Posted on: September 23, 2011

Truth: The Lost Language

It was the fall of 2006, and the place was Pearson International Airport in Toronto. I was with my wife, Linda, and our kids, Savannah and Trevor. We had just flown in from our place in Boston to hit the Toronto International Film Festival. I had to use the men’s room, so I asked my family to wait outside for a second. While washing my hands and minding my own business, I could sense next to me a stranger turning and staring at my profile. He was doing it every few seconds.

These were the early days of Dragons’ Den. If you tuned in to the CBC show back then, you’d have seen five well-dressed venture capitalists shifting around uncomfortably in mismatched chairs in some anonymous warehouse in downtown Toronto. The cast that first season consisted of Jim Treliving, of Boston Pizza fame; Robert Herjavec, who made a fortune in Internet security software; Laurence Lewin, who had an enviable job helming a lingerie empire; and Jennifer Woods, a whip-smart cattle mogul. One after the other, jittery entrepreneurs descended a staircase to present their business proposals, in hopes of scoring much-needed injections of capital to take them to the next level. Much like in the real world, we invested in some, but we dismissed most. I have to admit that on more than one occasion during the shoot, I thought I had made a mistake aligning myself with this strange TV show that had originated, naturally, in Japan.

Back then, the pitchers were corralled in a hot tent in the middle of an industrial pit in downtown Toronto. We were fed bad food, worked long hours, and, frankly, were less than impressed with the quality of business ideas being brought to us. I’d seen the British version of Dragons’ Den, which by then was heading into its second successful season, but I wasn’t sure that a show about venture capitalism would really take off in Canada. I find the world of venture capitalism to be the most exciting arena known to man. But it’s also full of dry jargon, where you bat around terms such as ROI (return on investment), EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization), and valuation (what you think your company’s worth). Riveting stuff to my ilk. But I worried that producers would have to cut out the business essentials in order to make a show like this palatable to the average viewer, thereby alienating its core audience of business fans.

We debuted on Oct. 3, 2006, to lackluster ratings – a disappointment, but not a surprise. Every week, however, the ratings seemed to creep up a bit. By the end of season one, we were a cult hit – by no means as big as we are now, but people had begun to tune in. I started to become recognized in public, at first in the business arena, and then at the odd restaurant or function, and now I was being gawked at in an airport washroom!

Finally, I shot the guy a look, as though to say, “Do you mind?” And there it was, that flicker of recognition.

“Hey,” this stranger asked, “are you Kevin O’Leary? From that TV show Dragons’ Den?”

“Yes, I am.”

“I love that show!”

“Thank you.”

“But you are a total asshole.”

“Oh, really?” I said, a little shocked by such an insult. “Why do you say that?”

“Because you and those other Dragons stole that company from those kids last night. Asking for 50%. It’s outrageous! You completely stole their company and their souls.”

He was talking about a company called JobLoft, created by three savvy MBA students. They had built an easily navigable website that advertised minimum-wage jobs in restaurants and other franchises. I, and a few other Dragons, leapt on it. During the pitch, Jim Treliving alluded to the increasing difficulty in finding restaurant workers for that high-turnover industry, and here was a website that corralled them. (The deal later fell apart.)

“Wait a minute,” I said to the irate guy in the bathroom. “Those kids built a great website, but they’ve never run a business. We have every right to want control. That’s what you do when you get into business with novices who’ve never made a dime. They’ll learn a lot from us. And that knowledge, my friend, doesn’t come free.”

“Still,” the guy said, throwing his spent paper towel in the garbage can, “you’re an asshole.”

“Maybe so,” I said, “but assholes get rich because they’re not afraid to ask for what they want.”

The gentleman left in a huff. He saw a woman standing outside the washroom.

“Guess who’s in there,” he said as he passed her. “That asshole Kevin O’Leary from Dragons’ Den.”

“Yes,” the woman said, smiling wearily. “I know.”

That woman was Linda, my wife.

Since that incident, I have been called much worse names than “asshole” – on and off the screen. And I’ll tell you why it has never bothered me: because I speak the truth. Not just because I’m a nice guy and want to do the right thing, both of which are mostly true. I tell the truth because I don’t like to lead people astray or to waste time. Money’s great, money’s the point of everything and I can always earn more. But time is a scarce commodity. It is the true universal currency, because you can’t invent, manufacture or buy time. And not a day goes by when I don’t lament that fact. Therefore, I have no time for people, places or things that waste it.

A few months ago, I received a pitch from a smart-sounding sales guy about launching O’Leary Funds in India. It was an interesting proposition, but midway through the conversation, obstacles began to surface in my mind. As this man was speaking, I realized that the hurdles we’d have to overcome were too high at this juncture in our company’s growth cycle. There’d be no way to structure the funds so that they’d get the kind of yield that O’Leary Funds investors were accustomed to. I interrupted the pitch and told the sales guy that, for now, expanding into India was not a viable plan. But thanks anyway.

He asked me if we could still book lunch, if only to lay the groundwork for a possible fu-ture collaboration. I said no, we wouldn’t be meeting for lunch. He implored me. I said no again. There was an uncomfortable pause. Instead of calling me an asshole, which is what I think was on the tip of his tongue, he thanked me and got off the phone. I had clearly hurt his feelings. But my only thought was, “Oh, well.” Unless there’s money to be earned, I don’t take meetings with people I don’t know or need to see. That hour of lunch went into a precious “time bank” I guard as fiercely as I would a few bars of gold.

You might say that this man could have become a valuable contact, someone I could eventually do business with. Maybe. But instead of spending my time on more remote possibilities, I prefer to spend it on current ventures I know will yield results. That’s why I said no. It’s not personal. I call myself the Merchant of Truth because I speak the truth to everybody all the time. And it can sound blunt to the unaccustomed ear. It might make me come across as an asshole, but that’s only because the brutal truth is so rarely spoken these days. It’s like an ancient tribal language we’ve forgotten we know how to speak.

Excerpted from Cold Hard Truth: Business, Money & Life © 2011 Kevin O’Leary.

This excerpt was also printed in the National Post here.

  • Nick

    Interesting idea, Kevin. Two points. First, it is not only about what you do, but how you do it. In every situation, every situation, we are human beings first and parties to transaction of business second. Period, full stop.

    Second, Kevin’s insistence on the virtue of pursuit of all things that only “yield results” misses a certain philosophical point about life, perhaps the one alluded to by Oscar Wilde: “Most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.”

    • Sesquiltera

      What philosophy would that be? Let’s hold hands together and hug some trees? Sjheez! we are talking about business are we???

  • Mr.X

    Hey Asshole, It obviously does bother you being called an asshole, as you wrote a whole page whining about it.  You don’t speak truth, you speak GREED. It’s a shame you don’t see the difference, Your children will see it.  My Father reminds me a lot of you… You can hide the truth online and tv, but you will have to live with children that will respect you less for being morally corrupt.  

  • Jack

    wow, you’re so badass.

  • CS

    Hey Asshole:  Some of us appreciate the common sense and tune in because of your “tell it like it is” attitude.

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  • I don’t buy it

    I don’t think you speak the truth, I think you speak ideologically and hypocritically.  Take your recent praise of the Swiss for their low corporate tax rate when you were trashing the federal budget and suggesting mass immediate layoffs in the civil service; not a mention of their huge VATs, user fees, huge and well paid civil service, etc. etc. which allow them to create a tightly knit social democracy with lots, and lots, of protectionism, lots of opportunities for people to better themselves with government assistance, to engage in otherwise non-viable business like raising cattle high in the alps, etc.  No, you always are against tax and social spending, regardless, and you pick and choose policy as you see fit.  Do you care what the effect on the actual economy would be of mass government layoffs?  It has a cascading effect; the renovators who were working on their houses go under, the housing market plummets, restaurants close, dry-cleaners go under.  Even if you are in favour of cuts, calling for it all in one budget is ridiculous; the last thing markets like is sudden change.

    Your supposed truth and genius is grossly overstated.  You are manipulative and ideological.  Moreover, as a major player in the markets, you are in a direct, always unacknowledged, conflict of interest when it comes to advising on government policy.

    • Mcd07077

      But the truth is in the fact that government does not create nor produce ANYTHING! So being far sighted, with mass government civil service layoffs we free workers from servicing to producing which bankrolls an economy for success. A government ponzu scheme WILL FAIL, at some point you run out of other peoples money. Think logically not emotionally.

      • Guest

        The last time I checked, the government provides some pretty fucking important services.

  • Saturday Afternoon

    Just a note to anyone commenting here. He most likely types it up and passes it to someone to place it here.  Do you really think he will be reading the comments posted here with that “precious” commodity of TIME?  🙂 

  • Stephen

    An inspiring article of truth for those of us who want and strive to be successful in this life. Kevin, you do realize by reading my comment that you just spent some of your currency on me. All joking aside, love Sharktank and am looking forward to becoming successful.

  • Trobichaud30

    Really agree with you, Kevin… speaking the truth is the way to go. now if I had your money ethics I’d be set.

  • Raym

     i  really dont think that O’Leary is an asshole…infact a very good bussiness man, he is just like me , the only differnce is that I am younger, better looking, have hair and less money…LOL the less money part sucks but i am working on it. 

  • Jq

    I love your opinions. I’ve always been your fan because you’re a straight shooter. But do you never worry about having enemies for being so blunt?

  • upat4am

    I find your Truth statement a bowl on nonsense. People watch assholes on shows like the Sharks because they like conflict. You are an asshole and that is why you got picked. As for how smart and rich you are…There is always some one smarter with more cash. WOW you sold the TLC to a CEO that had dirt for brains. Just shareware piled on CD’s. Talk about a market with no future. The buyer was stupid and you were just lucky. You sold TLC as a dog with fleas. As far as your shows go they are setup for their value as entertainment. Most of the people on the shows are just there to increase the shows ratings as they are run down on National TV. They were not selected as having any possible value as an investment.
    I find your comments about Steve Jobs very interesting. So you talked to Steve? You talked a deal? Neg? More than anything you probably tried to pitch him something. Jobs could be an asshole too but, you are not even close to the type of person Steve was. Yes Steve might give CDN stock fund the time of day, after all that is in the best interest of Apple. Anything more than that is just your dribble.

    The final note here as I waste some of my time…You may have money but, many people around you do not. If you think that having money makes you special you really are on another planet. The day will come when you flame out. I see the last posting here was 9 months ago. You really need to hook up with FOX. The entire network is filled with people you could swim with.

  • IT0

    Business is not brain surgery it’s simple. Does the consumer want/need what ever the product/service is. If it is wanted/needed and the capitol can be raised you’ll make money. Telling someone that they don’t have a consumer-able want/need (their not hard to spot) is not being an asshole it’s being truthful.

  • Laura

    I love the show, and yes you too… I get a kick out of it, and am amazed that people still go on the show with half-assed proposals after seeing you tear down so many hopefuls before them.

    I agree that truth is the way to go, but sometimes your “truths” are filled with below the belt insults. Calling someone the devil, calling someone a nut, loser or whatever else falls from your lips isn’t truth. Sometimes you’re downright cruel. There have been times I’ve had to change the channel as I was so embarrassed for the person pitching an imperfect idea.

    Sometimes tough love is the way to go, but as a sensitive person I would never bring anything to your tables. It wouldn’t matter if it was worth literal, tangible millions. I would never be brave enough to face your onslaught. Then again, I have no such ideas, so it really doesn’t matter.

  • Bob Mcfarland Oleary fan

    Oleary has never ever had a job so he has no filter as to what he says. Mostly he says true stuff and when you don’t like his truth then to you he is in fact an asshole. To some he is a savior of wasted money.

  • Guest

    Dude, you most certainly don’t speak the truth. Perhaps you meant to say you speak what’s on your mind? Or you “tell it like it is” (read: not the truth)? You might speak a misled, Friedmanite version of the truth. But it’s certainly not the truth based on fact or reality. Aren’t you the idiot that believes Monsanto is doing a good thing for the world with GMO? There’s no question that you have business acumen. And no one is doubting your ability to invest for gain – albeit unethically – and to negotiate a sound business deal (for yourself, at least). But please get real: you wouldn’t know the truth if it smacked you in the nuts.

  • Buffalo Bob

    your great…an asshole,but just like me..I do not mind being called asshole,because the people calling me that are ingrates,that can not be successful,and are jealous.

  • valeriekeefe

    The one that was really in bad faith, Kevin, was when you asked the owners of Atomic Tea to step outside of the room, ostensibly to give you time to think about making an offer to compete with the 225k offered for 50.1% of the company by Jim, Robert, and Lawrence.

    You then turned to them and asked them to stop competing. You butchered these kids to pocket twenty-one grand. But of course, the dividends were got later, when other Dragons didn’t compete against you. So much for the free market.

    Frankly, if the owners of Atomic Tea hadn’t signed a release indemnifying you from being sued or even challenged on the grounds of restraint of trade, which to me seems as legally and ethically dubious as requiring someone to sell the right to be stabbed in a darkened alley to get money to pay the rent and then calling the result completely voluntary, you would’ve come in for rightly deserved criticism as fast as you can say bad-faith.

    What’s worse is your asinine position, wholly divorced from any understanding of economics, that because a deal was done, it was inherently fair. People bought oil from John D. Rockefeller. The unscrupulous rent-seeking he engaged in (mirrored today in the first question out of your mouth with every consumer product: “Do you have a patent?”) was not economically optimal. It destroyed dreams, it destroyed lives, and what’s worse, while he got rich, it still destroyed money. For someone who hates government, you sure have no problem getting in bed with the CBC if it’ll guarantee you an unsuspecting audience of sheep to be sheared for yield.

    I love when you lecture business owners that greed is evil. It turns out it’s only evil when they do it, obviously. Which is understandable, since most financial decisions are either governed by greed or fear, you’re going to make more money from a frightened sheep you can skin instead of shear… but it’s ultimately a short-sighted practice that increases the legions praying you patronize your favorite business as soon as possible.

    You know, I’m a big believer in hate-the-game-not-the-player, but an important condition of that is hating disingenuous twerps who try to justify the game. I do hope I come up with something sexier than the slow but important grind of improving liquor store ROE by 5 points, just so that I can freeze you out of it.

  • Dr. Genius

    When an asshole calls you an asshole, does it make a sound? Apparently, yes.

  • Tabion

    You’re still an asshole Kevin.

  • Kevin is a vulture, the turkey’s uglier cousin and inedible. Still it has it’s value it eats off of the dead. That is all Kevin does eat from the dead or dying sector in the economy. All his choices are for past models of success or what is currenly the rage. Smart man yes, charismic yes, trustworrthy yes, brilliant NO he can’t see beyond the US model of capitalist greed that was set 200 yrs ago or more. He fails to see the modern socialist /capitalist system that the global economy will be if capitalists are to survive. Free people demand more from life than food, sleep and work again…we willl find ways to support micro-cultures that can legally trade goods and have time to enjoy a life beyond the control of the 1%er’s wants, joyfull waste and exploitive use of we little people.

  • boopdaddy

    Poor Kevin…the reality is he’s a goofy bald white who couldn’t play guitar, but could figure out that societies based on economies and greed make “stars” out of people like him. My group of humans kill ourselves laughing every time he opens his mouth, I cannot see why anyone takes him seriously other than he’s got some money……….please keep him on TV so at this outpost we can laugh at the foolishness of greed that Kevin wears like a pair of silk panties….

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  • François Normandin

    I learn business for free from this show, thank Kevin and Dragons.