Cole Miller pitches Twelve Barrels Canadian Whisky to the Dragons on CBC's Dragons' Den

Cole Miller (at right) of Twelve Barrels Canadian Whisky. Photo: CBC

More than a decade in, Dragons’ Den continues to inspire and amuse Canadian TV audiences. But the CBC’s hit show isn’t just meant to be entertaining. It’s a televised school for entrepreneurs. For each episode of Season 11 (which airs Wednesdays at 8 pm ET), we’ll be talking to one of the Dragons to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of their decision-making process and hear what they hope viewers learned. And we’ll be examining the pitches for smart strategies and useful tips that entrepreneurs can use to make their own businesses better. Episode 13, the student special, featured a budding booze baron with the drive to succeed, an engineer’s checkout fix, and an entrepreneurial trio pitching a novel subscription box service.

Twelve Barrels

Entrepreneur: Cole Miller | From: Ottawa | Ask: $40,000 for 30%

Manufactures and distributes whisky

Youthful inexperience can be a major asset when you’re starting a business—and not just because the stereotype of a promising entrepreneur today is more baby-faced Mark Zuckerberg and less bearded Colonel Sanders. “That was one of the absolute fundamentals of why I was successful—when you’re young, you’re naïve and think you can take on the world,” says Manjit Minhas, who started her alcohol empire at 19 years old. “As you get older, you just know too much. It gets harder, and [there are] more responsibilities.”

So when university student Cole Miller entered the Dragons’ Den to pitch his Canadian whisky, Twelve Barrels, Minhas recognized a kindred spirit. “He reminds me of myself when I was his age,” she says.

In the Den, Miller and his company attracted plenty of Dragon interest. Michele Romanow made the first offer, proposing the $40,000 for 40% stake of the company. Joe Mimran went next, matching Miller’s original ask. Jim Treliving upped the stakes with an offer of $100,000 for a 40% equity share. “I think it’s worth that right now, based on what [I] see—you’re ready to go,” he said. Michael Wekerle wanted half the company for $150,000. Ultimately, Miller convinced Wekerle and Treliving to go in together at $150,000 for a 45% equity stake and a 50% voting interest.

Twelve Barrels scored high praise in the Dragons’ taste test. “This is better than any of the booze I drank in university—by a long shot,” joked Romanow. But it was Miller’s enthusiasm, ambition and progress that really impressed. The young entrepreneur had got his start making wine from grape juice and yeast under his bed in high school, then spent time as an apprentice whisky distiller in the U.K. Miller’s blend came from a circa-1853 recipe, and by the time he entered the Den he’d struck a supplier agreement for 500,000 bottles and was working to get them listed in liquor stores across Canada. “You’ve done a lot for a student,” Romanow told him.

Minhas didn’t make an offer because of a conflict of interest—her company bottles Twelve Barrels on contract, a fact she was unaware of until she read the product’s label in the Den. “It’s always nice to blind-taste your product and still like it,” she said, in an exclusive interview before the episode aired.

Since filming, Minhas has met with Miller a number of times, and she continues to be impressed. “He obviously has a great story, [he’s an] amazing young gentleman with so many great ideas,” she says. Last fall, Miller drove thousands of kilometres to attend the Minhas Oktoberfest event in Wisconsin, visiting potential customers along the way. “He met so many people, had great experiences, got some great listings and found some great distributors,” Minhas says. “In 10 or 20 years time he would not be able to do that.”

Miller’s willingness to put in the work and time to build connections will be key to Twelve Barrels’ success, Minhas believes. “You can have a great idea and a great product, but unless you can actually hit the pavement and sell, sell, sell it, nobody’s going to buy it.”

Terrini’s Bikinis

Entrepreneur: Terrena Huisman | From: Halifax | Ask: $50,000 for 25%

Manufactures and retails custom competition outfits

Find a sustainable niche: Finding bikinis for fitness and bodybuilding competitions proved difficult, so Terrena Huisman decided to make them them herself. In the nine months before entering the Den, she’d sold $14,000 worth of custom suits at $150 to $1,000-plus apiece. “The market just needs to be revitalized, there needs to be someone new [coming] in,” she said. “I’m the perfect person because I am the demographic of the girls I’m making the suits for, and I know what looks good on them and what they want.” Some 15,000 women compete every year, and they often buy a new outfit for every contest. But that didn’t add up to a big enough niche for some Dragons. “I think there is absolutely I think a future for you, but it’s just too small for me,” Minhas told her. But Michael Wekerle was impressed by Huisman’s drive, and offered her the $50,000 for a 10% royalty until the capital was paid back, followed by a 5% levy for five years. She took the deal.

C8

Entrepreneur: Brendan Pan | From: Calgary | Ask: $50,000 for 20%

Developed RFID-based grocery checkout system

Theory is all very well: Brendan Pan and his University of Calgary team want to solve a persistent problem at the grocery store: long checkout lines. Their RFID-based system would allow shoppers to simply hover their baskets over a scanner and pay. But the technology isn’t new, and there’s a reason it isn’t widely used in retail. “It’s a very expensive process, because you’ve got to get everything on RFID,” said Joe Mimran, who spent years working with grocery giant Loblaw. “So I don’t know if this is a business idea.” The other Dragons agreed, and Pan checked out without an offer.

Carly & Charley’s Single Sox

Entrepreneurs: Carly Goldhar & Charley Rangel | From: Thornhill, Ont. | Ask: $25,000 for 25%

Retails socks to fund a charitable project

You’re never too young: Sock monster beware—Carly Goldhar and Charley Rangel aim to make odd socks the norm with their three-pack of footwear printed with inspirational words. “My girls, they are fed up with wearing matching socks, because we can never find the matching socks,” Manjit Minhas told them. “So this is a great idea.” The 10-year-old friends started their retail operation to fund Odd Sox, a charitable project that donates socks to the homeless—18,000 pairs at filming. Inspired, Michael Wekerle met their ask, as did Minhas. “I think you’re great examples to young girls and young boys, that if you have an idea, start early,” she said. Joe Mimran, Michele Romanow and Jim Treliving combined to offer the capital for a 33% stake. But Wekerle and Minhas won the deal, after offering to donate their share of the company’s proceeds to Odd Sox.

ElleBoxCo

Entrepreneur: Jessica Bilmer, Bunny Ghatrora & Taran Ghatrora | From: Surrey, B.C.
Ask: $25,000 for 15%

Operates a subscription box service for menstruating women

Watch your costs carefully: Jessica Bilmer and sisters Bunny Ghatrora and Taran Ghatrora want to “turn something that women dread every month into something to look forward to.” Their service charges $12 for a monthly supply of pads and tampons, and $38 for organic products plus a couple of “self-care items” like tea, chocolate, scrubs and and so on. ElleBox had done $33,000 in sales before entering the Den. But though they were buying the luxuries below wholesale cost, Michele Romanow thought the trio shouldn’t be paying for them at all. “You should be saying, ‘I’m a sampling program for free. Pay me a dollar to put your product in my box, and I’ll distribute it for you with no cost to you.’” The company would be able to adopt that model once volumes increased, Bunny Ghatrora said. Romanow also advised the trio to focus on the U.S., since Canada’s lack of flat-rate shipping made it uneconomical to serve remote communities. Cost was also a concern for Manjit Minhas. “I can go and buy a hundred tampons for $10 and not have to think about it for a year because it’s sitting under my sink,” she noted. But ElleBox did get an offer from Joe Mimran. “I think it’s a great name,” he said. “I think we can do something fantastic with this brand.” He matched their ask, and the three entrepreneurs took the deal.

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