When you believe in your product, and aren't afraid to fail, there's no telling what you can accomplish.When Scott Sigvaldason made his pitch on CBC-TV's Dragons' Den last October, 1.5 million Canadians were watching. For the Arborg, Man. farmer and entrepreneur, this was the opportunity of a lifetime. He was there to pitch the Dragons on an investment in cavena nuda - or naked oats- the hulless oat variety Sigvaldason has called the rice of the Prairies.
Competing against several other entrepreneurs, Sigvaldason won the day and secured the investment interest of one of the Dragons, Boston Pizza founder Jim Treliving. "People are always asking me if I was scared standing up there in front of the Dragons," says Sigvaldason. "The way I look at it , I've been farming for 20 years. To me, scary is a crop that's under water. I wasn't too worried about the Dragons."
Wanted: new seed for hulless oatsSigvaldason's journey to Dragons' Den began innocently enough. In 2005, he was trying to start a business processing hulless oats. Trouble was, he couldn't find seed. Contacting Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada oat breeder Vern Burrows in 2007. Sigvaldason secured a small amount of seed for an experimental variety that was both hulless and hairless. Despite problems with flooding that year, Sigvaldason's results were encouraging, and not just in terms of yield."It's hard to get farmers to grow hulless oats because they're very itchy on the skin," he says. "They are at least as itchy as canary seed, and that's saying something. These oats were not itchy at all to work with, so that told me I might be able to get some growers onside."Sigvaldason began to assemble a group of growers who would grow cavena nuda on contract. In 2008, despite very wet conditions, the crop turned out well. He began marketing the product to fine-dining chefs and specialty grocery stores that liked its nutritional profile. Sigvaldason promotes cavena nuda as having two and a half times the protein and more beta glucan fibre than regular hulled oats.The power of mediaEarly last spring, Sigvaldason's elevator manager called to tell him that Dragons' Den was holding auditions in Winnipeg. Success there brought an invitation to pitch the Dragons for real in Toronto.Between the program's May 2009 taping and October broadcast date, Sigvaldason couldn't reveal the outcome of the program. That didn't stop him from dropping the Dragons' Den name on sales calls, however. "I'd be trying to get somebody on the phone, and I couldn't get a return call," he says. "All of a sudden I can say that I was on Dragons' Den, and they want to know all about that experience and, of course, about the product, too."Since the October broadcast of the Dragons' Den, Sigvaldason has found an even more receptive market for cavena nuda. He's also spoken to cereal industry conferences in Canada, Europe and Asia.More that a few entrepreneurs have crumbled under the pressure of a Dragons' Den pitch. Ironically, one of the keys to Sigvaldason's success was that he wasn't afraid of failure."A friend of mine once told me, the most important thing you can do in business is to fail," says Sigvaldason. "You should fail early, you should fail often and you should fail forward - you should fail in a way that allows you to move on to the next opportunity. I believed in my product, I did my best, it worked out and it opened a lot of doors for me."
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