Firestarters 

Meet the Whistler entrepreneurs who braved the Dragons' Den and came out on top

click to flip through (6) STORY BY BRANDON BARRETT - FIRESTARTERS: Meet the Whistler entrepreneurs who braved the Dragons' Den and came out on top
  • Story by Brandon Barrett
  • FIRESTARTERS: Meet the Whistler entrepreneurs who braved the Dragons' Den and came out on top
 

It should come as no surprise that Whistler is a risk-taker's paradise.

And while the first dangers that immediately spring to mind are corporal in nature, there are plenty of other forms of peril here to navigate beyond the adrenaline-fuelled.

Even making the decision to leave everything behind for a life in the mountains is fraught with risk. We all know Whistler isn't exactly the most affordable place to live, nor is it brimming with many worthwhile opportunities for career growth. It's a sacrifice most are willing to make in order to achieve that ever-elusive work-lifestyle balance, with the scales usually tipping in favour of the latter.

But the hard realities of this mountain mecca have managed to attract — and in many cases develop — the kind of DIY, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps-type individual whose penchant for risk-taking applies just as easily to that double-black diamond run as it does the boardroom. "There are so many natural entrepreneurs in Whistler," says Nicolette Richer, co-founder of organic juice bar The Green Moustache. "You can huck yourself off a cliff here, and it's really the same concept that applies anytime you're starting a business. It's sort of like you're skiing off a cliff and you hope for the best that there's going to be a soft landing. There's a personality type that comes to Whistler that's really conducive to being a successful entrepreneur."

Richer should know. She's just the latest in a recent flurry of local entrepreneurs who have walked into the pressure cooker that is the Dragons' Den, the long-running CBC reality series that sees emerging businesspeople sell their dream to a panel of multimillionaire investors. Landing a deal on Dragons' Den has become something of an annual tradition for the resort's business community — a local company has secured investment in each of the past three seasons of the hit show. And with Richer and her family pitching to the Dragons April 28 for the show's upcoming 11th season, she hopes to soon join that exclusive club. It's more proof that Whistler has no problem punching above its weight. But there's got to be more to the community's seemingly disproportionate success in front of some of the country's biggest and most powerful titans of industry than the appetite for adventure imbued in our DNA. Something in that fresh, glacial water perhaps?

"Maybe it's something in the juice, not the water," laughs Richer, a tongue-in-cheek plug for her company's cold-pressed juice. (Never miss a marketing opportunity, right?)

They always say to dress for the job you want, not the one you have. But 32-year-old Nev Lapwood, founder of Snowboard Addiction, the world's only online tutorial company for snowboarding, failed to heed that advice when he walked into the Dragons' Den last May. Like every other detail of his carefully crafted pitch, however, his wardrobe — baggy pants, bulky jacket and sky-blue goggles — was no mistake.

"Nev looked like a snowboard bum going in looking for money from someone to keep snowboarding and doing his thing, but behind the scenes, he's a smart guy and he's switched on," says Saxon Farnworth, Snowboard Addiction's general manager. (Lapwood was unavailable for comment.) "Seeing the polarization of that image was something we had some Dragons mention: they were expecting a snowboard bum and they got a smart businessman."

The truth is Lapwood is both a snowboard bum and a businessman. A former snowboard instructor for Whistler Blackcomb, Lapwood launched the company in 2007 because "he didn't want to work for anyone else" and wanted a measure of financial independence, Farnworth explains. But there was a dilemma: Lapwood still wanted to spend his days on the mountain.

"To keep snowboarding, he either had to invent a business or leave town," adds Farnworth. So Lapwood figured out a way to have his proverbial cake and eat it too.

It's a common refrain among plenty of entrepreneurs in a town with a dearth of job options and an abundance of talent. Unless your aspirations fall within the hospitality or service sectors, there's a good chance you'll be putting those career plans on hold until the day you pack your bags and leave the Whistler bubble for good. But with the right combination of business savvy and sheer discipline — of course, a great product doesn't hurt either — it's possible to have the best of both worlds.

"It costs lots to live here and if you want a certain lifestyle you might have to make that happen yourself," says Leah Garrad-Cole, president of Love Child Organics, a nutritional baby and children's food company that first appeared on Dragons' Den in 2013. "A lot of people that come here have had other careers and have been very successful, they've all got a path, and they come here and put all their knowledge together. They also have this drive to be able to maintain a certain lifestyle in terms of being able to ski and make their own hours, and entrepreneurship fits in well with all of that."

Market Forces

Of course, being a self-starter doesn't automatically translate to success in the business world. Silicon Valley has had plenty of failed start-ups to attest to that. So once you've got that can't-miss product, rock-solid business plan and eye-catching packaging figured out, it's time to test the market. And fortunately for emerging resort entrepreneurs, Whistler offers a rather unique testing ground.

"Being from a small town, we were able to test the market easily," says Natasha Strim, president of Nonna Pia's Gourmet Sauces, who appeared on Season 9 of the show. "If we were in Vancouver and going to farmers' markets, we wouldn't have that personal touch from customers who are also people we know telling us exactly what they thought, how we could change, how we could better our product. Then after testing at the (Whistler) Farmers' Market, being able to walk into the local grocery store and ask if we can stick it on the shelves and see how it goes, that was huge as well."

That personal touch isn't something you'll read about in an economics textbook, but every single Dragons' Den alum brought it up: Getting the support from a community filled with so many creative, eclectic individuals provides more crucial insights than any focus group ever could.

"When I came to Whistler, even before I arrived, I thought it was a place where you could reinvent yourself," Richer says. "It being a small community as well, if you have the product and the service, you have people who are willing to support you. And at the end of the day, that's what people want. Everything's an exchange of energy, so if there's a need for a service or money for a product, Whistler's the kind of place where you can find it because you're going to have colleagues, friends and family supporting you."

But Whistler has always been the little resort town that could. A community of 10,000 that welcomes nearly 3 million visitors each year, entrepreneurs have the benefit of reaching the world without leaving their own backyard.

"Whistler is dynamic in the sense that it's a resort community that attracts millions of people from around the world every year to a very small location, so you don't have to spend a lot of money on marketing because, really, at the end of the day, everything is word of mouth. If you're doing what you do well, people are going to show up at your doorstep," Richer adds.

Pitch Perfect

Walking into a room full of investors is daunting as is, but when your pitch is being filmed for a TV audience of millions, the intimidation factor hits a whole other level entirely.

"It was very intimidating. I literally felt like I was going to throw up before I went in. I just had to pull myself together and go for it," says Garrad-Cole. "They don't try to make you comfortable. You sit in a room for a few hours while they put on reruns of Dragons' Den. There's very little food, you're kind of just sitting in a room just waiting getting more and more nervous watching these reruns."

As the first Whistler business to appear on the show, Garrad-Coles didn't have the luxury of getting advice from previous contestants. Since then, however, they've become the go-to source for tips on braving the den for fellow Whistler entrepreneurs.

"Definitely the minute we got the call to say we were going to be pitching on Dragons' Den, I called up Nonna Pia's, I called up Love Child Organics, and they were amazing" says Richer. "They were so kind and lovely to give their time and insights into their experience, and I think we're going to be delivering a really awesome pitch as a result of that."

So what goes into the perfect pitch? As the Boy Scouts always say, be prepared; know your numbers, know your product and your market. Or else face the wrath of the Dragons breathing hot down your neck.

"We practiced our pitch with bankers, investors, kids, neighbours — we had every question possible thrown at us," says Strim. "They're going to throw numbers at you and if you can't answer those questions, you're not going to succeed. You should know the answers to those questions anyway, otherwise it's almost insulting in my opinion asking them to open their chequebooks."

But it's not just the nuts and bolts that investors care about. Ultimately an entrepreneur is selling more than just their business or their product — they're selling themselves.

"We know that the Dragons, or any investor, is investing in the person more than they are the actual business," says Richer. "So we just want to go up there and be as honest as we can be about everything: our numbers, our business concept, our goals, and just give it to them straight, but also you need to show that you are dynamic and you're someone they want to work with. In a sense we're selling ourselves more than the Green Moustache concept."

This being TV after all, a flair for the dramatic can't hurt either.

"If you can throw a little, let's say, twist into your pitch, that's going to help," says Farnworth. "They want drama, they want theatre. You're not going to get on Dragons' Den without a little (drama)."

Hub Life

There's been plenty of talk in recent years of Whistler's potential as an entrepreneurial hub. At first glance, we've got many of the right ingredients to make it happen: a windfall of business expertise, a booming economy, and an upgraded highway that has shortened the drive to North Vancouver to just over an hour on a good day.

"I absolutely think (Whistler has potential as an entrepreneurial hub)," says Garrad-Cole. "There are some really bright, talented people up here, you can really work from anywhere and it's a really inspiring place to live, so I don't see why not."

But can a mountain town with few industries to speak of really support the outsized ambitions of a burgeoning company? It may be the perfect place to get your brand off the ground, but the growing pains become all too real once sights are set on loftier heights.

"There's lots of potential, but it's limited, for sure," Strim says. "We're even seeing as we're growing bigger and bigger that we may need to move our production facility (out of Whistler) just because of costs.

"I think you can take the first step here but then to expand you're going to have to take that next risk and move outside of Whistler."

Unsurprisingly, the cost of doing business here seems to be the biggest hurdle Whistler must cross before it has any chance of blossoming into a mini-entrepreneurial hub. Whistler's continued growth as a year-round destination combined with the ongoing impacts of the resort's housing crunch means businesses are hindered by soaring rent prices just like the rest of us.

It's part of the reason why The Green Moustache shares retail space at both of its resort locations: with 3 Singing Birds in Marketplace and the Whistler Wedding Collective in Function.

"We had to get creative because at the end of the day we weren't going to be able to afford a huge space, so we partnered. For every place that we have, we have two successful businesses instead of one," Richer explains.

"We need to get the landlords onboard because I find they're the biggest barrier. There's so much empty space in Whistler and accessing it is very difficult. Creekside, for example, is the next greatest thing and it's unfortunate that we were turned down for a place there. The real estate agent told us to not even consider it because our business would never thrive in Creekside, but we don't think that's the case. We see the potential in all these areas of Whistler and it's just a matter of being able to have access to that space."

Local Mike Edwards knows firsthand what it takes to foster a company from inception. CEO of Strutta, Edwards has invested in more than 40 technology companies over the past two decades and serves on the board for Launch Academy, Vancouver's leading start-up hub.

"The two things that happened in Silicon Valley that made Silicon Valley were access to engineering talent and cheap rent," he says. "It is Herculean to start a technology company with market-rate rents."

Combine that with the miniscule scale of Whistler's business community, and Edwards feels the resort lacks the necessary conditions to be the next entrepreneurial hotspot.

"It's really difficult because the operative word is hub, and I think there's a certain amount of volume you need to create those serendipitous meetings that lead to new businesses," he notes. "I think you need to have successful companies that are exiting, and then therefore those exited entrepreneurs invest in the next generation of technology companies. You need to have a certain number of mentors that can lead a young entrepreneur to success.

"We can attract talent, we just have to grow that talent and nurture that talent so that it becomes a self-sustaining hub."

 

Meet the dealmakers

Love Child Organics

www.lovechildorganics.com

Founded by Leah and John Garrad-Cole

Appeared on Season 8

The Company:

As new parents, the Garrad-Coles were frustrated with all the additives and filler ingredients often found in supposedly "organic" baby food and snack products. An experienced cook, Leah began making all-natural, nutrient-packed meals at home for her kids, a seed that would eventually blossom into Love Child Organics. Today, their 100-per-cent organic, GMO-free, superfood-rich purées and snacks can be found in practically every large retailer in the country.

The Deal:

The Garrad-Coles initially sought $300,000 for a 10-per-cent stake in the company and had all five Dragons make them offers. Ultimately, they went with Arlene Dickinson and David Chilton's joint offer: $750,000 for a 15-per-cent stake, the largest deal in the show's history at the time.

Nonna Pia's Gourmet Sauces

www.nonnapias.com

Founded by Norm and Natasha Strim

Appeared on Season 9

The Company:

Nonna Pia's origin story goes back to more than 20 years ago when Norm Strim was on a restaurant tour of Modena, Italy, and had the good fortune of sampling a 50-year, barrel-aged balsamic vinegar that quite literally changed his life.

A trained chef, Norm returned to Canada on the hunt for the authentic flavour profile he discovered in il bel paese. When he couldn't, he went about replicating it at home, honing his recipe for eager friends and family who urged him to take his gourmet sauces from the dining table to the masses.

Soon you could find the Strims (including their diligent kid helpers, Oliver and Georgia) hawking their balsamic reductions at farmers' markets and food shows until you couldn't walk into a shop in Whistler without seeing one of their distinctive bottles on the shelves.

Today, their products can be found in thousands of stores across Canada and the U.S., including Safeway USA's national banner and four divisions of Whole Foods on the West Coast, with plans in the works to expand into Australia and possibly South Korea.

The Deal:

The Strims original deal was $200,000 for a nine-per-cent stake until Dragon Arlene Dickinson dropped out months after the episode aired in November 2014, leaving David Chilton at the table for $100,000. In August, Chilton put another $250,000 into the company, the largest single reinvestment in Dragons' Den history.

Snowboard Addiction

www.snowboardaddiction.com

Founded by Nev Lapwood

Appeared on Season 10

The Company:

Nonna Pia's origin story goes back to more than 20 years ago when Norm Strim was on a restaurant tour of Modena, Italy, and had the good fortune of sampling a 50-year, barrel-aged balsamic vinegar that quite literally changed his life.

A trained chef, Norm returned to Canada on the hunt for the authentic flavour profile he discovered in il bel paese. When he couldn't, he went about replicating it at home, honing his recipe for eager friends and family who urged him to take his gourmet sauces from the dining table to the masses.

Soon you could find the Strims (including their diligent kid helpers, Oliver and Georgia) hawking their balsamic reductions at farmers' markets and food shows until you couldn't walk into a shop in Whistler without seeing one of their distinctive bottles on the shelves.

Today, their products can be found in thousands of stores across Canada and the U.S., including Safeway USA's national banner and four divisions of Whole Foods on the West Coast, with plans in the works to expand into Australia and possibly South Korea.

The Deal:

The Strims original deal was $200,000 for a nine-per-cent stake until Dragon Arlene Dickinson dropped out months after the episode aired in November 2014, leaving David Chilton at the table for $100,000. In August, Chilton put another $250,000 into the company, the largest single reinvestment in Dragons' Den history.

The Green Moustache

www.greenmoustache.com

Founded by Nicolette and Pierre Richer

Will appear on Season 11 if selected to air. The Green Moustache filmed for the show in Toronto April 28.

The Company:

This organic juice, smoothie and live food bar sprang from Nicolette Richer's career as a certified dietician and health counsellor with a specialty in treating cancer and other chronic diseases.

That means the café's vegetarian and vegan-friendly recipes have been devised not just with deliciousness in mind, but as a way to "nutrify, detoxify and uplift your body, mind and soul."

Since launching its original Marketplace shop in late 2013, The Green Moustache has added locations in Vancouver and one in Function Junction just this week. The Richers also recently sold a franchise in Squamish.

The Deal:

Nicolette was not at liberty to share the particulars of her pitch with the 11th season still in production, but she said she hopes to secure a deal that would help The Green Moustache expand its franchising efforts.

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