What it was really like to film Dragons' Den: all your behind-the-scenes questions answered
On Halloween, Unbelts appeared on CBC’s Dragons’ Den (for the Americans in the room, that’s Canada’s Shark Tank). It was surreal, exciting, and not a little terrifying, considering my introverted-at-heart self is comfier in the wings with a clipboard than in the spotlight. The coolest part, though, was the outpouring of love and support from our fans, who reached out from around the world to celebrate our TV début. Thanks, friends.
With all that love came a lot of questions, many of them the same ones I had before I auditioned. I hadn’t been able to find a lot of answers on the interwebs, so I’ve done my best to put ‘em out there here with allll the details. Whether you’re a fan of stretchy belts or just prepping for your own Dragons’ Den appearance, I hope this helps. Here goes:
How did you get on the show?
- I tried out back in March when the Dragons’ Den Canada audition tour came to Edmonton; I remember the schedule being posted about 4 weeks before the audition date.
- In April, about a month after auditioning, I got a call from one of the DD Associate Producers telling me that I’d made the cut and asking if I’d like to come to Toronto to film our pitch in May. Filming wasn’t a guarantee that we’d actually be on TV - after all pitches have been filmed, the producers organize them all into cohesive episodes. Even if your pitch is successful, you might be a web-only pitch, or not make it on the show at all. We didn’t know the pitch had made it into an episode until late September, five weeks before it aired on Halloween night.
When did it film? You seem to... not be pregnant anymore.
- True. I auditioned in Edmonton in March, and filmed in Toronto in late May (I was 7 months pregnant, and it was the last week that I was allowed to fly). Theodore Walter was born in July, and the episode aired in October.
What was it like behind the scenes?
- I’d received very clear instructions to enter the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation building through a specific entrance and meet the Dragons’ Den team at 7:30 a.m. I had strategically booked an AirBnB right across the street - great call, even if I did find a bug in the kitchen.
- A CBC production assistant, one of approximately one thousand I met that day (all of them absolutely lovely), was there to sign me and the seven other pitch teams in. I was travelling pretty light with just a suitcase of belt samples, some display elements, and Unbelts t-shirts. The company selling mattresses had a little more going on.
- We took turns taking the elevator up to a HUGE warehouse-like floor somewhere in the building, and - this was so cool - the Dragons’ Den set was right in the middle of it behind giant barn doors.
- Outside the set, there were long plastic folding tables with each of our business’ names on them, and we each set up our table exactly how we wanted it on-set. Sitting at the Unbelts table was one of our models, Chris, who was the most welcoming, laid-back, confidence-inspiring human ever, jumped right in to help me set up.
- The production team came around to check on our displays, make suggestions about set-up. The most stressful part for me was orchestrating the sample hand-out - was I going to carry belts in, or were they going to be strategically placed behind the on-set display? (no - my giant tummy prevented me from being able to bend down to pick them up.) Would this basket be suitable? What about this one? Which dragons did I want to ask to model? What were they wearing that day, so what color belts needed to be in be basket? SO MANY DECISIONS on zero coffee!
- Before I knew it, our other models were on the scene. I gave them a quick briefing on Unbelts’ story and products, and got each of them to choose an Unbelts shirt - I came with a few different sizes and styles. DD preparation fail: all the models looked bigger and brawnier in their photos, so they needed all the S/M shirts - including mine. This is why I appear to be swimming in a men’s L shirt on TV
- We had the briefest of tours of the actual set, and then I went to the bathroom to put my giant t-shirt on. When I came out three minutes later, the production assistant was looking for me. It was time to tape, and all the models were already in the wings waiting to go on. OMG. If you’re wondering why I look sweaty and didn’t bother to put lipstick on - it’s because I was about one hour under-prepared.
- I climbed the stairs to the top of the catwalk, where another production assistant asked how my day was going. “Oh, you know,” I answered, trying not to throw up, “Great; this is such a great opp--” and then she made the throat-cutting sign and said “YOU’RE ON in three—”, made a “two” and a “one” with her fingers, and threw open the doors. Take me now, Lord. I waddled my way down the catwalk and down the stairs, and BOOM - there be Dragons, up-close and personal.
You, um, kind of got slammed for your valuation. Were you ready for that?
- Yup. Valuation is more of an art than a science, and the Dragons are almost always conservative. I knew that with revenue around $1 million, stating a valuation of $2 million was risky - but we’ve been growing really significantly for a few years in a row now, and I didn’t want to be one of the many, many women who undervalue their businesses… especially in front of a national audience. “Aim high, be humble” was my attitude going in.
WERE YOU OKAY? (aka OMG the Dragons made you cry on TV, dude, that sux)
- Yes! I was okay! The edit made it look like I got teary when the Arlene blasted my valuation. That was a tough moment, but what actually gave me the feels was the conversation we had (totally edited out) about work/life balance (HA), and the unrealistic pressure on parents, especially women, to separate business life from family realities. It was a really cool moment with the panel, and my feelings leaked out my face. Arlene gave me her (new) glass of water and got production to bring me Kleenexes. Then she hugged me. It was awesome.
Your models were hot. Did you know them beforehand?
- No! I’d asked our assigned producer (every pitch team gets one) to help me find three models representative of our diverse customer base. Casting models is really, really weird - you’re picking people based on physical traits, and it feels really shallow and tokenistic really fast. It was important to me to have varying gender identities represented, as well as different body shapes, ages, and abilities, and while we weren’t able to include everybody, I was so lucky to be able to work with gorgeous creatures Chris, Justin, and Hiranniya.
Did you make friends with the other people on your episode?
- The people in our episode didn’t actually pitch at the same time as us. There are almost two weeks of straight shooting of over a dozen pitches per day, and the production team edits together each episode. We were SUPER psyched that Good Food For Good, another B Corp, was featured in our episode. We can’t wait for our Organic Spicy Ketchup order to arrive to Unbelts HQ.
- The shooting day was also hectic we didn’t have time to exchange more than smiles (and panic eyes) with the other pitchers. We were second on the schedule, and out of there by 10:30 a.m.
Did a lot of stuff get edited out?
- Absolutely. Our B Corp certification. How we design for circularity by offering free repairs. Our community giving initiatives. Our living-wage supply chain. Our pickiest numbers. Our exciting foray into the equestrian market. But also - my highest-snot-volume cry moments and the time I couldn’t figure out how to walk down the back-lit catwalk at the beginning of the pitch (I was basically the most awkward human shadow puppet ever). All in all, it was about a 45-minute pitch edited down to about 8 minutes. Waiting to see what would be left in was a nail biter because they definitely had the footage they needed to make me look like a total mess - thank you, Dragons’ Den production team, for your mercy.
Did you do a lot to prepare?
- Hoo yeah. It was a lot of work, but the greatest thing is that with a baby on the way, the time was right for me to take a high-level inventory of where Unbelts was at. By preparing to speak confidently about our history, our goals, and our numbers, I was able to really clearly identify where our most exciting opportunities lie… and what’s standing in our way.
- Our stellar operations manager Kristina helped me compile the statistics that I already knew in generalities, but wanted to be able to rattle off (year-over-year growth in dollars and by percentages; gross margins by product; the cost of running our Canadian studio; the cost of using recycled materials vs. virgin materials; our current marketing spend; etc., etc.). I had them in a printed-out spreadsheet that I’d quiz myself on.
- Friends of friends who’d successfully pitched on Dragons’ Den came out of the woodwork and generously hopped on the phone to tell me their best advice; thank you forever, Toronto’s TruLocal and Wee Woollies on Vancouver Island, for reminding me to enjoy myself (and for warning me about the blinding spotlight at the bottom of the last step).
- Lastly - I asked my closest friends and mentors to lend me the confidence I needed, and damn, did they deliver. My last conversation before heading to the CBC building was with two ride-or-die entrepreneurial besties from my Shanghai days, Lexie of Strictly Cookies in Shanghai and Liza of LuRu Home in the States. We had an Eye of the Tiger moment across twelve time zones, and I headed out to CRUSH IT (I hoped).
- If anyone’s wondering what I did after the pitch - I crossed the street back to my AirBnB, slept for 6 hours, took myself for steak, and caught a show at The Second City before flying back to Edmonton the next morning. #metime
And the big one: I hear a lot of DD deals fall through off-screen. Are you actually working with Michele?
- Knowing what I know now about the wild ride that is a Dragons’ Den pitch, I don’t think “fall through” is the right language to describe how deals sometimes don’t close after shooting. The Den is a high-pressure environment where deals are offered with minimal information on both sides, which is why those handshakes aren’t legally binding. Once both parties do a thorough review of both the business’ and investors’ needs, sometimes their goals just don’t match up as well as they did in that first 45-minute group conversation.
- Michele and her team super-kindly let me take some time away to get settled with baby Theo before continuing discussions. It’s a major potential transaction - and I’m not trying to be cagey, but I do have to keep it private.
- Don’t worry, though - either way, this was a 200% positive experience; I love learning and pushing my limits, and this was juuust the ticket.
Plus some sweet schwag I got after filming. Boston Pizza gift card? YEAHMAMA.