Behind the Scenes at Dragon Den

Arash Hosseini, BComm’13, and partner Ali Asghari braved the Dragons for the longest two minutes of their lives in hopes of propelling their startup into the stratosphere.

Each year, CBC’s reality show Dragons’ Den lures hundreds of aspiring entrepreneurs to pitch their dreams to a panel of six Canadian venture capitalists in hopes of all-important exposure and investment. As the popular series wrapped up its 12th season in April, UCalgary alumnus Arash Hosseini and his partner, Ali Asghari, took their turn in the national spotlight.

More than 150 fans of Hosseini and Asghari gathered at Calgary’s Craft Beer HQ to watch the episode of Dragons’ Den in which the well-dressed duo extolled the virtues of their all-natural, organic energy drink, dubbed PilotsFriend. But, before the two had a chance to give their pitch, we first heard from the crafty, the hard-nosed, the bizarre and the ever-hopeful — about innovative de-icing chips made from a 4,000-year-old volcano; lightweight hammocks that guaranteed “no bad days;” a nifty dishwasher tray for Champagne flutes; and so forth. Huddled around three TV screens, glasses clinked, hoots were hollered and backs were slapped when Hosseini and Asghari finally strode onto the CBC stage in Toronto, where they’d filmed this pitch a year ago.

“I will never forget the call that came last May,” says Asghari. “It was a Tuesday night and somebody from CBC asked us if we could be in Toronto for a taping on Thursday. Of course, we said yes!”

How, in less than 48 hours, would they choreograph a two-minute pitch? What could they possibly do that would catapult them past the other 1,000-plus pitches they’d be up against? What would make this organic tonic — bottled in Europe and sourced from natural ingredients from 11 different countries — stand out in a market dominated by artificially caffeinated drinks like Red Bull? Obviously, they needed a catchy, sexy act — but what? The duo were headed to the Calgary airport when an idea was borne: they began calling bartenders in Toronto. By the time they’d landed in the Big Smoke, they’d sourced two bartenders, pilot’s uniforms, a non-slippery tray, glasses and a countertop.

“We’d also practised our pitch, oh, a good 150 times,” adds Hosseini, BComm’13, who currently works at Husky as a commodity risk analyst. “That said, it wasn’t easy stuffing history, the product, and its interesting story that began with a team of Italian pilots who needed to cut back on caffeine [which was giving them jitters], but still wanted an energy boost, into a two-minute act. Then, we had to ask ourselves, ‘Where do the bartenders come in . . . and how could we be sure they were entertaining, without being a distraction?’”

As though that wasn’t gruelling enough, five minutes before they were to meet the Dragons, the show’s producer asked them to run through their pitch. At the end, she said “Raise your ask; you can’t just want the publicity.”

Asghari began the mental math, crunching numbers while pacing in the CBC hallway. “In 2015, the energy drink category was worth $54 billion, globally,” he recalls. “One-third of that number is consumed in North America. In other words, we consume six times more than the rest of the world.” Asghari rehearsed the figures over and over again . . . well, as much as you can only two minutes before going in front of the cameras. They went in asking for $100,000, in exchange for five per cent equity.

Watching the drama unfold at the launch party a year later, it seemed that, just seconds after the two appeared on screen, Dragon Jim Treliving was throwing $100,000 at them for 10 per cent of their company. And then something that never happens on the show, happened. Dragons Manjit Minhas and Arlene Dickinson agreed with each other and slammed Treliving for his overly high evaluation. As partners, Minhas and Dickinson offered $100,000, with a 10-per cent slice of equity for each.

Asghari and Hosseini wanted all three offers for different reasons — marketing, exposure, expertise — and suggested a $100,000 deal, with a seven-per cent stake apiece.

Poof! All three Dragons raised their glasses of pink fizzy PilotsFriend and a deal was struck. Another season where the hopes and dreams of entrepreneurs are judged was officially over — but not for the North American distributors of PilotsFriend, whose flight had just left the runway.

Indeed, within less than 12 hours of the broadcast, Asghari and Hosseini had received 90 requests from individuals and curious companies, and had appeared on three different Calgary radio shows.

“We’ve been ensuring our website would hold up and that our warehouse was ready,” said Hosseini, the day after the launch, “but still, we’ve been completely overwhelmed. They say the exposure is a game-changer but until you’ve experienced it, you just don’t know.”

Watch our pitch on dragon's den