Q & A With Dragon W. Brett Wilson
The Dragon’s Den has seen countless Canadian entrepreneurs plead with a select few investors for capital to help them bring their business or idea to reality. Many of these entrepreneurs see a capital injection from a “Dragon” as a last resort. Do you think the existence of this show has undertones illustrating the difficulty of access to capital for Canadian entrepreneurs?
Dragons’ Den is a perfect vehicle for showcasing how many bright and innovative entrepreneurs there are in Canada who just need a bit of help with resources and guidance to get their ideas off the ground.
Provided they’re given sufficient background information, do you think that everyday Canadians should be able to invest in the types of deals presented on the Dragon’s Den, be they good, bad, or otherwise or should they be reserved for people with more investment experience like yourself?
With emphasis on ensuring there is reliable information up front, yes, people should be able to invest in these kinds of opportunities. But remember to keep the amounts to levels you can afford to lose – and seek out multiple opportunities for early stage investments – build a portfolio.
Did you learn any lessons about entrepreneurship during your time on Dragon’s Den?
It actually reinforced a lot of what I already knew. My approach to investing is focused on reading more than a balance sheet; it’s about reading people. I looking for people who know their stuff, who are one-hundred-percent trustworthy, and who are willing to work hard. Those are the people who are usually going to make a profit. Sounds like a pretty easy combination, but it can be hard to find. When I think I see it, I usually make the deal. The frustrating thing about Dragons’ Den is that the producers would edit a 90 minute conversation into 6 minutes. The audience often missed the relevant points that provided the basis for my investment. That’s why, as a teaching platform, Dragons’ Den often misses the mark. It does plant seeds of entrepreneurship – and as a prairie boy – I like that.
Do you think that the Canadian capital markets, including the private markets, are overly burdened with legal requirements and costs?
It may be that the regulatory burden is too high (don’t get me going on the inefficiencies of multiple provincial regulators and the nonsensical levels of reporting required) but as a general rule I believe that meeting and exceeding regulatory requirements is just good business. At FirstEnergy, we probably spent more money and attention on compliance and financial reporting than most of our competitors would think reasonable. It did cost us money in additional overhead. We moved more slowly in some situations than our competitors did because we wanted to make sure our i’s were all dotted and the t’s were properly crossed. But to us, it was well worth it. Our track-record of regulatory compliance – in a world where virtually every registrant had made at least a few mistakes – was pristine or perfect while I was a partner – and I am certain that has continued. It was an investment in the highest level of ethical behavior, which was just good business in every measure.
There is currently a lot of buzz on internet based start-up investing (i.e. crowd funding). What are your thoughts on individuals being able to invest in a new idea (with limited protections) through the click of a mouse?
One of the best things about the Internet is the access it affords. Access to people, ideas, and capital. Crowd funding is a natural evolution. Is there potential for people to lose money in the process? Of course. I would urge anyone considering this process to do their homework, but given the right fundamentals, to dive in!
What are your thoughts on the role of the entrepreneurial community in reviving Canada’s economy?
Entrepreneurship is all about driving Canadian innovative and competitiveness. And it doesn’t just happen in small business. No matter what the career, I believe everyone should develop an entrepreneurial mindset. As a society, we tend to think that new age entrepreneurs are people who graduate from business school. But anyone can have an entrepreneurial mindset and innovation can happen anywhere. Whether you’re an employee or an employer, an artist or an accountant, you can find ways to innovate and be part of the creative process. Innovative thinkers are constantly asking the question: how can we make things better?
The best career advice I can give is to encourage you to answer this question: how can I use my knowledge, my network and my personal passion to creatively meet the world’s greatest needs? No matter what your skill set, I promise you that your willingness to innovate will literally change the world.
Do the banks, particularly the big banks, have a role in assisting entrepreneurs or should it all be up to investors?
Not really – banks are NOT equity investors – as their core business. You need an element of gut based risk assessment to many angel or early stage start up investments. That is not for a bank.
You’re well known for your philanthropic efforts, a lot of which have occurred at the corporate level. What role do you see Corporations having in supporting Canadian charities?
Business writer Don Tapscott says that business cannot succeed in a world that is failing and I agree completely. Without question, communities with a strong economic base and a strong social fabric are the best places to live and work. – and corporations have a role to play in making their communities stronger.
At the same time, corporate philanthropic giving can – and I argue should – contribute directly to a company’s bottom line in many ways – making it one of the best ways to fuel corporate growth and build a stronger community.
Knowing what you know now, if you could go back today and teach the young Brett Wilson a lesson about what it takes to be an entrepreneur, what would it be?
Never stop learning. It’s a life long opportunity.