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Arlene Dickinson talks about The Big Decision

Dragons' Den star on taking the challenges of small business to the small screen.

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Considering the hit Dragons’ Den has been for the CBC, it came as no surprise when the Mother Corp announced its latest business reality show, The Big Decision. The new series takes two long-time Dragons, Jim Treliving and Arlene Dickinson, out of the Den and across Canada, where they have to decide whether or not to help a handful of struggling companies.

Each episode of the show features two businesses trying to convince Treliving and Dickinson to invest as partners in order to save the company. In Dickinson’s first episode on March 19, she went in to evaluate Queen Street West retail store Lavish & Squalor and Ottawa’s fair trade sugars and chocolate company Camino. In her next episode she’ll look at British Columbia fish processing plant Hardy Buoys, and Toronto-based bath and body care company Tashodi.

I spoke to Dickinson about why she decided to put even more of her money and time on the line, what lessons a show like this can give small business owners, why small business makes for good TV and more.

Canadian Business: You’ve got a busy life between Venture Communications and all your other investments. What made you want to put more time and money on the line for this new show?

Arlene Dickinson: The new show is really seeing the due diligence phase in action, where you’re going into the businesses and seeing how it works, what the management team is like, looking at the books and all that. And because they’re larger, more established businesses than what we see on Dragons’ Den for the most part, the opportunity is probably more significant. But these are also businesses that have made some mistakes and are on the precipice of going under. It’s compelling stuff. I felt like it would be really interesting and fun to do, and I loved that people at home could get a better look at what’s involved in these business decisions and how difficult it is to be an entrepreneur.

CB: There’s a wide variety of businesses involved in the new show, but are there some common missteps that put them in precarious financial positions?

AD: Yeah, for sure. First, they are all very different but they do have common themes that run through them. I’d say the one thing that surprised me most was the scale of business decisions that are made without any context as to what the market wants. They’re just being made because it’s something the owner thinks the market might be looking for but there’s no testing or evaluation of that. They all had some interesting ideas and opportunities, but they all made financial choices or acquisition choices based more on gut feeling than really taking the time to analyze whether this actually was a good market opportunity.

CB: You’re out in the world here, spending time with these business owners as opposed to sitting in the Den with the rest of the Dragons. What’s the most difficult part in deciding whether or not to help these companies?

AD: The biggest challenge is believing that the entrepreneur had built an organization around them that they could execute. These are not early stage companies that have made some mistakes, so it’s about figuring out if I believed they’d take the advice and do what’s necessary to grow and develop the team around them that they need. And then it was about whether I thought I’d get a return on my money.

On Dragons’ Den we don’t have the opportunity of doing due diligence. This is about going into a business and seeing what’s caused the issue and figuring out if you want to help. Dragons’ Den is about building a dream, where this is about stopping the bleeding.

CB: What do you hope viewers take away from the show?

AD: I hope that they are entrepreneurs themselves and see that everyone makes mistakes. It’s about what you do with those mistakes. There are fatal mistakes and just simple mistakes. So I hope they get some lessons on what can cause these mistakes and how to avoid them. For people who work for entrepreneurs, I hope they gain a new appreciation for the depth of challenges facing entrepreneurs or any business. Hopefully it gives them a look at all the different moving parts these people deal with, the stress and all that. So I think it’s a view into the business process.

CB: Seeing as there’s no desert island or Snooki, why do you think people will enjoy watching a reality show about business?

AD: This level of business employs something like 70% of our country, so it’s entertaining because it’s our lives. Everybody who looks at this can put themselves in the place of the people they’re watching and say, “That reminds me of the company I work for or that’s the same challenge I had with my business.” How many people will ever be on a desert island? That’s more entertainment. The business reality shows touch our lives a bit more. They’re closer to home.