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Kevin O'Leary: Canada's master of (harsh) reality TV Add to ...

Like all successful men, Kevin O'Leary is a study in contrasts.

On CBC-TV's Dragons' Den (which returns to the air Wednesday night at 8) and ABC's Shark Tank (back on Friday at 9 p.m.), the Montreal native has become known as the bombastic investor who routinely dashes the dreams of budding entrepreneurs, quite often in the most withering manner imaginable. "Life is hard, money doesn't care and your tears don't add value," was his brutal assessment of one product pitch.

The softer side of Kevin O'Leary can be found on his Twitter page, where he posts frequently on his business dealings ("I'm thinking good investment themes for 2010 will be pharma, health care, energy and biotech") and his fabulous life ("Dinner tonight at the Auberge de Dully in Switzerland … Best roast chicken on earth!").

Either way, the man knows his business. In 1999, O'Leary sold his software company to the Mattel Toy company for a staggering $3.7-billion (U.S.) - still one of the largest deals in consumer software history. Soon after, he founded O'Leary Mutual Funds, where he's still chairman.

Love him or hate him, O'Leary is very likely the reason why more people are watching Dragons' Den (CBC, 9 p.m.), which has passed the two-million viewer mark this season. He's also the sharp counter to business reporter Amanda Lang on The Lang & O'Leary Exchange on CBC's The National . How did a simple billionaire become such a Canadian TV fixture? Meet the man behind the mouth.

Why do some people think you're such a mean guy?

I don't consider myself to be mean at all. I just tell the truth. I don't think there's any room for being grey when it comes to money. In many cases these entrepreneurs are spending their own family's capital and they've never really market-tested the idea. They've never gone to an investor that's indifferent and has no relationship to them. If they don't like the outcome of that, I'm sorry for them. If you can't take the heat, stay out of the kitchen.

Are some Dragons' Den contestants undone by their own cockiness?

I'd rather invest in an entrepreneur who has failed before than one who assumes success from day one. I prefer someone who has been chiselled by the wind of business. It's a vicious competition.

Some contestants are rather blatant in trying to curry favour with you …Obviously, each Dragon has his or her area of expertise; you'll notice most of the food-oriented deals play toward Jim [Treliving]because of his Boston Pizza background, but if it's financial services, they're going to come after me. Sucking up never works, but if it's a good business idea, I'm interested.

And when some entrepreneurs are reduced to tears?

There's no room for tears in business. Crying doesn't help you get money and it doesn't show your strengths. It just shows you're emotional and you could have a weakness regarding an impassioned view of your business. And to me, I find it very distasteful.

Why Twitter, not Facebook?

I was put onto Twitter by Arlene [Dickinson, fellow Dragon]last season. Facebook takes too much work. Twitter is an old man's Facebook. I look at Twitter as brand building. I do a lot of travel as part of what I do for O'Leary Funds. I'm constantly on the road and my investor base likes to know where I'm going and what I'm doing.

Are some people sending you their brilliant business ideas directly, say, via Twitter?

That happens, but I prefer they go through the rigours of Dragons' Den . It shows me their mettle and their ability to present. It takes stress to do that in a difficult environment.

Any theories on the dramatic ratings spike for Dragons' Den this season?

It's a cultural phenomenon. I think Dragons' Den in Canada is slowly becoming the American Idol of venture capital. Entrepreneurs who have existing products and services know that if they get on the show they're going to get a huge lift in sales, or at least market awareness of their product or service. We're getting a tremendous volume of people applying for the show.

Shark Tank was also a late bloomer for ABC last season. What's pulling in viewers?

Every pitch is different, every entrepreneur is different. You're watching the visceral experience of people pursuing freedom. It's not about money. It's about: Can you find something that makes you wealthy enough that you never have to return a phone call? That's what's going on when you watch Dragons' Den and Shark Tank .

Any common traits between Canadian and U.S. entrepreneurs on the two shows?

Basically the pursuit of capital remains the same and the people that are successful have the same attributes. What's key is that the U.S. market is much larger and more competitive. So for us Sharks as investors, we have to do more due diligence when we look at deals, because no matter how unique and proprietary the idea is, you'll find four other people doing it. You need to know what you're going up against.

Have you seen any returns on the ideas you've invested in from Dragons' Den's first few seasons?

There's one deal from the second season that's about to return all the capital that I've invested in all the deals I've done.

In a recent CBC release, your economic forecast for 2010 states, "Any business plan that does not respect the Darwinian laws of cost-cutting will get slaughtered." Is it really that grim out there?

I think 2010 is going to be tougher than 2009. It is brutal out there. I mean, the market is optimistic but the economy is still very fragile and there are a tremendous amount of difficulties. The ability to raise capital is practically impossible, which makes Dragons' Den even more powerful.

Is there still hope for the average entrepreneur?

I think entrepreneurs are going to have to be much more savvy and willing to work much harder. Working 24 hours a day isn't enough anymore. You have to be willing to sacrifice everything to be successful, including your personal life, your family life, maybe more. If people think it's any less, they're wrong, and they will fail.

Meanwhile your own TV profile is booming. Is Kevin O'Leary becoming its own brand name?

Television is the most interesting hobby I've ever had. I love the chaos of TV, I love the discipline of investing. My real job is chairman of O'Leary Funds, but I look at it this way: O'Leary Funds is science, television is art. There's room for both in a person's life.

 

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