Claire here! Last October, Unbelts appeared on Dragons' Den on CBC (Canada’s Shark Tank for the Americans reading). It was one wild ride and a terrifying experience to put myself on National TV. However, I’m a deep CBC fangirl. I’ll do anything for my business. And before this, we got asked all. The. Time. If we’ve been on Dragons’ Den (most entrepreneurs who do trade or consumer shows do). At least if I auditioned, I thought, I’d be able to tell peeps - with secret relief - that we auditioned but didn’t make the cut.
I kept an eye on the Dragons’ Den audition announcement page all winter long, and when the dates were posted in February, I was surprised to realize the Edmonton one was only a couple of weeks away. It was a crazy time at work and in life - I was four months pregnant, the business was growing fast and not without growing pains for once - and though I wasn’t sure if I'd have the guts to show up, I began preparing anyway. Our operations manager, Kristina, did a deep dive into our numbers and pulled even the most obscure stats (if a producer asked me what our Canadian e-comm sales were in Fall 2014, I wanted to have an answer). I allowed myself the luxury of thinking big - what would I do with an extra $100,000? $500,000? And I poked holes in my own business model until I had an answer for everything I could think of, from why we choose to operate with lower margins and higher component costs (living wages, yo) to why we haven’t branched out beyond belts to become a more diversified fashion brand (because we have a lot of pants left to keep up, and I am an industrial designer who loves solving problems but has no idea how to design a t-shirt :D).
Tip #1: Use audition prep as a chance to review where your business is really at, and what you really want out of it. It’s easy to get stuck in day-to-day operations. Prepping a pitch turned out to be a fantastic opportunity to pull myself out of the weeds of running a business and, even for a couple of days, to take a holistic - and data-driven! - view of where I want it to go.
I also really love memorization, so running through our numbers - margins! Sales channels! Cost of goods sold! - was serious on-the-job satisfaction *happy shiver.*
It was the day before the auditions and I still wasn’t confident (ohai, imposter syndrome, how YOU doin’). So I employed a trick I’ve developed to push myself beyond my usual limits: showing up at a public event where I’ll run into people I know, and tell a bunch of ‘em what I’m about to do. I went to a mixer for the University of Alberta’s wonderful Venture Mentoring Service, which Unbelts has been part of for four years now, and told my mentors and a few friends that I was going to audition, that it didn’t matter what the outcome was, and that the real value had been in the preparation. The more I said it, the more it solidified into truth, and I left feeling grounded and excited.
For last-minute moral and modeling support, I recruited our friend Julie, who was miraculously available - and for a unified look, I scooted to my silk screening buddy with two blank Gildan baseball tees I’d picked up at Michaels.
Tip #2: Make t-shirts. This was the most worthwhile mall run I’ve ever made - we got so many compliments on our team shirts, and it alleviated the stress of planning and coordinating outfits. Also, Gildan has been promoting socially sustainable garment manufacturing since way before it was cool, and I like to support them.
On audition day, I was expecting to have to elbow my way through a massive crowd at City Centre Mall. There would probably be a tent city, I thought. And when I was running half an hour behind (who can say no to a few more snuggles and books with a three year-old in the morning?), I was stuh-ressed. ...until I arrived at the CBC offices at 8:30 a.m. to no one and nothing except for a security guard and a friendly receptionist. I was first in line, the accidental keener (story of my life).
By around 10 a.m. and two Venti lattés later, we’d made friends with our line neighbours and were given more paperwork to fill out.
Tip #3: Print the work you've already done: The paperwork they gave us was very similar to what we filled in on the online application. Print that out and bring it with you.
I ran to the bathroom to throw on my t-shirt, Magic Eraser the worst smudges off my sneakers, and put on a little lipstick. I came back just in time to get my mitts on some Canadian Tire mini-cooler schwag and do a little hype-up chant with the Dragons’ Den producers, Molly and Fraser. Julie arrived and we ran through the messaging together. Before we knew it, it was 10:45 and, as first in line, we were called into the studio to start setting up.
I realized from the moment we stepped into the room, it was ON.
TIP #4: Think of every single moment as part of your audition. We made sure to be our friendly selves from the start and gave the producers samples to play with as we assembled our banner and tabletop set-up. Whether or not we made it through to the next round - we wanted everyone we met to have a great Unbelts customer experience.
Once the cameras were rolling, we stood tall, made our pitch, answered all the questions they fired at us (why did I start the business? What has your growth been like? What investment are you looking for? What would you use the money for? Which Dragon would you like to work with?), and shoehorned in the points that *we* didn’t want to leave without making.
TIP #5: Don’t wait for the right question to come -know what you want to say, and get those talking points out there! Without confident speaking and being able to pivot our answers before the next question came, we wouldn’t have been able to talk about our ethical manufacturing philosophy, why size and gender inclusivity is important to us, why our no-bulk belts reduce textile waste by giving new life to old pants, and everything else that's key to who we are.
and then… we did a quick tear-down, answered a couple of questions from a CBC Edmonton TV crew, and got in the car.
That was it.
It was really fun to meet the other businesses that auditioned that day. It felt really welcoming and that local entrepreneurial team spirit, together with how useful the prep work was beforehand, made the whole process 500% worthwhile.
And now, a little tip salad with all the other prep tidbits I can think of:
- I selectively watched successful pitches for apparel and packaged goods (both relevant to Unbelts), instead of getting insanely nervous and binge-watching every single pitch. Focus on pitches similar to yours and evaluate what worked well for them, and what didn’t.
- There was a crazy range of valuations, and unlike speculative venture capitalists, the Dragons seemed to blast anyone who valued themselves at a number higher than current revenue. They are more conservative, so pitch your numbers accordingly.
- If you’re printing t-shirts - Print in a single, easy-to-match colour so there is less chance of having to redo it and waste clothes.
I reached out to businesses who were previously on the show; Tru Local, whom I met at the Toronto Travel and Golf Show, and WeeWoolies, whom a neighbour had purchased from and suggested I email. I got a valuable perspective from these two companies about how they crafted and presented their pitches, and they ended up being cheerleaders before our TV filming a few months later, too. So, don’t be afraid to reach out to alumni of the show (hey there! 👋) and don’t be afraid to tell your community you’re planning to audition. You’ll never know who’ll come through to help out.
To all of you braving the auditions this month - GOOD LUCK; we’re rooting for you! Tag us on Insta and we’ll send you good pitch vibes.