Arlene Dickinson has spent seven seasons hanging with reptiles, playing the friendly capitalist on CBC-TV’s bruising business reality show Dragon’s Den.
As the only female investor in the den of half a dozen male ogres, she has made contrarian bets on long-shot startups, consoled loser contestants with tiaras and sparred frequently with the show’s gassiest fire-breather, Kevin O’Leary.
Is it all calculated theatrics to boost ratings? No way, says the 57-year-old who refused to allow the challenges of being the single parent stop her from winning control of a Calgary-based national marketing company Venture Communications, in 1998.
Learning to weave and dart around dragon fire, she insists, is a valuable skill for any would-be entrepreneur.
“If there was no meanness or no emotion to it, then I think you lose the opportunity to teach people about the types of people that are out there,” Ms. Dickinson says. “[Our show] teaches that you are going to see a bunch of people out there. Some are going to be asses and some are going to be nice.”
As for her celluloid bouts with Mr. O’Leary, she explains diplomatically: “He gets as disgusted with me and my willingness to be the nice guy as much as I get with him and his inability to see the human side.”
In business, she says, “there are a million Kevins … he is one of those people who sees it as his job to tell the truth and too bad if you don’t like it.”
Away from the camera, Ms. Dickinson bears little resemblance to her feisty on-screen persona. Over a Spartan lunch of grilled salmon and sautéed kale at Toronto’s Le Select Bistro, she gushes in a breathy, Marilyn-ish voice about the dozens of fledgling entrepreneurs she has financed.
“I love doing the show, I have done some good deals, some of the best deals I have ever done,” she says. The TV star estimates she has personally invested $2-million in businesses that make everything from baby food to candy.
When asked to name her favourite investment, the fire inside CBC’s lady dragon subsides. Speaking in an increasingly soft voice, Ms. Dickinson tells the story of an 82-year-old British Columbia inventor, Sam Koffski, who had been seeking a backer for his adjustable sawhorse brackets for three decades.
By the time Mr. Koffski travelled from his home in Duncan to the Dragon’s Den studio two years ago, the patent on his invention had expired, a previous backer had been wiped out and the show’s other investors wouldn’t touch the product. Mr. Koffski’s son Sid was so concerned about his father’s roller-coaster ride that he told the show “the biggest thing is to see it work out for my dad [after] … the toll on this man for so many years.”
Would Sam’s old sawhorse be torn apart by dragons?
No, as it turned out. Over angry objections from Mr. O’Leary that she had such “a problem dealing with reality, it’s starting to get on my nerves,” Ms. Dickinson agreed to Mr. Koffski’s terms to buy the rights of his so-called 3D sawhorse for $75,000 and a 5-per-cent share in future royalties.
The story’s happy ending: Last November, Home Depot began stocking the re-engineered, newly patented invention in its Canadian stores. There are even plans under review to sell the system globally.
What does the payoff mean to Mr. Koffski after decades of rejections? “He said he’s going to get his family together more often …” Ms. Dickinson says before a wave of tears wash away her next thought.
As she mops her cheeks with a table napkin, she fixes her piercing blue eyes on me: “I’m going to tape the show in an hour and you’ve got me crying.”
A pair of middle-aged men, who have been gawking at the business celebrity since she sailed into the restaurant in a white fluffy coat, stiletto heels and tight red brocade dress, rush to cheer her up.
“She’s the nice dragon,” says one. The other appears too star-struck to speak and nods his head vigorously in agreement.
It is not the triumph of the underdog that has so moved Ms. Dickinson. Rather, it is the unrelenting and lonely drive of entrepreneurs who put everything, including family, on the side to pursue their business dreams.
It is every business owner’s story. It is her story.
The twice-divorced and now single mother of four and grandmother of five says she is unable “to switch off” her hyper focus on business. When she hears friends talk about balance and shutting off their work devices, she wonders: “Who does that?”
If you are an entrepreneur, she says, “it is impossible to stop thinking about business. You you have to have Teflon will. You have to have the ability to say I have to do this, this is who I am. … It is impossible to stop thinking about it.”
The ferocious will was a matter of survival at the start of her career.
She was a 31-year-old housewife with a high school diploma when a Calgary judge refused to grant custody of her young children until she was financially independent. After years of juggling jobs as a florist, secretary and concrete truck dispatcher, she landed a job in 1988 in the advertising division of a private Calgary-based Venture Communications.
She worked long hours, spent weekends at the office and, after a decade of “sweat equity,” she bought control of the company from its two partners in 1998. Her clients at Venture Communications include the Subway sandwich chain, Toyota and energy giant Cenovus.
In her spare time, she built a reputation as the small-business coach with a big heart by publishing two inspirational books, Persuasion and All In, about her career and business insights. The latest of the two, All In, offers a frank account of the friendships she has lost or damaged because of the vacations and gatherings she has missed to wrestle with business emergencies.
She recently launched a social media website, YouInc.com. for entrepreneurs struggling to survive the pressures of building a business. The web portal offers tips, professional advice, feature stories and a blog from Ms. Dickinson. In three months she has attracted 10,000 subscribers and signed on big-name sponsors, such as Bank of Nova Scotia, Microsoft and Telus Corp., who want to connect with future Arlene Dickinsons.
Her next step is to purchase a media company that would help generate more content to entertain and educate entrepreneurs.
The idea for YouInc.com, she says, grew from conversations with small business owners on Dragon’s Den. While there are plenty of investors who are ready to back emerging businesses, “there is nobody to guide them” through stresses that come with inevitable early missteps, threats and failures.
“I talk to these entrepreneurs first-hand. I have felt their pain. I have experienced it myself. They slide and no one helps them.”
With that, Ms. Dickinson places her moist napkin on the table and prepares to leave. Within an hour she will be in front of the cameras, playing the nurturing dragon to business dreamers.
“Their passion and intent is everything to me.”
The youngest of three daughters who emmigrated with her parents from Germiston, South Africa to Alberta in 1959.
Her father was a struggling electrician and teacher who built one of the first computerized software programs. The program was designed for mainframe use as personal computers were entering the market, an important lesson for Ms. Dickinson on the risks of market shifts.
Single with a house in Calgary and condo in Toronto. She has four grown children and five grandchildren.
Buying out two older partners at Calgary-based Venture Communications in 1998 with the help of company cash flow and a bank loan.
The Age of the Entrepreneur
“It has never been cheaper to start a business. The Internet makes it easier to market your business globally, it has never been less expensive to manufacture offshore and there are lots of women and young workers who can’t get a job or don’t want to work for someone else.”