CHARLOTTETOWN, Prince Edward Island
Millennia Tea founders Tracy and Rory Bell first auditioned to appear on the popular Dragons’ Den TV series in March, months before they had brought their flash-frozen tea to market.
The audition took place on Prince Edward Island, a small province that borders the couple’s home province of New Brunswick on Canada’s east coast. Across Canada some 5,000 hopeful entrepreneurs from Vancouver to Toronto were doing the same. “We were just starting out, and still very much in the developmental stage of our company,” recalls Tracy. She said that she and husband Rory approached the show staff with confidence because “what we did have was an innovative concept unlike anything that existed on the market: processing tea by flash-freezing C. sinensis leaves within hours of harvest to maximize EGCG antioxidants and deliver a fresh-from-the-field taste.”
“We were convinced our novel approach – combined with the heightened health benefits – was something that would be interesting to the Dragon investors, even though we had not yet officially gone to market,” said Tracy.
Of the 5,000 companies that audition, about 250 proposals are filmed, of which 150 pitches are televised.
“We knew the odds were not in our favor, but also hopeful for our chances. Suffice to say, we were thrilled when we got the call that we had made it to the Den,” said Tracy.
“We made our pitch at the end of April and the experience was as intense as you would imagine,” said Tracy. “The bright lights, a studio full of cameras, and one shot to convince six venture capitalists that they should invest their hard-earned money in our company,” she said.
After the pitch, the waiting game began. During the summer, Millennia began working with grower Boaz Kattah at Tumoi Teas in Kenya where he and Mzee Jacob produce organically grown, specialty teas. Rory, who manages product development as operations lead and chief strategist, worked on the logistics of establishing a cold supply chain for tea. The couple’s efforts were recognized at World Tea Expo where their fresh-leaf tea was awarded Best New Product for innovation.
The new season of Dragons’ Den started at the end of September.
“You have no idea if you’ll be on the show at all. If you’re chosen, you get a heads-up a few weeks before the episode,” said Tracy, “Ours came in October, in the form of an email from a producer, giving us our Nov. 16 air date.”
“I think it’s safe to say we were equal parts thrilled and terrified. Thrilled because the exposure of being on a national show, watched by millions every week, is terrific exposure for our tea innovation. And terrified to see how our 40-minute negotiation would be edited and packaged for a seven-minute television spot. That, and frankly it’s nerve-racking to think about the potential response from the public to our radically new way of making tea,” she said.
“We care deeply about our mission to help families like ours by making the freshest and most nutrient-rich teas anywhere, and we are about to bear our souls on national television, which is a difficult thing to do,” she said.
Stay Tuned for the Outcome
“We did our best, and regardless of outcome (we signed legal documents preventing us from saying anything), the experience was incredibly valuable,” said Tracy.
“We saw immense value in the prospect of partnering with a seasoned venture capitalist. Someone with experience penetrating the health and wellness space, as well as having a cash infusion to enable us to grow our company quickly and be first to market with a unique product tailor-made to meet the increasing demand for health-focused tea products,” she said.
“The counsel we were given heading into the Den was simple: know your numbers and be realistic with your valuation. Sage advice that served us well,” she said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Millennia Tea founders Tracy and Rory Bell will pitch their flash-frozen tea on the next episode of Dragons’ Den, airing 8 p.m. Nov. 16 on CTV, CBC.ca, and @cbcdragon. Click here to see full episodes (season 12, episode 8) a week after the show airs.