Courtesy CBC Image by: Courtesy CBC
Canadian Living: Most people know you as a designer, but you've always been an entrepreneur. How did that begin?
Joe Mimran: I started a tiny business back in 1977 with my mother, who was a couturier, and my brother. We started with five sewing machines and a bunch of samples. I'm an accountant, but I had to do everything from doing the books to laying out fabric to fixing buttonhole machines. It was a very rounded entrepreneurial experience, starting at the bottom. Every year we doubled our business, and we ran into all kinds of issues because of that rapid growth—financing issues, creative issues. But we built a multi-label business, and one of the labels we started as part of that was the Alfred Sung brand. We built that into an international brand and licensed it for fragrance, wedding dresses, eyewear, homeware. So I got to learn about those industries as I was going through the process.
Since then, I've gotten involved in other different businesses. I was in the steel business for a bit; I started a company in medical marijuana many years ago; I'm involved in the Pink Tartan business. It's been an incredible ride.
CL: You hired Alfred Sung. How do you know when someone is worth investing your time and money in?
JM: Yes, I hired Alfred in 1979. But there have been a lot of designers I've collaborated with where it hasn't worked, so I'm not always right. I think part of being a good entrepreneur is being prepared to make some mistakes, and then adjusting your strategy as you go—because not everything works.
CL: What lessons have you learned along the way?
JM: The biggest lesson is to never run out of cash! That is the one mistake you cannot fix, so you always have to be ahead of that. I think the second big thing for me is that you have to be able to control your brand. If you do that, you're building value all the time and you're building goodwill. That will carry you a long, long way.
CL: Are there qualities all successful entrepreneurs have?
JM: You have to have a belief in yourself, you have to have energy and you have to go out and get it done. You can't be a good entrepreneur sitting and tinkering with a product. I saw that in the Den: People will tinker with a product for years but they don't go out and see if anyone even wants it. Don't fall in love with the product until your customer tells you that you should fall in love with it.
CL: You've filmed your first season of Dragons' Den already. What was the dynamic like on set?
JM: It was like going on a canoe trip for four weeks with four people you've never met before. For the first week, everybody is really polite—at least I was—and very Canadian, and then you start to let your hair down and you figure out all of the personalities. At the end of four weeks, you really know each other well. It was great learning about the other dragons, their various businesses, how they saw things and their egos. It was also a bit of a self-discovery. You have to be on and you have to be concentrating, because you're spending money and you have no idea what's going to come through that door. We saw something like 200 pitches in that time, so you've got to be paying attention.
CL: In your opinion, what did the successful pitches have in common?
JM: People have to appear energetic and passionate, and have a sense of who they are and what it is they want to do. There are too many people who will come out with a product and have no idea about business whatsoever. It's not enough to have a product. It's not enough to just have an idea because, honestly, ideas are a dime a dozen. You've got to be able to execute that idea.
Get advice from other dragons, and learn Arlene Dickinson's take on what makes a truly great idea.