Dragons’ Den’s Manjit Minhas On Why Entrepreneurs Need Tough Love

Born and raised in Calgary, Manjit Minhas is an entrepreneur who, along with her brother Ravinder, has taken Minhas Craft Brewery from a $10k investment to $200m global enterprise and the 10th largest craft brewery in North America. The engineering-student-turned-award-winning-beverage-maven is also now on her ninth season of the Canadian version of the Dragons’ Den franchise. We talked to Minhas about the show, her role on it, and handing out tough love to aspiring entrepreneurs.

From engineering student to Dragons’ Den

The Helm: You started out as an engineering student and then became interested in marketing. Is that fair to say?

Manjit Minhas: Branding, marketing, the food science of things. We didn’t start out as a manufacturer. That didn’t happen until seven years later. You have to have an idea and a product to sell but you have to sell it. If you have no market to sell it to you have no business. I think to begin with everybody has to be a marketing and selling company and then you can figure out a lot of the other things that are just as important but are definitely a second.

TH: How has your role on Dragons’ Den evolved? Do you see yourself as kind of a mentor?

MM: I’ve always believed that leaders create more leaders, they don’t create followers—meaning that it’s our job not only to give opinions and advice, but realistic, solid advice that they won’t get from those around them. It’s nice that family and friends are encouraging, but they’re not usually critical or analytical in the ways that we all need. The really important is that honest feedback, not the sugar-coated stuff that really does’t help you. It can help you pat yourself on the back but it doesn’t help you move forward.

So yeah, I’ve been on nine years, nine seasons, and I’ve seen a lot of entrepreneurs for sure. But that tough love absolutely is still there and a big part of what I believe not only enriches the show, but also what I believe entrepreneurs need. I wish that maybe sometimes earlier in my day that I had some of that too.

Also, COVID was really tough for a lot of entrepreneurs especially in small and medium businesses. And for sure a little bit more of empathy doesn’t hurt and it’s important to acknowledge to entrepreneurs that they went through something. But then it’s also important to look forward and not look back too much and not let people use that as an excuse

No magic wand in entrepreneurship

TH: What have you learned from seeing all these fresh-faced entrepreneurs on Dragons’ Den, whether it’s being able to recognize, Oh, this person is passionate about this, this person doesn’t like being able to recognize something like that quickly, or maybe learning how to give feedback?

MM: Feedback is important, as is how to take it without being defensive, and also understanding that it is coming from a place that is trying to help you. It’s also important to be willing to put the work in because entrepreneurship isn’t a nine-to-five job. Those who think it is, or that we have a magic wand, are in for a surprise. We don’t have a magic wand. Yes, we have networks and teams that can help, but there’s still a lot of work to be put in.

I was taught a long time ago that it doesn’t matter how much money you make, it’s always about how much money is going out. How much are you spending, what are your costs of goods? What are your margins? What are the things that actually matter in a business that not only have profitability, but how they last? There’s a lot of good businesses and good products that have been flashes in the pan because they couldn’t figure out the rest of the actual business, like the balance sheet and what makes a business profitable and pay the bills.

I’ve been around some great ideas and I’ve invested in some of them too. Investing is different, because we’re not steering the ship. We’re not majority shareholders. You have to trust somebody with your money, your reputation, your team’s time, and your time. We’re doing a lot of character evaluations. We joke that we’re as much psychiatrists and sociologists as anything.

Manjit Minhas of Dragons' Den.

Entrepreneurship, then and now

TH: Do you feel it’s easier or harder today for someone to start a business?

MM: In some ways it is easier. It’s easier to connect with people, it’s easier to cold-call people. But it’s harder because it’s easier for everybody to do that. And there are so many distractions and so many things that everybody is trying to do and collaborate and connect and partner and get your attention on. It goes both ways, right? It’s easier for everybody to know what competitors are doing in real time. It’s also easier for everybody to have smaller marketing budgets that go a long way.

Entrepreneurship definitely has become more mainstream. It’s taught and people are told that it can be a career choice, which is great. That wasn’t the case before. When I was growing up, if somebody asked me, Do you know what an entrepreneur is? I would have said no. The definition was very vague. Now, even if you work for a large organization you can still be an entrepreneur. You can have a side hustle within the organization, you can still be a creator of things and solve problems in different ways. It’s definitely seen more as a viable career.

And I and I would give total kudos to Dragons’ Den and all the other versions around the world for helping not only young people but adults who, when they get laid off or burnt out, and they’ve been dreaming of doing something else, say, Okay, what are some things that it might take to start a business? What are the questions I should be asking myself? How hard or easy is it? It’s not something that only a very special few get to be able to do anymore, which I think is amazing.

TH: What should people know about the upcoming season?

MM: It’s an exciting season. So many people who went through hardships during COVID have come out of it and come out of it on top by solving simple problems with better mousetraps. It is shocking to me. Even in this day, when we think everything has been invented stuff, 200 entrepreneurs came in and showed us things that haven’t been invented. There are a lot of surprises in store.

But also, just like normal, we have some lively debates as to what we believe is the next multimillion dollar company. You’ll see some bidding wars, which is always exciting because it’s rare when an entrepreneur gets everybody’s attention and to agree on everything that they’re doing and make us all want to be in on it.

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