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The Meaford Chamber of Commerce celebrated the tenth anniversary of Meaford Dragons’ Den, re-named Meaford Dragons, on Wednesday, November 7.

Originated by former Chamber board member Derron Bodell in 2008, the annual competition among local start-up companies has raised tens of thousands of dollars for entrepreneurs and launched several successful new enterprises over the decade of competitions.

The panel of five Dragons included two former winners. Darryl Hindle, Chief Hydration Officer of Quench Buggy, has built a successful business out of providing drinking water at events and festivals. Marie-Catherine Marsot has enjoyed phenomenal success marketing her non-dairy cheese throughout North America. Her company, Georgian Bay Frauxmagerie, is currently building two new plants to meet demand, one in Meaford and the other in Phoenix, Arizona. Other Dragons included Steve Bosman, owner of MSW Plastics, Alex Hector of the Bluewater Angel Investment Group, and Kim Wingrove, the CAO of Grey County.

While the Dragons had something positive to say about all of the contestants, their suggestions and concerns followed a theme that made their comments instructive to anyone who is starting a business.

The operative word was “passion”, but the Dragons were also looking for cohesive plans with a good sense of how the numbers are likely to play out in the future.

The five businesses competing for the prizes included two that took different approaches to providing plant-based foods, a not-for-profit sanctuary for farm animals, a husband-and-wife team who make decorative art from reclaimed objects, and a studio and rehearsal facility for local musicians.

Props were a big part of the presentations, and some seemed to win over the judges on the basis of them. The first and second place winners both handed out samples of their work that drew high praise.

The big winners of the night were Charlie and Jennifer Aitken, with their business Outback Woodshack. Charlie has a background in carpentry, welding, and home construction, while Jennifer blends previous retail experience with an artistic talent. What most impressed the judges about this couple was their teamwork and the strong support for each other that was evident in their presentation. “We are each other’s rock,” Jennifer commented when the Dragons pointed out the value of their partnership.

Charlie said that he’d been looking for a job online when he happened across the application for Meaford Dragons and they decided to go for it. Although that would imply a last-minute, thrown-together plan, it was clear that they had everything well thought out. They responded instantly to requests for details from the Dragons, making it obvious that they had considered all the angles.

Outback Woodshack, with their decorative work fashioned from found objects, took home a total of $13,460 but they also received a lot of good advice from the Dragons, each of whom invested in the company. Because of the original nature of their work, perhaps the best advice came from Kim Wingrove, who urged them to make sure they have good legal advice, good copyright protection, and good disability insurance.

The second place winner, Joanne Keenan of MoJo’s, took home $2,590 in prizes. It was evident that the Dragons had greater confidence in what Joanne offers than she does herself. She is a Red Seal Chef who has been selling prepared plant-based food this past year at the Farmers’ Market in Meaford. When she found that the demand exceeded her ability to keep up, with several customers asking where they can buy her food, she formulated an idea of selling meals online and starting up a cooking class to pass on some of her skills.

All of the Dragons agreed that the food sample Joanne provided was “fantastic” but they had reservations about her business model. They noted that turning her home into a commercial kitchen and selling online could create problems, first with the health regulations applied to a home kitchen and secondly with the problems inherent in online sales of food products. They also agreed that she was underselling herself, planning to charge half of what the Dragons thought her cooking classes would be worth. They suggested that she open a small café and use the premises to give classes after hours. Marie-Catherine, who is clearly aware of her target market, suggested that she drop the dairy component of her meals to appeal entirely to the growing cohort of vegetarian consumers.

The Dragons were not so generous to Nia Bracken, who is addressing the same market with Fresh Express, a company that would deliver ready-to-cook plant-based meals to your home on a subscription basis. Although the Dragons were impressed by her lively presentation and felt that she was right to target the growing demographic of vegetarian consumers, they had serious reservations about the viability of her business model. As Alex pointed out, to base a business on a delivery model you need a population density that doesn’t exist here in Meaford. The Dragons urged her to consider opening a specialty café, which she had stated was her long term goal, and they encouraged her to return next year with a better researched plan. That was not a bad suggestion, considering that both Darryl Hindle and Paul Bishop of Ride On Bikes won the competition and went on to launch successful businesses after taking home nothing but good advice the first time and returning the next year with an enhanced approach.

While all the contestants had winning ideas the factors which dampened the enthusiasm of the Dragons were mainly a lack of focus and insufficient consideration of the costs and income to be expected. Several entrepreneurs threw in extraneous goods or services, thinking that they would benefit from additional income streams, but the Dragons pointed out that they were adding to their costs without benefiting from it, and they would be better off to take one idea at a time and focus on it.

Nia Bracken, with her focus on planet-friendly business procedures, intends to deliver her meal kits in reusable thermal bags and then make an extra trip to retrieve those bags. That was seen as an extra expense that could well eliminate profits. Jamie Sirna and Beth Sallewsky’s presentation of their plan to set up a livestock rescue not-for-profit on a local farm was enhanced by a video of happy cows frolicking in the sun (how often do you see cows frolic?), and it inspired the Dragons to suggest they focus on tourism as their main income stream, providing a place for city folk to bring their kids for a special experience. Devin Hannam’s plan to put his musical education to good use with the opening of a local recording studio, teaching and rehearsal space was undermined by his plan to throw in audio/video security services which essentially meant starting two businesses at the same time. Steve Bosman offered him some great advice which all entrepreneurs should note. He said, “Once the money is gone it’s gone. You have to be very careful with your capital.” Others added that Devin needed to have a clear idea of numbers and projections if his idea was to work as a business.

As always, no one went home empty-handed from Meaford Dragons. Several local businesses threw in additional prizes to help launch the new companies. Most importantly, prospective entrepreneurs with innovative ideas had the advantage of advice and feedback from successful entrepreneurs, saving them from learning the hard way the flaws in their plan.