’t like the way my people were treated. So I pulled the pin and said, “I will not tolerate that kind of abuse,” if you want to call it that, “of my own people.” You know—kissing me and kicking my staff. That’s not a relationship that’s a basis for anything. Not every marriage has to be consummated.

Q: Some of the pitches can be heartbreaking. I remember seeing an engineer who’d designed a device that would open Freezies for his kid, and he’d sunk $250,000 of his money into it. And he was turned away on the show with five outs. I’m not sure if you remember the case.

A: Oh, I remember it very, very well. He had an amazing product, it was beautifully engineered. He could make it—but he couldn’t sell enough of them to justify his investment. It was one of those sad moments for me where I’m looking, going, “You know what? This isn’t a product that the market needs.” On the flip side, it’s that passion, that sometimes blind belief in oneself, that allows some businesses and products to move forward.

Q: I also watched as you listened to 18-year-old Ben Gulak pitch his motorized unicycle, the Uno, and you were clearly enchanted.

A: Here was a kid who I looked at and thought—you know what? Even if Uno doesn’t work exactly as it’s been invented, I want to be this guy’s go-to, his brain trust, I want to be his wallet for the next idea. Because coming out of a kid who’s 18, who’s built this Uno literally out of scrap parts in his family garage, who’s been accepted to MIT, that’s a kid I wouldn’t mind investing in. You know, the evaluations that were applied to the original round of financing for Google and Yahoo and eBay and Amazon and Facebook probably made no sense either.

Q: You’ve hinted that a television show around philanthropy could be in your future. I think it’s fair to say the received wisdom goes that people like watching greed, or the consequences of greed. Can you make compelling TV out of philanthropy?

A: Time will tell. I would entertain putting myself in front of the camera again if it was to celebrate entrepreneurship or celebrate philanthropy. I happen to be one of those who still thinks a good-news television network makes sense. I understand that “if it bleeds, it leads.” But I also think there’s an awful lot of people who are tired of the irrelevance. Let’s be serious here—The Bachelorette shows are completely irrelevant. They make interesting TV, but there’s no learning, no education, no nothing other than a fairly low-brow way of spending an hour watching some guy bouncing from bed to bed.




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In conversation: Brett Wilson

  1. The verbal abuse on Dragon's Den is a little like the fighting in hockey. We don't need it. It demeans the game, but the masses seems to like it. Disappointing. I have an appetite for more of what Brett offers.

    • The problem with the den is that every person can be accused of 'over estimating' the value. But what use it to come in and ask for piddly amounts of money for a good idea? Should these people give their idea away at the rate of 50% of the company in order to get the partner? I will miss Brett on the show. CBC was foolish to ask him not to use the show or to mention it. It was good promotion for it!

      • CBC was foolish to ask him not to use the show or to mention it –

        I agree, I guess they have never heard of the domino effect!

    • I agree wholeheartedly Clare. I think Brett is a class act who will be sorly missed.

    • I watch 2 minutes of the Dragon's Den I want to rip "what's his names head off"! You know who I am talking about. I agree with Brett….idiotic criticism is mindless and in my opinion pointless and a waste of time. Come on CBC, let's get smart and not be lead down the "dumbing down of America" road.

  2. Brett WIlson: the thinking woman's pinup.

    • OMG, totally agree!

  3. Philanthropy and people being at their best is compelling. It's just that greed, one of the ugliest of human emotions, and humiliating others is so easy and lazy and cheap.

    If anyone can head a bit of TV that inspires people and teaches us to treat each other well, it's Brett Wilson. He was the main on-screen force keeping Dragon's Den from devolving into a Vistorian freak show.

  4. I'm sad to hear Brett is leaving, he was my favourite Dragon, and he was a breath of fresh air on the show. He was the yin to Kevins yang …. it will be interesting to see who comes next. I will miss Brett.

  5. Brett will be greatly missed. My wife and I had the pleasure of partnering with him in his final season. The new guy has some big shoes to fill.

  6. Great interview. Great Canadian.

  7. I enjoy the irony of a provocative half-truth soundbite of a title heading a thoughtful, well-spoken article – hope it was intentional.

    I also hope that the new guy brings a little of Brett's style of heart to the show. If he is just another character in "Arlene versus the Troglodytes" then I will lose interest quickly. Got that, CBC?

  8. Brett, I like your ideas and all of it comes off as a 'Mentoring way' – Sharing you insights so to speak.

    • i miss him too come back brett my name is tina i watch you all the time

  9. I'd like to see another woman join the Dragons. Arlene takes a lot of abuse as the only female, especially from Kevin. I think they look at her as the "token" female. and don't always take her seriously enough. I know in the general population there are more male entrepreneurs than female, but with more female role models, perhaps that would change?

    • I couldn’t agree more.  Arlene and Brett were tied at #1 as my favourite Dragon’s.  You will be sorely missed Brett and it would be nice to see another woman on the show.

  10. Good luck Brett. I learned alot from the Dragon's Den, mostly from your humanitarian style of philanthropy. I am not sure I can bare to watch it without you.

  11. Brett was the best Dragon hands down. I really wanted to go on the Den to pitch my business next season but I would rather wait to meet Brett and pitch him on his new show. I would value his involvement more than just some quick publicity from the DD. Brett if you are listening please contact me at johnfon@hotmail.com. I followed all your advice from every season. I pre sold my idea ro businesses before it was ever in production. In just 2 months my business has a few thousand regular customers and hundreds of merchants using it. I am signing paid accounts for hundreds of dollars everyday but I need someone like you who I can trust and take my business to the next level. I am based out of Vancouver and signed up my first business in Calgary yesterday.

  12. On the off chance CBC officials are actually reading this, I've stopped watching the Lang and O'Leary Exchange for the same reason, just as I've stopped watching Dragon's Den before it. Kevin O'Leary's a bright guy and I don't mind watching him when he's being human, but life is too short to sit and listen to him deliver canned boilerplate talking points about how every dime of government money is waste for the 700th time in a row. And I get the distinct impression the CBC encourages more of that to create artificial "conflict" and "personality" where it isn't needed.

    I want to watch business news for business news, not for an increasingly reheated, economics 001 version of Crossfire.

    The CBC's stereotype of what business-minded, economics-minded people are interested in is making it hard for those very people to watch what they're dishing out.

  13. The problem with the CBC is that it's run by people who have NO Business Background. Decision by Committee means that they will always continue to produce mediocre programming. I'm an American and have enjoyed Shark Tank the American version and Dragon's Den. It would be NICE for people to be able to learn more about the Real World Of Business through better editing than the B.S. that they put on the show. Less people selling 1 centimeters of Prince Edward Island and more good ideas. The old CBC Venture show was excellent for this showing Realness rather than contrived storytelling. Let's see Jim franchise, Arlene market, etc. Much like watching "Biggest Loser" to see people lose weight only to learn that they gain it all back and then some because they weren't drinking water for 48 hours to make a weigh in. The Biggest Loser in this is the CBC……because of the above. I'm Out!

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